The summer of 2022 marked the 80th anniversary of the first Nazi deportation of Jewish families from Germany to Auschwitz.
Although the Nazis deported hundreds of thousands of Jewish men and women, for many places where those tragic events happened, no images are known to document the crime. Surprisingly, there’s not even photographic evidence from Berlin, the Nazi capital and home to Germany’s largest Jewish community.
The lack of known images is important. Unlike in the past, historians now agree that photographs and film must be taken seriously as primary sources for their research. These sources can complement the analysis of administrative documents and survivor testimonies and thus enrich our understanding of Nazi persecution.
As a historian originally from Germany and now teaching in the U.S., I have researched the Nazi persecution of the Jews for 30 years and published 10 books on the Holocaust.
I searched for unpublished images in all the archives I visited during my research. But I have to admit that I – along with many of my colleagues – did not take the gathered visual evidence seriously as a primary source and rather used it to illustrate my publications.
During the past decade, scholars have realized how pictures can contribute to our understanding of mass violence as well as the resistance to it. Some can provide the only evidence we have about an act of persecution – for example, a photograph of anti-Jewish graffiti. Others will reveal additional details, as in the image of a court proceeding against anti-Nazi resistors.
Photographs are now in some cases the sole objects of scholarly inquiry. They are used to identify perpetrators and victims in specific cases, when other sources would not reveal them.
Here’s one example: An image shows uniformed Nazis standing in front of a passenger train filled with German Jews in Munich on Nov. 20, 1942. Who were those men? More importantly, what are the stories of the barely recognizable victims behind the windows in this image?