The Auschwitz Tattoo in Visual Memory

Who shall live and who shall die

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Who shall live and who shall die, Laurence Jarvik USA 1982

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Who shall live and who shall die? (1982) is a film that asks if the government of the United States could have stopped the Holocaust before the end of the war. Politicians and activists of the 1940s are being interviewed who had tried, largely to no avail, to save European Jews from being murdered during the Holocaust or who were involved in decisions that concerned interfering with the ongoing genocide. Full of righteous anger, the makers weigh the contemporary knowledge about the extermination against the few active attempts to stop the genocide. While the film uses liberation footage in an unusual self-accusatory manner - could this have been prevented? - the sequence with the children showing their number tattoos is featured in a special place. Towards the end, a one-minute documentary short about the arrival of Jewish immigrant in Ellis Island on May 20 1946 called “Victims of Nazi Rule Welcomed” is presented. The footage shows Holocaust survivors who identify themselves in front of the camera by showing their number tattoos and the tattoos of their children. The citation of “Victims of Nazi Rule Welcomed” is then intercut by final regretful statements of Peter Bergson (Emergency Committee to Save The Jewish People of Europe) and John Pehle (Executive Director of the War Refugee Board) followed by the footage with the children showing their number tattoo, accompanied by a sad piano score. Here, the iconic footage of the children and the analogy of the gesture webs a relation between the Holocaust survivors in Ellis Island and the concentration camps in Poland they were liberated from. In this way, the importance of the seminal gesture of the survivor is emphasized by featuring several instances of its very early use. “Who shall live and who shall die?” therefore illustrates vividly a very early stage of the migration of the footage from the child survivors showing their number tattoo.

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