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Seared onto film

A Museum of Tolerance show displays images from liberated Nazi death camps. It's history 'we have to confront,' the center's director says.

June 24, 2005|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

"The things I saw beggar description," Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote on April 12, 1945, in a letter to Chief of Staff George C. Marshall about his first personal encounter with a Nazi concentration camp. "The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where there were piled up 20 or 30 naked men killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to 'propaganda.' "

The Holocaust has been downplayed by some and even dismissed as a hoax since Eisenhower described his experience at Ohrdruf, a subsidiary of the infamous camp at Buchenwald, Germany. But he was far from the only eyewitness who documented the horrors of the rudimentary prisons where millions of Jews, gypsies, Slavs, political dissenters and prisoners of war were starved and worked to death or violently murdered. U.S. Army Signal Corps photographers and independent photojournalists took thousands of pictures of the camps and their inhabitants at the end of World War II.

When the images first appeared in newsreels, newspapers and magazines, they were a shocking revelation to those who had been shielded from the worst aspects of the war. Six decades after the conflict ended, the photographs are a graphic record of a painful chapter of history. They tell a story of people ripped away from their homes and families, and thrown into mass graves when they were no longer useful to their oppressors. Because most of the pictures were taken by military personnel when the camps were shut down by the Allies, they also speak of the prisoners' joy when they were freed, although most had nowhere to go and many were too ill to recover.

About 200 such images and related artifacts compose "Liberation! Revealing the Unspeakable" at the Museum of Tolerance, an exhibition commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of Hitler's death camps. Black-and-white photographs of inmates and their liberators fill walls of a corridor and large gallery. Vitrines in the gallery display letters, military insignias, snapshots and a swastika banner and armband on which U.S. soldiers signed their names and hometowns as a souvenir of their victory.

The show is the work of guest curator Eric Saul, who assembled the material from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and other collections. He and his colleagues also interviewed camp survivors and World War II veterans, some of whose comments appear with the pictures.

"This exhibition is to say thank you to all veterans of the Allies," Saul said, "not for only liberating the camps and refugees, but for liberating Europe and, in a way, saving Western civilization. From 1939 to 1945, 55 million people were killed, half of them civilians. There were about 16 million Americans alone who fought in the war. The average age of those who are still living is 80 to 90 now, and they are dying at the rate of 1,600 a day."

While it's too late to thank most World War II veterans, it's important to remember what they accomplished, he said. "Many survivors have said how profound an experience it was to have been liberated from the camps. They consider the day they were liberated as the day they were reborn."

Some of the photographs convey that spirit. Images of smiling faces and prisoners cheerfully posing for pictures or showing their liberators how they had been treated are on view along with photographs of charred corpses, wasted bodies and dismal living conditions. In one picture, Gens. Eisenhower, George Patton and Omar Bradley see a nonviolent demonstration of how prisoners were stretched across a table and beaten. In another, inmates symbolically break a piece of barbed wire, of the type that surrounded their camp. Celebratory pictures provide a relatively upbeat counterpoint to horrific scenes, but the message is grim.

"We have to show the images," said Liebe Geft, director of the museum. "The story is too important to water it down in any way. We ask people to appreciate that we do this while asking forgiveness of those in the pictures and realizing that nobody ever wants to be seen in this way. These are human beings. Their experience needs to be seen. We have to confront it to appreciate the extent to which human beings will go to violate other human beings."

Personalizing history makes it real, she said, and helps viewers see that ordinary people made tremendous sacrifices during World War II. But the show is also a reminder that ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism have not gone away.

"This is more than just an important historical exhibition about an episode of history that should never be forgotten," Geft said. "It warns us what happens if we are complicit or silent in the face of evil. That message is as relevant today as ever."


'Liberation! Revealing the Unspeakable'

Where: Museum of Tolerance, Simon Wiesenthal Plaza, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sundays, closed Saturdays; check with museum for daily last-entry times.

Ends: Sept. 30

Price: $7 to $10

Contact: (310) 553-8403;

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