Prof. Marianne Hirsch, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, and Prof. Leo Spitzer, history, Dartmouth College, stressed the importance of preserving photos of Jewish children in underground ghetto schools during the Holocaust, at a lecture Thursday.
“What do we owe the victims of massive violence that occurred before we were born?” Hirsch said. “How can we carry their stories forward without being overwhelmed by them, without appropriating them?”
To understand and preserve the memory of Jewish school children, Hirsch and Spitzer uncovered stories from photographs of taken in ghettos and Nazi-run concentration camps
“By putting together … the ghetto photos taken by perpetrators, by officially sanctioned and by clandestine photographers … we can go beyond the limitations of photo archives and create an archive of possibility,” Hirsch said.
At first glance, photos taken by officially sanctioned photographers simply show smiling groups of students gathered around a central authority figure — usually a teacher. Taking a closer look at the seemingly happy children reveals the gauntness of their faces and the Jewish stars sewn onto their clothing, a symbol Hirsch called “the emblematic mark of indifference and subordination imposed on Jews throughout Europe.”
In addition to photos of schoolchildren taken by Nazi-sanctioned photographers, clandestine photographers have preserved the memory of underground Jewish schools, attended by an estimated 20 percent of children in ghettos, according to Spitzer.
These underground schools acted as “the primary agencies in shaping and reinforcing the values, outlooks and beliefs that constitute citizenship [for Jews within the ghetto],” Hirsch said.
Spitzer reiterated the importance of these schools in preserving normalcy, saying that “the ghetto images of children learning together attests to the value of dailiness and continuity in times of extremity. They affirm the importance of being part of a collective body, however vulnerable.”
“At times of persecution where communal life is fractured and annihilated, such as during the Holocaust, the social belonging signified by class photos can become especially precious,” Hirsch said.
So far, more than 10,000 photo negatives have been recovered from secret ghetto archives in Europe, Hirsch said.
“It is hard not to read these images through the retrospective lens of our knowledge of what came to be, as photos of young children looking toward a future they would never be able to live,” Hirsch said.
Hirsch connected the lecture to the difficult week that the Cornell community has experienced.
“I hope that some of what we say tonight will be relevant to the future we’re all envisioning right now, and to the fight that we’ll have to undertake to maintain some justice in this country,” she said.
This lecture was part of the Jewish Studies Programs’ “Technologies of Memory” series, which will continue on Dec. 1 with a lecture entitled, “Reframing Holocaust Testimony.”