A few weeks ago, I read of an event that intrigued me. A woman who was raised to believe her father was a war hero was presenting at a webinar on her family’s history about her inner turmoil upon having discovered that he had in actuality been a Nazi directly responsible for the murder of the Jews in his hometown.
As a Jew who believes in teshuvah, I wanted to know more about how this woman was navigating the heinous family legacy she had inherited and working on challenging baseless hatred. The photo in the announcement showed a group of emaciated men in prison stripes staring vacantly through barbed wire. This image made me uncomfortable.
There is no question that the images of Jews in the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps helped the world understand the horrors of the Holocaust. As eyewitnesses to the brutality of the Nazis and their many accomplices pass on, these images are key to not forgetting.
Similarly, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. By no means was he the first or the last Black person to be physically abused or murdered. But the eye-witness filming of his murder made it hard to ignore.
The visual record of Floyd’s murder was essential in challenging the original police report that covered up the police misconduct. As it was shared widely, it turned Floyd’s death from another unnoticed tragedy to a cause for protest and worldwide call for reform.
Seeing is believing. But the power of these images is more complex than that.
The visual exploitation of Black suffering for popular white consumption has a long history in the United States. During Jim Crow, it was common to share images of white crowds gathering in their best clothing at the site of the lynching of Black people. And while these images implicate the white perpetrators of heinous acts, they focus our gaze on the powerful violence of white supremacy and Black suffering.
Similarly, the artwork for the webinar about one of the villains of the Holocaust did not focus on the perpetrator, but rather highlighted the suffering of victims of Nazi brutality. Meant to draw the viewer’s attention by reminding us of the inhumane actions of the Nazis, I felt repelled by the needless exploitation of these Jews’ horrific suffering.
Every day, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum shares visuals of individuals who were born on that day and perished in/survived the camp. Whenever possible they share photos from before the Holocaust, but never a photo of the full degradation experienced. The Emmett Till Legacy Foundation often shares the iconic photo of Till smiling in a suit, wearing a hat, and not images of his murdered body. We should remember him as the sweet child he was, not just as the victim his callous killers made him into.
I shared my concerns with those who had done the publicity for the webinar. The response was unequivocal; such images are essential so that we do not forget.
There is no easy answer. The power of the photo of Holocaust atrocities and that of the murder of George Floyd is that they demand that we face up to the power of human hatred. Seeing these images, moral people cannot deny antisemitism or racism. Yet these images highlight victimhood. These images speak to the fact that society does not take these forms of hatred seriously unless we see Jews murdered by the millions or Black people killed in public view.
There is a line between engaging with suffering and the impact of hate, and focusing on images of those victimized by hatred. Sometimes we need to step over that line in order to reset our focus and see the impact that baseless hatred has on the world around us. But our focus should not be on victimization or the pain caused, but rather on fighting back against antisemitism, racism and other forms of baseless hatred. Instead of joining the perpetrators in gazing upon those impacted, let us join together righteously in confronting those who hate.