Auschwitz photos open window into Nazi psyche

Publié le par Roger Cousin

JournalCleveland Jewish News published 14/06/2010 at 9:27 AM

Saucy young women eating blueberries; a jovial crowd singing along with an accordionist; happy faces trimming a Christmas tree.

Officiers SS à AuschwitzThese rare images of Nazi officials, guards and other staff serving at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp comprise an SS officer’s personal photo album, now part of the collection at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sara J. Bloomfield, museum director, and Rebecca Erbelding Tarbet, museum archivist, will discuss the revelatory album at “Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS,” a June 16 program at Park Synagogue East.

The album, which had belonged to SS officer Karl Höcker, contains 117 photos taken between May 1944 and January 1945. At that time, the Jews of Hungary, the last Jewish community in Europe to be deported, arrived at Auschwitz during the final months before the camp’s liberation.

A Washington, D.C.-area resident donated the album to the museum. The non-Jewish donor, a widower, then 89, with no children, insisted on anonymity and has since died. During World War II, the donor worked in counter-intelligence and was stationed in Panama, guarding the Canal Zone and working with German POWs. After the war, he was sent to Allied POW camps in Europe to identify SS officers hiding among low-ranked German soldiers.

These rare images of Nazi officials, guards and other staff serving at Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp comprise an SS officer’s personal photo album, now part of the collection at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Sara J. Bloomfield, museum director, and Rebecca Erbelding Tarbet, museum archivist, will discuss the revelatory album at “Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS,” a June 16 program at Park Synagogue East.

The album, which had belonged to SS officer Karl Höcker, contains 117 photos taken between May 1944 and January 1945. At that time, the Jews of Hungary, the last Jewish community in Europe to be deported, arrived at Auschwitz during the final months before the camp’s liberation. A Washington, D.C.-area resident donated the album to the museum. The non-Jewish donor, a widower, then 89, with no children, insisted on anonymity and has since died.

During World War II, the donor worked in counter-intelligence and was stationed in Panama, guarding the Canal Zone and working with German POWs. After the war, he was sent to Allied POW camps in Europe to identify SS officers hiding among low-ranked German soldiers. Needing housing, he found an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt. In the closet he discovered the album and took it back with him when he returned to the U.S. In December 2006, he contacted the museum about the album.

The museum took possession of the photos in January 2007 and debuted them on its website the following September. There is no physical public exhibit of the photos, and Bloomfield and Tarbet will use slides to illustrate their talk, which is co-sponsored by Park Synagogue. Identifying those in the photos required extensive archival detective work. Höcker, adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz – essentially his chief of staff – may not have taken any of the photos, Tarbet says. And while he hand-lettered some dates in the album – archivists matched the lettering to known samples of his handwriting –Tarbet speculates that the two camp photographers took most of the pictures.

The Höcker photos do not show any prisoners or railways or barracks. They were taken at a time when the Allies were getting closer and the Germans seemed to sense that they needed to hurry and finish the genocide of the Jews, Tarbet says. But the Höcker photos don’t show that desperation at all, Tarbet says. Many were taken at Solahutte, a resort about 17 milies south of Auschwitz on the Sola River. The SS would go there for the day to relax. Groups of photos show female secretaries, members of the Helferinnen auxiliary unit, on a day trip to Solahutte, accompanied by Höcker. One clearly staged series of photos shows the women eating blueberries, all raising their spoons at the same time, all taking simultaneous bites, and afterward, all showing their empty bowls.

When she first tried to determine who was in the photos, Tarbet, who wrote a research paper on Josef Mengele and knew what he looked like, discovered the infamous doctor in some of the images. Previously, historians had found no photos of Mengele at Auschwitz.

“Once I figured that out, I started running around showing the album to people,” she says.

Tarbet ended up in the museum’s photo archive, with its 100,000 images, trying to match individuals in the album with known Nazi officers. Among those pictured in the album, she discovered, are Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz’s first commandant; Josef Kramer, the so-called “Beast of Belsen,” the last commandant at Bergen-Belsen; Richard Baer, the overall Auschwitz commandant; and Otto Moll, head of the gas chamber.

The album contains the only known photos of Enno Lolling, administrative head of medical facilities at all of the concentration camps who also oversaw the barbaric medical experiments associated with Mengele. There are also photos showing an SS funeral procession and burials. While historians have long debated why the Allies did not bomb the concentration camps, the reality is, the Americans did bomb Auschwitz, Tarbet says. The real target was not the crematoria or the railways but a nearby factory making material for the war effort. The U.S. bombed this facility several times in late 1944, and one time the bombs unintentionally hit the concentration camp.

Logically, an SS officer would destroy this incriminating album. That’s why Tarbet thinks Höcker somehow lost the album between January 1945, when Auschwitz was evacuated and he was transferred to another forced labor camp, and May 1945, when the war ended. At that time, Höcker was arrested in a British POW camp posing as a regular German soldier. In December 1945, the Allies released him, and he returned to his hometown of Engershausen. In the 1960s, in the wake of Israel’s trial of Adolf Eichmann, Höcker was arrested again and tried in Frankfurt for war crimes. Sentenced to seven years in prison, he was released in 1970 and returned to Engershausen. He died in 2000 at age 88.

While the Holocaust museum’s main job is to remember and honor those who perished in the Shoah, Tarbet says to prevent future genocides, historians also need to study the perpetrators. “These are people making a photo album of how great their life is at Auschwitz. At the same time, the Nazis deported 437,000 Hungarian Jews in 55 days. Ninety percent were killed on arrival at Auschwitz.”

It’s a human inclination, she points out, to see an image of a man playing with his dog or enjoying an outing with cute girls and to want to connect with him. “How has Höcker gotten to the place where he can do these things a few miles away from the burning of a massive amount of bodies?” wonders Tarbet. “He could clearly smell the odor from where he is sitting.”

Publié dans Articles de Presse

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