Captions without images

On Robert Fitterman's 'Holocaust Museum'

Rob Fitterman reads at the Poetic Research Bureau, Los Angeles, 2008.

As Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag amongst others have told us, when it comes to photographs, the caption is essential in relation to what we think we see: if the contextualizing text is changed, the meaning of the work as such will change significantly. In this light, it might be interesting to ask: what happens to the caption when there is no longer a photograph to contextualize? When the caption is isolated, it now refers to a referent that is no longer there. That is one of the issues raised by the American writer Robert Fitterman in his book Holocaust Museum, first published in 2011 and reprinted several times since in the US and in Great Britain.

Holocaust Museum is a piece of conceptual post-productive witness literature that deals with the representation of Holocaust. In the 124-page-long book, captions are being post-produced. They derive from a smaller selection of the 18,000 available photographs in the online archive at United States Holocaust Museum (USHMM), which is physically situated in Washington, DC. In Fitterman’s book, the captions are reprinted without the photograph they originally were written to stabilize. Three quotes introduce the book: a quote by the Czech-born media philosopher Vilém Flusser, from his book Towards a Philosophy of Photography;a quote by the American author Charles Reznikoff from his Holocaust; and a quote by the Austrian photographer and author Heimrad Bäcker from the English translation of nachschrift; transcript. In his philosophy of photography, Flusser states, among other things, that the photograph is not only a reproducing technology, but is in itself affecting and constituting a reality. That the same to some degree can be said about the caption as a genre may be one of the implicit statements in Holocaust Museum, that the caption both affects and so to speak constitutes the image that it accompanies. As with the references to Reznikoff and Bäcker, Fitterman marks an affinity and most probably also a direct inspiration from their work.

In his Holocaust, Charles Reznikoff’s method is documentary, and he post-produces and modifies real witness testimonies from the Nuremberg trials. Reznikoff divides his poems into twelve subcategories.[1] Fitterman has divided his poems into seventeen related categories.[2] Reznikoff organizes the material in Holocaust[3] in a way that resembles more traditional or conventional poetry with a clearly marked ending, a small blow with the tail so to speak, distinct (line) breaks between both verse and stanza and a clear (poetic) narrative in every poem. The method in nachschrift[4]is different. Heimrad Bäcker isolates, shortens, and sometimes also modifies quotes from various sources. Here the general impression is less explained, much less legible. Bäcker’s text fragments are torn out of different contexts in a way that can be somewhat confusing to the reader, or in a way that might make the reader even more exited and curious. In Reznikoff’s texts, the majority of the necessary information in order to ‘make sense’ of the poem is already present; here it tends to work in concluded sequences that might make it easier to identify as (a) ‘literature’ that through its narration allows the reader to get carried away. To use that metaphor. Fitterman lines up his captions, one after the other, raw, unexplained, unaltered, and only manipulated in their surroundings: they have been removed from their original context, taken away from the photographs and from the American Holocaust Museum (homepage), and moved into the book Holocaust Museum. And then of course, they are manipulated in the selection, in the different sequences and in the order they appear.

On the surface, the book is characterized by a degree of monotony, a tone of a matter-of-factness, and a self-confidence that is probably characteristic of the caption as such: a deictic pointing that also at the same time is being defamiliarized, now the object for the pointing is absent. It’s a textual effect that becomes apparent in the parentheses in a text like this:

Nazi propaganda slide featuring images of Wilhelm Gustloff, leader of the NSDAP’s foreign organization in Switzerland (left), and David Frankfurter, the Jewish student who assassinated him in 1936 (right). [Photograph #49763][5]

The referent — the photography — is missing. There’s nowhere for the eyes to wander. No visual details, no foreground or background, only the hard surface of the text; how Wilhelm Gustloff or David Frankfurter looks like, for one thing, is left to the imagination or whatever knowledge the reader may have. Still, Gustloff is probably placed to the left and Frankfurter to the right in that imagination; the stage directionshelps furnish the reader’s inner room, place the seen in the imagined — provided that you are actually imagining anything when you read this. Also notice the reference in the square parentheses that indicates where the photograph is placed in the USHMM collection: this type of text is a recurrent epifor in all the captions of the book. These epifors work as source references, but, at the same time, also function as additional full stops. In itself active parts of the text, that can change what has just been read, as in these examples:

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96898]

View of the former Kaiserwald concentration camp. [Photograph #96896][6]

In the above example, the number in the squared parenthesis, the reference to the archive almost becomes a punctum in the Roland Barthian sense of the word: that is the specific experience of the detail and of time in the photography, the thing in the photo that really hits and almost hurt you.[7] It is because of the variation of the last number that we understand it is not the same text, not the same photograph, but another photograph of the same motif. This has both a significant meaning and effect several places in the book, where the texts are either verbatim repetitions or minor variations of other texts already read — but because of the number in the squared parenthesis, they become singular, and hence, via the book’s narrative organization or composition, to which I will return in a moment, in an almost performative manner adds to the amount of text and is not just a repetition of what is already there. More — new — American liberating soldiers, they teem through the text, more bodies, more mass graves, new bodies, more imprisoned SS guards, more female survivors gathering in front of their barracks.[8]

Together, the macro structure of the seventeen sections in Holocaust Museum mimes a chronology. As is also the case of Reznikoff’s Holocaust, which opens with Deportations and end in the grand Marches, as the concentration camps began to be evacuated due to the advancement of the Allied forces,finally we get the Escapes. Holocaust Museum opens with the Propaganda: anti-Jewish, racist, religious, pro Anschluß Österreichs. After that Family Photographs:pre-war portraits, families, parties, school, vacation, leisure. Boycotts:boycotts of Jews and Jewish tradesmen, often conducted physically by the SA. Burning of Books:especially the students are active. The Science of Race:ideological ‘scientifically based’ educational material, eugenics, racial hygiene. Gypsies:gypsies from all over Europe are detained and executed, also people related to gypsies are sterilized and more. Deportation:Jews from all over Europe are being deported to concentration camps, the long, and for many also deadly, journey by train, a for-the-witness literature classical Holocaust topoi.[9] Concentration Camps: initially, the concentration camps are seen from the outside and from above, the pictures derives from the liberations, American soldiers, some bodies and survivors, besides that snapshots of details from the camps. Uniform:from the camp to its inhabitants, a flood of various (types of) uniforms, this complete uniforming appear almost dehumanized — at least, it is always the uniform we see and not the human behind or inside. Shoes:shoes are made from whatever material is available by captives and Jews in camps and ghettoes, piles of shoes from the executed, the things that can be hidden in shoes, in the heels, and the absence of shoes, in the end: barefooted civilian German women forced to watch and walk amongst the reopened mass graves. Jewelry:confiscated jewels and jewelry, crucifixes worn by Jews living in hiding under Nazi occupation. Hair:enormous amounts of women’s hair packed into bales in the storage buildings of Auschwitz, ready to be sent to Germany, members of the French Resistance cutting the hair of a woman accused of ‘collaboration horizontale,’ a Jewish girl in hiding has dyed her hair blond, a plateexplains the deciding genetics behind different hair colors. Zyklon B Canisters: Zyklon B canisters found, the canisters are clearly marked as deadly.

Notice how the last five sections all work metonymically and synecdochically, maybe in an operationalization of another way to comprehend the scale of the dead: the piles of hair, shoes, jewelry. The dehumanization: uniforms rather than individuals. All connected metonymically with these pairs of Zyklon B canisters in the next section, which — almost demonstratively — is the shortest section of the book. Only two texts. These Zyklon B canisters result in the enormous piles of bodies everywhere in the book. In same way as uniforms following a more straight forward logic, marks or symbolizes a certain belonging, so does jewelry and hair (color). And in the same way as a wrong uniform can mean the difference between life and death, so is it the case with the wrong kind of jewelry or hair color. The book continues with Gas Chambers:the architecture of the gas chambers and the crematories, the first presented as baths with piles of clothes in front of them, in the last: piles of body remnants, bones. Mass Graves:after gas chambers and crematories come mass graves. As in the concentration camps-section, it is here evident that the predominant documentary material dates from the liberation, consequently, it is not the establishment of the mass graves, we have photographs of, not the daily operation of the extermination camps, but the re-opening of the mass graves. But also of how they are organized, built, how the corpses are stacked as to create room for as many as possible. Local German civilians are being forced to witness the mass graves by the Allies, the many bodies. American Soldiers:in this and in the following section, there is a strong internal progress, the liberation, the surrender, time passes, you get the feeling of: very quickly. Troops advance through a geography, while the German forces surrender to the Americans. American soldiers in different places in Germany. American soldiers land in Normandy. American soldiers having Thanksgiving in Paris. American soldiers marching through Brandenburger Tor, they meet up with Russian soldiers in Berlin and in Linz. The survivors of the camps together with the American soldiers, American soldiers among the corpses, among the ruins of cities, advancing everywhere throughout Germany and Austria. Liberation: the camps are being liberated, in the beginning there are crosscuts between the French, the Spaniards, the Belgians, the Rumanians, the Dutch, the Russians, the Albanians, the Poles, the Jews, all celebrating everywhere. SS guards are arrested. Mass graves and heaps of corpses by the crematoriums are being revealed. SS guards who burn the captives to death in order to flee themselves. Towards the end of the text there’s a crosscutting between mainly female survivors, gathering in front of the barracks in the liberated camps, and a long line of portraits of the many people in different displaced person camps. The long journey home is about to begin. A journey many will not survive. The returning journey from the camps also holds its own significant place in the Holocaust witness literature.[10]

While the different sections read together in succession, define a clear course from pre-war to post-war, the text that appear in the individual sections are not governed by the same chronology. Here the time has been dissolved: the underlying organizing logic seems to be the search engine at USHMM’s homepage.[11] As we can see, there are two different temporal representational systems present at the same time in Holocaust Museum — the diachronic and the synchronic; both the horizontal (His)story and the vertical database: things we know about Holocaust.

One of the things that comes to the fore when reading Holocaust Museum is the many place names: names on places and on ethnical, national, and cultural affiliations, family names. This paratactic tangle of names of European places and more, mimes a Europe in total dissolution; a synchronistic chaos, where people from all over the continent gets that in common that they’re being assembled in these extermination camps. One has to imagine the sound track to these captions as a kind of Kauderwelsch — gibberish — or, as the Polish author Tadeusz Borowski writes in his testimonies about the language being spoken in Auschwitz: a crematoriumEsperanto. The many different types of uniforms that rapidly pass the reader’s eyes in a flutter, in the section Uniforms are creating the same effect, in some sort of visual counterpart to the crematorium Esperanto: prison uniforms, camp uniforms, concentration camp uniforms, uniforms with distinctive badges, uniforms, Ustasa uniforms, uniforms of captains in the Hungarian army, Nazi military uniforms, uniforms of the Arrow Cross, military uniforms, scout uniforms, Polish army uniforms, not in uniforms, French military uniforms, striped prisoner uniforms, school uniforms, British uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Navy, uniforms of the Vichy fascist youth movement Moisson Nouvelles, volunteer service uniforms, uniforms of the Hungarian labor service, army uniforms, uniforms of the Danish Brigade in Sweden, Hashomer Hatzair uniforms, police uniforms, Maccabi Hatzair uniforms, UNRRA uniforms, uniforms of a Hungarian labor battalion.[12]

The place names help to geographically situate what is being documented. And what is being documented is of course different actions, but also, and not the least, the locations where these actions have taken place, and, to some degree, who has been involved. A regular mapping is happening, as when the Deportation-section is being initiated with the names on three ships being used to deport Norwegian Jews to Germany:

View of the SS Gotenland, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Only 25 of the 760 Jews deported from Norway survived. [Photograph #89095]

View of the SS Donau, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. On November 26, 1943 the Donau sailed with 530 Jews aboard, 345 of whom went directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. [Photograph #89094]

View of the SS Monte Rosa, one of the ships used to deport Jews from Norway to Germany. Of the 760 Jews deported from Norway by ship only 25 survived. [Photograph #89094][13]

Another effect of the many foreign place names is that they implicitly call for the reader to leave the text and begin to research — or at least make a Google search after — historical facts and their geographical contexts. When the images are missing, the reader might get curious enough to not only try to envision them herself, but also to try to actually find them — on the Internet for instance. On just one and a half pages, the following concentration (sub)camps are mentioned: Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Pocking, Novalky, Kaiserwald, Ohrdruf, Neuengamme, Plaszow, Majdanek.[14]

What are those names referring to? The only paratext of real significance the book itself is offering, consists of the blurbs written on the back. Here three advocators give their brief explanations as to why it is a good book, what it’s about, and how it’s about it.[15] Nowhere in the books is it stated that the source text derive from USHMM, even if it, for an American reader, probably would be an apparent association to make, given the title of the book. In his afterword to the English translation of Bäcker’s nachschrift; transcript, the American scholar Patrick Greaney writes that reading the book “knowledge of the Shoah becomes a project”; and the same can be said about Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum.[16] This is not to say that the sole quality of Holocaust Museum lies in its edifying qualities, which urge the reader to seek more knowledge about the Holocaust. That is one of the effects of the book. In the same manner as the reader have to leave the text, as I call it, to search for background knowledge in order to understand what is being read; the reader also and at the same time need to constantly focus on and delve into the text, and read it as a literary work that operates within its own internal dynamics and economy; a work that creates its own literary universe — in parallel with the simultaneous references to concrete historical events and places outside of the book. For instance, a text like the following becomes, in an almost absurd way, comical seen in relation to the surrounding text. It can be read as a commentary on the value of this preoccupation with naming time, place, persons, and relations as accurately as possible — which is one of the characteristics of witness literature as a genre — when we also need to know the name of the dog of the Lagerkommendant:

Majola, the mistress of commandant Amon Goeth, stands on the balcony of his villa in the Plaszow concentration camp with his dog Ralf. [Photograph #05287][17]

In between the more descriptive, distancing texts, all of a sudden other types of narratives evolve; small stories with several times inscribed, that shows compressed images of the Holocaust machinery’s radius and manner of operation; over time and in a kind of chains of cause-and-effect. How does the Nazi regime react, for instance, if it finds out that one of its trusted employees has a Jewish family background:

A German soldier stands guard in front of a castle. Pictured is Kurt Winterstein a member of the donor’s[18] family. He was one of Hitler’s personal drivers. When the Nazis found out that his mother was Gypsy they took him out of the army and sterilized him. [Photograph #33333][19]

Or how the SS guards tried to get rid of evidence and witness in a hasty retreat:

Emaciated body of a prisoner at Landsberg, found by the liberating American 7th Army. Original caption reads: “The Landsberg Atrocity: The emaciated bodies of Jewish prisoners bear evidence of the slow death by starvation they were undergoing before having been locked in their wooden huts by retreating Nazi prison guards, who set the huts afire and left.” [Photograph #496555][20]

And other captions that might look like short descriptive contextualizations of what is seen on the picture, but also in itself raises a number of questions: why Joseph Schleifstein still is wearing his camp uniform one or two years after being liberated,[21] or why the Serbian children are wearing Ustaša-uniforms.[22] And the child in this text, where the smile in itself is unexpected, and therefore may also rock the customary approach one might have, about child survivors from the camps. It creates an uncertainty in the reader, I claim, a Barthian punctum, also outside of the image, this smile:

A child survivor in a uniform stands smiling amid the rubble of Nordhausen concentration camp. [Photograph #42050][23]

Holocaust Museum is not an affirmative work, in the sense that it’s not just confirming our already conceived notions and knowledge. Rather it’s a work that, via captions for images that are so well known to us, that we can (almost) make do without them, destabilize meaning and activates the reader. By simply removing the photographs and leave the captions on their own, Fitterman manages to make the impossible representation of the complex of events we have named Holocaust new to our eyes. Captions are often immediately seen as a neutral appendix to the real work, the real documentation that is the photography. In Holocaust Museum we might actually, and maybe for the first time, read these captions. By swapping foreground and background — by completely removing the foreground — Fitterman provides us with new eyes.

“Incongruous Images,” by the American scholars Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, takes its point of departure in the USHMM collection. Hirsch and Spitzer write on how the selection of photographs that are to represent the Holocaust officially takes place. On all levels of the selection, they write, there is a kind of (self-) censorship going on that has to do with how the photographs resemble something we already know before we find them appropriate. The motif has to be simple and easy decodeable; desolate, sullen, and not too complex.[24] When it comes to the conceptual literature that works post-productively, it’s important to ask what is going on: what is it that it does, how does it do it, how is it, so to speak, being curated. One must ask if it is denaturalizing what is being depicted and in that way whether it creates a more complex tissue of meaning that foregrounds aspects of the post-produced material that wasn’t readily available to us before. Or, the opposite: if the effect of the manipulation of the material is affirmative and just makes us stop at the first, best assumption, and only confirms what we thought we already knew without giving us the opportunity to reflect on what that might be. Or mean. How our knowledge is always situated. When a work depends so much on contextualization, as is the case with Holocaust Museum, what does that contextualization do with the work, with the reading of it. This is of course a question one has to ask in front of each individual work. I think that Fitterman’s work, so to speak, is part of complicating the picture of more mainstream Holocaust representation, alone through the way the text is being organized. Take for instance when the actions of the Auschwitz executioners is placed next to that of the French resistance:

Bales of human hair ready for shipment to Germany found in one the [sic] Auschwitz warehouses when the camp was liberated. In Auschwitz 7,000 kilo of human hair was found at liberation. [Photograph #66583]

Bales containing the hair of female prisoners lie in the courtyard of one of the warehouses in Auschwitz after the liberation. [Photograph #10867]

Members of the French resistance shear the hair of a young woman who consorted with the Germans during the occupation. [Photograph #81863][25]

And it becomes even more unsettling in the following text, where one must assume that the woman has no hair because she survived one of the extermination camps, but here the victim of the Nazis (the Jewish woman) oscillates with the victim for the resistance movement (‘the horizontal collaborator’) for a moment:

Jewish women learn to sew in a vocational training workshop in Lodz. The woman in the back has her head fully covered since her hair still has not grown in since the war. [Photograph #60791][26]

Hirsch and Spitzer write about some of the many curators and archivists who work with photographic Holocaust representations:

They display images that readily lend themselves to iconicization and repetition. But while this choice may allow them to stir viewers’ emotions and to gain their sympathetic attention, it also impedes troubling the well-known narratives about this time. It restricts their visitors’ engagement with the Holocaust’s more complex — and less easily categorized — visual and historical landscape. And, in so doing, it delimits the rich interpretive possibilities that this vast archive of private and public photographs can open and enable.[27]

The American scholar and poet Charles Bernstein reads the absence of the images in Holocaust Museum as a metaphor for the concrete loss that the Holocaust has inflicted on the world, the many dead and missing: “Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers create a work more chilling than the original installation (…) Loss — erasure and absence — is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.”[28] As you go through the book, he writes, the lists becomes litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions, which simultaneously seem like the utmost dry and dull thing you could read. A part of the conceptual strategy, as we see it unfold in Holocaust Museum, is, in the words of Vanessa Place, to pour a hot content in a cool container.[29] That way, and with boredom as a kind of developer, it may become possible to see other structures than we usually do, in existing material. And it is this paradox, I suggest, the muted, almost boring (re)presentation of the horrible, that will make us read a work like Robert Fitterman’s Holocaust Museum with our eyes wide open.



1. Reznikoff’s headlines are: Deportation, Invasion, Research, Ghettos, Massacres, Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks, Work Camps, Children, Entertainment, Mass Graves, Marches, Escapes.

2. Fitterman’s headlines are: Propaganda, Family Photographs, Boycotts, Burning of Books, The Science of Race, Gypsies, Deportation, Concetration Camps, Uniforms, Shoes, Jewelry, Hair, Zyklon B Canisters, Gas Chambres, Mass Graves, American Soldiers, Liberation.

3. Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1975).

4. Heimrad Bäcker, Nachschrift (Linz: Ed. Neue Texte, 1986).

5. Robert Fitterman, Holocaust Museum (Denver: Counterpath Press, 2013), 19.

6. Ibid., 58.

7. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

8. For examples of repetition (with light variations), see Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58, 72–74, 93, 98, 100–103, 107–109, 116–118, 121–122.

9. See for example Jorge Semprún’s debut novel, The Cattle Truck (London: Serif, 1993). Also Semprún, The Long Voyage (New York: Grove Press, 1964).

10. See for example Tadeusz Borowski’s Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories, trans. Madeline G. Levine (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). Also see Primo Levi’s The Truce: A Survivor’s Journey Home from Auschwitz (London: Bodley Head, 1965).

11. Charles Bernstein has showed how it’s likely that the texts have been selected. See: Charles Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank,” Jacket2, February 2012.

12. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 62–68.

13. Ibid., 48.

14. Ibid., 58–59.

15. Al Filreis, Vanessa Place, and Tim Atkins each wrote a blurb of approximately ten lines each.

16. Heimrad Bäcker, transcript (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2010), 152.

17. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 58.

18. Donor here refers to that or those persons who donated the photography to USHMM.

19. Ibid., 43.

20. Ibid., 119–120.

21. Ibid., 64.

22. Ibid., 63. Ustaša is the name of the nationalistic, fascistic inspired Croatian terror organization that with the support of the Axis powers reigned Croatia 1941-45. Ustaša is infamous for comitting massive genocide on especially Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

23. Ibid.

24. Karen Tilmans, Frank Van Vree, and Jay Winter, Performing the Past: Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe(Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010), 170–73.

25. Fitterman, Holocaust Museum, 84.

26. Ibid., 85.

27. Tilmans, Van Vree, and Winter, Performing the Past, 173.

28. Bernstein, “This Picture Intentionally Left Blank.”

29. Place: “What interests me is what happens when you put a hot content in a cool container,” September 2011, Paris. See Serup, “Hot Content in a Cool Container.”