Memory, Loss, and Jewish Identity in Germany


Mikael Levin, Nordlager Ohrdruf, 1995


Shimon Attie,  Joachimstrasse 11a: Former Jewish cafe with patrons, 1933, 1992 from “The Writing on the Wall” series, 1991-93

Can you document something or someone that no longer exists? Can a photograph of absence convey past atrocities like the Holocaust? Can a landscape preserve memory?

In 1995, photographer Mikael Levin retraced the steps his father Meyer Levin, a war correspondent with Overseas News Agency, and Eric Schwab, a photographer with the France-Presse Agency, had taken in 1945. Although he could not see what his father saw, Levin wanted to examine how the landscape had changed or stayed the same fifty years later. The picture above documents the now-empty field at Nordlager Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp visited by Levin père and Schwab. Here are their impressions, as recorded in Levin’s autobiography, Europe: The Witnesses:

We drove through the gate and halted. A circle of dead men lay there, in the stripe slave uniforms which we now saw for the first time; these cadavers were fleshless; in back of each tight-skinned shaven skull was a bullet hole.

The Pole opened the back door of a shed. There was a cordwood stack of stiff naked human bodies, a stack as high as we stood. The bodies were flat and yellow as lumber. A yellow disinfectant was scattered over the pile.

We had known. The world had vaguely heard. But until now no one of us had looked on this. Even this morning we had not imagined we would look on this. It was as though we had penetrated at last to the center of the black heart, to the very crawling inside of the vicious heart.

Long ago I had known the Chassidic tale [Israel and the Enemy] of the child who went into the forest and found himself within the primordial beast, and there he saw the very heart of evil. In this moment I understood the legend.

Like Mikael Levin, Shimon Attie is interested in exploring the connections between landscape and memory, also in relation to Jewish identity and its erasure. For his 1991–93 project, “The Writing on the Wall,” Attie projected images of pre-World War II life in the Scheunenviertel, the former Jewish quarter in Berlin, at the same locations of the original images. The juxtaposition of images of working-class Jewish life on the facades of buildings in the then newly gentrifying neighborhood highlight the changes in the city and its inhabitants.

About erinbarnett

Director of Exhibitions and Collections at the International Center of Photography, New York
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