I had experienced many grim signs in combat. I took more pictures than I can remember. But the best picture was the one I didn’t take. I was about to photograph a group of inmates who obviously didn’t have more than thirty minutes to live. I just couldn’t bear to see the look in their eyes. So, I lowered my camera and simply walked away.Robert stubenrauch 163rd signal photographic company on dachau
Recently the National Archives livestreamed a program about a new photo book based on the end of WWII. The book is Aftershock The Human Toll of War. The livestream is worth watching because I learned a lot of new details about combat, research, the number of photos at the archives, and more about the service members themselves.
This book is not your usual World War II photo book. It contains layers of questions we should be asking ourselves about our veterans. It contains research possibilities you may not have considered. It contains powerful quotes like the one at the top of this article that make us stop and think about our family member’s experiences. Some people will see it for the images alone. Others will see the depth it contains.
Even victory was traumatic……Upon the release of a POW camp when the POWs rushed the tanks, kissed the tankers, and showed so much joy, Rosenblum wrote “You see men killed before your very eyes. You see the hate in the face of the Nazi soldier even while our medics are giving him first aid. And then the French and their stories of Nazi oppression. The brain isn’t large enough to encompass all the suffering and hardships the Nazis have caused.”Walter rosenblum
The book is focused on the year 1945 with its images. Each image has been digitally enhanced and context has been provided. Photographers are given credit for their photos, which was not normally done during the war. The photos would be printed in the newspapers with Army Signal Corps as the creator.
The book does contain very graphic photographs. If gore or viewing photos of concentration camp victims or war dead is not for you then you might skip this book. If you can stomach what you see, it might just change your perspective on the war, any war, and the way our veterans were. It might also generate a conversation about why we continue to fight wars today when they continue to do more destruction than good.
The book did give me some leads on research possibilities. A couple photos specifically say a photographer took photos of members of the 69th Infantry Division. If you are researching that Division, you know there will be some images – maybe not of your soldier, but worth checking.
I have visited the Dragons Teeth on the West Wall – commonly referred to as the Siegfried Line, but this book contains a photo from 1945 that gives me a much better image of what it looked like then and just how massive it was.
The book also provides many glimpses into the combat experience of these war photographers. How often we think only the man with a gun would have PTSD or have suffered from his experience. We forget that everyone who was in the war suffered in some way. The photographers maybe more than others because they were up front and personal with their subjects, which often contained death and destruction. One photographer is quoted, “Sumners wrote about finding a family of four lying together in the crater made by the explosion of a mortar shell. I did not take a picture of this he wrote, but I still remember the whole family huddled there and covered with snow – a father trying to shield his family from the enemy.”
I highly recommend this book and encourage you to look deeper than the images themselves. It may create a whole new perspective for your military research, family stories, and healing.
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