Some iconic photographs have become historic landmarks for us and we tend to remember events through the association with specific images.
We remember the Spanish civil war through Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier”; despite abundant media coverage, “Napalm Girl” is the image of the Vietnam war and the photo of the “Unknown Rebel”, who stood in front of a column of tanks, is probably more known than the reasons of Tiananmen Square protests.
But icons have their own story and we should not forget why they were shot and who was the author. Sometimes their original purpose has come into conflict with later interpretations and the way we use them to remember may tell only one aspect of a larger, little-known story.
It’s the case of the photographs of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, included in the “Stroop Report” and now freely available in Wikimedia Commons.
Since Germany had occupied Poland in 1940 and implemented anti-Jewish measures, all the Jews in the country had been forced to live in closed ghettos in the largest cities. Many died from lack of livelihood, harsh working conditions, food shortages and diseases that spread rapidly due to overcrowding.
In the summer of 1942 a mass deportation diminished greatly the number of inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, and at the beginning of 1943 from Berlin arrived the order to accelerate the “final solution” deporting all remaining Polish Jews to concentration camps.
By then, the Jewish people had learned that being deported to “labour camps” meant death and resistance movements sprung up within the ghettos.
In Warsaw, the resistance had been engaged in training, smuggling and building weapons and underground bunkers for two years, so when the Nazis entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943 to complete the deportation of all the inhabitants, they found the streets empty and were met with gunfire and home-made grenades.
After three days of fightings, the officer in charge of the operation, Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, ordered to burn down the ghetto block by block.
In a month the whole ghetto was destroyed and the surviving Jews captured, killed soon afterwards, or sent to concentration camps.
The uprising of the Warsaw ghetto was doomed to failure from the beginning. As the few survivors that escaped the capture explained, they knew they were going to die, but they wanted to choose how.
The news of the uprising went beyond the confines of the ghetto and its importance was immediately clear. It was the first mass rebellion in an occupied country and was led by the most persecuted population. It stalled the Germans, helping Polish resistance, and contributed to bringing the question of the extermination of the Jews to the attention of the Allies.
We have a partial photographic testimony of the uprising, produced by the Nazis.
Taken by surprise by Jews’ resistance, they drafted an official report destined to Heinrich Himmler, which is also a propaganda pamphlet, titled “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is no more!”
The photographs contained in the “Stroop Report”, as the document is known today, show the last stages of the destruction of the ghetto and the capture of the fighters and people hidden in the bunkers.
The authors were Franz Konrad, a mid-level commander in the SS who was responsible for the looting of the properties of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, and the members of the Propaganda Kompanie nr 689. In their intentions, the images would have to show the superiority of the German people, the contempt for a race considered weak and inferior and the ability to eliminate it without showing any sign of pity or compassion. And indeed the photos record the surrender and the capture of the «bandits» who dared to «offer an armed resistance», the lines of terrified people being deported, the humiliations, the dead.
The original captions don’t provide facts and sometimes don’t even match the images, but offer an insight into Nazis’ heinous mindset.
In these photographs, we see the victims through the eyes of the executioners.
Two copies of the report were found by the Allies after the war and used as evidence at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. In 1945, during the trials of Nazi officers, the “New York Times” published some of the photos of the “Stroop Report”, including the most famous one, the image of a boy with a large cap and knee-length trousers, raising his hands in surrender, which would later become one of the symbols of the Holocaust.
In the postwar years, when Holocaust victims and survivors were blamed (by Jews and non-Jews) for having gone to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter”, the photographs of the “Stroop Report” seemed to offer evidence of Jews’ passivity.
Survivors of the concentration camps, historians and psychologists argued that this blaming of the victims can be traced both to the need of the perpetrators to be exculpated for the crimes committed and to the necessity of justifying the indifference of the bystanders.
Even after the war, the ideology and anti-Semitism of Nazism contaminated the perception of the Holocaust, also because Nazi propaganda was the main source of photographs and footage.
So much so, that the alleged passivity of the Jews became a visual and thought stereotype that the history production had to confront for three decades and, eventually, dismantle.
In recent years, some enlightening studies on the visual representation of the Holocaust began to question what and how – and if – we remember through photographs.
The prevailing attitude of the media, since the first articles came out immediately after the end of the war, has been to use Holocaust-related photos more as symbols of Nazism’s atrocity than as news photos.
At the time, that was due to the lack of specific rules for the behavior of photographers on the field and the use of photographs in news outlets. Most often the captions didn’t report the date or the place of shooting and there were editorial debates (just as it happens today with other horrors) about which photos should be shown to the public and how they should shape collective memory.
In retrospect, this seems to be one of the earliest examples of how Western newsrooms have felt that images held primacy over words because of their immediacy, without pondering the actual use of the images and the long-term implications of such a strategy.
The repetition of symbolic photographs, untied from their original context, and their reuse to convey different messages often erases the facts and creates a faulty memory.
In 2016 the magazine “Time” listed the photo of the “Warsaw ghetto boy” as one of the most influential images of all time, stating that the child – still nameless despite the efforts to identify him – «has come to represent the face of the 6 million defenseless Jews killed by the Nazis» (italic added). But despite the notoriety of this photo not everyone would know its story or would link it to the events of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
In 2017 the “Stroop Report” was submitted by Poland to be included in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. The two original copies are now kept at the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Poland and at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in the US. The photos of the report are available in Wikimedia Commons as both institutions deemed them in the public domain.
However, since the 1990s, Corbis Corporation and then Getty Images, which acquired it and took over its archives, have continued to license the photos, claiming the copyright.