Richmond Times Dispatch: Photograph exhibit at Virginia Holocaust Museum bears witness to hallowed ground


More than 30 years ago, historian Charles W. Sydnor Jr. had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz, where he wandered several hours and took photos of a place where decades prior, genocide occurred.

Now, his photos are part of an exhibit at the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond.

Titled “Memorial Without Witness,” Sydnor’s photographs bear witness to one of the Nazi regime’s most notorious concentration camps. The exhibit, which opened at the museum last November, will run through the end of November 2024.

When Sydnor visited Auschwitz in the late 1980s, the site had not yet become the tourism attraction and educational center that many former concentration camps have since become. He said that most of the day, he was alone on the hallowed grounds.

“I had the sensation that there was no life there. Then of course this deer came. It was the only sign of life I saw,” he said of the grounds where many people perished under political rule that sought to eliminate Jewish people and sympathizers.

Sydnor, who estimates he was among about a dozen scholars in the U.S. doing graduate work on the Holocaust and World War II during the 1960s, later went on to testify in 21 court cases regarding former SS — Nazi special police — officers and Nazi death camp collaborators between 1982 and 2006.

“It was a little bit scary to sit in a courtroom feet away from these characters,” he said. “But it was less scary when I thought that they were getting a degree of justice given to them that’s a luxury which their victims did not get.”
Sydnor has spent much of his life as a scholar regarding the Holocaust and World War II. He has taught at various universities, provided testimony to the U.S. Department of Justice, and served as the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s executive director from 2013 through 2015.

It was his photographs, taken more than 30 years ago, that visitors of the museum witnessed on a rainy Saturday in early 2024.

Caroline County residents Alyssa Halderman and Amanda Wheeler, who visited Richmond on Saturday, said it was important to scope out exhibits at the museum.

“I want to make sure that my kids get to experience this and see this,” Halderman said. “It’s important to help ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.”

Previewing the museum first would help prepare to “explain things at a child’s level,” Halderman said.

Having spent a portion of their childhood in Europe, Halderman has visited a few other Holocaust museums. With an interest in history, Halderman noted instances where people have been subject to violence or discrimination for their ethnicity, sexualities or religions.

More recently, as long-simmering tensions have erupted in conflict among Israel and Hamas-led groups in Palestine, bias incidents against Jews and Muslims have been on the rise in America.
“We don’t like any of it,” Halderman said.

“We love everybody,” Wheeler added.

With a contemplative demeanor, the Caroline residents continued to peruse the exhibit — which encompasses details about former German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power as well as the relocation of European Jews into concentration camps where millions died and memorials of survivors.

As for Sydnor, he said he never suspected his photographs would end up enlarged in a museum after he took them during his own silent and contemplative day more than 30 years ago.

“These photographs found a home and document some of the infrastructure of what the Holocaust looked like,” he said.
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