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Physician's Photos a Haunting Reminder of the Holocaust

Los Angeles photographer and UCLA urologist Dr. Richard Ehrlich wanted his photographs of this vast and rarely visited German repository to bear witness to the cold-blooded, dispassionate bookkeeping the Nazis employed to document the unimaginable atrocities they committed.

I want people to see this--to know that it really happened.

See the original UCLA Today article for additional photos by Dr. Richard Ehrlich.

By Cynthia Lee

THE PASSAGE OF a half century has done little to disturb the orderliness that reigns over the rows upon rows of meticulously stacked, catalogued, boxed and bound records currently being stored in the town of Bad Arolsen 250 miles from Berlin.

The dim florescent lighting barely illuminates the rooms where floor-to-ceiling metal shelves and cabinets are laden with some 50 million aging documents and artifacts – neatly indexed file cards, worn maps and record books with handwritten entries, and yellowing stacks of papers, their official time and date stamps now faded.

Obsessed with the smallest detail, the Nazis would likely have been proud of the way this extensive collection of Holocaust documents, now kept by the International Tracing Service (ITC), have survived the passing years.

Los Angeles photographer and UCLA urologist Dr. Richard Ehrlich relished their survival for a different reason: He wanted his photographs of this vast and rarely visited repository to bear witness to the cold-blooded, dispassionate bookkeeping the Nazis employed to document the unimaginable atrocities they committed.

"I want people to see this – to know that it really happened," said Ehrlich, who gained access to the ITS archives after reading a small newspaper story four years ago about their existence. "The reason this is so important is that there are people out there who say this never existed."

Ehrlich, whose exquisite photographs of landscapes and nature have been exhibited in galleries and published in fine art books, tried unsuccessfully for the better part of a year to access the archives. But it wasn't until he decided to tap a high-ranking U.S. State Department contact that he finally gained entry.

What he found there was chilling.

"They had 50 million pieces of paper in relation to 17.5 million lives," Ehrlich said. His photographs "show this incredible, meticulous attention to detail. You wouldn't believe the things they wrote down – like the number of lice they found on people's heads. They were so anal and so compulsive about writing down everything they did."

From the files of the Gestapo, the ghettos, prison work camps and offices of Nazi authorities have come a tidal wave of records and artifacts that stretch more than 16 miles, all of it preserved by the ITC, an arm of the International Red Cross, organized to help with historical research, family reunification and refugee services. Its work is funded by the German government.

Ehrlich made two trips to Germany in 2007 where, with the help of an English-speaking guide, he searched six ITC archive buildings, including one that once was a barracks for the SS. "She pulled out documents that I never would have found because they were buried," Ehrlich recalled gratefully. Among them was a document transferring Anne Frank to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, where she died in 1945. Another was the original Schindler's list, and yet another showed carefully kept accountings of head lice. Among the papers Erlich photographed was a letter from "Heydrich" inviting participants to a discussion of the final solution of the Jewish question before breakfast was to be served.

As a photographer known for work that captures the rich colors of nature and eye-pleasing landscapes, Ehrlich found himself conflicted by his artistic instinct "to make photographs that were visually pleasing" and the ugliness of what he saw. "It was a dichotomy."

Containing 52 color, digital images, Ehrlich's portfolio of this work is now part of the public collections of Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem; the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Muséd'Art et d'Histoire du Jadaisme in Paris; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University; the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education; and the UCLACharles E. Young Research Library's Department of Special Collections.

For five days, an exhibition at the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica brought crowds of people in to see his work, including survivors of the Holocaust and relatives of victims of the Nazi regime. "It was unbelievable how many people were touched by this. It has become much more of a project than I ever envisioned," the physician said.

"Dr. Ehrlich's photographs are a beautiful, haunting, and painful reminder of a terrifying past," said David Myers, professor of history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, "not only of the Nazi efforts to exterminate European Jews, but of the cold, calculated dispassion with which they went about their murderous plans. His photographs evoke the full depths of Nazi criminality by chronicling the precision with which the murderers went about and recorded the Final Solution.They remind us of the grave danger that lurks when state power is aligned to a genocidal ideology -- and thus serve as a powerful cautionary tale for the future."
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, at the UCLA Faculty Center, historians and scholars will mark the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass" in 1938 when 92 Jews were murdered and 25,000–30,000 arrested and shipped to concentration camps. A commemorative program will feature speakers from the University of Munich and Trinity College as well as an exhibit of Ehrlich's photographs.

The program, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Center for Jewish Studies with co-sponsors that include the UCLA/Mellon Program on the Holocaust in American & World Culture, the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, the Consulate General of Poland and the UCLA departments of History and Germanic Languages. For more information, see the Center for Jewish Studies website. RSVP is strongly recommended: e-mail chsrsvp@humnet.ucla.edu, or call 310-267-5327.

A book of Ehrlich's photographs of Namibia was recently published by Nazraeli Press, which will also publish in 2009 his "The Body as Art: The Art of the Body." Many of his donated photographs grace patient rooms, hallways and administrative offices of the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, which he photographed extensively as it was being constructed.

To see his work, go to Erlich’s website. To read more and see his photos of the medical center, see this UCLA Magazine story.