The Yad Vashem museum currently has in its temporary exhibitions pavilion a fascinating exhibition titled "Flashes of Memory – Photography during the Holocaust." The idea behind the exhibition is to tell the story behind the footage of the Holocaust, who stood behind the cameras and what their motives were.
In our collective historical minds, the visual images we have of the Holocaust are blurred into one continuing narrative, but their sources are disparate.
There are photographs and films made by German Nazis, in some cases official propaganda units who informed the public back in the Fatherland how the parasitical Jews were finally being put to good use. Other photographs were taken privately by German soldiers and sent home to their families, and in some cases sent to anti-Semitic newspapers like "Der Sturmer," which paid cash for fresh photographs of degenerate Jews.
The Jews themselves were forbidden from owning cameras, except in the ghettoes, where the Judenrats were allowed to employ their official photographers. Eager to prove to the Germans that the ghetto population was an economic asset, the Judenrats prepared albums to show their inhabitants busy working. In many cases, the official Jewish photographers also made their own unstaged pictures, showing a more authentic side of ghetto life. Some of these secret collections have survived and are in the exhibition.
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The third source of Holocaust footage is from the camps themselves made by the liberating armies who arrived there in 1945. These were made for a variety of reasons – as evidence for the planned war-crimes trials, for news bulletins back home, to show the local German population, now under occupation, what had been done in their name, and for various other propaganda purposes. The Soviets even had the survivors of Auschwitz reenact camp life under the Nazis for their film-makers.
I’ve been twice to Flashes of Memory. It takes time to absorb the background to the images, many of which I’ve seen before, and to understand the ways they’ve formed our awareness of the Holocaust, and I’m not sure I can put it into words. But I can’t help admire the way Yad Vashem, which has a mandate to create the official Israeli version of the Shoah, is prepared to shed light on the complexities of the narrative and provoke us to think how we should regard images that were staged for propaganda.
If you’re in Jerusalem, do make the effort to see Flashes of Memory and in general, it’s worth visiting Yad Vashem soon, even if you have been there many times before, because as things are looking now, the institute may not be able to safeguard its integrity in the future.
For the third time in four years, Yad Vashem’s historians find themselves at loggerheads with Benjamin Netanyahu. Back in 2015, they publicly corrected him on his breathtaking assertion that it had been the pro-Nazi Palestinian Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, and not the Germans, who had come up with the idea of wholesale extermination of European Jews.
Earlier this year, they spoke out again, sharply criticizing Netanyahu’s joint statement with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, that whitewashed the role played by Polish citizens in persecuting Jews during the Holocaust, that they said contained "grave errors and deceptions" which “contradict the existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”
And now they find themselves opposed to the prime minister again, as he plans to establish a "consensus narrative" of the Holocaust in Hungary, together with the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, which is planning to inaugurate its own "House of Fates" Holocaust museum in Budapest.
The Hungarians already have form on this. The narrative established by Orban’s court historians basically exonerates the fascist wartime Horthy regime and places the blame on the deportation of Hungarian Jews to their deaths in Auschwitz solely on the Germans, with sly hints at Jews who collaborated with the killers.
Yad Vashem opposes the entire House of Fates project, but they’re not even part of the talks with the Hungarians.
Israel is, for now, not one of the countries where historians do as they’re told by the politicians. But one wonders how long a government-funded body like Yad Vashem, whose biggest private donor is Netanyahu’s patron Sheldon Adelson, can maintain its independence, while the narrative of the Holocaust presented by the prime minister has been modified to serve his political and foreign policy goals.
Over the last 70 years there have been many narratives of the Holocaust. Some reflect the different approaches of historians, the availability of source material and eye-witnesses, the gradual opening of official archives and the changing fashions of museum curating. Some of the narratives have served political purposes. In all cases, to understand the narrative, you need to ask two questions. Who are the perpetrators and who are the victims?
For example, in the Soviet narrative of the Holocaust, there were no Jews. Only "victims of fascism." And any political faction in occupied Europe not directly aligned with the Communist party are portrayed as collaborators. This Judenrein Marxist historical narrative serves today as a base for those who accuse Israelis of treating the Palestinians as latter-day Nazis.
While it’s okay nowadays in Vladimir Putin’s Russia to talk about how Jews were specifically exterminated, some of the Soviet narrative persists, for instance in regard to the dates of WWII, which Russia insists officially began only in 1941, airbrushing from history the fact that for the war’s first two years, the Soviet Union were allied with Germany and partners in partitioning Poland - their armies even holding a joint military parade to mark the demarcation line they’d agreed.
Russian historians can be sent to prison for “defaming” their country’s war record. Poland now also has legislation establishing one national narrative, and woe betide the Polish researcher who writes about how their countrymen committed pogroms of their own.
No one in Israel has yet tried to force historians to toe the line, but Netanyahu, a historian’s son, has tried to build his own manipulated narrative: he started by christening the father-figure of the Palestinian national struggle as co-author of the Final Solution (granted, al-Husseini was a rabid anti-Semite) and by exonerating any nation from the sin of collaboration – if their current government is amenable to his policies.
This new Netanyahu Holocaust narrative shouldn’t surprise us. It is on par with his redefinition of what a Jew is ( = uncritical pro-Likud nationalists) and of anti-Semitism ( = criticism of Israel). It is no less pernicious than the radical-left narrative that tries to detach the Holocaust from its Jewish character and put it in the same category as the "crimes of Zionism."