- Witnessing the Robbing of the Jews: A Photographic Album, Paris, 1940–1944 by Sarah Gensburger, and: Geographies of the Holocaust ed. by Anne Kelley Knowles, Tim Cole, and Alberto Giordano
In 2009, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) published the first volume of a planned seven-volume encyclopedia of camps and ghettos meant to document all sites of Nazi incarceration. More than 42,000 were identified, far more than the researchers had first estimated. The two books under review relate in significant ways to that sobering statistic.
Sarah Gensburger’s meticulous presentation of a photographic album containing eighty-five originally uncaptioned images, discovered in the Federal Archives in Koblenz, takes a found object that is in some respects similar to the famous Auschwitz Album, and carefully dissects it. It is not known who took the pictures, though it appears they were collected, and perhaps produced, by Germans stationed in Paris and associated with the work depicted. Organized taxonomically by staff at the Munich Central Collecting Point, one of several depots created by the Allies to temporarily house looted objects and artworks they discovered at the end of World War II with the purpose of aiding in postwar restitution, the Koblenz album proceeds thematically from an introductory section depicting scenes in Paris, to views of the loading and unloading of trucks and then trains, to images of crates, and then to groups of looted objects themselves: garments, toys, tools, kitchenware, lamps, radios, clocks, furniture, and pianos.
Gensburger finds that these groupings actually suppress the documentary nature of the photographs, emphasizing instead the “quantitative aspect of the plunder” (p. 17). Through painstaking historical research, Gensburger unravels the artificial organizational scheme of the album, critiquing not only previous uses of these images but more important, the ways such images typically are used as illustrations rather than as documents. Others such as Götz Aly and Martin Dean who have used the photos have not properly contextualized them, and repeatedly err in siting and identifying them. Gensburger writes, “My aim here is not to point out errors or shortcomings in the work of colleagues but more fundamentally to point out the limits placed on the role of images in our contemporary evocations of the past. In some ways, then, our desire to see, and to show, seems to prevent us from looking and understanding” (p. 65). Gensburger’s approach connects two strands of historical research on images: the concern for the “truth” of photographs as documentary sources, and the interest in such objects as “vectors … of contemporary representations of the past that are not confined to the materiality of the document,” ultimately seeing the visual record of the Koblenz album as a “form of testimony” (pp. 18–19). [End Page 116]
The wartime looting of Jewish possessions is a well-known and increasingly researched subject in Holocaust studies; the focus typically is on the legal theft of art, declared “ownerless” and then confiscated by the Nazis for transfer to leaders’ personal collections, to cultural depots, to German museums, and for sale on the international market. Beginning in September 1940, this spoliation came under the authority of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), and Paris was—naturally—the department’s primary focus, with its activities led by Colonel Kurt von Behr, a greedy and ambitious former Red Cross official. Less well-known, however, are the activities of Dienststelle Westen, tasked with clearing out “abandoned” Jewish homes in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands beginning in January 1942, and from April 1942, also led by von Behr. Dienststelle Westen not only confiscated and transferred artworks to the ERR, it also systematically gathered all manner of Jewish-owned domestic objects for redistribution among the Reich’s civilian population, “the pursuit of economic gain going hand in hand with the implementation of racial discrimination” (p. 8), as...