Holocaust Representations:
The Power of Iconic Images

Before sitting down with the recordings of my grandparents’ stories from the Holocaust, I had already been exposed to a fairly large amount of Holocaust representations. Films, fiction, memoirs, documentaries, museums. Because of this, many aspects of both of their stories struck me as familiar; I was able to imagine the iconic images that I have read about and seen in some form or another. 

By definition, an "icon" is a representation; an image or word used to signify something larger than itself. For me, icons of the Holocaust include: piles of discarded shoes and clothes from prisoners, barbed wire fences, railcars, yellow Star of David armbands, ghetto walls, Gestapo uniforms. Icons help us to make sense of complex ideas, distilling something that is full of nuance into something we can see and try to understand.

In her 1993 New York Times film review of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, Janet Maslin writes about the images from the Holocaust in the years after the war, noting how:

The pictures that emerged, like so many visual representations of the Holocaust, are tragic, ghostly and remote. The horrors of the Holocaust are often viewed from a similar distance, filtered through memory or insulated by grief and recrimination. Documented exhaustively or dramatized in terms by now dangerously familiar, the Holocaust threatens to become unimaginable precisely because it has been imagined so fully. But the film "Schindler's List," directed with fury and immediacy by a profoundly surprising Steven Spielberg, presents the subject as if discovering it anew.

Films, along with novels, memoirs, and museums, have the power to shock, to make the unimaginable imaginable, to bring those icons to life. But at what point do representations become a substitute for real engagement with complexity? As Maslin explains of Schindler's List, "With every frame, he [Spielberg] demonstrates the power of the film maker to distill complex events into fiercely indelible images." I wonder, have all of the "indelible images" that exist in our robust canon of Holocaust texts numbed a second and third generation of people? Have they somehow made the unimaginable "dangerously familiar"? Do they tell us how to respond to certain Holocaust plots? Do they show us how to grieve, so we won't have to figure out how to do so on our own?

Below, I have listed the major images that I have had as Holocaust references for my entire life. When listening to my grandparents' personal stories, these were the images I relied on to try to understand the reality of the situation. They are all important and beautiful works of art, and I would recommend each to anyone looking for a glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust.

Representations of Ghetto Life

1. Relocation of Jews into the ghetto: Film, The Pianist, 2002

2. The Jewish Kapo who ran the ghetto: Novel, Eli Wiesel's Night, 1982

Little by little life returned to "normal." The barbed wire that encircled us like a wall did not fill us with real fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic ...

A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency—a whole governmental apparatus.People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers...

Of course, there still were unpleasant moments. Every day, the Germans came looking for men to load coal into the military trains. Volunteers for this kind of work were few. But apart from that, the atmosphere was oddly peaceful and reassuring.

Most people thought that we would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion. (Wiesel, 37).

3. German SS trucks entering the ghetto and raiding homes: liquidation scene, Schindler's List, 1993

Representations of Relocation to Auschwitz

1. Railcars used to relocate Jews from the Polish ghettos to Auschwitz: US Holocaust Memorial Museum

  Railcar on display at the Holocaust Museum (Image courtesy of  The US Holocaust Museum )

Railcar on display at the Holocaust Museum (Image courtesy of The US Holocaust Museum)

2. Sudden separation of men from women and children upon arrival at Auschwitz: Eli Wiesel's Night

Men to the left! Women to the right!" Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. 

Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father's hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn't know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand (Wiesel, 54).

3. Forced clothing removal upon arrival at Auschwitz: shoes exhibit at Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum in Israel)

  Shoes are on display at Yad Vashem in a clear casing that visitors can look down into while walking through the Museum.

Shoes are on display at Yad Vashem in a clear casing that visitors can look down into while walking through the Museum.

Representations of Hiding

1. Hiding in an attic: Memoir, Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl, 1947

  Image of the bookshelf now on display in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.

Image of the bookshelf now on display in the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam.

Because so many houses are being searched for hidden bicycles, Mr. Kugler thought it would be better to have a bookcase built in front of the entrance to our hiding place. It swings out on its hinges and opens like a door. Mr. Voskuijl did the carpentry work. (Mr. Voskuijl has been told that the seven of us are in hiding, and he's been most helpful.)

Now whenever we want to go downstairs we have to duck and then jump. After the first three days we were all walking around with bumps on our foreheads from banging our heads against the low doorway. Then Peter cushioned it by nailing a towel stuffed with wood shavings to the doorframe. Let's see if it helps! 



In all probability the man and woman with the flashlight had alerted the police. It was Sunday night, Easter Sunday. The next day, Easter Monday, the office was going to be closed, which meant we wouldn't be able to move around until Tuesday morning. Think of it, having to sit in such terror for a day and two nights! We thought of nothing, but simply sat there in pitch darkness -- in her fear, Mrs. van D. had switched off the lamp. We whispered, and every time we heard a creak, someone said, "Shh, shh." It was ten-thirty, then eleven. Not a sound. Father and Mr. van Daan took turns coming upstairs to us. Then, at eleven-fifteen, a noise below. Up above you could hear the whole family breathing. For the rest, no one moved a muscle. Footsteps in the house, the private office, the kitchen, then. . . on the staircase. All sounds of breathing stopped, eight hearts pounded. Footsteps on the stairs, then a rattling at the bookcase. This moment is indescribable. 

"Now we're done for," I said, and I had visions of all fifteen of us being dragged away by the Gestapo that very night. (Frank)

2. Hiding in the woods: Film, Defiance, 2002

3. Hiding behind false identity: Eli Wiesel's Night

[Upon recognizing one another after the war}

"Idek, the Kapo...the young Jewish boy... your sweet words..."

We left the Métro together and sat down at a café terrace. We spent the whole evening reminiscing. Before parting, I said, "May I ask one more question?"

"I know what it is: Am I Jewish? Yes, I am. From an observant family. During the Occupation, I had false papers and passed as Aryan. And that was how I was assigned to a forced labor unit. When they deported me to Germany, I eluded being sent to a concentration camp. At the depot, nobody knew that I spoke German; it would have aroused suspicion. It was imprudent of me to say those few words to you, but I knew that you would not betray me..." (Wiesel, 54)

Representation of Mass Grave Diggings in the Forests

Eli Wiesel's Night:

He told me what had happened to him and his companions. The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolomay. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead... (Wiesel, 6).

Representation of Life in Concentration Camp/Work Camp

Brutality of SS and murder scene: Film, The Devil's Arithmetic, 1999

Representation of Jewish Housemaid in Nazi Germany

Helen Hirsch (a Jewish housemaid) describes her fears (Schindler's List)

Representation of American Liberation of Camp

HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers, 2001