Content warning: this article is about the Holocaust and photographic documentation of the Holocaust.
Judy Glickman Lauder, whose photographic career began in the 1970s, is best known for her images examining the Holocaust. To create her “Holocaust” series, she spent decades traveling to different sites and photographing the evidence of what American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called “man’s capacity for evil.” The entire series is in black and white and features subject matter ranging from human experimentation tables to prison cells from former concentration camps. Nearly all of the pictures in the series are devoid of humans. One image, of an onlooker mirrored in the glass door of an oven (Fig. 1), seems to symbolize the reflective experience Lauder’s series creates. Her black-and-white images evoke an ominous feeling, capturing the human presence and violence that once existed in these now-abandoned spaces.
One work in the series, Canisters of Zyklon B Gas Pellets, Majdanek Concentration Camp (1993) (Fig. 2), is in the collection at the Colby College Museum of Art. It might not be immediately obvious how Lauder’s photo of canisters represents violence. Upon further analysis, though, the evil of the Holocaust shows itself. For example, the black-and-white tones of the photograph are overtly aggressive; it is not simply lacking color but is oversaturated and almost ghostly. In fact, the photo is a solarized gelatin silver print. This means the photographic paper was exposed during the development process, which causes the eerie silver quality of the image, the evocative feelings of death and dread during the Holocaust. The photo appears to depict six neat rows of about six to seven unrecognizable, cylinder-like objects. The surface of the objects appears metallic and textured as if worn with age. The solarized gelatin development makes them look like the surface of the moon, otherworldly. The horizontal lines lead the eye to the right side of the image, where the edge of the container appears to be. However, the objects on the right, top, and bottom of the photograph have been cut off, indicating that there may be even more not pictured. They dominate the image, occupying almost all of it, yet they are clearly confined in some sort of container, suggesting a sense of crowded confinement like the concentration camps of the Holocaust. The meticulous arrangement of the cylinders adds to this effect as well.
When the title of the piece, Canisters of Zyklon B Gas Pellets, Majdanek Concentration Camp, is attributed to the image, the immorality represented is clarified. Zyklon gas is a cyanide-based pesticide originally used to kill insects and rodents. Once the pellets are exposed to air, they turn into a lethal gas, making it an effective method for the extermination of both people and pests. The gas served the horrifying dual use of delousing barracks and killing prisoners in concentration camps, emphasizing the dehumanization of Jewish people during the Holocaust. The neatly arranged cylinders represent the six million Jewish lives lost as well as the silent, confined deaths in the gas chambers and the legacy of torture and unwarranted death left behind.
Despite diverging from typical war tropes, this photo carries comparable messages of wartime violence. Many photographs from the Holocaust were taken at the time, depicting emaciated prisoners, naked bodies laid out for cremation, prisoners walking toward their deaths in the gas chambers, and other atrocities. Lauder’s photos, although made nearly half a century after the fact, depict the legacy of such images, capturing evidence of the continued existence of the camps: they still stand, although uninhabited, and the proof of death is there to see. The Zyklon gas photo reminds viewers that these instruments of slaughter remain, abandoned but real. The stories of the camps that people have learned are not legends. This especially goes for Westerners like Lauder. A California native, she was a child during World War II so she never dealt with the trauma of war, nor did many other Americans, in the same way soldiers or European Jews did. As Susan Sontag put it in Regarding the Pain of Others, photographs “are a means of making ‘real’ (or ‘more real’) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.” By witnessing and recording the places where atrocities occurred, Lauder brings the history of violence back into the light for everyone—especially the privileged—to acknowledge, remember, and learn from. To remind us not to forget what humans are capable of. Although her pictures do not depict gory battle scenes, soldiers, carnage, guns, or victory, they speak for themselves. For the millions of innocent lives that were stolen.
Lauder’s decision to photograph the Zyklon B gas pellets, although an alternate route of wartime photography, compels a thoughtful response. Without explicit figures, faces, or landscapes to interpret, the viewer must question where the danger comes from. At first, the pellets appear to be simple metallic objects with no markings to indicate their function. They look harmless, as if they could be soda cans. The reality, however, is that they contain deadly gas that was used to kill millions of people; the implication is that weapons of war aren’t always as obvious as guns, and violence isn’t always bloody.
The Holocaust embodied a different kind of assault than the frontline battles of World War II. It was terror, eugenics, and extermination. In a way, Lauder’s image is almost more striking than a typical battle scene picture, as the public has become desensitized to such gory images. “Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react,” wrote Sontag in her essay “Looking at War.” So Lauder forces viewers to think and acknowledge the implications of her image rather than show them something more overt.
Since the blame cannot be placed on a particular figure in the image, viewers must consider who is culpable. Who is the perpetrator of violence? The Nazis who bought and utilized the gas? The company that created and distributed it? The gas pellets themselves? All three? Perhaps it is a matter of opinion, but many think that Degussa, the German company that produced the Zyklon gas, is certainly not innocent. According to Al Rosenbloom and RuthAnn Althaus in “Degussa AG and Its Holocaust Legacy” in the Journal of Business Ethics, “It acquired firms and parcels of real estate that Jews were forced to sell through Nazi Aryanization efforts. It acquired rights to process gold and silver plundered from Europe’s Jews. It used compulsory laborers.” Not only did the company directly benefit from the Nazis’ mistreatment of Jews, but it also produced and distributed the lethal gas to them, well aware of their intentions, a crime on its own. Additionally, the owners of another distribution company, Tesch & Stabenow, were tried and executed for the distribution of the poisonous gas in 1946, after the liberation of the camps.
When accounting for the monetary benefits gained by the companies as a result of their involvement with the Nazis, it becomes apparent that these guilty parties are in fact present in Lauder’s humanless image. Both Degussa and Tesch & Stabenow played key roles in the production, distribution, and utilization of Zyklon gas as a deadly weapon that killed thousands of people. Although there is not an overwhelming amount of visual information to work with in this image, the true subject emerges in the various layers of meaning the gas canisters hold.
When looking at the photo, the viewer must consider everyone who was responsible for contributing to deadly Zyklon B gas as a material, weapon, and commodity. The industries that produced and distributed it, such as Degussa and Tesch & Stabenow, were just as nefarious as the Nazis in their utilization of the product. Not only did Degussa benefit from the land, precious metal, and labor it gained through its complicity with the Nazi army but also monetarily from its sale of the gas. These crimes are not visible from an initial glance at the photo of gas canisters but emerge as the viewer considers the ways in which Lauder captures human presence.