Marianne Hirsch: the Holocaust, photography, and education

On December 3, 2015 William Peterfield Trent, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University Marianne Hirsch, spoke to the community about her research in photography and the Holocaust. The well-attended talk was part of the annual Berger Family Holocaust Lecture, which aims to promote conversations about anti-Semitism, and is endowed by Dr. Robert and Patricia Berger (’62 P’96). In conjunction with her husband, Professor Emeritus of History at Dartmouth College Leo Spitzer, Hirsch has spent the last two decades studying how school photos taken in Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe demonstrate “the power of photography as a medium of memory, memorialization, and resistance.” She further explained that the photos taken during the World War II period make up just one part of a larger project on school photos and vernacular images that she and her husband have been undertaking. As one of the “best documented events in history,” according to Hirsch, the Holocaust has provided a morbidly compelling lens through which the couple can view their greater project. While there has almost always been a large amount of documentation of Nazi-occupied Europe, with written memoires and oral testimonies being commonplace for survivors, Hirsch noted that, “as the decades pass, strangely more and more archival material keeps appearing.” Hirsch welcomed the new material, but she said each new document “actually complicates this history that we have inherited.” In their research, the couple struggles to “fold [new information] into the larger history and to respond adequately to their demands.”

According to Hirsch, it also prompts them to consider the question of what people alive now owe the victims of mass violence that occurred before we were born, as well as how to responsibly tell their stories.

Hirsch then began to discuss how, when she was searching for objects to help her “imagine and respond to the daily lives” of people who were living in desolate ghettos, the story of the war came alive for her in school photos. The example of resistance put forth by these photos was extraordinary in Hirsch’s mind because neither schools nor photography was allowed in many areas of Nazi-occupied Europe. Despite these prohibitions, Hirsch cited that there were roughly 18,000 clandestine pupils in the Warsaw ghetto alone.

While school photos might seem inconsequential to many people, Hirsch explained that, “through these photos and documents, resistance is defined not as an armed struggle, but as an effort to continue with ordinary lives, to document those lives for posterity, and to actually believe in a future.”

Fully knowing the kind of struggle that both the photographers and the subjects of these photos were facing at the time, Hirsch said that it is difficult not to “read the images through our retrospective knowledge of what came to be.” Specifically, it is difficult for Hirsch and Spitzer to lump school photos from the Holocaust together with school photos from times of peace, because in the former there are “young school children who were looking at the camera about to die, looking at a future that they were not allowed to live.”
In noting certain artists who have allowed the retrospective knowledge of their war to be apparent in their work, Hirsch cited the French artist Christian Botanski. Botanski is well-known for isolating the faces of children in school photos from Europe of the 1930’s and blowing the images up in dramatic installations—something Hirsch said “creates an important post-Holocaust aesthetic of mourning and loss.” She continued to note that Botanski believes all school photos to be “inherently so sad,” as the viewer can assume that someone in the class has failed or died. This sadness, according to Hirsch, is compounded by the “historical knowledge of events yet to come.”

Although Hirsch and Spitzer were both intrigued by Botanski’s perspective, Hirsch said they opted to look at the images as part of the larger genre of school photography in order to deepen their understanding of schooling in the ghettos and the texture of life during that period.

Despite Hirsch’s description of school photos as being “ordinary, vernacular, uniform, and unremarkable images,” she has been able to dissect ample meaning from the genre throughout her research. Typically, Hirsch said, the photographer and the teacher encourage the students to “assume a posture that demonstrates the acquiescence to a group identity.”

Hirsch quoted the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who said, “Schools discipline the bodies and the minds to fit into a dominant hegemonic order.” In this context, Hirsch claimed that school photos act as report cards that, created each year, certify that a student is “participating in a trajectory that defines citizenship and a national belonging.”

While the recognized community created by school photos during the Holocaust was a positive documentation, there have certainly been points throughout history where the reinforcement of conformity can be seen as having a negative impact. One example of the darker side of school photos that Hirsch cited can be seen in the pictures taken of Native Americans in the 19th century, in which the subjects are being used as representations of successful assimilation. These specific school photos go beyond the mild level of conformity seen in many of their counterparts and address the notion of imposed institutional ideologies.

Despite the negativity that can sometimes be implied by uniformity, Hirsch ended her talk by saying, in the case of the Holocaust, “class photos show the life affirming role that schooling played in moments of hopelessness.”