Beyond the Shadows: The holocaust and the danish exception
By Judy Glickman Lauder with texts by Elie Wiesel, Michael Berenbaum, Judith S. Goldstein
Review by Leo Hsu
Judy Glickman Lauder’s Beyond the Shadows: The Holocaust and the Danish Exception brings together two related bodies of work. One consists of photographs made in the 1980s and 1990s on the sites of Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe. The other is a documentation of people and places participating in and associated with the Danish rescue of Jews during the Second World War, made in the early 1990s for the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1943 rescue effort. Beyond the Shadows fluidly melds these two projects, made according to very different usages of photography: emotionally intense imagery of concentration camps and carefully considered portraits of individuals involved in the Danish Rescue. The reader is asked to go through a number of shifts in emotion and in ways of knowing through the course of the book, which ultimately binds emotion to knowledge.
The first group of images, made in concentration camps throughout Eastern Europe, addresses material remains as both evidence and symbols, its subjects the crimes and horrors of The Final Solution. These images describe autopsy rooms, victims’ shoes, railroad tracks; the barracks, walls, and infrastructure of the camps. They are a visual extension of the sites as memorials, like the Holocaust museums that remember and confront these evils. They are not presented as “straight” documentation, but photographed as oppressive, claustrophobic spaces, high contrast and grainy, blurred by movement and ambiguous textures. The book begins with monochrome infrared images that render skies black and barbed wire white, surreal and abstracted but not abstract. The sequence shifts to conventional film, but the reader by then has been acclimatized to bold contrasts and blocky forms, and a quality of light that does not reveal so much as stagger space. The photographs include more and more discernible symbols as the book proceeds, returning finally to infrared images of flowers left by mourners at the Auschwitz and Majdanek camps, and an alien infrared view on Birkenau that presents it as a seemingly impossible landscape. The act of photographing sites of historical significance facilitates a connection between past and present. Texts complement the photographs, each doing what the other cannot.
While this unsettling run of pictures, aggressively printed to the edges of glossy pages, would alone be forceful as a dark poetic response to the Holocaust, the concentration camp photographs are interrupted by a second body of work: Glickman Lauder’s project, made in the 1990s, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1943 Danish Rescue, appears as a book within a book. The images are printed smaller, framed with wide borders on a warm, textured paper, with extensive captions and essays. Through photographs and first person statements we are introduced to fishermen who covertly transported Danish Jews to Sweden; Danish church leaders and members of the Resistance including staff who hid Jews in Bispebjerg Hospital and a lawyer who funded the evacuation; Jews who escaped to Sweden and the places and paths of their escape. Rabbi Bent Melchior describes his experience of the escape as a child, after his father had issued directions to his congregation, upon learning of the Germans’ impending plans to capture the Danish Jews.
Judith S. Goldstein, in her essay “The Danish Exception,” relates the circumstances by which Denmark in 1943 was able to rescue most of the country’s Danish Jews as well as many Jews who had fled to Denmark from other European countries that had fallen under German aggression. “The flight and rescue of Jews in Denmark in 1943 is often understood, especially in the United States, as part history, part myth, and part fairy tale,” writes Goldstein. “The history, however, is deeply complex with multiple trajectories and causes.” Anti-German sentiment, progressive attitudes, a sense of modern Danish nationalism, the ability of Christian Denmark to recognize Danish Jews as both Danes and Jews were among the many factors that led to the “Danish Exception.” When Germany moved through Eastern Europe in 1939, Denmark surrendered after only six hours. Denmark’s King Christian X remained in government and Denmark produced goods for the Germans on the condition that all Danes, including Danish Jews (but not including communists) would be left alone. However, by the summer of 1943 Germany had proceeded to enact the genocide in Europe and German forces had occupied Denmark.
On September 29, 1943, two days before Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Marcus Melchior of the Krystalgade synagogue, having learned the day before from a Danish politician’s secretary that the Germans planned to remove all Jews from Denmark to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, told his congregation that they must not be at home on the night of the Jewish new year, to pack their bags and to go into hiding. Heeding the warning, nearly all of Denmark’s Jews vanished with the aid of the Danish Resistance. Hidden in villages and churches and in the homes of their Christian neighbors, they were secretly ferried in the following weeks across the Øresund to Sweden where they were welcomed into Swedish society. As a result, nearly 8000 Jews and non-Jewish spouses were rescued from Germany’s murderous intentions.
Glickman Lauder’s photographs commemorating the Danish rescue are precise, warm, full of information, and tonally rigorous. They present a world in daylight, people healthy and returned to live fifty years more and longer. They describe a community of people who are brought together for the purpose of this project but many of whom also continue to form a community. The places that Glickman Lauder photographed to remind us of the past are also seen as living places with a present and presumably a future.
These histories are not told so that the past can be settled; they are retold so that the past cannot be allowed to settle. We square the photographer’s impulse thirty years ago to look back fifty years against her present impulse to revisit, reassess, reframe, and represent. Many of her subjects surely have passed away and the discourses around the Holocaust have survived one generation of deniers only to confront another generation of white supremacists. Glickman Lauder’s book denies us the comfort of considering “present” and “past” as two endpoints in time; instead, we are asked to understand the events of 1943, the moment at which the photographs were made in the 1980s and 1990s, and the present all as points along a continuous and unending trajectory that the photographer seeks to shape with her work. Histories continue to be written; our present has no real privilege of safety or of certainty over the past. Remembrance and reflection, this book ably reminds us, are actions that require deliberation.