Flashes of memory

A new exhibition at Yad Vashem features photography during the Holocaust

LODZ GHETTO photographer Mendel Grossman in his laboratory (photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
LODZ GHETTO photographer Mendel Grossman in his laboratory
(photo credit: COURTESY YAD VASHEM)
We have become accustomed to being continually exposed to visual media. We have all turned into active participants in creating and consuming it. We at times simultaneously create and consume objective information, participate in and share it. Photographed scenes are streamed and networked, filling our visual world. We and our children acquire skills and habits in their creation, delivery, absorption and processing – skills that previous generations of photographers and those being photographed could not even begin to imagine.
The camera, with its manipulative power, has tremendous impact and far-reaching influence. Although photography purports to reflect reality as it is, it is essentially an interpretation of it, since elements such as worldview, values and moral perception influence the choice of the object to be photographed as well as how it is presented. When visual documentation is also used as a historical document, its use requires attributing the greatest of importance to these components.
Visual documentation is one of the major factors in shaping historical awareness of the Holocaust. Alongside archival documentation of the period’s events and the research on these records, visual documentation has contributed significantly to knowledge of the Holocaust, influenced the manner in which it has been analyzed and understood and affected the way it has been engraved in the collective memory.
Different agencies photographed during the Holocaust. For the Nazi German regime, photography and film-making played a crucial role in propaganda as a means of expression and a tool for manipulating and mobilizing the masses. This kind of documentation attests to Nazi ideology and how German leaders sought to mold their image in the public eye. Conversely, Jewish photography was a component in the struggle for survival of the Jews imprisoned in the ghettos, and a manifestation of underground activity that testified to their desire to document and transmit information about the tragedy befalling their people. The Allied armies, who understood the informational value of photographing the camps they liberated, documented the scenes revealed to them, bringing in official photographers and encouraging soldiers to commemorate the Nazi horrors as evidence for future war-crimes trials and in an effort to reeducate the German population.
The empathy and human moral empowerment that characterized the Jewish photographers during the Holocaust comprise a source of inspiration for us all. Their photographs constitute visual evidence of a person’s ability, under existential distress, to view and identify with others with empathy and send to us – to the future – a message of grace and faith.
The photographs in Yad Vashem’s new exhibition, “Flashes of Memory – Photography during the Holocaust,” enable quiet and deep observation. It is not enough to “understand” these photographs on the cognitive plane. One can and must feel them. Therefore, a visitor should choose to focus on a photograph or a group of them, and view them penetratingly as they capture his or her eyes and heart.
The more one looks at these photographs the more impact this exhibition presents the members of the “Selfie” generation with an exclusive experience, different from that undergone by observers from earlier generations.
The exhibition “Flashes of Memory” opened on January 24 in Yad Vashem’s Temporary Exhibitions Pavilion. Entrance is free of charge.
Avner Shalev is chairman and chief curator of the Holocaust History Musuem at Yad Vashem and Vivian Uria is the director of the Museums Division and the curator of the Flashes of Memory Exhibtion.