Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 27, 2023

The Boy (2010), by Dan Porat

The recent revelation that an Australian Premier wore a Nazi uniform to his 21st birthday party twenty years ago is a reminder that there is an ongoing need to educate people about the Holocaust.

Perrotet had a privileged background and was educated at private schools — where presumably he did not learn that there was nothing about the Nazis that makes them suitable for fancy dress. It’s possible, I suppose that his parents didn’t know about it, but if he hid his behaviour and/or the photos from his parents, then that means that he can’t have been ignorant of his wrongdoing. If they did know, they either failed to dissuade him or didn’t care.

But to give everyone involved the benefit of doubt, and thus to allow that for all concerned it may have been ignorance, this kind of ignorance makes me angry.  It is imperative that people understand that demonisation of The Other leads to genocide, and that celebrating cultures that perpetuate discrimination of any kind — not just anti-Semitism — is completely unacceptable.

I recommend the Twitter account of the Auschwitz Museum which — in addition to memorialising those who perished day-by-day, offers educational resources. And each annual Holocaust Memorial Day I share my Holocaust-related reading. This year the HMD theme is ‘ordinary people’:

Genocide is facilitated by ordinary people. Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

Ordinary people were involved in all aspects of the Holocaust, Nazi persecution of other groups, and in the genocides that took place in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. Ordinary people were perpetrators, bystanders, rescuers, witnesses – and ordinary people were victims.

In every genocide, those targeted faced limited choices – ‘choiceless choices’ (Lawrence Langer) but in every genocide the perpetrators have choices, ordinary people have choices.

This year, I have read a most interesting book called The Boy, by Israeli academic Dan Porat, which interrogates the role of ‘ordinary people’ through an iconic photograph.  This is the book description:

A cobblestone road. A sunny day. A soldier. A gun. A child, arms high in the air. A moment captured on film.

But what is the history behind arguably the most recognizable photograph of the Holocaust? In The Boy: A Holocaust Story, the historian Dan Porat unpacks this split second that was immortalized on film and unravels the stories of the individuals—both Jews and Nazis—associated with it.

The Boy presents the stories of three Nazi criminals, ranging in status from SS sergeant to low-ranking SS officer to SS general. It also tells the story of two Jewish victims, a teenage girl and a young boy, who encounter these Nazis in Warsaw in the spring of 1943. The book is remarkable in its scope, picking up the lives of these participants in the years preceding World War I and following them to their deaths.

I read the prologue, which recounted the author overhearing a tour guide’s comment in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, that the exhibit photo (that is reproduced on the front cover of this book) tells a good story of the Holocaust. She told her astonished listeners that the terrified little boy with his hands raised in the air had survived.  She said that ‘After the Holocaust, he studied medicine, became a doctor and settled in New York’. This incident was the trigger for Porat to investigate the photo: its history and provenance, and the stories that surround it.

Porat wanted to  answer questions that multiplied with time. 

Did the little boy indeed survive the Holocaust? What was his story?  Who was the woman standing on the left? Was she his mother? Who was the little girl? The SS man with his machine gun, who was he? How could he make a little boy raise his hands like this? Who took the photographs? What brought them there? What […] had happened to these people before and after being captured by the camera? (p.6)

Porat conducted rigorous research, which included finding the photo’s origins in The Stroop Report.  The report — amplified by photographic evidence — was prepared for the SS chief Heinrich Himmler, by General Jürgen Stroop about his successful suppression of the Warsaw Uprising and the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Porat then felt compelled to try to tell the story of how the five people he identified in the photo came together on that Warsaw street in the spring of 1943. 

Only some of my questions, however, found answers.  One in particular eluded me: the book does not identify the boy in the photograph.  In my opinion, such an identification is impossible.  It is also beside the point.  Is the lost life of the little boy more important than that of the little girl at the left-hand side of the photograph? Are the lives of this little boy and girl in the photograph more significant than those of children or adults outside the photo frame?  The answer is simple and absolute: no.

A far more pressing question, however, is how one set of men saw in that photograph heroic soldiers combating humanity’s dregs while the vast majority of mankind sees here the gross inhumanity of man.  (p.7)

The book goes on to weave together the story of three Nazis and two Jews:

  • the Nazi soldier, Josef Blosche, who pointed his gun at the boy; Franz Konrad, who took photographs in the ghetto, possibly including the iconic photo; and Jurgen Stroop, the general ordered to liquidate the ghetto;
  • the Jewish survivors Rivkah Trapkovits, a teenage member of a Zionist kibbutz preparing to emigrate to Palestine; and Tsvi Nussbaum, the young boy who became a doctor in New York, and whose story was described as ‘good news’ by that tour guide in the museum.

The beginning scene in Chapter 1, ‘Rising to Power’ however, is clearly the work of imagination as it recreates a moment in Stroop’s life.  I turned to the back of the book for an explanation and read the chapter ‘On photographs, History and Narrative Style’.  Parot explains that only creative engagement with the vast academic literature of the Holocaust can shed any light on why ordinary Germans turned into mass killers. He fills in the gaps, but he does not speculate as historical fiction does.

It is a controlled usage, aided by analytical tools and clearly circumscribed. I was restricted by the known historical evidence and matched the existing historical context with probabilities suggested by multiple sources and research. (p.221)

This chapter is valuable because it interrogates the ways photos are used and abused; how they can be invested with ‘iconic’ status and used inadvertently or deliberately in myth-making; and how, to make meaning from them, we need to analyse the historical context, an explanation of the photo’s origins, an account of events which preceded and followed it, and even to interpret the title assigned to it.  Because..

Not only have iconic photographs such as that of the little boy not promoted remembrance of the Holocaust or prevented other genocides, points out Barbie Zelizer*, but ‘it may be, then, that at times we have begun to remember so as to forget.’ (p.219)

As the lesson of Premier Perrotet shows us only too well…

Author: Dan Porat
Title: The Boy, a Holocaust Story
Publisher: Melbourne University Publishing, 2010
Cover design: Jennifer Carrow
ISBN: 9780522860566, pbk., 262 pages including Notes, Acknowledgements and an Index
Source: local Street Library

*Barbie Zelizer is a scholar of journalistic theory and practice and author of Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory Through the Cameras Eye (1998).


  1. Photography is such a powerful tool. I don’t know the photograph of the boy…it’s the first time I have seen this image of the Holocaust… but reading your review reminded me of the “napalm girl” photograph from the Vietnam war. This article highlights how she survived:


    • yes indeed, I thought of that too when I was reading this. I’ve always meant to read Susan Sontag…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sorry but I think Perrotet (sp?) is an ass. There is no excuse for that kind of behaviour. I remember when I worked at a school in Florida we had an African American teacher come as a KKK clansman. We all laughed but he could do it. This was in the 1970s. I doubt it would happen now but I never saw a white person dress as that for a joke.


  3. Your review is timely, and you’ve inspired me to track down a copy so I can be better informed.
    Also, as a teacher of history, including the skill of ‘Source Analysis’, I think this work will be useful as a theoretical example.


    • A useful complement to Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such an interesting post Lisa, and there really is no excuse for the kind of behaviour which glorifies Nazis. Mind you, I’m starting to think there might be two kind of human species who happen to look alike but have very differing views of life… As for photographs, they’re a surprisingly malleable medium and really can be made to mean what we want them to mean.


    • *wry chuckle* You might be right…
      Readers… and everyone else.

      Liked by 1 person

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