A haunting study in Holocaust photographs

Photo courtesy of Denisse Gonzalez-Ramirez.

On Oct. 6, through a Zoom call hosted by the Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, historian Wendy Lower discussed how one sensitive photo she encountered inspired a line of new work.

A Jewish woman was captured in a photograph standing next to a young boy out in a forest. The story behind that exact moment was a journey that Lower wanted to explore. Lower carries memories that have influenced her desire to study the Holocaust and World War II.   

“It is a very personal history because we’re talking about genocide and it affects all of us. As an empathetic human being, it is just difficult to not work on,” Lower said. 

One particular conversation that stood out was her explanation of the story behind the photo. The passion for the events that were happening and having to witness a crime decades after the event were thought-provoking. What started as a photo placed on her desk back in 2009 then became the revival of a story. 

“This family was killed on a Monday, midmorning,” she said. Every bit of information that she could gather was vital. Lower was well aware of the importance and depth of becoming familiar with the lives of all those that were lost. The deaths of some families were never documented and thus erased from the minds of many. 

“Photographs cannot demand consequence, but they can demand contemplation,” Lower said. Through meticulous collaboration with several different people, for whom she expressed her gratitude, she uncovered the mysteries of the photograph. 

The image had been taken by a Slovakian man who was drafted into a war that he wanted no part in. He supported Jewish people and took the photo as a form of resistance. Lower even mentioned finding letters that were shared between his wife and him. Within one of those letters he wrote that, “his hair was turning gray and his brain was turning black.”

The image that was captured is one that evokes many thoughts. Lower and her team are a core example of how much one can begin to wonder about a single frame. The mystery that was resolved led to countless questions that needed solutions. And throughout the entire session, Lower did a phenomenal job capturing that story and narrating it in a way for all to understand, making these narratives more accessible.

The compassion and effort that were required for unfolding so much information is admirable. Lower’s discussion was thorough and clearly translated the value of discovering the stories of those who were seemingly erased from history against their own volition. All the lives that were lost will continue to remain in the minds of many even if there are no names that can be placed to those faces.