- The Special Case of Four Auschwitz Photographs
Paris, 2001: an exhibition that commemorates the Nazi concentration and extermination camps of the Holocaust stirs up a vehement public debate. Georges Didi-Huberman, a critic and unconventional art historian of Jewish descent who has written on European painting and the depiction of hysteria in photography, contributes an essay to the exhibition catalog highlighting four particular photographs from the exhibit, which prompts further outrage.1 More outrage, one might wearily note, than information about the camps had caused at the time the photographs were made; but less, perhaps, than was caused when the first atrocity images of the liberated concentration camps appeared in Western newspapers and news reels in 1945. What is it about these photographs, after all these years of exposure and all our familiar outrage regarding their subject, that still prompts intense polemics?
Didi-Huberman's contributions to this debate have now been translated into English. The translation includes the original exhibition catalog essay (Part 1: "Images in Spite of All") and Didi-Huberman's response to critics (Part 2: "In Spite of the All Image"; originally Images malgré tout, 2003). The oddly old-fashioned, elaborately detailed table of contents will make no sense to anyone who hasn't already read the book; this questionable editorial choice appears to indulge the author, as does the decision not to present the other side of the debate, which appeared in the pages of Les temps moderns (March-May 2001), in columns by Gérard Wajcman and Elisabeth Pagnoux. The book would have benefitted from a translation of these articles, since Didi-Huberman engages in frequent exegesis with them. Clearly, without these provocations, the second half of this volume would not exist. But the choice to translate Didi-Huberman is timely. While the debate has distinctively French concerns, the larger problematic of the (limits of) representation of the Holocaust remains a fraught subject for Western scholars, and Didi-Huberman's polemic takes the discussion in a new and productive direction.
The controversy over the Parisian exhibition focused on four famous photographs from Auschwitz, taken at the height of the Final Solution in 1944. The photographs were taken by members of the so-called "Sonderkommandos," Jewish victims who were forced to participate in the genocide of their own people by removing the Nazis' victims from the gas chambers and destroying the corpses through fire or mass burial (sometimes, in response to wartime stringencies, both). The identity of the photographer/s is uncertain; surviving records left by members of the Sonderkommandos indicate the names of those involved in making the images. These records also show that they were able to smuggle the camera into the camp and the film out again, in a toothpaste tube, with the assistance of the Polish Underground (10-11). These are the only surviving images that show any aspect of the gas chamber operations, and because they represent an act of resistance by victims of genocide, they have retained an exceptional status among Holocaust sources. However, their exhibition in Paris was considered by some to be a provocation-either to Holocaust deniers, who would challenge the veracity of these admittedly poor images, or to more sophisticated viewers who expressed affinities with Claude Lanzmann, the filmmaker, whose remarkable documentary "Shoah" (1985) proscribed the use of archival images in favor of eyewitness testimony and film shot at the scenes of the crimes in the 1970s-80s. Holocaust deniers, of course, have never depended on actual evidence to promulgate their delusions. On ethical and aesthetic grounds, the second set of criticisms is more substantial and reflects a peculiarly French concern with a kind of Bilderverbot (prohibition of religious images). Wajcman accused Didi-Huberman of fetishizing these images in a perversely Christian fashion ("the passion of the image" 52). The exceptional status of the Sonderkommando photographs thus opens up debate about the memory and visual representation of the Holocaust in a nation which has not yet come to terms with its "Vichy syndrome," to apply Henry...