During World War II, German authorities and their collaborators in Nazi-occupied countries forced people of Jewish descent to wear identifying badges as a way to isolate them and publicly mark them as inferior. But some chose to embrace their forced visibility and celebrate their Jewish identity by posing for professional photographic portraits while wearing the yellow star.
A public photo exhibition called Scene/Unseen is running through December 16 at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. It consists of a series of photographic portraits, obtained from various international archives, of people wearing the Jewish star. The images include portraits of men, women and children. Information is included about some of the people in each photograph.
“It takes something meant to be shameful and uses it to express pride in one’s identity,” says Julin Everett, an assistant professor of French at Ursinus. “These images reveal a defiance that allows us to consider not only how these individuals died, but also how they lived.”
Everett collaborated on the project with her colleague, Cari Freno, an artist and assistant professor of art. Freno says the portraits present a daily challenge for each visitor to reflect on the experiences of not only the subject, but of all marginalized people. “What strikes me is the idea of invisible minorities and how we treat people who come from a different place or background,” Freno says.”It’s a perception that still exists.” The yellow star was one of many tactics aimed at dehumanizing Jewish people in Europe that directly led to their separation from society, deportation and death.
One of the images in the exhibit depicts a French army war veteran and his two young children. The portrait had been sent to French government officials during the war with the hope that the man’s wife, who had been detained, would be released and allowed to return to her family. Instead, the family was arrested.
Another portrait is of a woman named Chana, who sent the photograph to a loved one imprisoned in a work camp. In a letter sent back to Chana, the recipient wrote, “I congratulate you on your Jewish pride.” Everett says, “This suggests that the people in these photographs had them taken because they were proud of who they were.” She adds, “There’s a sense of beauty and grace and power in all of these portraits.”