There are photos that leave nobody cold. A quick glance is enough and something stirs in you. Sadness, compassion, horror. Or anger. It is often not the perfectly staged pictures in which every detail is right. It is the photos, which seem rather random, that touch the soul with the knowledge of how they came about: the picture of a boy’s corpse washed up on the Mediterranean coast in 2015, which mercilessly illustrated the suffering of many refugees; the girl fleeing an American napalm attack in Vietnam, whose depiction painfully demonstrated the cruelty of the war. images that stay.
At the presentation of a new research initiative on Nazi deportations, Munich’s Lord Mayor Dieter Reiter (SPD) held such a picture in his hands on Thursday, black and white. It shows two girls wrapped in thick woolen coats with a scarf and hat. You are young, vulnerable. The taller girl is looking seriously at the camera as if she already knew what was about to happen. The other looks cheerful, smiles innocently. A fabric star is sewn onto her coat with the inscription: “Jew”. The photo was taken shortly before the first deportation of Munich Jews on November 20, 1941. On that day, almost 1,000 people were deported to Kaunas in Lithuania, where the Nazis later set up a concentration camp. Many of them were mistreated and died. It was the beginning of an unprecedented attempt at extermination, which was systematized and accelerated exactly 80 years ago with the so-called Wannsee Conference of the Nazi bureaucracy.
The photo and the associated suffering are “deeply depressing,” said Reiter on Thursday, the 80th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference. Almost nothing is known about the fate of the two girls in the picture, no names, no age. Not even if they survived the Nazi terror – but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Together with historians and Holocaust survivors and President of the Munich Jewish Community, Charlotte Knobloch, the Mayor presented the “#LastSeen” initiative. By the end of the year, she wants to search nationwide for photos and films of Nazi deportations and get closer to the people in front of and behind the camera. The project is managed by the Arolsen Archives, which claims to be the world’s largest archive of the victims and survivors of National Socialism.
Only 550 recordings of deportations are publicly known so far
“Many pictures are still undiscovered in archives, cellars or attics,” says Henning Borggräfe, head of the research and education department at Arolsen. “Everyone can take part and contact us.” So far, only 550 photos of deportations from 50 locations are publicly known, but the project team is convinced that there must be many more photos. Recordings could be found, for example, in old newspapers, private collections or in the estate of those affected and those involved. The photo of the two girls from Munich comes from a 14-part photo series that is in the possession of the city archive. The aim of the initiative is to start a freely accessible online photo atlas with all known deportation photos and to link this with an educational offer.
Borggräfe hopes that this could also change how the material is handled. Because up to now there has often been a lack of historical classification in the distribution of such photos in the media or on the Internet. “The perpetrators’ view of the victims is often spread with the pictures,” he says. The transports to concentration or extermination camps were mostly photographed by members of the Nazi state, by police officers or party officials. “It was a kind of performance show that was partly documented with pride.” However, there are always photos of spectators standing on the side of the road or at the train station when the Nazis rounded up their victims and forced them onto trains or trucks. Which shows that the actions often took place in public and visible to everyone.
The project team hopes that there may even be photos of those affected or their families that were taken shortly before or during the deportation. Or information on how to identify the people depicted, their biographies, personalities, interests. This could create an appropriate “counter-narrative,” says Borggräfe, which “breaks up the perpetrator’s perspective.”
To promote the search, a historic Mercedes truck is touring Germany this year, with a small exhibition of pictures of the deportations on the loading area – the truck was never used for deportations. From Friday to Sunday he stops at Rindermarkt, on Monday and Tuesday he is at Sankt-Jakobs-Platz. Then it’s on to Regensburg. With a bit of luck, the collection will be enriched by a few photos by the time you leave. It would be a valuable contribution to remembering the victims of the Nazi era, after all “most of the men, women and children are seen in these photos for the last time,” says Borggräfe.