Revisiting and Remembering: Family Photographs and Holocaust Commemoration, Towers, Halls, and Cases

Laura Levitt

When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) first opened in Washington, D.C. in 1993, there was a great deal of scholarly interest in the museum's permanent exhibit, but since then, we have not thought critically enough about how our familiarity with this exhibit and exhibits like it have affected how we think about Holocaust memory. Now that we know what to expect, now that we have come to expect what we see, how has our familiarity with these innovations changed how we engage with these exhibits and other Holocaust museums and memorials? The Tower of Faces is one of the more innovative aspects of the USHMM. It is a memorial that was written about extensively when the museum first opened, but it has yet to be more fully reconsidered as a now-familiar aspect of the museum. In this essay, I want to write specifically about my reactions over time to two permanent exhibits in two different museums: the Tower of Faces at the USHMM and the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I want to address briefly two different moments in the Tower (in 1994 and 2005) and then reflect on how those experiences shaped my response to the new permanent exhibit at Yad Vashem.

I visited the USHMM for the first time a year after it opened. What captured my imagination more than anything else was the Tower of Faces, located at the center of the museum. It is a memorial made up of family photographs, the visual archive of a single eastern European town. The tower extends vertically through the entire museum; visitors enter twice as they work their way through the permanent exhibit, first before and then again after learning about the Final Solution and the fate of virtually all those depicted.

Seeing familiar Jewish faces, postures, and poses in this public space in the capital of the United States moved me. I wanted these photographs to be those of my own family's albums and heard others express similar desires while I was there. Nevertheless, in the midst of this fantasy, I caught myself. I remembered where I was and what had happened to these people. I realized that I was not at the Smithsonian or some other national museum but in a Holocaust memorial where seemingly ordinary images could not be so familiar. These photographs, unlike my family pictures, were the traces of a community of families, specific lives brutally destroyed by the Nazis. This is part of the logic of the permanent exhibit. It uses such identification to draw visitors into the legacy of the Holocaust as personal and specific and not simply an abstraction of the destruction of millions of lives. After completing American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust, a book about loss and Holocaust commemoration largely based on my first visit to the museum, I returned to the Tower in 2005.

Revisiting the USHMM after so many years I was struck by how much my own responses to the Tower changed. This time, I was keenly aware of the individual photographs and how they differed from other photographs in the museum, even Roman Vishniac's prewar images of Jewish life. I began to feel protective of the ordinary family and communal images that make up the Tower. Compared to the Vishniac images, these photographs hardly grabbed any attention. I was struck by how difficult it is to recognize any of them individually. Few have any marks of identification on them and none are officially labeled. I wanted to compensate for this lack of specificity and to do justice, not to the collection as a whole, but to each individual image. This new response was surprising. I left the museum disturbed by the anonymity of the collective vision of the Tower. Revisiting the Tower enabled me to appreciate anew how commemoration is itself an ongoing practice.

In the summer of 2009, I visited Yad Vashem, Israel's national Holocaust memorial museum. I arrived eager to see the new permanent exhibit. I was especially looking forward to seeing Israeli architect Moshe Safdie's Hall of Names because, like the Tower in Washington, it is built around family photographs. I was curious to see how this memorial worked and what it felt like in comparison to my ongoing engagement with the Tower of Faces.

Visitors to Yad Vashem do not have immediate access to the Hall of Names until the end of a journey through the museum. As the visitor's guide to Yad Vashem explains, in the Hall, "the names and personal details of millions of victims have been recorded on Pages of Testimony, symbolic tombstones filled out by survivors in memory of their loved ones." These records are preserved in the Hall, "in an ongoing effort to collect more names before it is too late, Yad Vashem asks the public to assist in this sacred mission. To submit Pages of Testimony, visit our website:" The space combines these records and Safdie's memorial. The museum's website describes this space:

The ceiling of the Hall is composed of a ten-meter high cone reaching skywards, displaying 600 photographs and fragments of Pages of Testimony. This exhibit represents a fraction of the murdered six million men, women and children from the diverse Jewish world destroyed by the Nazis and their accomplices. The victims' portraits are reflected in water at the base of an opposing cone carved out of the mountain's bedrock.

The outer walls of the hall are filled with files recording individual stories and visitors are encouraged to add to the archive. Blank forms are available to be used for this very purpose. There is plenty of shelf space. In this memorial space, I keenly felt the anonymity of those depicted in the photographs that make up the dome. This was similar to how I felt during my second visit to the Tower, but here the feeling was more acute precisely because the overt message of the entire room is to collect and record the stories of all of the individual lives that were lost. What I experienced here was a disconnection between these archival efforts and the use of the photographs to construct the dome. I was uncomfortable with the lack of information in the space of the Hall or on the website where interested visitors could learn the identities of any and all of those depicted in the dome. Moreover, I found it especially disturbing that this disconnect was a part of the dome itself with its illegible bits and pieces of these same identification papers as part of the display.

Although there is an obvious connection between the Tower of Faces and the Hall of Names, I was more aware of the impact of the Tower on the logic of Yad Vashem's entire permanent exhibit. I was struck by how it seemed that each and every display case in the nine galleries offered exactly what I had been longing for in my return to the Tower in 2005: specificity. Here, once ordinary individual lives were front and center. Family images, letters, diaries, heirlooms were everywhere making vivid the six million individual Jewish lives destroyed. Each item, in turn, was carefully annotated and accounted for. At Yad Vashem everywhere except, ironically, in the Hall of Names, I felt as if my previous longing had been heard. Unlike the former permanent exhibit with its teleological drive to tell the story of Holocaust and redemption, Martyrs and Heroes, the new narrative is less linear and overarching. Although my own engagement with the Tower of Faces has pointed toward seeing the cumulative loss in individual terms, I found the specificity and detail of Yad Vashem difficult to assimilate and overwhelming.

Towers, Halls, and Cases: The Ongoing Labor of Remembrance

When I re-entered the Tower in 2005, I was no longer as impressed as I had first been; I was startled by that loss even as I came to appreciate something different. And that realization in turn was disrupted by my recent experience in Jerusalem. At Yad Vashem I was forced to rethink what I thought I had learned anew in Washington in 2005. In Jerusalem I was overwhelmed by an abundance of specificity in the permanent exhibit and disappointed by its strangely absent presence when confronted by the photographs in the Hall of Names.

What changes as we return to places like the Tower of Faces and when we visit other places of Holocaust commemoration? Some of the most powerful ways we deal with loss individually and collectively are through our engagements with other people's sorrows, other people's losses and traumas. These museums and memorials have taught me this lesson. And yet, even these encounters are ephemeral. Our reactions to these same exhibits change over time. Like texts we read and reread, our ongoing encounters with monuments and memorials are not fixed. Our interpretations and critical engagements change.

The texts, images, memorials, and museums that bring that past to us are not static. We learn new things from repeated encounters. The past does speak to us, but it cannot do so once and for all time. It speaks to us in the present, and it cannot be reduced to any single interpretation, lesson, or meaning. This is especially true at places like the USHMM and Yad Vashem. At their best, these places can trigger lively, dynamic engagement. But the visceral experience of these animated engagements is often disconcerting. These museums give us places to experience the shifting terrain of our collected and individual relations to even a past we thought we knew.

Let me try to say this another way: there is no single response to the Holocaust for any of us. Memorials touch us in lots of ways. They show us all kinds of things about the past and about ourselves. None of these engagements is predictable, and this is what keeps the past alive. What these encounters show us is that Holocaust commemoration is an ongoing practice that will continue to grow and change as we continue to return to these sites in the future.

This essay is adapted with permission from Laura Levitt, American Jewish Loss after the Holocaust (New York University Press, 2007) and Laura Levitt, "Returning to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: The Tower of Faces Ten Years Later," Photographs, Histories, Meanings, Jeanne Perreault, Linda Warley, Marlene Kadar, eds. (Palgrave, forthcoming). I thank Catherine Staples for helping me clarify these reflections.