Harold Behr

The picture is mightier than the word

I am with the sentiments of both Alice in Wonderland and Confucius, who, in their charmingly different ways, remarked (respectively), “What is the use of a book without pictures?” and “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Children are intrigued by pictures before they can read. Later, a smart adult – parent, teacher or author – weaves words in among the pictures and reads aloud to the child while he or she ponders the pictures on the page. When it comes to imparting historic and present-day life events to the child, it is the photos, drawings and paintings of the event which draw the child’s attention and find their way to the brain’s long-term storage compartments more readily than the text.

However, pictures also have the power to shock and frighten. There is a grey area here, in which pictures which are intended to educate and inform inadvertently traumatize the child. It is this grey area that I would like to explore here, focusing on pictures which record the sufferings inflicted by war and persecution. To do so, I must share some of my earliest memories.

I was four years old and six thousand miles away from Europe when the war ended. I was living comfortably in South Africa with my parents, who had emigrated from South Africa early in the twentieth century and who mercifully shielded me from the information that there were cousins, aunts and uncles who had remained in Lithuania and perished at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian henchmen. To this day, I know nothing of the precise circumstance in which my relatives met their end or the identities of the perpetrators. Nor do I know where they are buried. There is only a dull sense of sadness, felt more on behalf of my parents than myself.

When the concentration camps were liberated by the allied forces, the shock waves emanating from the scenes which unfolded reverberated round the world. I distinctly remember a booklet published by a Johannesburg newspaper, ‘The Star’ to mark the liberation of Belsen. The booklet was published in two languages – English and Afrikaans – but all the English copies had been snatched up by the time we managed to acquire a copy, so we had to make do with the Afrikaans version. As I wasn’t yet able to read, this didn’t bother me, but I could still absorb the details in the glossy photos showing piles of corpses and groups of hollow-eyed survivors standing around – virtual living skeletons.

As I recall, these scenes were never talked about at home but the photos had a lasting impact on me. On the one hand, they helped me to prepare mentally for the many accounts which were later to come my way of man’s inhumanity to man. On the other hand, the pictures flooded my child’s mind with fearful imaginings of the awful deaths of real people. They probably made me more timid than my naturally adventurous spirit impelled me. Being Jewish became something to be wary of disclosing to the wider society, because I could end up like the children in the pictures.

Related to these photos was a newspaper cartoon from around the same time which I sticks in my memory. It shows an allied soldier entering a cave, the floor of which is covered covered with human skulls and bones. The soldier is shining a torch into the cave, the beam from which lights up a giant ape-like creature wearing a swastika armband. This was another indelible image. My parents did not push any of this material my way (I was naturally inquisitive and found it for myself) but nor did they prevent me from looking at it. Should they have? On balance, I don’t think so.

The photos, cartoons and film footage to which I was exposed in the immediate aftermath of the war probably contributed to the serious complexion of my nature but they also fostered some of my lifelong passions: an interest in political cartoons and a desire to learn more about the history, politics and psychology of people. Perhaps more importantly, they helped to provide me with an ethical compass to steady me in my travels through life’s quagmires.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
Related Topics
Related Posts