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“Snapshots of Genocide”

Hans insisted that he did not want me ever to mention his name. He is a dealer in old photographs and postcards from Munich : he buys and sells and never asks who took the pictures. He had just bought these ones from an old lady at a flea market in Hanover. A whole boxful. No, he doesn't  remember what she looked like - somewhat irritatedly he cuts short my line of inquiry. Only once have I ever come across a complete German photo album containing photos of "polnische Juden in  einer kleinen polnischen Stadt", but the name of the former owner was too indistinct to read. Once I  had paid for the album (after a most courteous and amicable exchange of letters), I wrote to Dieter  R. who had sold it to me. "Where did you find this?" I asked. I never did receive a reply.  We cannot say who took these photographs. My enquiries have been hampered by the horror and shame that the subject matter evokes. No one will confess to having taken them. Neither the  photographer - if he is still alive - nor his son or grandson. These photographs depict the day before  the slaughter began and point to who the murderers were.  A German soldier setting off to war with Poland in September 1939 would, in addition to his military equipment, have also taken with him the obligatory photo of his sweetheart and a camera. After all,  the war was going to be short and sweet and he simply had to bring home some proof of his heroism. However, the photographs do not so much depict the horror of those times, as signal the slaughter  that was about to take place. Shooting Jews, like shooting ducks, was part of the daily routine, but no one photographed this. Under German law it was not permitted to photograph or film atrocities. Many documents attesting to this have been preserved, such as, to name but one, the undertaking  of 18 July 1942 signed by members of the SS taking part in the liquidation of the Jewish population  of Lublin and strictly forbidding them to take any photographs of "Aktion Reinhard". The famous Wehrmachtsausstellung 1941-1945 (The War of Extermination. Wehrmacht Crimes 1941-1945) confirmed that it was not just special units, known as Einsatzgruppen, that murdered the Jews, but that soldiers of the "gallant" Wehrmacht were also involved. This exhibition, first shown in 1995 and organised by the Institute for Social Research in Hamburg (a private institution founded by Jan Philipp Reemtsma, professor of German literature in Hamburg) led to a re-evaluation of German  atrocities committed during the Second World War. It was not just the system or Nazi ideology that  was to blame, but ordinary individuals, often anonymous, also had to share responsibility for these crimes. Previously, the representatives of the political elites had been blamed for everything and it  had been sufficient to condemn the Nazi institutions, sentence a few individuals and indict the Nazi authorities, in order to avoid - as Zdzisaw Krasnodêbski put it - delving any deeper into the subject  of German identity and the social responsibility of ordinary people. 

On the website of the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem there is an exhibition of photographs from  the Warsaw Ghetto. Part of the commentary reads: "The Jewish ghetto, following its closure in  November 1940, quickly became an anthropological attraction for these soldiers ...". The ghetto  became a peep-show for taking "sensational or amusing photos". Does it matter whether these  were taken by 22 year old Feliks, or by Klaus? This is the mystery of human nature. By what kind of  mentality had he been entrapped, that he could bring back home to his sweetheart such  photographs as a memento of his military campagne? Why did he take them? In the name of what  ideals?

Tomasz Wiszniewski
www.szukamypolski.com

Images from Tomasz Wisniewski Collection (copyright). Translated by Mike Aylward

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