Early in 2019, staff and faculty from the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University met to discuss plans for the center’s signature program, the Yom HaShoah commemoration. Time was of the essence: most well-known speakers and survivors were already booked. Dr. Lisa Mulman saved the day. “We could see if Richard Wiesel is available,” she suggested. “He’s an amazing photographer. I met him at a Holocaust conference recently.”
The team was immediately struck by Wiesel’s large-scale photographs of discarded Holocaust artifacts taken at the Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück concentration camps. Each object, some as tiny as lipstick, is starkly presented against a flat black background, making a powerful visual statement.
Wiesel, an Australian relative of Eli Wiesel’s, enthusiastically accepted the invitation to speak during the Yom HaShoah event. He explained that his deep interest in European history and the Holocaust led him to come across the objects during a trip to Berlin and the nearby camps. He then contacted Dr. Robert Sommer, a historian whose familiarity with the camps allowed Wiesel research access to the vast collection of Holocaust artifacts in the archives there.
Sachsenhausen was a labor and prison camp some 25 miles outside of Berlin. During its years of operation (1936–1945), the camp was a notorious training ground for commanders of death camps in the east, and it held Jews, political prisoners, slave laborers and high-profile POWs from across German-occupied Europe. The Ravensbrück camp was the largest concentration camp designated for women. In addition to harsh conditions, sadistic guards and hard labor, prisoners were subjected to cruel medical experiments, which several of Wiesel’s photographs capture. These camps were eventually equipped with gas chambers and crematories to facilitate the murder and disposal of inmates who were too weak or sick to serve in forced labor programs.
The artifacts in Wiesel’s photographs are charged with hidden meaning as relics of lives lost and evidence of Nazi crimes. Engaging and provocative, these images compel viewers to consider the connotations, contradictions, and emotional resonance of everyday items in the context of the concentration camps.
Richard Wiesel generously donated the ten large reproductions that will be on display at the Lynn Museum from September 23 to mid-December 2021. He will speak at a formal opening on October 6, 2021. For more information, visit salemstate.edu/chgs.
Dan Eshet, PhD, is the program director for the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Salem State University.