How do you publish the pictures of a chemical attack? For French left-wing daily, Libération, the choice was clear. It put an image on its front pages.
The photograph, released by the Associated Press, shows the lifeless bodies of at least children minutes after a chemical weapon attack on Khan Sheikhoun, a rebel-held town in Syria. They were stripped half-naked, immediately after the chemical attack, not to leave their skin in contact with contaminated clothing. It was a screenshot from video shot by a group of citizen journalists, Edlib Media Center (EMC). America’s ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley showed a version of the image to the Security Council.
In Time magazine, Lionel Charrier, Libération’s director of photography, defends his controversial decision:
Our job, as photographers, as photo editors, is to see what we don’t want to see. We don’t take pleasure from it. These images are unbearable, but if we do it sparingly, sometimes we have to break the rules.
This is not gratuitous. This is not done to sell copies. It’s a photograph that we found on the Associated Press’ wire. We’ve captured, in the past, screenshots of videos, but the fact that the wires had authenticated the photograph was important for us. We watched as improvised first responders were carrying these children and putting them in trucks and pickups.
This photograph reminds us of James Nachtwey’s images in Zaire. When you do a front page like this one, you want to disturb people. We can’t hide behind it. It’s the image with a capital I; the one we will remember this year.”
Time asked whether he would have published a photograph of French victims of a terror attack. Charrier noted, “In those cases, publishing these images would be playing in the hands of ISIS, which wants to create terror. In this case, the Syrian regime denies these events ever happened. They don’t want people to see. This pushes us to say: ‘See, here it is.’ That’s an important part of our job.”
It was a dramatic slap.
In November 1968, as the Christian Democrats met at their party congress in West Berlin, 29-year-old Beate Klarsfeld walked up to the podium and slapped Chancellor Kiesinger. As she was dragged out of the room, she shouted, “Kiesinger! Nazi! Abtreten!” (“Kiesinger! Nazi! Resign!”), alluding to his 12-year membership of the Nazi Party, and employment at broadcasting and propaganda ministries during the war.
For the slap, Klarsfeld was vilified in the local news, but for her, it was a symbolic slap to the face for the West German establishment. Statute of limitations on Nazi crimes were about to expire in little over a year – on December 31st 1969 – but the political class had not make serious effort to persecute former Nazis. Kurt Lischka, the head of Paris Gestapo, was still employing his comfortable retirement in Cologne, though he had been sentenced in absentia by a Paris court. For ten years, Hans Globke, who previously wrote laws restricting rights of German Jews, served as Chief of Staff and close advisor to Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war Chancellor of West Germany. Kiesinger himself was advised by another prominent jurist of the Third Reich, Carl Schmitt and was succeeded as the minister president of Baden-Württemberg by Hans Filbinger, another Nazi era judge.
But the most egregious of all, at least for appearances’ sake, was Heinrich Lubke, the seventy-three-year-old president of West Germany, who was accused of helping to build concentration camps. The East Germans made the accusations in 1966, but these claims were largely ignored as false, until Stern, a West German magazine, hired a handwriting expert to verify that it had been Lubke’s signatures on concentration camp plans. By February 1968, things were getting out of hand: two students were expelled from University of Bonn for breaking into the rector’s office and writing “Concentration Camp Builder” next to Lubke’s name on the university honor roll. Lubke meekly responded, “Naturally, after nearly a quarter of a century has gone by, I cannot remember every paper I signed. It was not part of my duties to sign blueprints for wooden barracks. Nor do I recall ever having given such signatures.” He clanged onto power for ten more months before forced to resign.
Kiesinger too was on his way out. He was called as a witness to the war crimes trial of Fritz Gebhard von Hahn, accused of murdering thirty thousand Greek and Bulgarian Jews in 1942-43, and the media was keen on putting him on trial instead; he failed to get re-elected the following year.
As for wider West Germany, the reckoning was still a few years away. A slow but dramatic revelations of Filbinger’s Nazi crimes was to occupy German media in the following decade. Kiesinger’s successor as chancellor, Willy Brandt would drop to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial. This, combined with the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and the German telecast of the ‘Holocaust’ mini-series in January 1979, finally placed the Jewish suffering firmly at the heart of the German consciousness. Even then, some myths endured.
During his last days at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Geronimo became one of the most photographed of all Native Americans. He became a tourist attraction, and once even photographed in a car. It was therefore fitting that his titanic struggle against the United States army created “the only known photographs of American Indians as enemy in the field”.
Born Goyathlay (The-One-Who-Yawns), the Apache Geronimo was among the fiercest opponents of Mexico and the United States. His family was killed by Mexicans, and he waged intermittent warfare in the south-west until the mid-1880s. By the time, even the clairvoyant medicine man himself knew the end was near. He sent word to General George Crook — America’s most aggressive Indian fighter — that he was ready to surrender.
He chose the site: Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains, just south of the Mexico-Arizona border. It was a shallow ravine from which he could flee easily at the first sign of trouble. Geronimo came with his remaining troops, now numbering only 115. As demanded, Crook arrived with a small group of officers, scouts, interpreters, and a photographer, Camillus Fly.
During the three days Geronimo and Crook negotiated, Fly walked around the Apache camp and took photos. Finally, Geronimo agreed to Crook’s surrender terms, with historic words: “Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all.” However, later that night, camp rumours abounded that they would be murdered as they crossed the border back into Arizona, and Geronimo and 40 of his followers slipped away during the night. Five more months of fighting followed. It was the last Indian war the United States was to fight.
As for Fry, he took 15 photos at the camp, including those of Geronimo with his two sons, and of a white boy abducted from his New Mexico home previous September. Fly was just 36 when he took these photos. Seven years earlier, he had moved to silver-boom town of Tombstone, Arizona to open a “portrait-making” shop. In 1881, he was a peripheral eyewitness to a mythic event which took place in the vacant lot by his photography studio (and not in the livery stable six doors away as frequently mis-remembered): The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
An enduring myth about the Second World War is the canard that the Germany Army, the fabled Wehrmacht was an apolitical organization largely innocent of Nazi crimes. In his definitive The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality, Wolfram Wette dismissed this view: while the Wehrmacht treated prisoners of war on the Western front honorably, on the Eastern front, its campaigns were barbaric.
This was a view that the Germans themselves were uncomfortable with, until very recently. When an exhibition “The War of Annihilation. Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941 to 1944” opened in Hamburg in 1995 and toured 33 German and Austrian cities in the following two years, it was greeted with protests, denunciations, and even violence in Munich and Bavaria.
At the center of controversy were photos taken by Gerhard Gronefeld, showing an execution in the Yugoslavian town of Pancevo on 22nd April 1941. They showed an ugly, uncomfortable truth: that the ordinary soldiers were just as lethal as the SS in exterminating Jews and civilians. In the photos, executed civilians lie next to a cemetery wall as a Wehrmacht officer pointed his gun at the dying, as a SS-officer looked on. Thirty-six civilians were executed — 18 men were shot, and 17 men and one woman were hanged. The “most terrible scene which I photographed ever,” Gronefeld recalled, and he did not submit the photographs to the army magazine for which he was working. He secreted the photos until 1963, when they were published.
Controversial though it was, the 1995 Exhibition was a landmark moment. As it toured across Germany and Austria, many veterans, ex-servicemen, and their families donated letters and photos and came forward to recall how the army had been deployed as state executioner. Gronefeld’s photo ran on the cover of Der Spiegel on 19th March 1997. Christian Social Union, the natural party of government in Bavaria, denounced it as an insult to the Wehrmacht, as neo-Nazis marched through Munich to protest the exhibition. An academic at Germany Army’s Bundeswehr University came out defending Pancevo as an act of defense, allowable under the international law*. As for Pancevo, it was once again in the news in the 1990s as the Balkans spiraled once more into a fratricidal war.
* See: Franz Seidler, Crimes Against the Wehrmacht (1997). p.18-19.
Today is International Women’s Day; to mark this, we should look back at groundbreaking photojournalism done by female photographers, here, here, and here. We should also look at this upsetting body of work by Stephanie Welsh.
In 1995, 21-year old Stephanie Welsh landed in Kenya to begin a yearlong internship (which paid $100 per month) with the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper. On her planeride, she read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, where the female protagonist who submits to female circumcision out of tribal loyalty, and decided the pursue the story.
In Kenya, the practice, now commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM), was illegal but still widespread. FGM involves cutting or removing part or all of a female’s external genitalia, usually when she is just a child or entering puberty. Unlike male circumcision, which at least curbs the transmission of HIV, FGM brings no medical benefit whatsoever.
Welsh traveled to rural Kenya, taught herself Swahili, spent two weeks living with the family of a 16-year-old girl about to undergo the ritual, in a hut of cow dung and straw, drinking goat milk laced with cow blood. Her story of the ritual was heartbreaking — the girl shouted out “Why are you trying to kill me?” and “I’m dying. I’m going to die,” even as blood ran and curdled on the red mud. Although the Nation published only a watered-down version, they were picked up by in 12 U.S. newspapers. Welsh won a second-place prize in the World Press Photo and a Pulitzer.
The photo raised awareness of FGM; the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that genital mutilation is a form of persecution. Yet the practice persisted; annually around two million girls undergo the procedure even today, oftentimes done crudely with a razor or a glass shard. It was linked to honor, chastity and access to favorable marriages and social networks, and widely supported by women. A recent study showed that the daughters of a mother belonging to an ethnic group where FGM is widespread are more likely to undergo the practice it than those of a mother not belonging to such a group.
Welsh’s photos also became the centerpiece of one such debate, with many anthropologists and African commentators denouncing appropriation of women’s bodies as exhibits (the girl in the photo had not given permission for the images to be taken) and Western ‘cultural and ideological colonialism’. Welsh herself hang up her Nikon in 1999 to devote to anti-FGM causes and become a midwife.
(Due to the upsetting nature of the images, we are posting only one photo, which was the most widely published photo because it was the least violent. In the photo, the mutilated girl examines her excised pudenda. The rest, you can see here; in a blog post, Stephanie Welsh remembers that sweltering April day).
The Smithsonian called it “among the key documentary images of American modern art”. On 18 October 1963, at the Pasadena Art Museum, Time’s Julian Wasser took a photo showing Marcel Duchamp playing chess against a totally naked young woman, Eve Babitz.
It was an iconic juxtaposition, of the nude bride and the bachelor Duchamp (who remained unmarried for most of his life), of black and white pieces, of man and woman. Symmetries and asymmetries abound: of young vs. old, of faced vs. faceless, of Duchamp’s aged body vs. Babitz’s full figure (enhanced by her birth control). Looming over them was Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even — a fitting piece for Eve, who would go on to have affairs with Jim Morrison, Ed and Paul Ruscha, Steve Martin, and Harrison Ford.
By 1963, Duchamp, one of the fathers of Dadaism and conceptual art, was semi-retired and had turned his focus to playing chess. But that year, when the Pasadena Art Museum staged his first retrospective, the elderly artist was having a renaissance. He appeared playing chess in the documentary made to coincide with the retrospective. The avant-garde art world of the 1950s found in him a kindred spirit. His 1917 work, “Fountain” — a piece which he deliberately crafted to offend — ironically became a highly sought-after art piece after the second world war, and Duchamp issued three authorized copies in 1950, 1953 and 1963. The next year, Duchamp was to replicate his important works into 12 replicas.
It is hard to find a photographer who embodied his nation as perfectly as David Rubinger did with Israel. Born in Vienna in 1924, he emigrated to British Palestine in 1939, and began his career in photography serving in the British army’s Jewish Brigade. By the time he died this week, he had been the official photographer of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, where he was the only photographer whose work is on permanent display.
In between, he married a concentration camp survivor and took intimate photos of Jewish establishment, often in their private moments. Golda Meir blew smoke into middle distance. David Ben-Gurion and Ariel Sharon surveyed Israeli defense lines. He followed soldier and archeologist Yigael Yadin into caves above the Judean Desert. He was the only photographer to be permitted to enter the Knesset cafeteria.
But Rubinger’s most famous photos were taken in wartime. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he took photos of the Egyptian gunners from a helicopter (carrying the Israeli chief of General Staff) which was hit. Earlier, during the 1967 Six Day War, he took his most famous photo, Paratroopers at the Western Wall (above).
Between 1949 and 1967, the West Bank and East Jerusalem were controlled by Jordan as part of the armistice between two countries. Jordan’s ruling royal family had always wanted to claim the entire Jerusalem to make up for the family’s lost guardianship of Mecca, which was lost to Saudi Arabia, and when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel in 1967, Jordan swiftly moved in to annex the entire Jerusalem. Hand-to-hand fighting between Israeli and Jordanian soldiers ensued on the Temple Mount. Rubinger was there to capture the end of fighting; he recalled heading back from the Sinai front:
“That night I heard some talk on the command radios about something happening in Jerusalem. I didn’t hesitate and just snuck into a helicopter that was evacuating wounded soldiers. When I got to Jerusalem, I heard gunshots, so I ran to the Western Wall, maybe 20 minutes after it was taken. I laid down on the ground and these three soldiers just passed by. I didn’t think much of the photo at the time.”
[The army’s chief rabbi arrived, below]. I thought that would be ‘the shot’. When I developed the photos at home, I told my wife: ‘Rabbi Goren, that’s a great photo, historical.’ But my wife pointed at the image of the soldiers and said: ‘that’s a nice photograph.’ And I told her: ‘What nonsense.’ Part of the face is cut off one the right said, in the middle the nose protrudes, and on the left there’s only half a face… photographically speaking, this isn’t a good photo.”
But others thought different; the photo was widely reprinted — mostly due to the fact that Rubinger had previously agreed to give his negatives to the government in exchange for front-line access — and eventually, he relented. He put it on the cover of his autobiography, and in 2002, he re-staged it with three women to raise awareness for gender equality. In many ways, it was a fitting photo for Rubinger, whose photo career took off in 1954 after taking the photo of a Catholic nun searching for a hospice patient’s dentures which had fallen out the hospice’s window into Eastern Jerusalem, then Jordanian territory.
Although he had been dead nine days earlier, the news of Werner Bischof’s death arrived to New York on the same day that it was announced the legendary Robert Capa had been killed in Vietnam. For their employer, Magnum photo-agency, it was a shocking double-blow.
On May 16th 1954, Bischof was travelling in the Andes with a Swiss geologist and a Peruvian driver when their Chevrolet station wagon slid off the road between Chagual and Parcoy and plunged 1,500 feet into a deep ravine.
Unlike Capa, Bischof chased the tranquility of tradition in his photos, eschewing news events. Trained as a painter, he offered a unique perspective, as he transversed Europe as an independent photographer and a photojournalist for Picture Post, documenting the war’s devastating effects on European culture and life. Orphans looked out forlornly from a train window in Hungary. The Reichstag stood in ruins. In Greece, prefabricated houses were built.
In 1949, he became the sixth member of Magnum Photos and traveled to India and Far East, working for Life, and Paris Match. In Bihar in India, he documented a famine. His wife, Rosellina, recalled their trip to Japan in a diary entry: “It is snowing today – Tokyo is enchanted – Werner and I visited the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. The mood is magical, the snowfall swallows the noise of the city. Everything appears just in black and white. Suddenly Werner runs away with his camera. I stop, terrified. What happened? He comes back after a little bit. Still out of breath but overjoyed he admits: I just took the picture of Japan!”
But the photo he was mainly remembered for was the last picture taken on that fatal trip to Peru: a little boy walking between the Andean village of Pisac and the town of Cuzco playing the flute. Posthumously, it became one of the symbols of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition, a showcase of commonalities that bind people and cultures around the world.
When Picture Post published “Back to the Middle Ages” November 26th 1938, the magazine was less than two months old. Launched on October 1st, it was from the very beginning staunchly anti-fascist, thanks to the editorship of Stefan Lorant, an Hungarian refugee who had been previously imprisoned by the Nazis in Munich.
Situations had gotten worse in Germany that November. An assassination of a German diplomat in Paris provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, an antisemitic pogrom. To cover the event, Lorant thought he should juxtaposed the faces of the Nazi leadership alongside those of the writers, actors and scientists they were persecuting.
Four central figures loomed large above the headlines, three still well-known, one less so. Alongside Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering was Julius Streicher whose newspaper Der Stürmer was the centerpiece of the Nazi propaganda. A former schoolmaster who was expelled from his profession, Streicher was anti-Semitic, almost to a comical degree: he wrote anti-Semitic books for children, and frequently repeated the medieval accusation that Jews killed Christian children to make matzoh. An early practitioner of what you would today call ‘Fake News’, Streicher argued that since his articles were based on race, not religion, they were protected by the German constitution.
When Picture Post went to press, Streicher was at the height of his noxious power: at Nuremberg, where he was the local Nazi party chief, he was treated almost as an absolute monarch. During Kristallnacht, he ordered his followers to sack the Great Synagogue of the city. But Kristallnacht also proved to be his downfall: he was accused of keeping Jewish property seized after Kristallnacht in November 1938, and his enemies within the Nazi party hierarchy — especially Goering whose daughter he once accused of being conceived by artificial insemination — were all to glad to denounce him. Hitler also grew tired of Streicher’s hysterical tirades, and would travel to Nuremberg only in secret, in order to avoid having to dine with Streicher.
In 1940, Streicher was finally stripped of his party offices, although his paper continued publishing until the war’s end. But Der Stürmer, like its publisher, itself limped into the 1940s. Once its pages were full of denunciations of Germans who were friendly to Jews or patrons of Jewish businesses, and exaggerated stories about misconduct and crimes by Jews, but as deportation of Jews intensified and Jewish life all but disappeared across Germany, there was little material for the paper. After 1940, this was literally true as paper restrictions were imposed on Der Stürmer.
The photo on page 19 read: Humanity at its Lowest. Young Nazis look on smiling while Elderly Jews are forced to scrub Vienna streets. On the back of this picture, the agency circulating it had felt it necessary to print: “Under no circumstances whatsoever may the source from which this picture was obtained, be revealed.”
Are there faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations?
In the late 70s and the 80s, “Vietnamese” was almost invariably followed by the term “boat people”. Between 1975 and 1992, around two million people (nearly four percent of the country’s population) fled Vietnam by boat to escape poverty, oppression, and war. It was a perilous journey — up to 250,000 people died at sea from storms, illness, food shortages, and piracy.
Photographer Eddie Adams, now better known for another iconic photo, remembers being on the frontline of this exodus, and getting into a refuge boat which was turned away:
No one, no country, was letting the refugees land. You couldn’t even find out about them. At first, I went back and said the story was impossible to cover. Then I had an idea and got in touch with the Thai Marine police (I knew Thailand very well) who had been shoving the boats right back offshore to certain death. I told them would like to go with them on patrol in the Gulf of Siam.
They OK’d it, so we headed for the most likely point in northern Thailand, getting there at 4am when a refugee boat had just pulled in; the Thai authorities were getting ready to cast it off again. It was Thanksgiving Day in 1977. I suddenly asked the Vietnamese if I could go with them— I bought gas and rice – they had no fuel or food. There were forty-nine people aboard that fishing boat, including children— in the hold that same day a baby was born. The Thais towed us back out to sea and set us adrift. On that boat, there was no room to lie down, so they all had to sit up straight, waking or sleeping. I cannot describe the despair. There were dramatic pictures of mothers with half-dead children in their arms but something even worse was there.
Whenever you go to refugee camps in a war zone where terrible things have happened, where bodies might be stacked up, and disease everywhere, you still find children who gather before the camera with a smile. This was the first time in my life that no child smiled. I called the pictures, “the boat of no smiles.” The boat was hardly moving- they didn’t even know where to go.
Then we were approached by another Thai boat with a megaphone ordering me off at gunpoint— they were afraid someone would let them dock knowing there was an American aboard. I had mixed feelings about getting off. I wrote the story and sent the pictures immediately, and they ran. Peter Arnett did a story also and a few others. Within a couple of days the administration asked the AP to present the photos to Congress. And Carter said let them come to America. The Congress had been thinking about it, sure, but the pictures did it, pushed it over.
The photos convinced the American government to allow 250,000 refugees to enter into the United States. Tragic drownings were to mobilize public opinion and a coordinated plan led to resettlement of over 1.3 million refuges across the developed world (China also took in 300,000 Vietnamese of Chinese blood).
In 1978, Adams and Arnett traveled to the Malaysian island of Bidong, “once a paradise with blue waters, white sandy beaches fringed by coconut palms, topped by a verdant hillside,” but by then one of the most crowded refuge encampments in the world — where 40,000 refugees huddled in a space the size of football field.
Here, tales evoking Sophie’s Choice were played out, as the developed nations selected who could migrate where, with varying criteria. For instance, the United States gave priority to those who had served in the South Vietnamese military and their families. An acquaintance of mine had to choose between migrating and his 10-year old brother-in-law (as the latter, not being his blood relative, was not accepted by the US). Making the choice all the harder, his newborn son was dying from dysentery: it was a decision between leaving behind a 10-year old boy or condemning their newborn child.
It has perhaps glib to compare the boat people to modern refuges, except to note that migrant experience was never easy. Yet there are faint echoes of Vietnam in modern migrations: in both United States and Australia (where the Vietnamese were the first non-European emigrants of significant size), the arrival of foreigners who worshiped different gods, from a country which espoused an ideology antithetical to Western values, and a country which until recently had been at war with them, initially caused great social disquiet.
Four decades on, these fears are a distant memory. By forgetting them, however, we condemn ourselves into repeating same mistakes over and over again.
Seven riders from the Navajo Nation and their dog trek against background of Canyon de Chelley, in an image widely copied in Westerns (1904).
“The most gigantic undertaking since the making of the King James edition of the Bible”, The New York Herald gushed when the first volume of The North American Indian appeared in 1907. Its foreword was written by Teddy Roosevelt and the book was funded by J.P. Morgan. When its last volume appeared, however, its author was broke and his work had been largely forgotten.
Edward Curtis was one of those large-than-life figures — less of a photographer than an explorer. Abandoning his lucrative society photography, he spent three decades photographing and documenting lives and traditions of eighty North American tribes, a monumental task which took him from the Mexican border to Bering Strait.
Curtis felt that he was racing against time; the 1900 census put the Native American population at 237,000, compared to approximately 600,000 a century earlier. Many of their rituals and traditions had been banned to encourage ‘assimilation’. When he documented a Piegan Sun Dance in Montana in 1900, Curtis realized it might be the last of its kind.
He was relentless, working 16-hour days, seven days a week, against considerable odds. It took up to six years to persuade Sikyaletstewa, the Hopi Snake Chief, to allow him to participate in a ceremonial snake hunt. He bribed the Navajos to reenact a Yei be Chei healing dance, but the dancers performed the ceremony backwards in order not reveal its most sacred parts. Due to his travels, he was largely absent from domestic life, and his wife left him in 1916.
Curtis compiled over 40,000 large format photos of Native Americans, recorded 10,000 Indian songs on wax cylinders, and collected vocabularies, pronunciation guides, and myths in 75 languages. He became the first person to conduct a thorough historical autopsy of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, from both the Indians side and that of the cavalry.
For a documentary on the Kwakiutl in the Pacific Northwest, who had a reputation as headhunters and cannibals, he participated in the native rituals, bedecking his boat with a human mummy and skulls. Rumors swirled that he participated in a secret cannibalism ceremony — something Curtis mischievously refused to admit or deny.
In other ways too, Curtis was an unreliable narrator. At Piegan lodge, he airbrushed out an alarm clock present in a native tent — a technique he practiced on modern clothes and other signs of contemporary life. He staged a Crow war party on horses, even though there had been no Crow war parties for years. Of the Hopi Snake Dance, he wrote, “Dressed in a G-string and snake dance costume and with the regulation-snake in my mouth I went through [the ceremony] while spectators witnessed the dance and did not know that a white man was one of the wild dancers.” It is now believed that this claim may have been exaggerated or untrue.
This week, the world paused briefly to remember 27th January 1945 when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The press release from the White House, now improbably occupied by a man who has surrounded himself with anti-Semites, did not even mention the Jewish victims of the said concentration camp.
Yet this has alarming parallels dating back to 1945. While 1.1 million (90 percent of whom were Jewish) died at Auschwitz — 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in its gas chambers — its significance was downplayed immediately by the Red Army which saw the atrocities first hand. In a new narrative that Soviet Union was writing, the Jewish suffering was to be downplayed, even as Soviet sacrifices were hailed.
As Richard Levy wrote in Antisemitism, as “many Soviet citizens …. benefited from the Nazi extermination of Jews — taking over abandoned Jewish houses, stolen property, and vacated jobs”, they feared the return of Jewish refuges. In such a climate, the Soviet control of Eastern Europe depended on hiding the true extent of the Nazi horrors. Pravda’s short initial report on Auschwitz on February 2nd 1945 did not mention Jews; a detailed coverage wasn’t made until Ogonyok’s March 20th article, which did mention Jewish deaths.
Not liberated alongside Auschwitz was Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish inmate who was forced to take photographs of Auschwitz during the war. Along with thousands of other Auschwitz prisoners, Brasse was moved to Mauthausen concentration camp by the Nazis as the Red Army approached Auschwitz.
While at Auschwitz, Brasse was ordered by the SS to photograph “prisoners’ work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files.” He took “identity” portraits of the prisoners “in three poses: from the front and from each side, taking about 40,000 to 50,000 of them from 1940 until 1945.
These images, of which only a few survives, form a powerful visual legacy, enlivening the victims of the Holocaust into people who lived and loved, rather than as numbers and statistics. Among the most haunting was the portrait of Czesława Kwoka, a 15-year old girl, whom Brasse recalled:
She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo [a prisoner overseer] took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.
Kwoka would perish in the camps just a few months later. It is depressing to commemorate Auschwitz, even as tolerance dims in the United States with each stroke of the presidential pen. We have largely shied away from discussing modern politics on this blog, but this is no time for decent men, of any political stripe and especially of the president’s party, to remain silent.
Cruel. Inhumane. Lacking in Empathy. Enacted without due process and deference to legality. These are some words that come to mind when we reflect on the Executive Orders of last few days. We must not confuse religious, political, or ideological differences with disloyalty. There is a fine line between national security and infringement of civil rights, and between protecting and persecution citizens — and the president has stepped over it a week into his term.
We worry about the remaining 207 weeks of his administration. That’s we are going to put a link to American Civil Liberties Union’s donation page here.