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History and the City: Berlin in the 20th Century

Aestheticizing the Document: Richard Ehrlich's Photographic Inventories of Nazi Atrocities

Images of death are among the most chilling in the photographic archive of warfare. But scholars writing in the field of Holocaust studies have begun to ask whether atrocity images have reached the limits of their usefulness as testimony. Though we might still make allowances for the affective potential of the “photographic inventory of ultimate horrors” (pace Susan Sontag), it is worth asking whether the repetitive circulation of certain iconic images has diminished their pedagogical effectiveness.

Many of us are familiar with the iconographic images surrounding the liberation of the concentration camps at the end of the Second World War. Captured in the frenzied moments when the Allies were discovering the barbarous immensity of Nazi crimes, these images have gripped successive generations with their traumatic intensity. Producing his photographic commentary on the Holocaust several decades after the conflagrations of the mid-twentieth century, Cornell alumnus Richard Ehrlich tacks in a different direction. His photography documents the sheer weight of documentation itself contained in the floor-to-ceiling index card trays and miles of wall-to-wall file folders and binders at the International Tracing Service Holocaust Archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany.

Even more striking about the series of images in Ehrlich’s portfolio of fifty-seven photographs is his aestheticization of the document. Color, composition, and shooting angles work together to entice the viewer to linger with the images, granting time for reflection on the enormity of the crime. Some photographs result in abstract geometric forms, while others highlight a single object, such as the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear. One photograph is of Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, dedicated in 2005 after years of sometimes acrimonious debate. Yet another depicts a chart euphemistically entitled “Identity Badges for Prisoners in Protective Custody in Concentration Camps,” which hung in the central registration area of the Dachau concentration camp. Categories include political prisoners, career criminals, émigrés, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and antisocials, with further categories for recidivists, prisoners of the infamous concentration camp penal detail, Czechs, Poles, and “race defilers.”

The novelty of Ehrlich’s photographic approach to remembering the Holocaust in the twentieth century is this: he presents the viewer not with another iconographic image with which we are already all too familiar, but rather with an intimation of the bureaucratic efficiency with which the Holocaust was unleashed. Here, there are no images of Buchenwald, only binders bearing the linguistic signifier, “Buchenwald.”

As part of their Freshman Writing Seminar work, the students in Prof. Franz D. Hofer’s “History and the City: Berlin in the Twentieth Century” designed this virtual photography exhibition centered on Richard Ehrlich’s contemporary representations of the Holocaust.

Without the support of Nancy Green and Andrew Weislogel, this project would not have been possible. We would also like to thank Liz Emrich and Andrea Potochniak for their help at various stages of this project.

Fall 2012 History and the City: Berlin in the Twentieth Century (HIST 1280)
Aaron Bhole’
Manny Duarte
Jake Dunoyer
Blake Elkins
Zoe Jackson
Jihoon Lim
Eliot Lowell
Vadim Karatayev
Sagar Karnavat
Siddharth K Panchanathan
Mai-Lee Picard
Alex Rehberg
Allegra Terhorst
Karin Teuffer
Dan Tompkins
Christina Sun
Kelly Weller

Richard Ehrlich (American, born 1938), Holocaust Archives, International Tracing Service, Bad Arolsen, Germany, 2007. Portfolio of digital prints. Gift of Alan Siegel, 2010.039.001-.057.