Arts & Entertainment

“The Icy Gaze” exhibition exposes Nazi anthropology

Alejandro Giménez

Vienna, May 13 (EFE).- The work of anthropologists Maria Kahlich and Elfriede Fliethmann took an ugly turn when they started working for the Nazi regime in Poland in 1942. Sent to Tarnów to carry out “racial research” on the “typical Eastern Jews”, Kahlich and Fliethmann broke into Jewish people’s homes, forced them to undress, measured their noses and photographed them as if they were mere objects for their research.

“The Icy Gaze” photography exhibition, hosted at the House of Austrian History in Vienna, displays over 2,000 photographs of the 565 Jewish women, men and children who were photographed. Only 26 of them survived the Holocaust.

“The title was chosen because these photographs were taken with no empathy. The anthropologists degraded their bodies by treating them like ‘materials,'” Margit Berner, a curator of the exhibition, told EFE.

Out of the 40,000 inhabitants living in the southern Polish city of Tarnów, almost half were Jewish. But when the Nazi regime occupied the region, they were stripped from their homes and forced into a ghetto before being transferred to the nearby Auschwitz extermination camp.

The exhibition hopes to rescue the humanity of the victims. Berner, who works as a curator at the Anthropology Department of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, does this by contrasting the “cold” photographs taken by the anthropologists with real and “warm” photographs of the victims taken by friends and family.

The exhibition is a long work in progress. Berner found the photos back in 1997 and it took her over ten years to reconstruct the biographies of the over 500 Jewish people.

Kahlich and Fliethmann remain unpunished for their complicity in Nazi crimes against humanity. After the war was over, the only consequence they had to bear was to leave their public jobs and move into the private sector.

Kahlich worked as a forensic expert at the University of Vienna, where she died in 1970, and Fliethmann worked as a social worker in West Berlin, where he died in 1987.

For Berner, this dark chapter in history should also serve to reflect on the role of science.

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