Skirball exhibit of concentration camp photos taken 40 years after offer unique view of Holocaust

Images show us that life goes on
Skirball exhibit of concentration camp photos taken 40 years after offer unique view of Holocaust
Posted at 12:00 PM, Oct 25, 2016

One of James Friedman's favorites among the photos he has taken at Nazi concentration camps, which are on display at the Skirball Museum in Clifton, depicts a portly woman wearing the gray-striped uniform of a camp inmate.

A survivor of three concentration camps poses for a photo at Majdanek, a concentration camp in Poland, during a survivor's reunion in the 1980s. Photo by James Friedman

Taken at the Majdanek camp near Lublin, Poland, in 1983, it shows her wearing a red triangle with the letter "P" inside it, indicating she was a political prisoner. She also wears three medals, showing that she survived three concentration camps.

In the background is a guard tower and about half a dozen children, two on bicycles, who seem more curious about Friedman's old-fashioned, large-format camera and equipment than about the women being honored on a national day of remembrance.

Friedman likes the photo because it shows the woman's pride and strength, he said, but also because of the children, who add an element that connects him, and the viewer, to the picture.

They show the viewer that life goes on -- that few people remain who had personal experience of the events that made the site notorious.

That's true of other photos in the collection, such as one of children playing with a motorized toy car at Dachau, near Munich, Germany, or a delivery truck bringing supplies to a cafe for tourists at Mauthausen, near Linz, Austria.

The photos raise questions about the most appropriate way to preserve the sites and present them to future generations, said Abby Schwartz, the Skirball's director.


They're unusual, she said, in that they're in color, which doesn't jibe with most peoples' images of the Holocaust, culled from black-and-white photos taken immediately after the camps were liberated.

A copy of the most famous of those black-and-white photos, taken by Margaret Bourke-White of inmates huddled behind barbed wire at Buchenwald, hangs in the exhibit beside one Friedman took at the same camp nearly 40 years later.


The Columbus resident, who is Jewish, took the photos in the early '80s, when the sites of many camps were in countries still under Communist rule.

There was virtually nothing left of some sites, he said, and the neighbors said they had no idea they had ever existed. Others, such as Auschwitz, were mostly intact, he said, and seeing them was like "walking back into time."

Friedman still works as a photographer -- he's taken photos since he was a child. But his Holocaust photos haven't been exhibited locally since 1984, he said, when they were shown at the former Images Gallery.

They came to the Skirball Museum, which is on the campus of Hebrew Union College in Clifton, after Schwartz was told about them by a Columbus businessman, who was helping Friedman get them into exhibitors' hands.

James Friedman poses with the large-format camera he used to make his Holocaust site photos, now on exhibit at the Skirball Museum in Clifton. Photo by James Friedman

That conversation happened about 18 months ago, Schwartz said, but the museum decided to wait until this fall to show the photos to coincide with "FotoFocus Biennial 2016, Photography, the Undocument," a month-long celebration of photography in Cincinnati. FotoFocus includes curated exhibitions at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 21C Museum Hotel and other venues.


Schwartz also asked the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, 8401 Montgomery Road, to partner with the Skirball in presenting Friedman's photos, she said, because it's the "go-to" institution in Cincinnati for Holocaust information. They're calling the exhibit "12 Nazi Concentration Camps."

The photos will create dialogue and prompt questions, which is where the Center comes in, said its education coordinator, Trinity Ruggles.

"People will want to know more about what happened there … we want to be that resource," she said.

A local farmer poses with the scythe he was using to cut grass outside the Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Behind him is photographer James Friedman. The farmer told Friedman that he helped prisoners escape from the camps when they were in use. Photo provided by James Friedman

The Center plans to open a complementary exhibit Nov. 9 of selected photos taken of Holocaust sites by locals, Ruggles said, called "Through Their Lens: Photo Reflections on the Holocaust."


After the exhibit of Friedman's photos at the Skirball concludes Jan. 29, Schwartz hopes it can become a traveling exhibit.

"We would hope there would be interest in showing it at other museums," she said.

An exhibit of the photos traveled throughout the United States and Canada from 1998 through 2002, Friedman said, but he'd like to see them travel again and be seen by a wider audience.

They're just as relevant today, he said, as when he made them. The political climate in the United States and elsewhere makes it difficult for minorities, Jewish or not, to feel comfortable where they are, he said.