The International School for Holocaust Studies
Das Auschwitz Album – Die Geschichte eines Transports
(The Auschwitz Album – The Story of a Transport)
Reviewed by Dr. Gideon Greif
Edited by Israel Gutman and Bella Gutterman
Wallstein Verlag / Yad Vashem / Göttingen, 2000
This is the German edition of one of the most significant visual sources on the Shoah. Prior to this edition, a Hebrew and an English version were published. This collection of 207 photos was made on the ramp of Birkenau in late Spring, 1944, by two SS-photographers: Walter and Hoffmann. Although we do not have any documents relating to this photography project, we assume that the goal of the collection was to counter the rumors about Auschwitz and its function as a killing center, rumors which spread quickly in 1944. It was in the interest of the Nazi regime to prove that Auschwitz was a peaceful, safe camp, in which the Jews were well-treated, with no occurrences of criminal activity. A quiet and harmonious atmosphere does characterize this photo collection, in which no aggression or brutality are noticeable. If we did not know the truth behind these photographs we would not so much as glance at them. These photos were, most certainly, taken in order to be used as a propaganda tool to prove to the free world as well as to the remaining victims, the Hungarian Jews, that they had nothing to fear on arrival, that they would be treated humanely, and that they were only being sent for "resettlement" in Poland.
Let us remember the historical circumstances: the rumors about the "Final Solution" had spread in 1944, and the killing by gas was not a secret anymore. Besides, firm news about the gas installations in Birkenau had already been handed over to the world by the two Jewish pairs of escapees from Birkenau: Rudolf Vrba (Walter Rosenberg) and Alfred Wetzler (Josef Lanik) in April, 1944; and Czeslaw Mordowitz and Arnost Rosin in May, 1944. A secret negotiation process began between Jewish circles in Slovakia and Hungary (April-May, 1944), in which the Nazi leadership had taken an interest. The negotiations, in which several Jewish organizations took part (including Rudolf Kasztner, on behalf of the "Relief and Rescue Committee" in Budapest), were at a crucial stage in May, 1944. Due to these developments, it was essential to refute and contradict the information, which leaked from Auschwitz-Birkenau. A visual photographic document could supply the means for such a propaganda campaign.
The photographers documented the whole process, from the arrival of the "transport" on the ramp to the end of the process. The photos can be divided into six themes: one is the arrival on the ramp, showing us Jews leaving the wagons, filling the ramp, and being welcomed by the "Kanada Kommando" prisoners. Later we follow the crucial and dramatic part of the "Selection", during which an SS-physician chooses between those who will be immediately sent to their death in the gas chamber and those who will temporarily be allowed to live as slaves, working for German industry and the army. The third theme is the ideological one: the photographers present us stereotypical Jewish men and women, who correspond to Nazi racial propaganda based on their pseudo-scientific ideology. The photographers force some of the "objects" – Orthodox Jews – to remove their hats in order to humiliate them publicly. In the fourth chapter we accompany Jews who were "selected" for death. We see them walking slowly to the place of murder with many children and old people, noting how they wait in the forest near the crematoria building. The fifth chapter describes the route which those who have been allowed to live follow after "the selection". The sixth shows the huge effort invested by the Germans to make a profit out of the victims' property.
The photographers, professional and experienced, achieved their aims in two ways: some of their photographs document existing scenes. In others, they direct and stage scenes, telling their subjects what to do. They climb on the train's roof in order to show a wide angle of the ramp, and thus enable us to have a complete look at the ramp and its environs.
In this edition readers will find victims' photos with names attached – victims identified by relatives and friends who survived. In case of double-identification, both names are mentioned.
The testimonies of Holocaust survivors collected in the last few years enable us to reconstruct the process of "selection," registration in the camp, and directing of the Jews into the gas chambers. However, in order to obtain an accurate picture of the procedure, we need a visual document. The numerous photos that survived in The Auschwitz Album make it possible for us to glance into the world of the camps, into the making of the so-called "Final Solution of the Jewish Question" and especially into the functioning of the biggest extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The story of how the album was found is so unbelievable that one can, without any difficulty, write a book or produce a dramatic documentary about it. The most striking fact is that the album, documenting the dispatch of a Jewish transport of deportees from Hungary towards the last station in their life, falls into the hands of a survivor of that same death transport, one of the few lucky ones, who opens the album and suddenly recognizes the people of her community in it, those who arrived with her on the platform at Birkenau: her rabbi, even her numerous family relatives and... herself! The most gifted producer or playwright, author or poet, could not have invented a more dramatic and tragic scene, a fact that makes The Auschwitz Album one of the most remarkable visual documents in the history of the twentieth century.
Many components of the story were, and still are, mysterious and it is doubtful whether they will ever be solved. For example, why was such a photographic documentation made in Birkenau? What was its aim and why on that specific date – only a few months before the evacuation of the camp? Who decided on this action? Why did the only ones that were authorized to photograph inside the boundaries of the camp deny that they had accomplished the task? How did it occur that photographs with such historical importance and rarity on the one hand, and with the character of secrecy and concealment on the other, found their way into the hands of a private person, and more interesting: how was it possible that a historical treasure was incidentally arranged in a private photo album?
Nonetheless, even concerning the Album, from the historical perspective, it is important that such rare photos were taken at all – and survived. They serve as an excellent reconstruction and provide visual proof of the bitter fate of the Jewish people on the grounds of the slaughterhouse called Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A thorough and careful examination of the photos leads to the following conclusions:
The many locations of the photos (the ramp, "Kanada", "Frauenlager", etc.) indicate that more than one photographer was involved in the action. The technical quality of the photos denotes professional work. Another significant point is that the photographers were familiar with the process of arrival of the transport and the "treatment" of the deportees. With their cameras they report every important step in the process, but are extremely cautious not to show anything specifically connected with the crimes there. There is no evidence of brutality, aggression, or killing in the photos. On the contrary: there is an atmosphere of order and discipline. The complete set of photographs is characterized by a calm, non-aggressive, non-violent atmosphere. There is no beating or maltreatment of prisoners with guns, whips, or sticks. The SS men are not equipped with rifles or dogs – a permanent factor in the Nazi camps. The deportees do not reflect a horrified look. A spirit of order and discipline – although cool and mechanic – prevails in most of the photos.
Those who relate to this Album as a propaganda project of the Nazi leadership may be correct in their assumption. The German criminals standing near their victims have already decided to kill most of them in cold blood. In the photos, however, they appear businesslike, practical, and restrained. It seems like the documentation of a boring routine, not unique in any way.
As educators we need to keep in mind that the photographers knew everything – and the people who they obsessively documented knew nothing. This tension can be seen in the photographs. They radiate a tense peacefulness, concern, and especially a lack of certainty – the sense of an approaching disaster.
What the photographers feel vis-a-vis the horrible fate of the people they are photographing, people of whom soon nothing will be left, but a handful of ashes – is hard to evaluate. Are they mocking them? Do they despise them? Are they apathetic or, who knows, merciful? It is possible that they are estranged from the reality, and their only interest is to fulfill their professional duty. But it is also possible that they regard their task as an artistic challenge, for which they must use all their talent and professional experience.
Regardless of the photographers' feelings, the terrible secret is not unveiled. There is no dialogue between the photographed and the photographers.
If we accept the theory that the action was performed for propaganda purposes, how can we explain the part of the documentation that shows the confiscation of property and the sorting done by the "Effektenlager" prisoners?
Logically, this should have been omitted from the documentary. On the other hand, these pictures can also be presented as proof that the Germans took care of their prisoners in the camps.
One central and final chapter is not part of the documentation: the murder in the gas chambers. The photographers stop at the gate of the gas chambers and do not leave documentation of the murder itself. The reason is clear. The real crime is hidden and allows them to present the arrival of the transport of Jews as a bureaucratic action, not as a murderous and brutal one. Photos naturally have objective limitations, as well as certain disadvantages and advantages. Through the lens of the camera many details get lost. The natural is always a little falsified. Just seeing a camera, we immediately try to make a better impression, start to smile, and the picture becomes artificial. Professional photographers can change reality. Small can become bigger, black can even become white and vice versa. Ugly places can suddenly look beautiful, and since photographers are also artists, they can even find nice places in the vicinity of the crematoria.
This collection of photos can be seen as a memorial to the gassed Jews and as a substitute for the thousands of family photos that the Jews brought from their homes. Photos are an important source of remembrance of something lost. Photo albums were usually burned together with books, Torah scrolls, personal documents, etc., because they had no value in the eyes of the SS. Therefore, no photos of the burnt people exist.
Only a fortunate coincidence saved The Auschwitz Album for the world – a document that describes in pictures only one transport that symbolizes many others which were not documented or photographed.
The Auschwitz Album is an excellent source for the teaching of the subjects "Auschwitz" and the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question". Since the many photos included in this document have a peaceful character, it can also be used for teaching youngsters. Here lies the importance of the Album now being published in German. Teachers in Germany can now use this unique source for explaining to their pupils what a ramp in an extermination camp means and what a "selection" looks like. They can show them the faces of murdered Jews and enable them to feel the atmosphere of the place, in which over 1,100,000 Jews lost their lives.
The pictures supply the tools to explain issues which normally are not discussed in detail – and are so central to understanding the Shoah: the methods of deceit and fraud used by the Germans on the one hand, and the naivety and innocence of the victims on the other.
To sum up: The Auschwitz Album is a "must"-document for anyone who wishes to better understand Auschwitz and to get acquainted with the system that enabled Nazi Germany to slaughter so many millions in a relatively short period of time.