On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembering Persecuted Jews

August Sander, Persecuted Jews, c. 1938, printed 1990


In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, the day was established to commemorate victims of the Nazis and to raise awareness, thereby preventing future genocide. Drawing from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN resolution condemns all forms of “religious intolerance, incitement, harassment or violence against persons or communities based on ethnic origin or religious belief” throughout the world.

Art is a powerful means of expression to communicate shared values and to oppose forces of intolerance. Here at the Jewish Museum, one example of artistic intervention is the work of German photographer August Sander. The subject of a 2004 exhibition, August Sander: Persecuted Jews, his portraits of Jewish men and women at the height of Hilter’s power are part of the Museum’s collection. Born in 1876, Sander was a portrait photographer who believed in the power of photo documentation to provide a truthful record of the time. “Persecuted Jews,” his series of beautifully composed and nuanced black and white portraits, was taken as fascism in Germany was on the rise.

While not Jewish, Sander himself had been a victim of Nazi persecution in 1934 when the authorities destroyed many of his photographic plates and his eldest son was imprisoned for his antifascist activities. In response to that oppression, as well as continuing his desire to document all the citizens of Germany, the twelve portraits in this series were taken by Sander in Cologne and nearby towns around 1938, at the height of Hitler’s power. Although Sander’s Jewish subjects were probably friends and neighbors, he labeled these photographs simply “Persecuted Jews.” It is possible that Sander made the photographs to help desperate German Jews obtain exit papers.

Sander became one of the most influential modernist photographers. During the 1920s, he was strongly influenced by a style of sharply focused social realism known as Die Neue Sachlichkeit – the New Objectivity. Applying this objectivity to photography, Sander believed that a systematic documentation of different human types, grouped according to their roles in German society, would provide an honest record of those around him in time and place. To this end, he set about making photographs of archetypes rather than individuals: the man or woman of the soil, the philosopher, the revolutionary, the sage, and so on. Sander called this monumental project “People of the Twentieth Century.” His compositions were classically composed, his settings were realistic but carefully chosen, and his subjects were presented without sentiment.

Despite the lack of sentimentality—or perhaps because of it—the dignity of the persons and lives he documented shine through. In the enormity of loss and suffering that occurred during the Holocaust the individuals who lost their lives can become an abstraction. Sanders portraits bring the loss of each unique life, and the consequences of dehumanization, into sharp relief. By fixing the viewer’s gaze on an individual, the artist helped to counter the degradation of an entire group.