The way we imagine life in the ghettos is more influenced by the criminals than the victims.
You’ve probably heard about the ghettos where Jewish people were forced to live before being transferred to concentration camps during World War II. Entire families lived in tiny, cramped rooms, working day and night with little food or water. Most of their possessions were confiscated by the Nazis, so they didn’t have much. Life in the ghetto was, to put it briefly, about survival. That means that the last thing you’d find there was a camera. So, where do all the photos and film footage of life in the ghettos come from?
All these historical records come from the Nazis, who were obsessed with documenting every aspect of their regime: from details about various protocols regarding rounding up, transporting, and killing entire communities, to photos of the facilities where the killings would take place. Apart from recording and documenting everything to keep track of their activities in an administrative sense, they also did this because they were proud of what they were doing. They wanted to have these images as evidence of their “great service to humanity”: annihilating Europe’s Jewish population.
This leaves us, more than seventy years after these events, in a very difficult situation. We have photos and film footage of the ghettos and concentration camps, but they all come from the perpetrators of this horrible crime. Every image was chosen, created, and framed by the Nazis based on their own interests and purposes. What we see is not the reality of life for Jewish people at this time, but rather what the Nazis wanted us, the viewers, to see: a cruel and distorted version of the truth.
Rare Historical Photos
This is the dilemma at heart of Israeli filmmaker Yael Hersonski’s documentary, An Unfinished Life (2010). The documentary revolves around a 62-minute film about the Warsaw ghetto made by the Nazis in 1942, two months before 300,000 people were transported to the Treblinka extermination camp. It was meant to serve as propaganda that showed Jewish people as an evil and inferior race that needed to be exterminated. Hersonski found the unfinished, silent footage in an archive in Berlin, and decided she wanted to make a film about it. The footage is paired with commentary from five survivors of the ghetto, who point out all the ways in which the footage is different from what they experienced there.
Rare Historical Photos
Apart from the survivors’ commentary, which makes it clear that we can’t trust the version of reality that the footage presents to us, it’s also interesting to see the hands and eyes behind the images. By this I mean the actual hands and eyes of the Nazi soldiers who arranged and filmed the scenes. They appear in some of the scenes, probably by accident, wearing their uniform, camera in hand, trying in vain to be invisible. Seeing these people literally creating history forces us to ask ourselves a very important question that has to do with the Holocaust, but also with historical events in general: how do we remember things that happened before us? Or, in other words, how do we remember things that we didn’t experience?
Holocaust Research Project
The answer to this question is that the version of history we know is profoundly influenced by the version of the people in power. This is why we learn about slavery from the perspective of the slave owner and not the slave, and why we learn about important women in history from the perspective of men and not women. In the case of the Holocaust, we read and learn from the accounts of survivors and victims, but the images we have in our minds come from the Nazis. They’re not in power now, but they were then, and they had the power not only to decide who lived and who died, but also what was saved and what was erased. They had the power to pick up a camera and write history in their favor.
Private collection, via The New York Times
Does this mean that we are condemned to remember World War II from the perspective of the Nazis? No. What it means is that we need to be very critical of the images of these events that we consume, and that we need to make sure that we remember this tragedy from the perspective of the people who suffered. It means that history is not something that exists on its own, but rather something that we create, and that lives and breathes, changing every day as we rethink and rewrite the truth.
Cover image: Rare Historical Photos