Facelessness and faces in the Shoah

As if we need reminding, the headline in the New York Times read, “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking.” The story reported on the multi-volume encyclopedia in production by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on ghettos, labour and concentration camps, and killing centres during the Nazi genocide. With several volumes already published and more to come, the research is staggering: approximately 42,000 sites, more vast than anyone had imagined.

The Times report, quickly picked up by other publications, reminds us that we still don’t know all that there is to know about the Holocaust. This was true 30 years ago, when my colleague at the Israel and Golda Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Studies at York University, Irving Abella, together with Harold Troper of the University of Toronto, published None is Too Many, exposing Canada’s shameful wartime record. It’s still true today, even with survivors speaking out, writing memoirs, and recording testimonies, and with many researchers making the study of the Shoah their life’s work.

No matter how much we learn, we must retain the capacity to be shocked by the Holocaust. Amid the numbers, we must keep in mind the human beings caught up in the web of the Nazi genocide. Princeton University historian and sociologist Jan Gross focused on both the shock and the human question when he visited our campus recently and spoke to an audience of approximately 250 about his research. A specialist in Polish-Jewish relations during and after the war years, Gross discussed the physical torture inflicted on Jews by their neighbours – by people they knew from school, work and local events – and the exploitation for profit of the Jews’ terrible circumstance.

Because the victims of localized torture were murdered, accounts are drawn largely from participants and a few eyewitnesses. And because the story has not been told in the voice of its Jewish victims, Gross observed, the victims remain “faceless.”

Yet whenever they were able, the Jews of Europe insisted on a voice, a name, a face. We see this in the countless diaries that were kept, at great effort and personal risk, in ghettos and in hiding, even in labour camps. And we see the faces, quite literally, in a special group of photographs that survived the war.

Gross’ talk at York marked the opening of a remarkable photography exhibition, The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures by Jewish Photographers from the Lodz Ghetto 1940-1944, now on display until March 17 at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University. Hosted by the Koschitzky Centre and Osgoode Hall Law School, and co-sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation and the Mark and Gail Appel Program in Holocaust and Antiracism Education, with support from the consulates of Germany and Poland, the exhibition features approximately 50 large-scale pictures taken by photographers in the Lodz (or Litzmannstadt) Ghetto between 1940 and 1944. Assembled by the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin, and shown there and at the United Nations in New York, the exhibition was brought to York for its only showing in Canada.

The Jews in the Lodz Ghetto were prohibited from possessing cameras. However, the German authorities issued cameras to a small number of Jewish photographers and commissioned them to document the efficiency of the ghetto factories and other sites of slave labour. At their own initiative and at risk to their own lives, the photographers took thousands of pictures of Jewish life in the ghetto.

They depict not only – not primarily – atrocity and suffering, but Jewish life, dignity and spirit. Quite literally, they show the faces of the people in the ghetto, and, metaphorically, their humanness – precisely what  was denied by perpetrators and their collaborators. Unlike photographs taken by Nazi photographers, these were taken by photographers who shared the fate of the people they photographed. They reflect a deep empathy and a sense of the efforts of the ghetto inhabitants to maintain their dignity and culture in face of an unspeakably harsh and increasingly helpless situation.

It is fitting to host this exhibition in Osgoode Law School, as a reminder of the sanctioned lawlessness and also the rule of perverse law under National Socialism in Germany. We are privileged to share it with the community.