TOPICS > Arts

Album Reveals Behind-Scenes Activities at Auschwitz Camp

October 8, 2007 at 6:11 PM EDT
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Summer 1944, a dozen men and women hamming it up for the camera, a late-afternoon bottle of wine after an outing, families lounging on the terrace of a lodge. Snapshots from the photo album of Karl Hocker, like those anyone might take of friends and colleagues, except that Hocker was the adjutant, the chief aide, to the commandant of Auschwitz, Richard Baer, and these are photos that offer an unprecedented look behind the scenes of the death camp that became synonymous with the horror of the Holocaust.

More than a million people — mostly Jews — were murdered at Auschwitz, a huge complex 37 miles west of Krakow, Poland. It operated from 1940 until Russian troops arrived in January 1945. The wholesale slaughter in the gas chambers and work camps is well-documented, but the Hocker album was a rare and unexpected find.

REBECCA ERBELDING, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: In December of 2006, I got a letter. It had actually floated around the museum a bit because it wasn’t addressed to anyone specifically, and it ended up with me.

Obtaining the album

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty-six-year-old Rebecca Erbelding is an archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The letter she received was from a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer -- he asked to remain anonymous -- who'd found the album in a Frankfurt, Germany, apartment in 1946 and was finally ready to pass it on, 116 photos mounted on cardboard.

So these photos just arrived in the U.S. mail?

REBECCA ERBELDING: In bubble wrap, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: In bubble wrap?

REBECCA ERBELDING: Yes, on a random day in January.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you take them out and look at them, did you know what you had right away?

REBECCA ERBELDING: It was the third time, I think, when we looked through the album and saw this gentleman, Josef Mengele, who has a very famous face, and realized this is really something. As far we know, there are no wartime pictures of Mengele at the camp.

Recreation on the edge of camp

JEFFREY BROWN: Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death," was the notorious doctor who performed cruel medical experiments on prisoners. He and other officers appear in the album at a retreat called Solahutte on the outskirts of the camp.

REBECCA ERBELDING: They would use it for recreation. For the most part, it was used as a reward. We have records that show that particular guards who were instrumental in stopping escapes were rewarded with eight days at Solahutte. So if you performed your killing job especially well, you could be granted a vacation.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is kind of a remarkable one. This is all of them, a big group, singing.

REBECCA ERBELDING: Singing. This is one of our favorite photographs, because it has virtually the entire S.S. hierarchy stationed at Auschwitz. You see Karl Hocker.

JEFFREY BROWN: Front row, Karl Hocker.

REBECCA ERBELDING: Front row, standing next to Otto Moll, who was the supervisor of the gas chambers. He's standing next to Rudolf Hoess.

JEFFREY BROWN: The commandant, former commandant.

REBECCA ERBELDING: The former commandant, brought back. Richard Baer, the current commandant. Behind him is Josef Kramer, who was the commandant of Birkenau, and he became infamous as the "Beast of Belsen" after he transferred to Belsen in December of 1944.

Standing next to him is Franz Hossler, who was the head of the women's camp at Birkenau. And standing next to him is Josef Mengele.

JEFFREY BROWN: And they have an accordion player.

REBECCA ERBELDING: There's an accordion player and rank-and-file standing behind them, all singing. I wish we knew what they were singing.

JEFFREY BROWN: In one series of photos taken at the retreat, young women, telecommunications specialists who worked at Auschwitz, enjoy bowls of fresh blueberries.

REBECCA ERBELDING: You can see Hocker passing out the blueberries. They're all eating them with gusto, and then they're sadly showing that they're all out of blueberries.

JEFFREY BROWN: They are playacting in the last one there.

REBECCA ERBELDING: Yes, the girl five girls in is pretending to cry.

Arrival of Hungarian Jews

JEFFREY BROWN: Another striking aspect of these photos: They can be contrasted directly with a group taken during the same period. The so-called "Auschwitz Album," until now the only major source of pre-liberation Auschwitz photos, captured the arrival of Hungarian Jews, families, young children, and old people.

At the time, they were part of the last remaining Jewish community in Europe, going through the train-side selection process, in which S.S. Officers decided who would go directly to the gas chambers -- the majority -- and who into forced labor. It's estimated that 6,000 people were killed every day in Auschwitz during this time.

Sara Bloomfield, director of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, says knowing this makes the Hocker photos all the more jolting.

SARA BLOOMFIELD, Director, U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: You're just shocked by the ordinariness of them and, I have to say, the humanity of them. This is the Nazis...

JEFFREY BROWN: The humanity...

SARA BLOOMFIELD: Yes, the humanity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning?

SARA BLOOMFIELD: This is their perception of themselves being human. And I think that all of us would be very comforted in thinking that these were a bunch of monsters, just evil monsters not like us, but I think their perception of themselves were that they were very human.

Part of the challenge of the Holocaust, all of us are asking, how does something like this happen? What makes people do things like this? This helps you peel back the layers of these questions and see that they were able to compartmentalize their behavior and rationalize it.

I don't think it gives full answers, but it certainly doesn't allow you to separate one's self and one's own questions about what it means to be human from the problem of evil.

JEFFREY BROWN: The photo album, damaged over time, is being restored in the museum's conservation lab. The anonymous donor who sent it died earlier this year.

The original owner, Karl Hocker, maintained that he was not involved in the killings at Auschwitz in any way. He was tried for war crimes in 1963 and served seven years in prison before returning to his job in a bank. He died in 2000 at age 88.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You can see more of the photos in the album on our Web site at PBS.org.