Important sources for education
One important aspect of #LastSeen involves making it easier for educators to use these pictures for teaching purposes. Dr. Christoph Kreutzmüller is leading the initiative to design and develop a participatory educational resource. We asked him five questions about this.
What makes “pictures of deportations” such an interesting topic of study?
The photos show that the deportations were organized by the police, city administrators and the railway company. It was possible to watch this process in action, and people did – including photographers. The pictures show the deportees as well as many perpetrators and spectators. You see neighbors watching the deportees as they are sent into the unknown. Today we know the deportees were mostly being sent straight to their death. That’s what gives the pictures such an impact even now.
Why are the pictures particularly suitable for use in schools?
The pictures are suitable for everyone – and relevant to all of us!
But they are especially well suited to the classroom because they offer opportunities for discussion that cross linguistic borders. Working together, we can discover and talk about all of the processes depicted in the images. These historical pictures can also prompt the learners of today to put themselves in the position of the people in the photographs – and not just the victims, but also the perpetrators and spectators. This raises questions we have to grapple with: What would I have done if I had seen this happening back then? And what do we do today when we see obvious injustices taking place? Do we step in? Do we act, or do we remain passive spectators? Is there any such thing as a passive spectator – or are spectators always an audience?
»Some of the pictures, like that of the two girls from Munich, have become iconic and are often seen in exhibitions and school projects. But not knowing the girls’ identity has made it difficult to use the image for teaching purposes.«Dr. Christoph Kreutzmüller, Arolsen Archives/Haus of the Wannsee Conference
The search for clues in photos of deportations
What can we learn from the pictures if we look closely?
The photos are wonderful historical sources. Some of them are like hidden picture puzzles with a wealth of details to be discovered. We can learn a lot about the photographers and how they staged the photos. Various perpetrators can be identified by their different uniforms, and you can see neighbors standing around – including many children. The victims are often clearly visible, and we hope to identify many more of them in the course of the project. Photographs are like a window onto the past. Deportations were a key element of the Nazi regime and a publicly visible part of the persecution and extermination process. Bystanders could respond in different ways to these public acts of exclusion from the majority society: with approval, sympathy, indifference or even (though very rarely) gestures of solidarity. And in many cases, these pictures are the last existing images of the people who were then forced onto trucks and trains for deportation.
What should we keep in mind?
It is important to approach the victims with respect, and we should learn not to look too quickly. The eye can deceive us. We think we can grasp a lot at a glance, but we should catch ourselves doing that and look again. And then again and again and again…
Together we ask questions hoping for the photos to answer
Do you have any general questions about the pictures?
A lot of questions are still unanswered. For example, why were most of the existing photos taken in smaller cities? Why don’t we know of any photographs from Berlin? I also wonder why we don’t have any photos of the deportations of Jews after the end of 1942, but we do have photos of deportations of Sinti people from 1943. And I’m excited to hear the questions that learners will ask when they work with the pictures, and what answers we’ll find together with contributors in the course of the #LastSeen project.
Dr. Christoph Kreutzmüller works for the Arolsen Archives. He is also a research assistant for the House of the Wannsee Conference Memorial and Educational Site, one of the partners on the #LastSeen project. He curated the exhibition “Gurs 1940 – The Deportation and Murder of Southwest German Jews” (with Kerstin Stubenvoll) and “Catastrophe: How Jews in Germany Reacted to the Persecution” at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. His many publications include several works on photo history, such as:
Fixiert: Fotografische Quellen zur Verfolgung und Ermordung der Juden in Europa. Eine pädagogische Handreichung, Bonn and Berlin 2016 (with Julia Werner)
Die Fotografische Inszenierung des Verbrechens: Ein Album aus Auschwitz, Bonn 2020 (with Tal Bruttmann and Stefan Hördler)