The Eye As Witness exhibition at South Hampstead Synagogue
PUBLISHED: 15:08 22 January 2020
Travelling exhibition asks vital questions of historical perspective by examining images and accounts of the Holocaust from the viewpoint of perpetrators and victims
Vital questions of historical perspective are addressed in a touring exhibition which uses virtual reality and Holocaust victims' own photographs to explore the contemporary relevance of Nazi genocide.
The Eye As Witness opens at South Hampstead Synagogue today (Jan 23) ahead of Holocaust Memorial Day on Monday - the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Put together by The National Holocaust Centre and Museum in conjunction with The University of Nottingham, the interactive exhibition uses photos, texts and testimony to ask through whose eyes we see an event, and examines the political and moral motives for recording genocide.
Most people today would recognise a photograph of Hitler, and everyone has seen at least one image showing victims of Nazi persecution. The exhibition points out that not only were thousands of staged images of Hitler taken by professional Nazi propaganda photographers, but so were many photographs of ghettos and concentration camps.
Many of the images in museums and on television today were taken by the perpetrators of genocide, and designed to make their victims appear sub-human.
They may now inspire pity rather than disgust, but the exhibition aks whether they do justice to the dignity of the victims, or help us to realise that they lived everyday lives before the Nazis came to power?
Virtual reality allows visitors to walk into a Nazi-produced image taken in the Warsaw Ghetto, to observe the photographer and see what was left outside the frame.
Rarely seen secret photographs by Jewish members of the anti-Nazi resistance who used their cameras to record the Holocaust at great risk to themselves, reveal the different perspectives of victim and perpetrator.
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A rare example of a written note from the camps and the words of survivors speaking via The Forever Project which preserves their testimony through interactive technology also offers the victims' perspective.
And video installation The Weight of Images by Swedish artist Lina Selander reflects on gaps in understanding and memory with an old table, some apples and a mirror in which we see a moving collage of photos of victims and perpetrators and empty album pages.
Aiming to encourage "critical thinking on racism and hatred today" the exhibition highlights how photographs are historical sources created with particular agendas and we should examine them critically if we are to learn lessons from them. It asks us to think whether shocking images of victims of violence today may alert us to global injustices, but how much do they tell us about the victims' perspective?
Marc Cave, Interim CEO National Holocaust Centre and Museum said: "Whilst this is an excitingly creative use of technology to reconsider the past, its purpose is chillingly contemporary. When you see an image or video posted on Twitter or Facebook of a victim of war ask yourself who recorded it and why. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then fake news is 1,000 times more sinister in photographic form. As we approach the 75th anniversary since the Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen camps were liberated, this exhibition invites critical thinking. It asks you to understand the visual cunning of the Nazis and how it helped legitimise anti-Jewish hate, and to think critically about the same propaganda techniques being used on social media today by the hard left and hard right alike".
Professor Maiken Umbach who helped compile the material said: "The urgency of taking a fresh look at the darkest moment of human history cannot be underestimated. We have relied too much on Nazi propaganda photos to visualise the horrors of the Holocaust. Focusing on the photos and testimonies of victims helps us understand issues that are sadly becoming increasingly pressing in the modern world, such as antisemitism, racism, fake news, and prejudice."
Lina Selander says: "This exhibition shows photos by those who have seen the Gorgon's face. The Sonderkommando photos of Auschwitz were taken from inside a gas chamber. The photographer hid in the absolute darkness. The word camera comes from camera obscura, which means dark chamber. These images reach us from absolute darkness. They remain there; we can only contemplate their reflections. But looking away will turn the world into stone."
The Eye As Witness is part of a week of Holocaust education, services and talks at South Hampstead Synagogue in Eton Road. It runs until Jan 30. Meanwhile the Association of Jewish Refugees holds a service for Holocaust Memorial Day at Belsize Square Synagogue on Jan 23 at 2pm.
It will be led by Rabbi Stuart Altshuler and will hear from AJR member Frank Bright an Auschwitz survivor from Czechoslovakia.
AJR members will light six memorial candles to remember the lives of the six million Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust.
And at the Everyman cinema on Haverstock Hill on Tuesday 28th is a screening of Anne Frank Parallel Stories, a powerful retelling of her life through the pages of her diary guided by actress Helen Mirren.
As a dedication to what would have been Anne's 90th birthday last June, the documentary takes audiences into the secret annex of her family's hiding place through read excerpts of her diary intertwined with the experiences of five women who were also deported to concentration camps but survived to tell their own parallel stories.