Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Witness to Fate: The Auschwitz Album

In an incredibly chilling way, The Auschwitz Album, which is among the several choices of documents to be used as resources for this year’s White Rose Essay Contest, is one of the most concrete forms of evidence we have of the Third Reich’s attempted genocide of all of European Jewry. The album was used during testimonies at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt, in the 1960’s. The images bear witness to the deportation of Hungarian Jews from the Berehova Ghetto, some wearing the Stars of David on their coats, to Auschwitz-Birkenau during the spring of 1944.  Also pictured is the “selection” process on the ramp off the newly built train track spur, designed to bring the rails inside the camp, enabling a more efficient movement of larger crowds of people closer to the crematoria in a shorter amount of time.  And perhaps most haunting is the evidence of groups of individuals who have just been sorted and are on the actual walk to the crematoria, some waiting outside the gas chambers, in a grove of birch trees which gave Birkenau its name. Included as well: documentation of imprisoned workers sorting through truckloads of clothing and personal items, confiscated after euphemistic “delousing showers.”

Little is known for certain about the album’s creation, but its re-discovery is an incredible story.  Lilly Jacob, one of the victims pictured on some of the 56 pages of over 190 black and white images still remaining, was liberated from Dora, a sub-camp of Nordhausen, after the war. At the time, she weighed no more than 80 pounds and had to be lifted on a stretcher.  Lilly stumbled upon the album in a deserted SS barracks where she was being temporarily detained 400 miles from Auschwitz. These photographs were around May 26, 1944.  When Lilly found the album months later and hundreds of miles away, she leafed through the photographs and recognized first, her rabbi; then she spotted family members and pictures of herself among the crowds of individuals taken from their community of Bilke, near the Carpathian mountains of Hungary. She kept the album for several years, and eventually sold some of the glass plate prints to the Jewish Museum in Prague, for passage to the United States. 

Once in Miami, news spread of the rare collection of photographs. Survivors began to arrive to examine the images, to see if, by chance, their loved ones were among those pictured on that day in May of 1944.  On the rare occasion that people would be able to identify themselves, or a family member, Lilly would give them the photo.  Recently, one of these has been donated back to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel.  Serge Klarsfeld, a famous Nazi-hunter, convinced Lilly to donate the album and all of the remaining prints to Yad Vashem in 1980.  A database of the information on each photograph was created and conservators at the museum restored the suite. Each image was digitally scanned in 1999.  These reproductions are considered to be in the public domain, and can be accessed on the Yad Vashem website and USHMM’s websiteA PowerPoint with select photos and information about the entire album is available on MCHE’s website.

As a photography teacher, I use a specific tool to engage students in an aesthetic scanning activity to analyze individual photographs.  There are 3 columns: what this gives me, what this is made with, and possible reasons for making this. When talking about these incredibly unique photos from the Auschwitz Album, I don’t have any concrete reasons for creating this collection of photographs.  There is speculation, and it is thought that they were made by one or both of the “staff” photographers at the camp, who typically spent their days taking “mug shots” of the prisoners as a record of the few individuals whose lives were prolonged through labor in the camp.  If that is the case, Ernst Hofmann and/or Bernhard Walter immortalized these several hundred souls. When using the images as a resource, feel free to use the attached tool, designed specifically for photos from this one-of-a-kind album, to assist students in talking about what they see.  Have them fill out the forms before a class discussion, or use this 2-sided analysis sheet as a guide for a DBQ based on a single image. Questioning strategies might begin with reading this Elie Wiesel’s quote based on his personal experience in deportation from Hungary: 

“Every yard or so an SS man held his gun trained on us.  Hand in hand we followed the crowd. ‘Men to the left. Women to the right.’ Eight words spoken, indifferently, without emotion.  Eight short simple words. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sister moving to the right. I saw them disappear in the distance while I walked on with my father and the other men. I did not know that at that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and my sister forever.”

Follow by asking –

  • Do you think this image/these pictures from the Auschwitz album present(s) an ordinary day of unloading prisoners? 
  •  Do these photos seem to be staged or planned, set up in any way?  What specific things do you see that make you believe that? 
  •  What would be the advantage of taking so many different pictures, from so many angles? 
  •  Did you see any of the same people more than once?  How did you recognize them?  Again, what would be the advantage of having multiple images of the same people at different times? 
  •  Do you see any pictures that look like they were taken one right after the other?  Which one happened first?  How can you tell? 
  • How long do you think the whole group of pictures took to shoot?  What clues do we have? 
  •  What do YOU think would be the reason to make such a detailed, visual record of this day?

When viewing the pictures, taken individually, or in a series, I am always a little hesitant to look for very long; but simultaneously, I want to pore over them. There is at once a pull and an instinct to leave these people alone, for the last few moments of privacy they will ever have with their loved ones.  There is an inherent intimacy here. I don’t belong. I have information they do not.  I know what will happen to most of their bodies soon after these pictures are taken.  And I don’t want this information. Not while I am looking into their eyes. Yet, in some inexplicable way, I am drawn in, against my will by some vestige of hope that by participating, by receiving the likeness, I will assist in perpetuating a potentially unending chain of witness. I experience an emotion I don’t have while viewing any other photographs. I want the power in the photo to stop time. I feel, in every sense of the word, a new definition of the verb we often use for creating photographs - they were taken: from the then present, in a very mater-of-fact way, as witness; taken as slices of time, from life; taken from families; taken from what in a few minutes will be this existence; taken from culture and the promise future brings.  And this robbing changes everything. As we peer into the past and lost futures, simultaneously, we are taken, transported, away from a time of being civilized.

While I am reluctant to speculate about the reasons these photos were taken, at the same time, I am incredibly grateful that they were, to bear witness.  In an age of easy photo enhancement and photo shopping, I know the incalculable value of these pictures to speak the truth about the depths our inhumanity can reach. A few years from now, no human being alive will have actually experienced these atrocities.   But will these photos be enough of a witness?  One hundred, two hundred years from now, will these prints still exist?  If someone still has possession of the glass negatives, from plates that would have been used in large format cameras placed on tripods, apertures often deliberately stopped down to keep everything in the picture plane in focus, we would have even stronger evidence, more credible testimony.  Hopefully, the glass plate negatives were not broken, like the storefronts windows of so many Jews on Kristallnacht, marking for many the beginning of the tragic end so clearly evidenced by these haunting documents.

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