Historians want to collect, analyse, and publish photographic evidence of the forced removal of victims from German towns and cities well before they reached a camp.
An international group of Holocaust researchers is asking for the public’s help to find forgotten photos of deportations from Nazi Germany.
Archives and museums around the world house photographs of Nazi atrocities often focused on detention, labour, and extermination camps. But in a new initiative, the #LastSeen Project: Pictures of Nazi Deportations, historians intend to collect, analyse, and publish photographic evidence of the forced removal of victims from German towns and cities well before they reached a camp.
“We have Holocaust imagery [from camps], the landscape of horrors. But that’s not where it started,” Alina Bothe, a historian and project manager of #LastSeen, told Euronews.
“Where it actually starts, at least when we look into Germany, is in small towns and neighbourhoods in bigger cities where people are assembled under the eyes of their neighbours,” she explained.
The project is a collaboration between five institutions in Germany and the United States whose goal is to map as many deportation sites and identify as many people as possible – victim, bystander, and perpetrator – in photos from archives as well as individuals.
In the face of rising Holocaust denialism and antisemitism, public access to deportation pictures can help restore faces, names, and stories to Jewish, Gypsy, other ethnic minority, homosexual, and disabled victims. Otherwise, they might be represented in records only as a number on a Nazi transport list, Bothe said.
‘This happened somewhere else’
A grainy colour photograph taken in May 1940 in the German town of Asberg is all the more alarming for its mundane setting.
The image shows, under a clear blue sky, residents watching as 500 of their neighbours from the ethnic Romani and Sinti minorities, including small children, are marched through the town to be deported to rudimentary camps in occupied Eastern Europe.
“It tells you a lot about the breaking down of the basic nature of human solidarity. That is really what’s happening, the genocidal society on full display,” Bothe said.
The fact that these photographs document locally-led deportations in the middle of towns in broad daylight is also an argument against the once-dominant narrative that Nazi atrocities were far removed from German society, according to Wolf Gruner, founding director of the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, one of the organisations working on #LastSeen.
The images “connect the crimes back to Germany,” Gruner told Euronews. “That’s the most important thing because normally when we talk about the Holocaust, people think that this happened somewhere else. A few people did this.”
“But the mass deportations, they could not be hidden. People were marched through the streets, they were transported on trucks, and everybody could see it,” he said.
“And people also had to make choices in these moments,” Gruner added. “Would they protest against this? Would they be silent? Would they help with the deportations? From this perspective, it really includes the question about the individual choices regarding the persecution.”
‘A very preferred souvenir’
The project has so far collected deportation stills from at least 60 locations throughout Germany, but there are some puzzling gaps. To date, the group has found no images from Berlin, where roughly 200 deportations took place.
“Of course someone took photos,” Bothe said, “it was a modern, wealthy city, people had cameras.”
The question is would someone today recognise what was happening in the pictures? Are they in an archive, or have they been stored in someone’s attic, forgotten for decades?
Even archive staff may not know they have deportation pictures, and in Germany, researchers are confident that most images will be found in official institutions.
The story is different in the United States, Britain, and other English-speaking countries where photos are likely to be in the hands of individuals rather than organisations.
Some images belong to Holocaust survivors or victims’ families, but, “after the war, liberators often took souvenirs with them, and images were a very preferred souvenir and trophy,” Gruner said.
“[Soldiers] took photo albums from SS officers, they took albums from other officers, also individual photographs,” he explained.
Alina Bothe estimated about 70% of known deportation pictures were taken by perpetrators including Nazi officials, local police, and authorities.
As Holocaust survivors and military veterans die of old age, their children and grandchildren are finding themselves clearing out closets, attics, garages, and storage rooms where, Gruner said, there is a “window of opportunity” to find unknown images and preserve historical memory.
The #LastSeen Project is searching for pictures from the first mass expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany in 1938 to the mass deportations to camps that increased in scope until the end of the war.
Researchers hope to expand the project from Germany to the rest of Europe in the coming years.
An interactive photo atlas for the public to explore and an educational game for students will be published on March 7 in German at lastseen.org.