In 1943 Rudolf Hoss, the commander at Auschwitz, issued a directive advising SS members that ‘I would like to point out once again that taking photographs within the camp limits is forbidden. I will be very strict in treating those who refuse to obey this order.’ At the same time signs posted around the perimeters warned ‘Fotografieren verboten! No Entry! You will be shot without prior warning!’ But the professed antipathy towards photography obscured an ambivalence regarding the medium. Hoss, for example, was to present the minister of justice with an album of Auschwitz pictures. More remarkably, two photographic laboratories operated inside the camp: one to process images for the ‘identification service’ of political prisoners, and the other to build an archive for the ‘office of constructions.’ As a lesser function the laboratories enabled the SS, Mengele included, to produce prints that recorded executions, torture, and ‘medical’ experiments. So, despite the subsequent efforts of the Nazis to destroy all photographs of the camps, the majority that remain are of their own making.

Cremation of gassed bodies in the open-air incineration pits in front of the gas chamber of crematorium V of Auschwitz, August 1944. (Anonymous – member of the Sonderkommando. Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)

But four frames of a different order – that is, made by inmates themselves – have survived too, the Sonderkommando photographs. Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All is an analysis, an interpretive reading, and a defence of the display of ‘four pieces of film snatched from hell.’

The Sonderkommando were special squads of Jews (and sometimes Russian prisoners of war) who were isolated from their fellows, and forced to work in the industry of extermination. They emptied the gas chambers of bodies; they fed the fires of the crematoria; they removed gold teeth, hair and prosthetic limbs; they collected glasses and wedding rings; they ground the bones of the dead. A squad would last several months before its members were themselves killed – their corpses duly processed by the replacement team. Conscious of their fate, and perhaps mindful of the futility of rebellion, certain Sonderkommando workers appear to have focused on how best to inform the world beyond the camp of the operations of the Final Solution. In August 1944 five squad members obtained an illicit camera; and a Greek Jew, Alex, exposed four frames near Auschwitz’s crematorium V. The film was then smuggled in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance.

Cremation of gassed bodies in the open-air incineration pits in front of the gas chamber of crematorium V of Auschwitz, August 1944. (Anonymous – member of the Sonderkommando. Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)

Two frames show squad members working near open-air incineration pits; a third, apparently made without ‘correct’ focusing or composition, is largely comprised of tree trunks, branches and open sky, but in a bottom corner a group of women prisoners appear in various states of undress. The remaining image – again ill-composed and off kilter – shows only sunlight and silhouetted trees.

Didi-Huberman first wrote about the pictures in 2001 when they were included in a controversial Paris exhibition (Memoire des camps: Photographies des camps de concentration et d’extermination Nazis, 1933-1999) which sparked what he describes as a ‘violent polemic’. The purpose of Images in Spite of All is to insist on his initial reading of the Sonderkommando photographs, to repeat the criticisms to which he was subject, to answer his accusers and thereby mount an impassioned defence of an ‘ethics of the image.’

Women being pushed toward the gas chamber at crematorium V of Auschwitz, August 1944.
(Anonymous – member of the Sonderkommando. Oswiecim, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum)

Briefly put, Didi-Huberman was accused of a voyeuristic ‘jouissance in horror’ and a grotesque sadism: ‘Unless one exults in horror, there is reason enough not to see the exhibition,’ it was claimed. More broadly, it was asserted that the display of the pictures could be associated with a form of aestheticised commodification of the Holocaust. ‘Auschwitz, a photogenic object?’ queried one critic. Further, he was guilty, his accusers said, of a ‘religious fetishization’ of the pictures, an ‘elevation of the image to the status of relic.’ Didi-Huberman’s response is to insist on a nuanced, dialectical conception of the images, so that – far from reading the photographs solely as unmediated truth, fetish object or commodification of history – they are better understood as ‘able to produce an effect along with its negation. They are, in turn, fetish and fact, vehicle of beauty and site of the unbearable, consolation and the inconsolable. They are neither pure illusion nor all of the truth.’

At the heart of these criticisms Didi-Huberman detects an iconoclastic avowal, the repeated admonition, that ‘There are no images of the Shoah’ (as one of his detractors has it). No images, because any example would be wholly inadequate to its subject: the unimaginable Holocaust. No images, because we have no photographs of the moment of gassing. No images, because the Nazis sought to obliterate all photographic evidence. But, comes Didi-Huberman’s rejoinder, we do have here four fleeting instants, admittedly ‘merely stolen shreds, bits of film,’ but which – despite their fragmentary nature and their manifold ‘inadequacy’ – still directly bear witness to the annihilation they record. It is true that they are not self-sufficient, that they need context to be made legible; and it is of course true that they are not all the Holocaust.

But, he forcefully argues, they are a form of contact with the real, and a means of resistance to their own appalling history. As such, he insists that they demand an ‘ethics of the image’ – one that obliges us to honour them, to inquire into them, and to ‘choose whether, or how, to make [them] participate in our knowledge and action.’

Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz
By Georges Didi-Huberman
University of Chicago Press
ISBN  978-0-226-14816-8