Nazi Camp Photo Display Hits a Nerve in France

Alan Riding New York Times Service

Friday, March 16, 2001

PARIS — The harrowing photographs taken during the liberation of Nazi death camps in early 1945 played a central role in convincing the world of the existence of a Nazi killing machine. Over time, however, many of these same images of skeletal survivors and mounds of bodies came to assume an iconographic quality, speaking generically for the Holocaust but with little emphasis on how, when, where and by whom they were taken.

Now a new exhibition here, “Memoir of the Camps: Photographs of Nazi Concentration Camps and Extermination Camps, 1933-1999,” which runs through March 25, aims to go beyond these images, back to the photographs. Its organizers, Pierre Bonhomme and Clement Cheroux, believe the time is ripe for a more documentary analysis of such photographs, in this case some 300 taken in Nazi camps before, during and after World War II.

If attendance were the only gauge, the show would be deemed a success. Presented by the government’s Patrimoine Photographique at the Hotel de Sully in the Marais district, it is drawing Parisians of all ages, including a good many camp survivors and groups of high school students accompanied by teachers. In a country that has only recently acknowledged its role in the deportation of 76,000 Jews, that itself is significant.

But the exhibition has been sharply attacked by some World War II historians and former deportees. They say that in its effort to clarify, the exhibition has sown confusion by not differentiating between concentration camps set up in Germany soon after Hitler seized power in 1933 and extermination camps established later in Poland that used gas chambers to eliminate Jews. The effect is to blur the distinction between the victims of executions, abuse, disease and famine, and the victims of genocide, specifically Jews and Gypsies.

The loudest criticism has come from Claude Lanzmann, the director of “Shoah,” the 1985 documentary about Hitler’s “final solution.”

“I have spent my life separating concentration camps from extermination camps because the reality is that there is not one image of the camps of Belzec, Sobinor and Chelmno and almost nothing of Treblinka,” he said of those extermination camps in Poland. “The images here do not suffice to write the story of the camps.”

Cheroux responded that his purpose was not to present a history of the camps but a history of the photographs of the camps. “There is enormous power in these images, but we didn’t want people merely to be shocked by them, which is the way they are normally presented, as part of a pedagogy of horror,” he said. “We wanted to treat them as documents that enable us to reflect on what the image is.”

Lanzmann has also challenged this approach. “I already knew all the photos that are on view,” he said in an interview with Le Monde. “The real problem here is, what is the role of photography? What can it testify to? The issue is not documentation, as Cheroux believes, but truth.”

The historical photographs, all familiar to experts and mostly borrowed from museums and collections in Europe, the United States and Israel, are divided in two parts: those taken in concentration and extermination camps from 1933 until the eve of their liberation, and those taken during and after their liberation, between late 1944 and April 1945. A third section of the show is dedicated to contemporary photographs that evoke the camps and their victims.

The first part of the exhibition is presented on two television monitors as slide shows: six minutes of photographs taken by deportees and 14 minutes of images taken by the Nazis. The liberation of the camps is in turn illustrated on the walls of the same gallery with pictures taken both by professional photographers — like Lee Miller, Margaret Bourke-White, Germaine Krull and George Rodger — and Allied soldiers.

Cheroux said that while carrying out research for this project, he was frequently presented with boxes of photographs in which Nazi propaganda images were mixed with those taken by Allied forces and even contemporary artists. Many of the photographs were damaged and often they had no captions, he said. “Behind each image there was the ‘look’ of the person who took it,” he continued. “It was important to know who took it, when, where, perhaps even why.”

The show’s organizers said research had enabled them to clear up some errors. For example, one photograph long thought to show a Nazi officer bulldozing bodies into a mass grave is now believed to show a British soldier burying bodies to forestall the outbreak of disease.

The exhibition also demonstrates how some pictures were edited or touched up after the war to increase their impact as propaganda.

But some experts are also challenging the captions on some photographs in the show. For example, two images on loan from the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau show a pile of bodies being burned and are said to have been taken by members of the Polish resistance from inside a gas chamber beside Crematorium No. 5 at Birkenau. “No one can affirm that,” said Lanzmann. “No one knows.”

Certainly the most photographed camps were those in Germany, which were built as labor camps for “anti-social elements” and not as extermination camps, even though hundreds of thousands of Jews and non-Jews died in them in the final months of the war. They were widely photographed by the Nazis before 1939 and by the Allies when they were liberated. In contrast, there is almost no photographic record of the extermination camps in Poland, which were liberated by the Soviet Army, often after their gas chambers had been destroyed.

Gilbert Michlin, 74, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz and several other camps who has just published his memoirs, “Of No Interest to the Nation,” said that it was important for young people to see the exhibition but that he was disturbed by what he called the amalgam between “normal” concentration camps and extermination camps.

“In the ‘normal’ camps, people also died like flies, but you didn’t have industrial extermination of Jews,” said Michlin, who survived because his training as a tool and die maker won him a place in a slave labor “commando” working for Siemens. “This is not clear in the exhibition.”

The contemporary section of the show has also come under fire. Designed to underscore the importance of memory, it includes 35 black-and-white photographs by Michael Kenna of what remains of the Nazi camps. Jeffrey Wolin and Gilles Cohen focus on camp survivors, while Naomi Tereza Salmon presents enlarged color photographs of false teeth, shaving brushes and glasses. Lanzmann criticized Kenna’s aesthetic approach and dismissed Salmon’s work as fetishistic, but other critics have been less harsh.

Cheroux, 30, said he included these works less as art than as documents that illustrate how memory links the present to events more than a half-century ago.

“It’s part of the passage from communicative memory to cultural memory, he said. “As the direct witnesses disappear, memory finds new expression in books and films like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Life Is Beautiful.’ Now it’s being addressed in photographs. At present there is little cultural memory of the camps, but it will gradually take over. It’s inevitable.”