(Posted to this site on 2/11/2004)
Introduction BY JAMES E. YOUNG
THE DESTRUCTION OF EUROPEAN JEWRY during WorldWar II was designed by Nazi Germany to be a self-consuming Holocaust. Not only were the victims to be expunged from both history and memory, but in their methodical destruction of the Jews, the Nazis took great pains to expunge all traces of their crimes as well. By consuming all traces of its victims, the killing process would thus consume all memory of itself, the Nazis hoped. The mass murder of the Jews was to be, in the worlds of Heinrich Himmler “a glorious, yet unwritten page” in the history of mankind – the perfect crime.
This truth was brought home to me in an unexpected aside from a survivor I once interviewed in Israel . Yehuda Bacom, an artist and survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s “family-camp” of Czech-Jewish children, was describing to me the conditions under which he and other children had taken up charcoal and pencil to illustrate their plight in the camp itself. When I asked if he knew where these drawings might now be found, he suddenly sat upright and looked at me quizzically “You don’t know?” he asked. “It was common knowledge at the time, we heard it personally from members of the Sonderkommando, that there was a separate crematorium in the gas chamber complex for the victims’ personal effects, where all their letters, photographs, and drawings were burned.” No, I admitted, I hadn’t known that. Bacon continued, “They didn’t want to destroy us only but also all of Our words, our lives, our memories. For this alone I can never forgive them.”
Here I realized, of course, that what has been called the Jews’ “double-dying” during the Holocaust was actually much worse than that. The Jews of Europe were murdered at least twice over by the Nazis: as both their lives and their humanity had been taken from them, the victims’ memory of their pre-war lives had been destroyed and then supplanted by the Nazis’ own memory of their victims. For what most visitors seemed to remember from their trips to the museum at Auschwitz were their few moments before huge, glass-encased bins of artifacts: floor to ceiling piles of prosthetic limbs, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, suitcases, and the shorn hair of women.
But here we must ask: “What precisely do these artifacts teach us about the history of the people who once animated them?” Beyond affect, what does our knowledge of these objects-a bent spoon, children’s shoes, crusty old striped uniforms-have to do with our knowledge of historical events? In a perversely ironic twist, these artifacts-collected as evidence of the crimes-were forcing us to recall the victims as the Nazis have remembered them to us: in the collected debris of a destroyed civilization. Armless sleeves, eyeless lenses, headless caps, footless shoes: victims are known only by their absence, by the moment of their destruction. In great loose piles, these remnants remind us not of the lives once animating them, so much as the brokeness of lives, now scattered in pieces.
For when the memory of a people and its past are reduced to the broken bits and rags of the belongings, memory of life itself is lost. What of the relationships and families sundered? What of the scholarship and education? The community and its traditions? Nowhere among this debris do we find traces of what bound these people together into a civilization, a nation, a culture. Heaps of scattered artifacts belie the interconnectedness of lives that actually made these victims a people, a collective whole. The sum of these dismembered fragments can never approach the whole of what was lost.
That a murdered people remains known in Holocaust museums anywhere by their scattered belongings and not by their spiritual works, that their lives should be recalled primarily through the images of their death, may be the ultimate travesty These lives and the relationships between them are lost to the memory of ruins alone-and will be lost to subsequent generations who seek memory only in the rubble of the past.
Ann Weiss’s remarkable work provides an invaluable corrective to this tendency. Like Yaffa Eliach’s tower of photographs from the shtetl Ejsyzszki on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ann Weiss’s collection of photographs recovered from the transports of victims to Auschwitz show us what was lost. Moreover, in Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we not only have a record of how the victims would have remembered their own lives, but we now have a visual record of that which constituted the fullness of life itself. The individual lives captured in portraits of children playing, lovers strolling hand-in-hand, the quotidian moments that actually made up life itself before the war are brought painfully into the foreground. In this kind of memory, the humanity of the victims is restored to view, and that which the Nazis would have us forget is forcefully thrust back into the open.
Such a project extends the realm of Holocaust history backward to include the rich, pre-war tangle of lives lost. It suggests that the Holocaust was not merely the sum of Jews murdered or maimed, but the loss of all that came before as well. By including the quotidian images of day-to-day life, of vacations, weddings, and other celebrations, Ann Weiss not only restores a measure of the victim’s humanity, but, more important, she preserves the contingency of daily lives as lived and perceived then-and not only as they are retrospectively freighted with the pathos and portent we assign them now.
In this way, the photographs in Ann Weiss’s precious collection are a little like survivors themselves-not of the Holocaust, however, but of a pre-war era nearly blotted from memory by the Holocaust. For part of the tragedy of the Holocaust is the way it has tainted the memory of lives lived before with their terrible end, the way it has blinded a post-war generation to the richness of the lives destroyed. By restoring some sense of these lives as portrayed in their own times and places, however, these photographs begin to restore the means by which to measure what was actually lost.