Non­fic­tion

Images in Spite of All: Four Pho­tographs from Auschwitz

Georges Didi-Huber­man; Shane B. Lil­lis, trans.
  • Review
By – January 13, 2012
French pro­fes­sor of social sci­ences and the­o­ry of image” spe­cial­ist author Georges Didi-Huber­man takes a turn from his pre­vi­ous­ly more tra­di­tion­al sub­ject mat­ter to ana­lyze a series of four dis­turb­ing pho­tographs in his lat­est pub­li­ca­tion, Images In Spite of All

The title of the book itself speaks to the conun­drum of the imagery — pic­tures tak­en in 1944 by the Son­derkom­man­do, or spe­cial squad of pris­on­ers at Auschwitz, who were charged with the unthink­able task of over­see­ing mass exter­mi­na­tions of their Jew­ish brethren. The fact that the pic­tures even exist is a true anom­aly, which to a great extent is what the tex­tu­al dis­course is all about. 

The book rais­es sev­er­al intrigu­ing philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions, at the core of which is: How is it pos­si­ble to take a pic­ture of some­thing so hor­rif­ic, so unimag­in­able, yet how could they not have? If the mis­sion of the Nazi régime was the Final Solu­tion— along with destroy­ing any evi­dence that the entire Dante-esque sce­nario ever took place, it was the Jew­ish pris­on­ers, who while not quite able to believe them­selves the atroc­i­ties they were liv­ing and observ­ing, real­ized that the task of doc­u­men­ta­tion fell to them. At the risk of fatal retal­i­a­tion, a scheme was hatched to smug­gle film into the camp, doc­u­ment what was tran­spir­ing, and smug­gle it back out to reach resis­tance forces and ulti­mate­ly the rest of the world. Beyond the pic­tures— which of course don’t have the abil­i­ty to judge, just to show what is actu­al­ly there — the pur­pose was to con­vince the ratio­nal mind that the irra­tional and unimag­in­able was indis­putable reality. 

While this pub­li­ca­tion doesn’t answer the resound­ing ques­tion of how the Holo­caust was able to hap­pen, it forces the read­er to grap­ple with issues the ratio­nal human mind isn’t tra­di­tion­al­ly pro­grammed to address and process.
Mol­ly Beth Dubin received an M.A. in art his­to­ry and muse­um stud­ies from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Den­ver. She is cul­tur­al arts direc­tor for the Har­ry & Rose Sam­son Fam­i­ly Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Milwaukee.

Discussion Questions