Remembering Auschwitz 75 through Sonderkommando Photography

Remembering the past is always complex. Remembering inevitably means we recall only selected sections of the past, and so in making any such selection we forget as much as we remember. This imperfect process of remembering is still far better than failing to remember, and the memory of the Holocaust is simply too important not to be forgotten. It will always only be recalled in problematic ways, and so this blog offers one, problematic act of remembering, one which hopefully will be of interest to others.

To make the broader case, briefly, for renewing efforts to remember the Holocaust, it is important to stress that, as time passes, there is clearly confusion over what happened. Surveys conducted in recent years highlight significant issues with the levels of factual recall of key data related to the Holocaust. In 2018, a poll in America generated headlines when it highlighted 31 percent of American citizens, and 41 percent of millennials, thought that fewer than 2 million Jewish people were killed in the Holocaust. The figure for Jewish people killed is around 6 million, and many more were killed, such as Roma communities. Many polled were also confused as to what Auschwitz actually was.

A more recent survey of Americans backed up this data, and showed that only around 45% of Americans knew the real figure of Jewish people killed in the Holocaust. Similarly, in the UK a poll from 2019 showed that 45 percent of Britain did not know how many were killed in the Holocaust, and 19% thought that it was less than 2 million Jewish people. Another survey, released in May 2019, pointed to public confusion in Austria too, with 56% of people being unclear on the number of Jewish people killed, and 10% believing that only around 100,000 Jewish people were killed.

These surveys certainly highlight public misunderstandings about the scale and nature of the Holocaust, and the wider Nazi genocide. It is difficult to be sure as to why sections of society remain ignorant, or at least confused, over the Holocaust. Yet whatever else they tell us, they do clearly make the point that ongoing efforts to remember the Nazi past are needed.

This year also marks a significant milestone, and milestones are important in creating fresh memories of the past. Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain is held each year on the date that the Auschwitz complex of labour and death camps was liberated, 27 January. This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of this liberation of Auschwitz. This is a site of the Holocaust that has already much remembered. However, it is also a place that seems to be mis-remembered.

The historian, and Holocaust survivor, Saul Friedlander once wrote that listening to survivor accounts of the Holocaust helps bring us closer to a history that in its full scale is incomprehensible. As he put it, accounts from eyewitnesses act like ‘lightning flashes that illuminate part of the landscape. They confirm intuitions; they warn us against vague generalisations.’ He also added that their direct nature ‘can tear through seamless interpretation and pierce the (mostly involuntary) smugness of scholarly detachment and “objectivity”’. Remembering the Holocaust does not necessarily require neatly written history books, but it does require listening to the voices of the persecuted.

We remember Auschwitz in many ways, some perhaps ‘neater’ than others. We remember it through the work of films, such as Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, or through the testimonies of survivors such as Primo Levi and Anita Lasker-Wallfisch. We also remember it through the excellent Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. History books are replete with detailed accounts of Auschwitz and its associated camps.

However, we have very limited visual evidence of Auschwitz, to allow us to image conditions during its operation. The Nazi regime restricted the taking of images of the Holocaust, and we lack many images even from a German perspective. One key collection of photographs from the site is the Auschwitz Album,  a collection of 193 photos taken around May and June 1944, depicting mainly Hungarian Jews who were sent to the site towards the end of the Second World War. However, this source recalls Auschwitz through the eyes of perpetrators, as the images were likely to have been taken by either Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter, both members of the SS.

While this offers one perspective of Auschwitz, a few months after these photos were taken, incredibly, resistance efforts were able to smuggle a camera in and out of the Auschwitz complex. This camera contained the four Sonderkommando photos from August 1944.

 Sonderkommando were Jewish prisoners forced to work at Auschwitz and other camps. They had to perform many extreme tasks, such as removing valuables from bodies. Often, they were killed, when they were deemed to have no further purpose. One Sonderkommando, Alter Fajnzylberg, described how these four photos came into existence as follows:

“[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.”

In total, four photographs were taken. These are the only photographs that show Auschwitz functioning in its murderous activities from the perspective of those who were persecuted and killed there. As such, they offer us a powerful way to remember both the extremes that developed at Auschwitz, and also give us a glimpse into the horror of being a victim of the death camp.

One of the photos depicts the burning of bodies, and shows their treatment by guards at the camp.

Burning of Bodies (I)

A second photo take around the same time shows a similar scene. These were both taken through a window of one of the gas chambers, and so the black frame around these two images is also an important part of the story they tell us.

Caption 2: Burning of Bodies (II)

The third photo depicts women, naked, running, shortly before entering a gas chamber at the site. Its poor framing makes us consider the speed with which these clandestine images needed to be captured.

Caption 3: A Women Running from the Gas Chamber

The final photo only captured a picture of trees, and while visually less striking, its inclusion in the set it important. It again helps us understand the hurried, extremely dangerous context that led to the creation of these photos.

Quick Exposure – A Hastened Glimpse

These four photographs allow us to see fragments of the Holocaust unfold, but they do not give us a full view. They act, akin to Friedlander’s point, as lightning flashes, ones that momentarily shed some light on the extremes of the Holocaust. They may help us imagine what was not captured as well, and develop a deeper appreciation of the lived experiences of victims of the Holocaust.

As the Jewish Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem explains the importance of these images, in its article on the photos:

“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 photos have been part of the memory of the Holocaust for generations. They began to circulate in reports and publications from the 1940s onwards, have since been donated to the Auschwitz Birkenau museum in Poland. They are an important part of the record of the Holocaust. A fictionalised version of their creation even featured in the powerful film Son of Saul, giving their creation a further degree of recognition.

This blog has no neat ending. It merely suggests the memory of the Holocaust must not be forgotten, but all to often is being forgotten. It needs to be remembered, and remembered better. 75 years after its liberation, these four images of the hell of Auschwitz illuminate something, and give us at least a few glimpses of a horrific past.

Dr. Paul Jackson is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Senior Lecturer in History and looks after the renowned Searchlight Archive at the University of Northampton. See his profile here.

© Paul Jackson. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).