Holocaust archive revealed through the lens of Richard Ehrlich

An upcoming show of photographs, "The Holocaust Archive Revealed: Bad Arolsen Through the Lens of Richard Ehrlich," at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica has generated a great deal of local press attention this month. Today, the LATimes.com posted Suzanne Muchnic’s piece on the show and rumor has it that the story will run on a full page in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times. Pieces have also recently run in the Jewish Journal, the Malibu Times and the Palisadian-Post.

Not bad for a small show of photos about documents opening for one week only in the quiet days prior to Labor Day. Why all the fuss?

Richard Ehrlich is a urological surgeon with offices at the UCLA Medical Center. An avid photographer who resides in Malibu, Dr. Ehrlich traveled to the International Tracing Service (ITS) offices in Germany and persuaded officials to let him photograph the world’s largest collection of Holocaust archives, a repository of over 50 million documents recording Nazi atrocities against European Jewry and other minorities.

Fifty-four images from Dr. Ehrlich’s portfolio of this trip will be on view at the Craig Krull Gallery in Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, starting Tuesday, August 26, 2008 and ending Saturday, August 30th. Sponsored by Consulate General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Los Angeles and the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles chapter, this is the first local exhibition of the images. Visitors will see photos of Anne Frank's transfer papers to Bergen-Belsen, the actual Schindler's List, and minutes of a meeting at the Wannsee Conference in 1941. That's where they planned the Holocaust.

Additional exhibitions are being planned at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, State University of New York; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.; and the Museum of Judaism in Paris. Éditions de la Martinière in France will publish the portfolio as a book. Copies of the portfolio have been donated to several Jewish institutions and universities, including UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library and the Shoah Foundation at USC.

I had a few follow up questions for Dr. Ehrlich, which he kindly answered below:

How did the show come about?

I showed the portfolio to gallery owner, Craig Krull, and he was so taken by it, saying, “Wow, we have got to show these.” He canceled his vacation to reopen the gallery for this week. It is not a long period of time—most shows run for 6 weeks but Craig changed his whole schedule around to be able to show these things because he was so taken by it and I just think such high marks for him because you know most galleries would not show such a non-commercial venture. I am very high on Craig for having the foresight and the aptitude to do it this.
The exhibit had already been shown in Washington DC at the national meeting of the American Jewish Committee, which holds its yearly meetings. Thousands of people show up from all over the world and the organization sponsored for the portfolio to be shown on various panels and so forth. They provided the money for the show to be shipped here for exhibition by the Los Angeles chapter.

What has been the response to the upcoming show?
Well, the response has been due to with the topic, and not me clearly. Craig said he has never seen such a response so clearly the subject is very poignant and people are very interested in it. Craig told me that when he usually sends out invitations to upcoming shows he rarely receives phone calls from potential attendees but when he sent out announcements for the show the phone has been ringing off the hook since he sent out this information as some people presume that it was an invitation-only, which is not, and they keep calling [to RSVP].

Now that you have finished the project, what did the entire experience teach you?

There are 2 important, overriding themes of this show for me: people should be able to remember what happened and also the incredible collaboration between the American Jewish Committee and the German consul to sponsor this show. It is very poignant that the German embassy here [in L.A.] has such a good working relationship in with the American Jewish Committee chapter as well as the New York office. It’s just extraordinary to have the Jews and the Germans coming together to show this material.

What was the original article in the International Herald Tribune that piqued your interest in the archive?
It was a tiny piece in the paper. Just 4 lines or something buried in a small page and I don't really know why it caught my eye but it did and it piqued my interest. The article explained about the International Tracing Service, saying that the archives have been inaccessible and that it goes back to 1945. I thought that was really interesting and I wondered why there were not accessible. I am one of those kinds of guys that when I get interested in something I am very persistent until I find out it is not worthwhile so I really track it.

At first, the institution was not forthcoming at all because they did not understand what I wanted to do and why I wanted to see the documents. But when I finally did get permission through somebody in the State Department, the ITS Department they could not have been more forthcoming and nicer. I actually have come to be very friendly with the director who is fairly new.

My inquiries hit at a very interesting time because all these years in the records have been inaccessible, [despite] thousands of inquiries from the affected families.

But this new director and the new thrust from the International Red Cross decided that it was time to begin to digitize these records and try to share them with the other Holocaust-related museums like the Holocaust US Museum. For years staffers at the Holocaust Museum in the US had been agitating for the ITS to do this and then things started to turn around. I got there just when organizers were starting a survey process for digitizing all that paper, more than 50 million documents relating to 17 and a half million lives.

How did the International Tracing Service archive start? Did they buy available archives all over Eastern Europe?

No they did not buy anything. The ITS originated as an arm of the International Red Cross and it is controlled by 11 Western countries but Germany pays for its staffing and upkeep. The Germans kept these records during WWII but started destroying them just before the Russians advanced from the East. The Russians came so quickly that they could not destroy all the materials so no one will ever know the full extent of the documents kept by the Nazis.

Were there any restrictions on what you could photograph?
I was able to photograph anything I wanted and there was no holding back. The ITS asked me sign a few papers [addressing] the fact that I would be sensitive to the subject matter, but there was no prohibition. The archive director said that it was fine to photograph whatever I wanted and provided me with a guide [staff member] who spoke English. She was very instrumental in taking out documents because she knew the collection so well. You can imagine with all the 50 million documents in there you could be there for 10 years and still not see everything clearly. There were many things that I did not see because it was just impossible, but I did find some really spectacular ones and then I just try to set the mood and set the scene and show people what it was like um most important for me was it was a difficult project photographically because the subject matter is so brutal. Yet I was trying to do this in a sensitive, photogenic manner.

Do you speak German?
No I don't. I had another girl with me who was a sister of a friend of my wife who is a taxi driver in Berlin who speaks perfect English so I was able to use her as a go-between with the ITS staff member who spoke English.

Did you use any special techniques to make your pictures?
No, I would just see something and then I would try to make it look as artistic as possible and try to set the mood of what it is. For example, the photos on my web site are really very somber and that is the way they looked in the archive. I did not try to change any of that or use special lighting. I tried to keep the mood of a somber place. Some of the documents are old and yellow and fading and I tried to just keep the mood of the place.

What are some of the most memorable items in your photographic portfolio of the archives?
There are a couple of photos that I find exceedingly poignant but since there are only 54 photographs in the portfolio all of the images are memorable and tough. One image in the show is a large-scale blow up of one of the rooms where the documents reside, papers and index cards stacked on shelves or in drawers. It shows the enormity of these papers, which in fact represent people's lives. There is also a photograph of a card file box from Auschwitz. The kind you see in libraries…

Another interesting photograph is a chart of different armbands designating people’s status that Nazis designed from the early ‘30s. The chart includes a legend so that if you were a Jewish homosexual you would have a pink star or you would get a different symbol if you were a political prisoner or a gypsy, etc. When I showed this chart to a good friend of mine, who is CEO of a very large corporation with lots of advertising brands, he went crazy. He had it in his office because it was the ultimate branding of people.

Did you envision the response and attention your work has received so far?
No you know I did not do it for that. But once I saw what I had I became motivated to have people see the documents. I didn’t just want the images put in a drawer because that is not going to help at all. I am not personally looking for any notoriety at all but I want the images to be seen so that people will understand what this is all about and they don't forget about it. It is not going to be too many years until all of the victims of the Holocaust will be dead and the children don't know about it. Plus, you have these guys [Holocaust deniers] who are saying it never happened and David Duke and some of these other neo-nazi people who are saying it never happened then you go to a place like this [ITS] and it is unbelievable.

Now you can actually see proof in those 50 million documents!

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