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Jerusalem Holocaust exhibition shows power, danger of pictures

4 min

Jerusalem (AFP)

In the heart of Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, pictures glorifying Hitler and dehumanising Jews are displayed alongside harrowing images of Jewish ghettos and the liberation of death camps.

The pictures displayed at Yad Vashem are part of a new exhibition juxtaposing photos taken by Nazi perpetrators, Jewish victims and members of Allied forces who witnessed the horrors of the death camps first-hand at the end of World War II.

The exhibit, called "Flashes of Memory", opened Wednesday ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

The differing perspectives offer a complex look at the Holocaust, from Nazi propaganda to photographs showing the suffering in death camps.

"Visual documentation during the Holocaust shaped the way we perceive the Holocaust and analyse it, and affected the way it was engraved in the collective memory," said Vivian Uria, the director of Yad Vashem's museums division, who curated the exhibition.

"The camera and its manipulative force have far-reaching abilities to influence."

The exhibition includes 1,500 photos, 450 of which are displayed on walls, with 17 videos. There are also newspaper clippings, posters and cameras.

"We designed the space like a camera obscura," said Yossi Karni of Design Mill, a firm involved in the exhibit.

Orderly lines of pictures on black walls bring to mind film in a camera, and the rounded walls separating the interior spaces allude to the curve of the camera holding a roll of film.

Light tables containing hundreds of pictures stand between each section.

- 'No photograph is innocent' -

The exhibition itself is divided into separate sections dealing with different periods and themes, beginning with pre-war pictures of Germans glorifying Nazi officials and values, with other images dehumanising Jews.

Further in are photographs of life in Poland's Jewish ghettos, set up by the Nazis after they occupied the country in 1939.

The images were taken by official German photographers to show how they were using the Jews for the war effort while "re-educating" them to a life of productivity.

Another section displays pictures taken in ghettos privately by German soldiers and civilians, which offer a more authentic glimpse of life in the Jewish enclaves.

"We wanted to expose the suffering, what really happened in the ghettos," Uria said. "The poverty, the hunger, the diseases, the death."

Jews forced to collaborate with the German occupiers also produced photographs showing the ghettos' productivity, images intended to prevent the deportation of Jews there to death camps.

Photos taken secretly by the same photographers showed the ghettos' grim reality.

The last section of the exhibition shows pictures and film taken by Soviet, American and British soldiers in the death camps they liberated.

"First of all, I remember the footage being shot," said Toby Shacham, an Auschwitz survivor who attended the opening of the exhibit.

"It was shot a week after the Russians arrived (to liberate Auschwitz), and I was 11 years old already, so I remember it all."

The images were used to show Western and Communist societies the evils of fascism and as testimony in the trials of Nazi war criminals.

They were even distributed among the German public to show them the extent of the horrors, according to Uria.

"We wanted to show 'look how this story begins with aesthetics, with this final space expressing the horrors and the end of the story,'" she said.

"Propaganda and this kind of ideology brings in the end this kind of destructive result," she said.

The exhibit challenges current-day photographers to consider their work.

Uria said it is crucial to keep in mind "the photographer's responsibility -- his perspective, moral stance and accountability to the results of his pictures."

"With photography so widespread, the question is: what you do with it?"

Daniel Uziel, head of Yad Vashem's photo collection and historical advisor for the exhibition, said the exhibition "is not about photography during the Holocaust, rather about the use of photography during the Holocaust."

"Even today, or perhaps today more so than in the past, you must take a critical look at photographs," he said, noting the civil war in Syria as a conflict that has included the manipulation of images.

Uria said: "there's no doubt -- no photograph is innocent."

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