The Center for Advanced Genocide Research at USC Dornsife is the only non-German partner in the first major international effort to collect and analyze footage showing Nazi deportations during World War II.
Bundled up against the winter chill, the two little girls stare at the old black and white photograph with contrasting expressions. The youngest, on the right of the frame, offers a contrite smile. But it’s the solemn little girl on the left, wearing a fur scarf and hat, her mournful gaze directed straight at the camera, who captures our attention. Its beauty and sadness alone are powerful enough to haunt our dreams. But when you add the Stars of David stitched onto the two children’s coats, labeling them Jews under the Nazi regime, and then look at the date the photo was taken – November 11, 1941 – the image becomes unforgettable.
The two children shown in the photo, along with nearly 1,000 other German Jews, were deported from Munich on November 20, 1941. Days later, the deportees were murdered in the Kovno ghetto in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. The image is one of several hundred photographs of Nazi deportations currently known worldwide.
Unfortunately, the identities of the children in this photograph, like the identities of the majority of those who appear in the other photographs, both victims and perpetrators, remain a mystery, along with the stories of where they came from and what happened to them. The Center for Advanced Genocide Research (CAGR) at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences aims to help change that through its participation in a new multi-institutional initiative, the Project #LastSeen — Photos of Nazi Deportations.
This Holocaust research project, launched in November 2021 and funded by the German government, aims to collect, analyze and digitally publish footage of Nazi mass deportations of Jews, Roma and people with disabilities from the German Reich between 1938 and 1945. .
Although no photographs have been found so far of the Nazi deportation of more than 50,000 Jewish residents of Berlin, Munich is different. The Munich city archives hold 14, including this one showing the first deportation – one of the few to take place at night – from Munich to the Kovno ghetto in Lithuania on November 20, 1941. (Photo: With Courtesy of the City of Munich Archives.)
The project is a collaboration between the Arolsen Archive, the Munich City Archives, the Center for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University of Berlin, the Memorial Site of the Wannsee Conference House and the CAGR – currently the only non-German partner.
“Usually we see photographs of deportations as just a group of people dragged through a city by uniformed criminals,” says Wolf Gruner, Shapell-Guerin Chair of Jewish Studies and professor of history at USC. Dornsife. “But with this project, we want to shed light on who these people were and what happened to them. Who were the victims, perpetrators and bystanders?
Gruner, who is the founding director of CAGR, says the first step to answering these questions is to collect existing photographs. The second is to find more images. The third is to analyze them and discover their stories.
“Photos of Nazi mass deportations have never before been collected, made available as a digital collection and collectively analyzed in a systematic way,” says Alina Bothe, #LastSeen project manager in Berlin. “Nor has there been a concerted effort to seek out more photos.”
These images tell many stories – of deportees, perpetrators and viewers, says Bothe, who invites the public to help by finding photographs in museums, archives, private attics, basements or even dusty photo albums. .
In its first phase, the #LastSeen project will cover Germany before branching out to also incorporate other territories formerly occupied by Nazi Germany, such as Austria, France and Poland. These steps include intensive archival research and public outreach.
The project is also developing a digital platform to publish the photos with information about their origins as well as the people and places shown in the images.
Part of the project includes creating educational tools on how to find, analyze and understand photos of Nazi deportations.
German soldiers parade nearly 500 Roma families through the streets of Asperg, a small town in southwestern Germany, on May 22, 1940, as they are being deported. (Photo: Courtesy of the German Federal Archives.)
The project has already yielded exciting results.
When launched, it was believed that there were images of mass deportations from around 30 German towns and villages.
“A few months after the start of the project, after contacting more than 1,500 German archives, we have already identified images from more than 60 locations in Germany – a total of 525 images,” says Gruner. “Even for many already known places, we discovered more photos than we knew before.”
Project researchers identified two photos in the archives of the Center for Jewish Studies in New York, showing a deportation from Bad Homburg, Germany. “The German city and its archives had no idea that the Nazi deportation to their city had even been photographed,” Gruner says.
Gruner made his own unexpected discovery in the visual history archive of the USC Shoah Foundation – the Institute for Visual History and Education, which, in addition to thousands of interviews with Holocaust survivors, contains also images of photographs of the interviewees – often cherished wedding photographs that had gone through the Holocaust with them.
“To my surprise, we actually had four photographs of Nazi deportations in the archives which I discovered after only five minutes of searching,” he says. “None of the project researchers in Germany knew the photos existed.”
Gruner said his contribution to the project was to dig deeper into the archives of the USC Shoah Foundation to find more photographs and to raise awareness of the project in the English-speaking world – particularly in the United States, but also in Canada, in Australia and South Africa – to encourage descendants. survivors and museums to share any photographs they may have or are aware of.
Why now? And why so few photos?
The initiative is particularly timely. This July marks the 80th anniversary of the first deportation of German Jews from Nazi Germany to Auschwitz. It is also the 80th anniversary of the largest mass roundup and detention of Jewish families in France by French police in conjunction with their Nazi occupiers. For two days in July 1942, more than 13,000 Jews were rounded up in France and deported to camps in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
The obvious historical and commemorative value of the multi-institutional #LastSeen project begs the question: why has this never been attempted before?
Gruner says that while there has been enormous interest in documenting the Holocaust, it’s only in the past 20 years that historians have begun to view photographs as important primary sources rather than as simple illustrations.
Also, says Gruner, we now live in a time with few survivors, so we need to think about different ways to tell the story of the Holocaust. And one way to do that is to use images.
This brings us to another question: why are there so few photographs of the deportations? Is it because very few were taken or because they now lie forgotten in archives, attics or family photo albums? Or is it the result of Nazi efforts to ban or confiscate and destroy any image of the persecution of Jews?
The answer, says Gruner, is “all of the above.”
Although the Nazis did not officially use photography to document the deportations, most surviving photographs were taken by individual perpetrators, such as members of the Nazi Party’s SS or Gestapo. Some were also taken away by local officials. Police commanders or mayors ordered the photos to be taken with pride to document how successful local authorities had been in ridding their town of Jews.
Gruner says they want to identify the people in these photographs to memorialize the victims, but also to create knowledge about the perpetrators.
“Every piece of knowledge is important to understanding why mass violence emerges and is perpetrated in past societies, but it also helps us understand how it may emerge in current or future societies. So, creating this kind of knowledge to better understand these processes also helps us find possible remedies to prevent such atrocities in the future.
If you want to learn more about the #LastSeen project and how you can get involved, CAGR is hosting an online event on August 29 at noon. Find more information and RSVP on the event webpage.