A Sad Smile

While in Paris for the holidays, my apartment was only a five minute walk from the Shoah Memorial, a museum devoted to the Holocaust and the French collaboration therewith. I visited often and experienced scores of emotionally charged displays, not the least being the wall inscribed with over 70,000 names of deported French citizens and immigrants, young and old, which include my own family name (although I was told that my mother’s grandparents were trapped in Poland in the Lodz ghetto and my father’s had emigrated years earlier). Yet the exhibit that most captured my attention, “Scenes From the Ghetto,” was comprised of photographs taken surreptitiously by Jewish ghetto residents and officially by sanctioned German military propaganda photographers in color and black and white. Some were simply horrific while others were as casual as snapshots from our own family albums.

shoahWhat struck me as the saddest of these photos, in part because it was so quotidian – everyday – was not the many heartbreaking images of poverty, death and the unimaginable cruelty of daily life (which can almost be numbing in such abundance), rather it was two simple snapshots from 1940, each one of the same woman in the Kutno ghetto, where over 50,000 Jews were at one time gathered. In one picture she has a beautiful smile, as though nothing was out-of-place in her world, while in the other she stares woefully into the camera, her future a black hole. Clearly, she was asked by the Wehrmacht propaganda photographer, Hugo Jaeger,** to put a happy face on her impending fate.

It isn’t clear which was taken first, but it does not really matter. In days, months or a year after the shot was taken (the ghetto was liquidated in 1942 after typhus took hundreds of lives), she would have been rounded up, deported to a concentration camp (KZ) and doubtless murdered along with millions of others just like her.

shoah 1Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil,” the murderer as an average citizen doing his job, but what about the banality of being uprooted and placed into a ghetto. Isn’t there something odd about decreeing that innocent people be forced to live in shambles? Yet leaders of nations and common citizens said “why not?” The Nazi’s banality translated into a convincing state-of-mind that transformed a beautiful woman, like this, into little more than an animal who smiled on demand and walked to the gas chamber at the bureaucrat’s command.

** Hugo Jaeger was a well known photojournalist before the war, covering many of Hitler’s official events. During the war he was called to service as a reserve officer and assigned to document German occupation and the Jews of Kutno and Warsaw. “In contrast with the blatant anti-Semitism,” as noted in the Shoah Memorial catalog, “of many propaganda pictures, Jaeger establishes a certain intimacy with the people he photographed, often even getting them to smile.” To avoid being caught in the dragnet to find those close to Hitler, he buried these and 2,000 other slides of Der Führer and company in a containers around Munich. He exhumed them ten years later, kept them in a Swiss bank vault and sold  them to Life magazine in 1965. They were not, however, published until 2009.

 

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  1. Wilhelm Brasse, who died at 94 in 2012, was put in charge of prisoner identity photographs, and was forced to photograph the legacy of the Nazis, i.e. experiments like taking out the womb and examining it.
    After the war he was too haunted to ever work again as a photographer. Love Mel Brooks but sorry, just can’t watch the Producers.