by the Night Writer
Power Line linked yesterday to a compelling new website, The Auschwitz Album. The story of the Holocaust and especially what took place at Auschwitz-Birkenau is a grim and familiar one that has been compellingly dramatized and commemorated many times. For most of us, though, we have come to know it through these dramatizations. We may have seen photographs of the emaciated survivors who were found in the camps and of the piled and naked bodies of those who didn’t survive, but most of what we’ve seen has been the product (even if a painstaking one) of someone’s imagination.
The Auschwitz Album is different in that it consists mainly of photos taken by German SS officers of the unloading and separation of the inmates as they arrived by train in the camp. From the introduction:
The Auschwitz Album is the only surviving visual evidence of the process of mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a unique document and was donated to Yad Vashem by Lilly Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier.
The photos were taken at the end of May or beginning of June 1944, either by Ernst Hofmann or by Bernhard Walter, two SS men whose task was to take ID photos and fingerprints of the inmates (not of the Jews who were sent directly to the gas chambers). The photos show the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia. Many of them came from the Berehovo Ghetto, which itself was a collecting point for Jews from several other small towns.
Early summer 1944 was the apex of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. For this purpose a special rail line was extended from the railway station outside the camp to a ramp inside Auschwitz. Many of the photos in the album were taken on the ramp. The Jews then went through a selection process, carried out by SS doctors and wardens. Those considered fit for work were sent into the camp, where they were registered, deloused and distributed to the barracks. The rest were sent to the gas chambers. They were gassed under the guise of a harmless shower, their bodies were cremated and the ashes were strewn in a nearby swamp. The Nazis not only ruthlessly exploited the labor of those they did not kill immediately, they also looted the belongings the Jews brought with them. Even gold fillings were extracted from the mouths of the dead by a special detachment of inmates. The personal effects the Jews brought with them were sorted by inmates and stored in an area referred to by the inmates as “Canada”: the ultimate land of plenty.
The photos in the album show the entire process except for the killing itself.
The purpose of the album is unclear. It was not intended for propaganda purposes, nor does it have any obvious personal use. One assumes that it was prepared as an official reference for a higher authority, as were photo albums from other concentration camps.
There is a quiet drama to the photos of the Jews just arriving at the camp and being separated into groups to serve as slave labor … or sent immediately to the crematorium. The photos are simple, with not much thought given to composition, casual almost to the point of insignificance, most of the drama created largely by what we know is going to happen…a vantage point we have over almost everyone in the photos. This is disquieting, as is the dawning revelation that these are not actors or artist’s renderings but real people, frozen in history, some within an hour of their unexpected deaths. Those sentenced, unknowingly, to death walk off casually in the direction of the crematorium, its tall stack merely part of the scenery.
Some of those pictured, either German soldier or prisoner, could conceivably still be alive today and it makes your skin prickle to ponder an ancient survivor seeing one of these images and recognizing himself. If you were a soldier, would you admire your health and vigor as you were captured in that moment in time, or would you look closely to see whether you could detect a trace of your soul inside the earnest young man? If you were a survivor, would you even recognize what your own face looked like before your spirit was rived by what was to come? If you were a “veteran inmate” in your striped pajama-like uniform and looking nearly as robust as the guards, stationed on the platform to be a calming influence on the new arrivals, could you even bear to look?
Can we, looking back in our historical omnipotence, stare at these photos and still not ask, “What the hell happened?” How did a country like Germany — as advanced as any other culturally, philosophically, theologically, scientifically — succumb to such enraptured madness and stand unconcerned on the plains of Hell in the sunshine of a summer afternoon?