Earlier this week, I attended an incredible program presented by the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. It featured Becky Erbelding, an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, who came to KC with an impressive depth of scholarly information and a powerful group of photographs. (She is only twenty-six years old, by the way - a comforting realization that the story will continued to be told.)
In late 2006, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel notified USHMM and said that he would like to donate a photo album that he had found in an abandoned apartment in Germany in 1946. This man (now elderly and who asked to remain anonymous) had been a member of the Counter Intelligence Corps and had conducted investigations of Nazi perpetrators for U.S. prosecutors after WW II.
The inscription on the front of the album read, “Auschwitz 21.6.1944.”
There are very few known wartime photographs of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex, which included Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi killing center. By November 1944, the SS had killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of Roma, Poles, and Soviet prisoners of war in Auschwitz-Birkenau. At least 865,000 Jews were killed immediately upon arrival. Most were killed in the gas chambers.
The album has been attributed to Karl Hocker, basically the “chief of staff” at Auschwitz. He was stationed there from May 1944 until the evacuation of the camp in January 1945. The appearance of the album was an astonishing event at USHMM.
The presentation of photographs kept me spellbound. After all, I’ve grown quite accustomed to seeing photos of prisoners at various camps. Never had I seen what was going on with the SS; as the gas chambers were operating at maximum efficiency during the last months before the camp was evacuated, the officers were relaxing at their retreat center, singing, partying and socializing with the female employees. Even in the final months of the war, after Soviet troops had liberated some camps to the east, SS officers at Auschwitz continued enjoying life to its fullest.
Here’s what got to me the most as I sat there looking at these pictures: several of my Holocaust survivor friends were in the audience. How in the world did they feel seeing these images for the first time? What was the possibility that their mother, sister or grandfather had been ordered to the gas chamber by one of these officers just before a pictured sing-along or round of drinks?