Let Us Now Praise Damaged Photographs | Christoph Ribbat | Tuesday, 06.03.2018

Waiting for the Train (and for the Holocaust Memorial Repair Crew)

The damaged Holocaust memorial rises from the mud. This is Paderborn, Germany. Kasseler Tor, to be precise, a commuter train station minutes from downtown. I get off here on my way to work. There's a convent to the left and a halfway house to the right. The university's a brief walk up the hill. Paderborn is about the size of Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Bern, Switzerland, or Blackpool, England. But when you're waiting for an outbound train at Kasseler Tor (off-peak: one per hour; peak: two), the place appears desolate. If you choose to ignore the memorial.

The memorial consists of a metal plaque on a pole. It reminds commuters of 54 Jewish citizens deported from this train station: on March 30, July 10, and July 28, 1942. They were taken to the Warsaw Ghetto, to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. The plaque lists 54 names. Only five men and women survived. A brief text on the marker supplies the historical framework. Two photographs show Jewish families. On one of them, Irma and Fritz Rose smile for the camera. They are siblings, 12 and 14 years old. Irma holds up a cat. On the other, the Kosses pose with their children Hans, Hilde, and Henny. Hans Kosses survived, Hilde Kosses survived. Both had managed to leave Germany before the deportations. Fritz Rose survived the camps. Everyone else represented in these pictures perished in the Holocaust.

Damaged Photographs, Kasseler Tor (154619)
Damaged Photographs, Jewish memorial plaque (154620)
Damaged Photographs, Jewish memorial (154621)Photos taken by the author

The plaque has been damaged. Someone has bent it in the upper right hand corner. It's where you find the list of those men, women, and children deported on July 28, 1942. This someone must have exerted considerable pressure. Leaned on the plaque. Or tried to break it. Out of boredom, waiting for the train? Fed up with memorials? Or was this a conscious, specifically anti-Semitic act of destruction? Whatever the answer, the damage doesn't seem to be all that important to the City of Paderborn. Once a year, only once, do they send the repair crew.

I took pictures of the plaque in the rain. Not because I wanted to add a trite symbolic layer of raindrops that look like tears. No. It happened to rain. Then I noticed this dark line along the plaque's edge. Some sort of dirt, soot, collecting in the margins, which has turned into a frame for these photographs.

Damaged Photographs, detail of Rose (154622)
Damaged Photographs, detail of Kosses (154623)Photos taken by the author

So these portraits are exposed to the rain, the exhaust fumes, the sun, the snow, and the wind. And people damage the plaque they're displayed on. What sort of messages does that send? As Deborah Willis and others have pointed out, 19th century African American photographers symbolically protected men, women, and children. In everyday life these individuals constantly experienced racist violence. So dignified portraits and elaborate frames insisted on the preciousness of their lives. It's useful to keep that in mind. Because at this train station, nothing symbolizes that these German citizens should have been protected from marginalization and murder. The only protective gesture is Irma Rose's. Holding the cat. When this photograph was taken, 14-year old Irma had already lived for half a decade in a society driven by aggressive anti-Semitism. It's safe to assume that, apart from her family, nobody held her (in Winnicott's sense). Now the wind and the rain strike her photograph. Someone's hands attacked the plaque bearing her likeness. And to be honest, I haven't done much holding either. For years I got off and on the train before I stopped to take a really good look. And that was only because I had noticed that the plaque had been damaged.

Which seems to make the point that this is the right kind of memorial after all. Because you could read the plaque and this platform as the perfect non-Disneyfied, anti-sentimental site. Here, stories and images actually speak to people just going about their everyday lives. Memory isn't some sort of noble, sacred process. That we all know. So wait for the train. See what time it is. Check your messages. Look at Irma Rose and Henny Kosses. It might strike you that they could be alive today if they hadn't been forced onto a train 76 years ago. Irma Rose would turn 94 this year, Henny Kosses all of 88. You feel close to them here precisely because the memorial appears so modest and pedestrian. It just happens to stop you on your way. If you noticed that someone bent the plaque, then that observation adds another layer of meaning: the damage done to this marker reflects larger contemporary disputes and violations of remembrance. So the plaque speaks about the Holocaust and about the way we commemorate it. To make all that tangible no one needs a memorial designer/architect with Dries van Noten pants and a background in cultural theory. It all hits you as you see the 5:15 train pull in. Let us now praise damaged memorials. Right?

Actually? No. Let's look at Fritz Rose. He was fourteen when he was deported to Theresienstadt. In September 1944 he reached Auschwitz. As a skilled metalworker, he was sent on to a railroad repair shop in nearby Gleiwitz. In January 1945, on a march westward from Gleiwitz, he managed to hide and escape. He roamed across Europe and returned to postwar Paderborn to find that his parents and his sister had been killed. Fritz moved on to England, then to the United States. He changed his name from Fritz to Fred. He was in the Air Force for four years and attended radio school. Then he got a B.A. in geology and a substitute teacher's license. After holding all sorts of jobs he finally became a radio repair mechanic for the City of New York. Fred Rose had his picture taken in 1980. And he wrote a brief piece about his life. In conclusion, he stated: "Living in New York, I take full advantage of local offerings by seeing many, many Off-Off-Broadway plays, many dance performances, and some musical events." And if these lines don't make your heart skip a beat (the Off-Off-Broadway plays, the dance performances), then Fred Rose's photograph will. The patterns of his suit and tie come across as amazingly life-affirming. His hair is dark and full. And on his handsome face we see an odd combination of his own smile when he was twelve and the smile his sister Irma once struck.

Damaged Photographs, portrait of Fred Rose (154624)From Inge Windmueller Horowitz, Rita Janet Horowitz and Ida Stein Windmueller, Windmueller Family Chronicle (Windmill Press Associates, 1981), 177.

We know what Fred Rose would have thought about the fact that his picture is now displayed on a dirty, damaged plaque at Kasseler Tor station. And we don't need to apply kitchen table psychology. The 1980 portrait documents his approach to visual culture. Like all portraits, it emerged from a sitter's and a photographer's combined efforts. Together they produced a miniature narrative based on a performative act. In 1980, 35 years after his escape, Fred Rose appeared before the camera as a dapper, well-groomed man: slightly idiosyncratic and taking good care of himself. His performance constructed a beautiful, elegant record. Let us not praise damaged memorials.