One of the ways I try to understand how the specific issue of Holocaust symbolization works is to try to look at it as it cuts in two different directions. One way is in the direction of representation and the other is in the direction of communication. Representation has a lot to say about the symbol’s relationship to the past. That is, how does this particular image or icon refer back to the events of the Holocaust and sum them up in some sort of economy of form. So again if we look at the image of the little boy from the Warsaw ghetto, you look at that and especially for those in the know, in Holocaust historiography, they know this represents the actions of the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, the roundups leading to deportations, etc., etc. All this is what is represented in this image of the little boy. But the image of the little boy also communicates something. And that’s something slightly different from the issue of representation. If representation points backwards to the past, communication in many ways points forwards to the future. What is it that this little boy symbolizes, what is it that it communicates, how do people relate to him when they see him, what do they see in his eyes, how do they see this, since it’s a photograph, and it’s a slice of time as it were, how do they understand that moment in time, and how does that communicate one of the lessons of the Holocaust, one of the messages of the Holocaust? In this case for example I think one of the primary issues that it communicates is the aspect of innocence cut short, a little boy who is suddenly caught in this roundup. It’s a very poignant kind of image, something a little bit different from the actual history that’s being represented.
For his Museum fellowship in 2004, Dr. Oren Baruch Stier conducted research for his project “Holocaust Symbols: The Icons of Memory,” examining the historical and cultural contexts of symbols commonly associated with the Holocaust and exploring how a variety of iconic images, including personalities, artifacts, texts, and visual forms, convey awareness of and associations with the Holocaust.
Dr. Stier is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at Florida International University in Miami.