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Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye

Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Camera's Eye

by Barbie Zelizer
There is no more gruesome and tragic record in the history of the twentieth century than the photographs taken at the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany after World War II. These images are seared into our collective memory as brutal evidence of the atrocity of war and the evil of which humanity is capable. But the horrific content of these images has


There is no more gruesome and tragic record in the history of the twentieth century than the photographs taken at the liberation of the concentration camps in Germany after World War II. These images are seared into our collective memory as brutal evidence of the atrocity of war and the evil of which humanity is capable. But the horrific content of these images has somewhat obscured their status as historical documents. In her powerful new book, Barbie Zelizer reveals the unique significance of the concentration camp photographs--how they have become the basis of our memory of the Holocaust and how they have affected our presentations and perceptions of contemporary history's subsequent atrocities.

Prior to the Holocaust, news reporters primarily told their stories in words, using photographs almost as an afterthought. When the camps were liberated, however, journalists and reporters turned to photography to bear witness to the unspeakable and indescribable scenes of the dead and dying. Through this process, Zelizer argues, photographs earned a new legitimacy as tools of reporting. She shows how, since the end of the war, the use of "atrocity photos" has fallen into patterns--or waves of memory, as she names them--determined by the different roles that the photos occupy in the public imagination. Most recently, for example, the images from Bosnia hark back to the Holocaust imagery, an echo that can actually dilute our response to what happened both then and now.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Zelizer (Covering the Body: The Kennedy Assassination, the Media, and the Shaping of the Collective Memory, LJ 11/1/92), who writes regularly for the Nation, has produced an interesting study of the relationship between photojournalism, memories, and atrocities such as the Holocaust. Zelizer argues that photographs became the major part of the journalistic record during World War II, when the reality of the camps could not be conveyed entirely in words. That advance for contemporary photojournalism has created a collective memory of the Holocaust. In addition, Zelizer questions the images' role in representing the past historically and in remembering the past collectively. She also links Holocaust photographs to how people present and perceive present-day atrocities, which are measured against the German horrors and vice versa. She traces the waves of memory about the atrocities and how photographs have been used since the 1950s. Much has been written about the press and the Holocaust, but this is unique in its focus on the collective memory. Recommended for media, communications, and Holocaust collections.--Mary F. Salony, West Virginia Northern Community Coll. Lib., Wheeling
Nation contributor Zelizer (communication, U. of Pennsylvania) analyzes not only how the photographic witnessing of the Holocaust influenced the course of photojournalism, but also how such atrocity photos have contributed to alternate cycles of collective remembering and desensitization about contemporary horrors of war and genocide such as Bosnia and Cambodia. She draws upon the work of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. Includes about 60 haunting b&w photos. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Omer Bartov
[A] fascinating study…Here we have a completely fresh look at the emergence of photography as a major component of journalistic reporting in the course of the liberation of the camps by the Western Allies…[T]his is clearly an important book.

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University of Chicago Press
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6.63(w) x 9.38(h) x 0.90(d)

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Copyright © 1998 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-97972-4

Chapter One

Collective Memories, Images, and the Atrocity of War

In writings published posthumously after world War II, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin contended that images of public events merit attention because they offer a compressed moral guide for the future. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns," he said, "threatens to disappear irretrievably."

This book stems from Benjamin's observation. It begins with a number of questions about visual memory and examines that memory's role in representing one of the most disturbing phenomena of the twentieth century—war atrocity. Through U.S. and British media coverage of the liberation of the World War II Nazi concentration camps, the book considers how haunting visual memories of the Holocaust and war atrocity were produced by the photographic record of the camps' liberation. These memories linger, in scholar Saul Friedlander's words, as an "indelible reference point of the Western imagination."

Yet what kind of reference point did they provide? As we stand at century's end and look back, the visual memories of the Holocaust set in place fifty-odd years ago seem oddly unsatisfying. The mounds of corpses, gaping pits of bodies, and figures angled like matchsticks across the camera's field of vision have paralyzed many of us to the point of critical inattention. But they have provided only a thin veneer of knowledge about the camps and the atrocities that took place inside. How were those first images of the camps produced and presented? By whom and under which circumstances? How were they received and to what effect? And most importantly, when, why, how, and to what purposes were they co-opted into memory? In what ways have they persisted as vehicles of collective memory, both about the Holocaust and about the ravages of war?

Questions like these are worth answering because the images of the concentration camps—called the World War II "atrocity photos" by postwar critics—have become a lasting iconic representation of war atrocity and human evil. But the questions are difficult to answer because they underscore a broader lack in our scholarship on images and image making. We still do not know enough about how images help record public events, about whether and in which ways images function as better vehicles of proof than words, and about which vehicle—word or image—takes precedence in situations of conflict between what the words tell us and the pictures show us. Moreover, as the technologies for photographic manipulation have changed and public skepticism about photos has grown, the questions themselves have changed too.

We know even less about how images function as vehicles of collective memory. Beyond recognizing that they conveniently freeze scenes in our minds and serve as building blocks to remembering, we do not yet fully understand how images help us remember, particularly in circumstances we did not experience personally. In an age where the media have become ever-present agents of collective remembering, this is no small problem. And it threatens to loom larger as image-making technologies become more sophisticated and diverse over the coming century.

This book addresses the mechanics of visual memory and historical record at their broadest level. Admittedly, studying images and collective memory through the concentration camps' liberation generates its own problems, because it is doubtful whether any change in the record would have affected the atrocities themselves. But the moral questions raised here about an image's viability to prove and disprove the past go beyond the Holocaust, to other cases where images might kindle outrage. Today, atrocities in places like Bosnia and Rwanda readily provoke comparisons with the Holocaust, suggesting that the earlier atrocity photos do more than simply document the Nazis' systematic extermination of the Jews and other persecuted groups. The photos' broad resonance suggests that images have enigmatic boundaries which connect events in unpredictable ways. Like a familiar sequence of musical notes that seems to appear from nowhere, images creatively pop up in ways that challenge what we think we know about the past and how we think we know it. It is with this challenge that Remembering to Forget is concerned.

The Shape of Collective Remembering

When cultural critic Susan Sontag recalled seeing the atrocity photos as a young girl, she claimed that experience had divided her life into before and after periods. "When I looked at those photographs," she wrote, "something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying." This book explores how others, like Sontag, have used the World War II atrocity photos to link past and present. It takes its cue from work on collective memory, which sees memory as a fundamentally social activity, and follows the scholarship of French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, who argued that memory is accomplished not in one's own gray matter but via a shared consciousness that molds it to the agendas of those invoking it in the present. The book thereby views collective memory as a tool "not of retrieval but of reconfiguration [that] colonizes the past by obliging it to conform to present configurations."

How might work on collective memory shed light on visual memories of the Holocaust? When viewed as a collective activity, memory takes on characteristics that distinguish it from individual remembering. It opens up the terrain that is remembered and turns it into a multiple-sided jigsaw puzzle that links events, issues, or personalities differently for different groups. Unlike personal memory, whose authority fades with time, the authority of collective memories increases as time passes, taking on new complications, nuances, and interests. Collective memories allow for the fabrication, rearrangement, elaboration, and omission of details about the past, often pushing aside accuracy and authenticity so as to accommodate broader issues of identity formation, power and authority, and political affiliation. Memories in this view become not only the simple act of recall but social, cultural, and political action at its broadest level, "not things we think about, but things we think with, [possessing little] existence beyond our politics, our social relations, and our histories." As scholar Geoffrey Hartman has observed, collective memories constitute "a gradually formalized agreement to transmit the meaning of intensely shared events in a way that does not have to be individually struggled for."

Because we do not know enough about the mechanics of collective memories, however, an analysis of the Holocaust's visual memories might prompt us to know more. We know, for instance, that collective memories lack an identifiable beginning and end, are ever changing, and are often accomplished amid the ruins of earlier recollections—as when history books are rewritten or statues of former heroes taken down to accommodate new targets of emulation. Collective memories implicitly value the negation of the act, where forgetting reflects a choice to put aside what no longer matters. We also know that collective memories are unpredictable, often appearing when least expected. Because they are not necessarily stable, linear, rational, or logical, memories take on pieces of the past in unanticipated ways, as when former U.S. president George Bush unexpectedly invoked World War II—not Vietnam—to justify the U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf in 1991. We know too that collective memories are partial. No single memory reflects all that is known about a given event, personality, or issue. Instead, memories resemble a mosaic, where they generate an authoritative vision in repertoire with other views of the past. For instance, the Yitzhak Rabin assassination in Israel in 1995 produced talk of various U.S. parallels that depended on which aspect of the assassination was being discussed—the Civil War, the American Revolution, the Lincoln assassination, and the Kennedy assassination; while no association comprised the total response to the event, together they made a powerful composite statement about the variegated meaning of Rabin's death.

What else do we know about collective memory? We know that collective memories are usable, facilitating cultural, social, economic, and political connections, establishing social order, and determining belonging, exclusivity, solidarity, and continuity. Decorating housefronts for Halloween, displaying wedding rings, and wearing red ribbons on National AIDS Day all signal community membership for certain persons and community exclusion for others. Collective memories are also both particular and universal. A memory can invoke a particular representation of the past for some while taking on a universal significance for others: the word Auschwitz has certain meanings for Holocaust survivors' children that are not necessarily shared by contemporary genocide scholars. This follows from the rather basic fact that everyone participates in the production of memory, though not equally. As Iwona Irwin-Zarecka has observed, the term collective suggests an ideal rather than a given.

We also know that collective memories are material. They have texture, existing in the world rather than in a person's head. We find memories in objects, narratives about the past, even the routines by which we structure our day. No memory is fully embodied in any of these cultural forms, but instead bounces to and fro among all of them on its way to gaining meaning. Memory's materiality is important, for it helps offset the fluctuations that characterize remembering. And finally, we know that collective memories are plural. Dependent on interpretive groups called "memory communities" to gain meaning, memory "depends for its existence on the social codes that prevail in a group, a time, or place." Individuals might thereby share memories of the past with certain persons with whom they share ethnicity, with yet others via a shared age bracket, and with still others through a common nationality. Certain vehicles of memory help communities address significant collective agendas more effectively than others, and which vehicle "we resort to to represent our witness of the times, depends on who we are, and what we need to know, which facts we wish to verify, and which to obscure."

Around each of these axes for remembering, collective memories "vibrate." Dissipating the notion that one memory at one place and one time retains authority over all the others, collective-memory studies presume multiple, often conflicting accounts of the past. The important issue becomes "not how accurately a recollection fitted some piece of a past reality, but why historical actors constructed their memories in a particular way at a particular time." Recognizing conflicting renditions of the past necessitates a consideration of the tensions and contestations through which one rendition wipes out many of the others. Memories become not only the construction of social, historical, and cultural circumstances, but a reflection of why one construction has more staying power than its rivals. The study of collective memories thereby represents a graphing of the past as it is woven into the present and future.

Despite its popularity, however, the study of collective memories has been plagued by a broad range of unaddressed issues. Some have had to do with memory itself: Which memory? What kind of memory? How complete or authentic a memory? Others have focused on the activity of remembering: Who remembers? Why do we remember, how, and with what resources? For whom is remembering being accomplished? And others have targeted the status of remembering: How does the power of memory persist over time? How does it act as evidence for things and events of the past? How does it prove or disprove remembered events? And is the issue of proof more or less relevant as time passes?

Images in Collective Memory

Much of our ability to remember depends on images. Hailed in classical Rome as a mnemonic device for personal remembering, the images of social memory borrow from a broad tradition of pictorial depiction that used painting, photography, and ideographic systems of communication to make its messages public.

How images work depends largely on their complex linkage with words. In W. J. T. Mitchell's view, words and images offer not only two different kinds of representation but "two deeply contested cultural values." As modes of representation change, both the relationship between words and images changes as well as how we understand images and words independently of each other. Images have in part always depended on words for directed interpretation. William Saroyan comments that "one picture is worth a thousand words but only if you look at the picture and say or think the thousand words"; the image "invites the written information which alone can specify its relation to localities, time, individual identity, and the other categories of human understanding." This dependence on words is enhanced and magnified in memory, where words provide order and connection. But pictures also function differently from words; consider the rush of emotions driven by Picasso's famous painting, Guernica. In dealing with the most realistic image—the photograph—this has particular importance. For there, the visual, aligned with the camera, produces a powerful interpretive tool that derives strength from both its mechanical aura and the verisimilitude that it conveys.

The link between words and images becomes even more complex in memory. While words function much like the "index cards" of shared memory, with phrases from the Gettysburg Address, jingles on advertisements, and opening statements in memorable court cases cluttering our memory banks, images depend on their material form when operating as vehicles of memory. Our ability to remember the past is facilitated by photographs, paintings, and snippets of films that are readily available in the public sphere. A 1963 image of a dazed and newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, staring into space as Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the next president, is seen nearly thirty-five years later in multiple contexts—a New York City exhibit on memorable news photographs, a Dallas museum commemorating the slain president, and malls across the United States featuring Andy Warhol's version of the image. Visual memory's texture becomes a facilitator for memory's endurance.

Thus, materiality renders visual memory different from other kinds of remembering. Images help stabilize and anchor collective memory's transient and fluctuating nature in art, cinema, television, and photography, aiding recall to the extent that images often become an event's primary markers. In George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River, the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, and the Kennedy assassination, one specific image of the event has come to symbolize its broader recollection.

Yet difficulties arise when using images to collectively shape the past. Images, particularly photographs, do not make obvious how they construct what we see and remember. Often, they arbitrarily connect with the object or event being remembered. As scholars James Fentress and Chris Wickham have noted, the "relation between a remembered image and the meaning or event to which this image supposedly refers is inherently arbitrary; yet nothing in the nature of the remembered images themselves gives this away." Moreover, the images of collective memories are composites, constructed "from a mixture of pictorial images and scenes, slogans, quips, and snatches of verse, abstractions, plot types and stretches of discourse, and even false etymologies." Even the frame of the depicted image hides its own constructed nature; in one British study of the 1970s, the aggressive aura of antiwar protesters increased as a photograph of the demonstration was cropped more closely. Electronic image tampering also shows the ease with which composite images can be made to appear natural. In today's mediated age it is easy to disembody images in ways not made apparent to audiences.


Excerpted from REMEMBERING TO FORGET by BARBIE ZELIZER Copyright © 1998 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Deborah E. Lipstadt
Most of the Holocaust photographs which are readily familiar to us were those taken during the 'liberation' of the death camps. Barbie Zelizer's compelling book is a long overdue analysis of these images which have become symbolic of the Holocaust itself.
Geoffrey Hartman
Has the dominance of Holocaust imagery become so archetypal that its very telling of the gruesome story makes us less responsive than we should be to the flood of images that record new atrocities in Bosnia and Africa? [Zelizer's] controversial conclusion that televised and journalistic images now wear themselves out of memory and may lessen the viability of public action gives [her] work an urgent contemporary relevance. -- Yale University

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