Trinity College Dublin
E-Mail: E.M.Stanczyk [at] uva.nl
Recycling the Orphan Photograph:
Visual Commemoration of the Jewish Past
Throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, the Holocaust brought about a widespread pillaging of Jewish possessions. Jewellery, clothes, shoes, kitchen utensils, bed sheets, furniture and entire dwellings were usurped, not only acquiring new owners but also new identities. While on the whole these utilitarian objects remained silent about their former Jewish owners, orphaned family photographs spoke volumes about the destruction of once thriving communities. Imprinted with faces that might have been known to the looters and signed with names that left no doubt as to the origins of the subjects, these images were no easy plunder. Nonetheless, many of them did survive, often buried in the attics and cellars of old houses, stashed away under floorboards or beneath window panes, forgotten for decades. Deprived of the families that had lovingly collected and preserved them, these family photographs effectively became war orphans. As a result, the once-important personal meanings of the images became obscured and obliterated. Once discovered, in a post-Holocaust culture these orphan photographs entered a new public life, shifting away from the domestic sphere they had originally been destined to inhabit. Following World War II family photographs of the murdered Jews have often been used in the documenting and public commemoration of the Jewish past, as seen in documentary filmmaking, museum projects and NGO work, among other arenas. Yet, in the process of being recycled, these private photographs are invested with collective values through which new visions of the past are projected and group interests promoted, making these images subject to radical reinterpretation and rereading.
The aim of this project is thus to explore the new lives of family photographs of European Jewry, both those taken before and during World War II. Drawing on case studies from Czech Republic, Germany and Poland, I look at the ways in which orphan images have been used by documentary filmmakers, artists, NGOs and museums, and examine how the involvement from the various agents affects the subsequent readings of these artefacts.