Reflection: Fourteen-Year-Old Jewish Hungarian

By Laura Howells

I can’t get the naked girl out of my mind.

Her ribs jut out of her back. Her breasts are non-existent. She’s skin and bones and dark, arresting eyes that pierce the camera.

Her name is “Fourteen-Year-Old Jewish Hungarian” and hundreds of people gawk at her every day. I certainly did.

This girl’s bare, famished body is the subject of a blown-up photograph at Auschwitz I. She’s part of a display in one of the bunkers, showing the extreme starvation that often killed prisoners at the death camp.

The photo punched me in the gut. Weeks afterwards, I can still picture her vividly and my stomach reflexively clenches.

If the curators wanted to show the horrors of starvation, they chose well. But the photo also makes me uncomfortable.

This girl’s nude photo is on display, without her consent, at one of the most frequented tourist destinations in Europe. She was photographed in the lowest moments of her life, probably by a Nazi who abused her. What would she think if she knew that countless strangers now stare at her famished body in horror? How much of this display, designed to educate, is also re-victimizing a nameless child?

Auschwitz took everything from her — her possessions, her dignity, and probably her life. Now it takes away her identity. “Fourteen-year-old Jewish Hungarian” is a symbol. This photo is of hunger, not a human. This girl is a selected character, illustrating a much larger narrative — and she had no choice in any of it.

“Our raw material is other people’s lives:” Another fellow said this during FASPE, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Journalists often call the people we write about “characters.” We often see humans as tools to “add colour” or tell a more compelling narrative. People don’t care about issues, they care about people — they pound that into you in journalism school.

Put the emotional quote in the headline. Make sure your picture has a human face. Lead with the strongest quote. We know the drill.

At FASPE, we talked a lot about what the purpose of journalism should be, and (not surprisingly) didn’t come to any definitive conclusions. But time and again, we talked about our role in creating empathy. Compelling journalism shows why you should care about something. And often, human beings are the most effective way to do that.

“Our raw material is other people’s lives.” As I think about this photograph, I worry about the balance between “using” humans to tell larger stories, and the potential positive impact those stories can have. Is fostering empathy a worthwhile endeavor when it comes at the cost of potential exploitation?

Intellectually, this photograph feels wrong. It’s a young woman on full display in a state she’d probably never want anyone to see.

But who knows how many people still think about her? How many people, after seeing looking into her eyes, have come a tiny bit closer to understanding the horrors of the Holocaust? Walking through the camps, I struggled with the sense that I didn’t feel enough. On a sunny June afternoon, walking through lush green grass with a full stomach and a good pair of shoes, it’s impossible to understand the suffering that happened at Auschwitz. It’s one thing to read that inmates laboured for 11 hours a days on rations. But that fact didn’t punch me in the gut — as much as I wanted it to. Knowledge and understanding are two very different things.

Is this picture further victimizing a 14-year-old prisoner? Is it reducing her whole life to a depredated, nameless state? Or is “using this character” justifiable because it’s serving a greater good?

Journalists should document, yes, but we should also affect. A shouting press is worthless if it’s audience doesn’t wake up. I believe that. But since coming back from FASPE, I sometimes feel paralyzed by a newly intense desire to do no harm. It’s a good thing, I think, but I guess I’m still struggling with the line between shouting, and not waking up those who deserve to sleep.

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