Holocaust Studies / A picture worth six million names
A tour guide’s overheard comment at Yad Vashem sent Holocaust scholar Dan Porat searching to find out if the boy in the iconic Warsaw Ghetto photo could really have survived. What did he learn, and what is its meaning?
The Boy: A Holocaust Story by Dan Porat.
Hill and Wang, 262 pages, $26
Dan Porat’s obsession with “the boy,” he recounts, began on a visit to Yad Vashem in 2004. He happened to be standing near a foreign delegation touring the museum when their guide pointed to a print of a famous photo and remarked: “Did you know that this picture tells a good story of the Holocaust? This boy survived. After the Holocaust, he studied medicine, became a doctor and settled in New York. A year ago, he immigrated to Israel.”
Porat was enthralled, and suddenly became obsessed with learning the truth behind the guide’s claim. Thus began his quest to uncover the story behind the iconic image of the terrified little boy with the upraised arms from the Warsaw Ghetto (or at least that’s where most of us presume it was taken): Under what circumstances was the photograph taken? Did the boy, indeed, survive? What about the other Jewish men, women and children standing nearby? What became of the soldiers in the photo?
One of the most compelling and enduring images of the Holocaust, the photograph of the bare-kneed Jewish boy wearing a coat and cap and holding his hands up in a gesture of surrender, as a Nazi soldier points his gun at him from behind, first appeared in the infamous Stroop Report, a 75-page account of the brutal suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in 1943, and eventually submitted as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. Juergen Stroop, the Nazi officer who led the operation, wrote the following caption under the photo: “Pulled from the bunkers by force.”
Incidentally, Porat’s is not the first book to delve into this very subject. In “A Child at Gunpoint: A Case Study in the Life of a Photo” (Aarhus University Press, 2004), Richard Raskin attempted to explain what makes this particular image so captivating. “It would be difficult to imagine a photograph,” wrote Raskin, a teacher of media studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, “in which more polar opposites were in play than in the picture at hand: SS vs. Jews, perpetrators vs. victims, military vs. civilians, power vs. helplessness, threatening hands on weapons vs. empty hands raised in surrender, steel helmets vs. bare-headedness or soft caps, smugness vs. fear, security vs. doom, men vs. women and children.”
Trying to explain his own preoccupation with the photo, Porat, who specializes in Holocaust studies in the school of education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes that beyond anything else, what intrigued him was “how one set of men saw in that photograph heroic soldiers combating humanity’s dregs while the vast majority of mankind sees here the gross inhumanity of man.”
‘The Jewish Quarter is no more’
“The Boy” approaches its subject by focusing on five individuals whose paths supposedly converged in the famous photo. Three were perpetrators and two were Jewish victims. The most notorious was Stroop, the SS commander who issued the order to burn down the entire ghetto and who wrote these now-infamous words on the title page of the meticulously compiled report bearing his name: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is no more!”
Austrian-born Franz Konrad, who took most of the photographs that eventually found their way into the Stroop Report, is widely assumed to have been responsible for capturing the image of the boy. Before serving as Stroop’s personal documentarian, Konrad had been the officer in charge of so-called “acquisitions” in the ghetto, a euphemism for the systematic looting of Jews that earned him the unofficial title among them of “King of the Ghetto.”
For further reading:
Josef Blosche, the Nazi policeman pointing his submachine gun at the boy, is the only individual in the photo whose identity has been established beyond doubt. A member of the Warsaw security police, Blosche was often seen hovering around Stroop in the final days of the uprising, when more than 56,000 Jews were smoked out of their hideouts − most of them either killed on the spot or deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Nicknamed “Frankenstein” by ghetto residents, Blosche was known to have a penchant for taking potshots at children and pregnant women.
Large chunks of Porat’s book are devoted to the story of Warsaw Ghetto survivor Rivkah Trapkovits’-Farber, with much of the information culled from her autobiography “Le-Maydanek lo Higa’ti” (“To Majdanek, I Did Not Arrive,” published in Hebrew by Beit Lohamei Hagetaot in the 1980s). A member of the Jewish resistance in the ghetto, Trapkovits’-Farber was a teenager when the war broke out, about to set sail for Palestine with other members of her youth movement. Although the details of her particular survival story are truly harrowing and presumably not widely known, it’s unclear why Porat chose to make her one of his book’s focal characters. Trapkovits’-Farber is not one of the women in the famous photograph, she has no direct connection to the boy, and neither does she appear in any of the other dozens of photos found in the Stroop Report.
And obviously, there’s the boy. Those hoping to discover, once and for all, what became of him may come out of this book disappointed, as Porat is unable to provide a conclusive answer. “Such an identification is impossible,” he writes. “It is also beside the point.” The fact, though, that the author chooses to include among his five central characters Tsvi Nussbaum − the New York doctor referred to by the guide at Yad Vashem − would seem to indicate that Porat does give credence to the story he overheard. There’s just one catch: Tsvi Nussbaum never lived in the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Nussbaum theory is not new. Back in 1982, Nussbaum told an acquaintance in New York that he thought he might be the little boy in the photo and that, if so, it was taken in the Aryan part of the city in July 1943, several months after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
‘Turn yourselves in’
Nussbaum, who was born in Palestine, returned to Poland with his parents just before the war broke out. Both his parents were killed in 1939, when the Nazis invaded their town of Sandomierz, 125 miles southeast of Warsaw. He was then adopted by an aunt and uncle living in Warsaw, who were fortunate enough to find a hideout outside the ghetto walls. In the summer of 1943, after the ghetto had been liquidated, the Nazis offered all the remaining Jews in the city an unusual deal: Turn yourselves in, they said, and you’ll receive free passageway to South America or Palestine. The story circulating was that the Nazis hoped that, in exchange for these last surviving Jews, they might gain the release of German nationals held in captivity abroad. Although the Jews of Warsaw were understandably skeptical, many eventually did show up at the courtyard of the Hotel Polski, where they were instructed to arrive with their luggage. Nussbaum, along with his relatives, was among them.
The Germans then began calling off names from a list. Nussbaum’s relatives were called, and they all boarded a truck. Little Tsvi, however, was not summoned. The panicking child began running toward his family when the soldiers ordered him to stop. A soldier pointed a gun at him, and Tsvi lifted his arms.
That, at least, is his recollection of the split second caught in that photo. Incidentally, neither Nussbaum nor any of his family ever received their free passageway out of Europe.
Over the years, Nussbaum’s version of events, as Porat notes, has been challenged. If, as Nussbaum maintains, the photo was taken in July 1943, it doesn’t make sense that the people in the picture would be dressed in winter gear. If the photo was taken on the Aryan side of the city, it also doesn’t make sense that the Jews would have been wearing their armbands, as several of those photographed are. Others have argued that the grounds photographed bear no resemblance to the courtyard of the Hotel Polski. But perhaps the strongest case made against the Nussbaum theory is that if this photo was, indeed, taken in July 1943, how did it end up in the Stroop Report, which documented events of April and May of that year and, says Porat, arrived on Himmler’s desk on June 2?
Porat does not refer in his book to other individuals who, over the years, have also been identified as the boy in the photo. One was Levi Zelinwarger, believed to have died in 1943. In 1999, his father, Abraham Zelinwarger, who survived the war and ended up in Haifa, said he was certain the boy was his son and the woman standing next to him, his wife. Back in 1977, a Polish woman named Jadwiga Piasecka insisted that the boy in the photo was Artur Siemiatek, her great-nephew.
Some updated photos of Nussbaum to compare with the picture of the boy might have helped me, as a reader, draw my own conclusions, but none are provided in the book.
Although readers may assume from its title that Porat’s book centers around the boy with the upraised arms, that is not the case. Of the five main characters, in fact, Nussbaum gets the least amount of space, his story unfolding only toward the end.
The book also sets the reader up for some new revelations but never follows through. In the prologue, Porat writes: “In uncovering this story I also had to reveal unpleasant truths to some people, lay and educated, who believed that the boy survived, that in fact he had not; to some of those who incorrectly thought they or one of their relatives were the little boy, that they were not.” Was I the only one to conclude, after reading this passage, that Porat eventually learned the true identity of the boy? That he was not, in fact, Dr. Nussbaum? That the boy had died during the war? I waited for further details as I turned the pages, but none emerged.
‘A priori imagination’
In his quest to uncover the truth, Porat combines traditional academic research with a bit of investigative journalism and, where gaps need to be filled in, as he puts it, “my a priori imagination.” A word of caution: This tendency to introduce somewhat fictitious elements into the story in order to flesh it out can be disconcerting at times, especially for those readers interested in pure facts.
Where the book does deliver is in providing insight into the perpetrators. Porat has done a great job of digging up information on the Nazis connected to the famous photo − Stroop, Konrad and Blosche. If it’s any consolation, all three were eventually tried and executed for their crimes. A particularly interesting bit of trivia to emerge is that Konrad, the photographer, was originally active in anti-Nazi groups in his native Austria, and only because of a fluke of circumstances ended up where he did.
It goes without saying that they all loved and doted on their own children. Yet, mind-boggling as it may seem, these were men who took pride in their ability to strike terror into the heart of a 7- or perhaps 8-year-old boy; in this particular case, a child who came to symbolize the suffering of six million.
Judy Maltz is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She is the producer and co-director of “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” an award-winning Holocaust documentary about the Polish-Catholic rescuer Francisca Halamajowa.