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Robert A. Schneider
Editor, American Historical Review

Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Visualizing the Holocaust: Journal examines photos, film and monuments

Feb. 24, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A forum on ways in which photographers, filmmakers and monument builders created a visual record of the Holocaust is featured in the February 2010 issue of The American Historical Review, published at Indiana University Bloomington.

American Historical Review

The "American Historical Review" examines the first wave of "Holocaust" films, including Andre de Toth's None Shall Escape (1944).

Although the term "Holocaust" didn't come into widespread use until the 1960s, the forum shows that Nazi atrocities were portrayed visually by bystanders, victims and perpetrators, almost from the time they happened. In the words of Sarah Farmer, associate professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, "the 'Holocaust' has never not been 'represented.'"

The forum includes four essays:

  • "Picturing Grief: Soviet Holocaust Photography at the Intersection of History and Memory." David Schneer uses 1942 atrocity photographs taken by Russian Jewish photojournalists to analyze the Soviet Union's contradictory treatment of the mass murder of Jews.
  • "Holocaust Memorials: The Emergence of a Genre." Harold Marcuse analyzes a series of physical commemorations and argues that the evolution of their aesthetics reveals important changes in public understanding of the Holocaust and its meanings.
  • "The First Wave of American 'Holocaust' Films, 1945-1959." Lawrence Baron focuses on films from the post-war period that evoked the Holocaust while largely failing to acknowledge the Jewish identity of its victims.
  • "Going Visual: Holocaust Representation and Historical Method." Sarah Farmer offers critical suggestions about the other three essays and reflects on how to assess and use visual evidence in historical accounts.

Farmer notes that historians have typically relied on written material in their work, possibly from habit and training or from a distrust of the visceral response that images and objects can produce. "Be that as it may," she writes, "this forum suggests that historians have a role to play in how we understand the 'power of images' by showing how, historically, the visual was made, deployed, and received. It is also the case that when brought to bear on the history of the Holocaust, visual evidence brings the emotional impact and truth claims of the visual into greater relief -- often painfully so."

The February issue also includes a Presidential Address, "An American Album, 1857," in which former American Historical Association President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich meditates on a quilt made in the Territory of Utah by female members of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Ulrich provides a micro-history of the provenance of the quilt and takes readers deep into frontier history, including struggles between Mormons and the federal government, marriage, sexuality, gender roles and religion.

Also in the issue is an AHR Exchange featuring three critiques of an article published in 2007, which challenged accepted views on "black rice," the question of whether the rice-growing industry in lowland Carolinas and Georgia developed through techniques imported by slaves from West Africa.

The American Historical Review, published five times a year, is the official publication of the American Historical Association. More information and links to a digital version of the current issue are on the Web at