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The International School for Holocaust Studies

Inside the Epicenter of the Horror – Photographs of the Sonderkommando

By Franziska Reiniger


Among the millions of photographs that are related to Nazi death camps, only four depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They show a completely different perspective, which makes them unique when dealing with visual material of the Holocaust and the Holocaust as a topic itself. They were taken inside the epicenter of the horror, from which no other visual material exists. They were taken clandestinely at the height of the Final Solution in 1944 by one of the so-called Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners forced to help carry out the atrocities by removing the Nazis' victims from the gas chambers and destroying the corpses through fire or mass burial. One of the photographs shows a group of naked women; the others show the cremation of corpses.

Poland, Women naked, before their execution.Poland, Women naked, before their execution

If we agree that photography not only reflects reality, but also interprets it, than we need to take a closer look at the photographer and the reason the photograph was taken: what is seen in it and what were the circumstances under which it was taken? We need to ask ourselves whether there are captions or explanations? What is invisible for the viewer, what is out of range of the camera?

Even though the identity of the photographer/s is uncertain, some surviving records left by members of the Sonderkommando indicate the names of those involved in taking the images. The photographs were hidden and smuggled out of the camp and given into the hands of Polish resistance fighters in order to show the world what was happening and to give testimony about the extermination. A note, which accompanied the photographs, was dated September 4, 1944 and signed “Stakło”, a pseudonym for the Polish prisoner and leading member of the camp resistance, Stanisław Kłodziński. It said:

Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6x9 camera as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you snaps from Birkenau – gas poisoning action. These photos show one of the stakes at which bodies were burned, when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest, where people are undressing before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can! Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think you should send the enlargements further on.[1]

Tell was the pseudonym of a member of the underground movement in Krakow, Teresa Łasocka-Estreicher.[2]

The former Sonderkommando member Alter Fajnzylberg gave his own account of how the pictures were taken:

[S]omewhere about midway through 1944, we decided to take pictures secretly to record our work… From the very beginning, several prisoners from our Sonderkommando were in on my secret: Szlomo Dragon, his brother Josek Dragon, and Alex, a Greek Jew whose surname I do not remember… Some of us were to guard the person taking the pictures. In other words, we were to keep a careful watch for the approach of anyone who did not know the secret, and above all for any SS men moving about in the area… We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas-chamber of Crematorium V… Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter… Another picture was taken from the other side of the building, where women and men were undressing among the trees. They were from a transport that was to be murdered in the gas-chamber of Crematorium V.[3]

These quotes highlight the fact that taking these photographs was a collective act of resistance, taken by the person smuggling the camera into the camp, the one taking the pictures, the ones guarding him and the ones smuggling them outside. The plan included various people and was part of a well-organized underground resistance. The photographs were taken to warn people of what was happening – to warn them not to trust the Germans – and also to inform the world, to bear witness and to leave a testimony for future generations.

The exceptional status of the Sonderkommando photographs opens up debate about the memory and visual representation of the Holocaust. Sonderkommandos (special operatives or units) were prisoners who were forced to perform inhumanly gruesome tasks, or die. Since the Nazis did not intend them to survive to offer their testimony, they regularly murdered the members of the Sonderkommando and replaced them with new ones. These uniquely-suffering individuals witnessed the actual Holocaust. The pictures thus depict the perspective of victims who were deliberately deprived of everything fundamental to human existence and yet managed to resist in order to provide testimony about the crimes against them and their people. The documentation of the criminal destruction is an act of resistance against the intention of the Nazis to destroy anything human and moral in the members of the Sonderkommando, as well as to make visual documentation of the extermination itself impossible. And since even the Nazis seem to have refrained from filming or photographing the actual operations of the gas chambers, these images are the most proximate available.

In order to understand the four photographs and their historical context, George Didi-Huberman, who analyses the four Sonderkommando photographs in his book: Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz, argues that they have to be seen together rather than separately. They were taken in a sequence and they were taken under dangerous conditions. This danger is more vivid when they are seen together.

Most people are only aware of the last three photographs: one showing the naked women running, and two showing the Sonderkommando burning bodies. The least-known of the four pictures is the first one, which shows only the black shapes and shadows of trees. Its nothingness becomes understandable when seen together with the other three – the photographer clearly had no time to aim the camera, and the photo reflects the impossibility of capturing an image. The photographer was under so much pressure and was so afraid of being caught, that he just pressed the shutter without aiming and without looking.

The four photographs do not show us the entire reality. We see naked women running, but we don’t know what they’re running towards (or away from). But with the help of other documents, including maps of Birkenau, which tell us where the gassing installations were, and testimony, like the testimony of Alter Fajnzylberg and the note written by Stanisław Kłodziński that accompanied the photographs when they were smuggled out of the camp, we can understand that the women are running towards the gas chambers. These photographs capture what are probably their last moments alive. This offers yet another main pedagogical aspect: The victims who died an anonymous death were all human being with families, friends, dreams and hopes before they were reduced to corpses by their murderers. These pictures show them still as individuals with faces minutes before they were killed. It is impossible to understand the impact of the Holocaust in piles of corpses. Thus it is import to visualize the human beings who were lost and to give them back their faces.

What is missing from the four pictures is the actual process of extermination; we see the women running towards the gas chambers, and we see the Sonderkommando burning bodies on the other side of the building, but we do not see what has gone on in between. In the pictures there is an encounter between truth and obfuscation: the smoke actually hides the graves and the location of the event is blurred. We only see the Sonderkommando after the crime has been committed. We cannot see the crime itself; only its result.

Auschwitz, Poland, Cremation of bodies by the Sonderkommando, Summer 1944.Auschwitz, Poland, Cremation of bodies by the Sonderkommando, Summer 1944.

The photographs usually shown are only part of the original pictures.

They are cropped to highlight the “important” details, which are the atrocities that are taking place in Auschwitz-Birkenau, apparently because this was seen as the most useful documentary element: showing the victims themselves. The decision to crop the photos was apparently made in 1944 by the original Polish photographer who was working with “Tell”, the underground operative to whom the photos were sent; the original, uncropped versions did not surface until 1985.[4] Even today, the photographs are usually displayed in their cropped forms and not in their original forms. They also restructure the image so that the figures appear more “natural”, standing straight up.

Two of the original photographs (those of the Sonderkommando cremating corpses), however, are surrounded by a black frame and the photograph of the naked women, shows mostly the trees and the surroundings; only when you take a close look at the photo can you see the naked women in the lower left-hand corner.

Three of the original, uncropped versions can be seen here (the photo of the trees described above is not contained in this gallery).
By cropping out the original blackness at the edges of the images the photos are dislocated from their original perspective and delete information about the photographer. The uncropped version shows us the position of the photographers as well as the conditions under which they took the pictures. It shows us the fact that they had to hide in the crematorium building and had to hastily shoot the images through a doorway or a window, which contributed to their blurriness and distorted angles. Reframing and changing the picture cuts out all of these details and makes us believe that the photographer was able to walk around in the open air and freely take photographs of what was happening outside.
The black frame that doesn’t show very much is as valuable as the other parts of the picture. Pictures don’t exist by themselves, but in the context of the act that made them possible. The black frame represents the room, the dark chamber in which the person had to step back to take the picture. It represents the situation of the shot itself, the place that made its existence possible. The removal of the dark zone in order to get “clear” information makes believe that the picture was taken calmly, and thus mocks the danger and the resistance. By cutting out the frame, the phenomenology is blocked out and with it everything that makes this photograph an event (the process, the work, the danger and the placement).

Using the images as they were made, in a series, offers the possibility of montage of history in order to gain a better understanding of the events. These pictures, and photographs in general, need to be understood as fragmented moments of an event, not as an image of the whole Holocaust. They are impressions of the reality as well as their own interpretation. They are great tools of expression, visual testimony and proof. They play an important role in the collective process of commemoration and remembrance.

The importance of the Sonderkommando photographs is in what they depict – they are an extract of the actual extermination of Jews – and in the actual act of taking the pictures – in comparison to other Auschwitz photographs, these actually show the danger and the resistance in the act of taking a photograph. They were ripped out of the reality to prove something that nobody believed could be true. They address the unimaginable and prove the unimaginable to be real at the same time. To read about the atrocities makes them sometimes hard to believe, but the four pictures are proof of the secret, the lie and the strategy: to stigmatize Auschwitz as something unimaginable and therefore untrue by destroying all traces, all human morals, destroying the weapons of extermination themselves – the gas chambers – and by destroying the memory of the extermination.
These four photographs are of immense importance because they prove that the unimaginable is imaginable: nobody can deny the existence of the pictures. The photographs are only one moment of the “truth”, but they are invaluable, since they are all we have regarding the extermination.

Some critics have argued that these partially-comprehensible images depicting only a small part of the destruction process would come to be seen as representative of the entire Holocaust, thus reducing the scale and extension of the horror to a few randomly-captured moments. It has been also said that since there is no single image which can depict the entire Holocaust in its diversity, it is preferable to not show actual images of the genocide.[5]
George Didi-Huberman, who analyses the four Sonderkommando photographs, insists on the necessity of viewing these images, which had been created “in spite of all” and survived “in spite of all”. He explains that: “[t]hey are infinitely precious to us today. They are demanding too, for they require archeological work. We must dig again in their ever so fragile temporality.”[6]
Didi-Huberman adds a significant dimension to the ethics of historical memory: mere viewing is insufficient. It is not enough to look at the exhibit, in order to “never forget”.

The photographs are tiny details of a complex reality, a short moment – but they become the “truth” themselves – the reality of Auschwitz that stays visual for us. The purpose of the pictures was to show the reality of Auschwitz and to make it accessible for the rest of the world. A picture can begin where all words stop and categories fail.

The function of Auschwitz was to deny the humanity of its victims and to destroy their lives and any documents of their existence. To oppose the destruction of all pictures and to take a picture despite everything means in this context an act of resistance – to keep a picture for the rest of the world, to resist actively, to acknowledge the others and to maintain one’s own humanity. Therefore it is necessary to understand the pictures. They are lacking information but they confront us with the act of temporary survivors as well as the tragedy of the Sonderkommando.

The Sonderkommando photographs are proof of the crime and proof of the trust of the Sonderkommando members in visual evidence and resistance.

Conclusion

Photographs are so powerful because they seem utterly real. They seem to represent reality without any mediation. We believe that they come directly to us without any manipulation. However, the Sonderkommando photographs prove that we must be much more critical when viewing photographs – we must remember to ask the important questions. Only then will we be able to truly understand the reality they depict.


[1] Janina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co., Ltd., 2004), p. 114.
[2] Struk, p. 114.
[3] Struk, p. 114-115.
[4] Struk, p. 118.
[5] See the philosophy of Claude Lanzmann.
[6] Georges Didi-Huberman, Images in spite of all. Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2008), p. 47.