“Beyond the Pictorial Frame: The Ghettoization of Jews in Poland” Julia Werner Lecture (Summary)
Left to right: Julia Werner, Wolf Gruner, Margee Greenberg, Douglas Greenberg
Julia Werner, the 2015-2016 Greenberg Fellow, gave a public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research focusing on photographs of ghettoization of the Jewish population in Poland, which is part of her wider dissertation research project on photography in occupied Poland.
The photograph above was taken on June 15, 1940 by a German Wehrmacht soldier named Wilhelm Hansen during the ghettoization of the Jews from Kutno, a small town in Western Poland (Warthegau). With only one day’s notice, authorities ordered Jews to leave their homes in the city center and forced them to move to the grounds of an abandoned sugar factory outside the city, which had only two intact buildings, leaving most of the 7,000 Jews living outdoors in makeshift shelters, tents, or under the open skies.
Werner pointed out that until now, the actual movement of Jews to the ghettos has received little scholarly attention in general. There has been a great deal of literature about the overall Nazi strategy of ghettoization, as well as a scholarly focus on structural and functional questions about ghettos, but little focus on the moments of transfer themselves.
Werner searched private collections, museums, and archives for photography of ghettoization and ghettos taken by non-professional or amateur photographers. Werner found 346 photos of big and small ghettos in occupied Poland. She found mostly single photographs where she knows very little about the photographers.
The photographs documenting the moment of ghettoization in Kutno are distinctive because of their number (Hansen took 80 photographs in Kutno) and the fact that she was able to research the photographer. Wilhelm Hansen was obsessed with taking photographs even before the war. Werner interviewed some of his former students who described him as a loner and a little bit strange. They said he always had a camera. He was not a professional photographer and never published the photographs he took, instead copying them by request for his fellow soldiers. The only reason the photos were discovered was that the man who cleaned up Hansen’s house after he died found the pictures and saved some of them. Even for Hansen, Werner described, the 80 photographs he took in Kutno were a lot of photographs for a single place or event.
In her research methodology, Werner does not just treat photos as windows to the past that speak for themselves. She examines the patterns of depiction and the aesthetics of the photography to see what they reveal.
In her analysis of photography surrounding ghettoization, she has discovered two dominant modes of depiction: waiting and movement. In the photographs of waiting, with people waiting to move to the ghettos, the photographs are most often taken at a distance. The people in the photos are not depicted as active agents. There is very little interaction between the photographer and the people photographed with the exception of children who are often looking at the photographer. The dominant mode of depiction when it comes to the photographs of movement is that the people are depicted from the side or behind, going away from the camera, almost as if they are vanishing, Werner argued. The people appear as a homogenous group moving in one direction. Their individuality and particularity are invisible.
Another thing that is almost invisible, Werner emphasized, is the force or violence of the move. There are no Germans in uniforms in many of the photographs. There are no depictions of acts of violence. However, Werner characterized the act of taking the photograph as another layer of violence on top of what the ghettoized were already experiencing. It is a layer of violence that extends through time until today, she argued, against people who never gave their consent to be photographed.
The photography Werner has discovered brings out the importance of this moment of transfer of Jews to the ghetto, but she has struggled in her research and analysis with how the photographs omit force and violence and how the photographs reproduce the perpetrtators’ perspective, dehumanizing and homogenizing people. To bring back the voice, agency, and individuality of the ghettoized, Werner turned to testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive and described herself as amazed by the number of relevant testimonies she has discovered.
In her lecture, she read from the testimony of Gordon Klasky, who talks about the process of ghettoization in Kutno. He describes acts of violence, force, and intimidation that the photos do not depict. Werner asserted that working with testimonies in conjunction with photography can illuminate the particular conditions of the move to the ghetto and of violence that are not available in photographs. They can bring out other moments as well. Werner detailed how she listened to Klasky, a barber, talk in his testimony about working with other barbers in the ghetto cutting people’s hair. Werner showed that she actually had a photograph from the Kutno ghetto of that very barber stand.
Werner discussed how working with testimonies has made her more attuned to the different qualities of the sources she uses in her research. For the most part, on an aesthetic level, the photos are documentary in nature. They document and capture the process of ghettoization. Interviews help refine the context, give a much more concrete understanding of the situation of the individuals subjected to this force, reveal the diversity of the group and of their experiences. Testimonies can differentiate the particularities of the group that appears so homogenous in the photographs. Relating photographic sources with the testimonies allows people to look beyond the pictorial frame and get an idea of what happened outside, before, and after the picture.
In the long and lively Q&A that followed her talk, there was a great deal of exchange on varied topics. These included why soldiers do not appear in the photography of ghettoization when they appear so much in the photos of deportation; the centrality of descriptions of the loss of objects and possessions in testimonies about ghettoization; which photographs Werner finds most powerful; and what insights working with testimonies has provoked. Werner revealed that it was a year and a half until the ghettoized Jews in Kutno were deported. Because of the conditions outdoors, there was not much left when they were gone.
To view her lecture, click here.