Today, our mental image of the camp — how we ‘see’ Auschwitz — is dominated by a relatively small number of photographs taken from a single source – an album of photographs taken by the Nazis.
Together, these pictures are vital evidence of the Nazis’ crimes. However, they also pose a challenge for the viewer. Each one feels as if we are looking at the past through a window in time with our own eyes. But we are not. The split-second captured has been chosen for us by a perpetrator and we are forced to share his gaze, to see Auschwitz through his eyes.
This exhibition asks us to look beyond the frame of these photographs, to explore more fully what each reveals. And it presents other, less well-known images, created by the victims themselves; by the Nazis in their off-duty moments; and by the Allies: pictures that each give radically different ways of ‘Seeing Auschwitz’.
The scene contains — and helped to establish — many of the visual elements that have become part of the iconography of both the camp and the Holocaust. Top left, the infamous ‘gate of death’ through which the long train of cattle wagons has arrived. In the centre, crowds of people spill out onto the platform. Bottom left, prisoners in striped uniforms; bottom centre, an SS officer in jackboots gives orders.
The photographer has also, unknowingly, captured a scene within the scene. In the bottom right a man stands bewildered. He’s lost his trousers and a shoe. He’s surrounded by two prisoners in uniform and another SS officer. Other men watch events unfold as they queue for selection.
This photograph captures another act of ‘seeing’: Auschwitz did not just happen; leaders, planners and architects had to visualise all aspects of Auschwitz in their imaginations before making them a reality.
Auschwitz was a huge complex of concentration camps established by the Nazis near the German-occupied Polish town of Oświęcim. During the Second World War, the Nazis continually expanded its territory, roles and functions; it eventually covered an area of some 16 square miles.
Although today it’s infamous as a death camp – where people were murdered immediately upon arrival – this wasn’t its original role. The first part of the complex (Auschwitz Main Camp) was built in 1940 to terrorise and subjugate the Polish people.
The following year, after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, it was chosen to house some of the hundreds of thousands of captured Soviet prisoners of war. To do it, the Nazis expanded Auschwitz by creating an additional camp just a couple of miles away near the village of Birkenau – it became known as Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Then, in 1942, its function evolved once more when Auschwitz-Birkenau became a death camp in the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ with Jews being transported by train to their deaths from all over Europe. Auschwitz was also, at all times during its history, a slave labour camp.
As with all other Nazi concentration camps, the SS — short for Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squad — ran Auschwitz. It was a Nazi paramilitary organisation under the command of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Himmler received authority from Adolf Hitler to destroy all political and so-called racial enemies of the Nazi regime. Auschwitz played a central role in these crimes. Some 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz; more than 1.1 million were murdered there, of which one million were Jews. Most were killed on arrival in the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in specially built gas chambers.
Some 75,000 ethnic Poles were also murdered in Auschwitz, together with 21,000 Roma and Sinti, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and 10-15,000 political opponents of the Nazis. Smaller numbers of gay men, criminals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also killed.
A map does not only show the location of places. It reveals how we see that world. This map displays a certain pride in the size and scope of the Auschwitz complex, presenting photographs of some its major subcamps. And it reveals how this new world was ordered, with drawings of slave labourers at backbreaking work, while SS men sunbathe at the nearby resort of Solahutte.
In our culture, photographs have a high evidentiary status. ‘Seeing is believing’, and the camera presents us with moments in the past as they really were. But outside the pages of the Auschwitz Album is another set of images, from the sketchbook of a prisoner we know only by the initials MM. Drawn in secret a year before the SS photos were taken, at a time when trains arrived outside of Birkenau and the gate tower to the camp had only a single wing, these precious documents were hidden inside a bottle, concealed in a barrack not far from the gas chambers.
Instead of the photographer’s cargo to be ‘processed’ – through the artist’s eyes we see compassion for the victims of mass murder. The brutality of the guards; the distress of family members separated on the ramp; the final walk to the crematoria building, hidden among the birch trees.
We are also shown the fate awaiting those selected for work inside the camp: an open truck carries exhausted prisoners to the same destination, smoke belching from its chimneys.
The photographs were taken by the SS during the most intensive period of killing – May, June, and July 1944 – when some 400,000 people, almost all Jews, were murdered in the camp’s gas chambers. The album’s photographs have been used as evidence in post-war trialsand reproduced in countless museum exhibitions, books and articles. Film directors use them to stage their scenes; to costume and position their actors; to bring authenticity to their fictional works. These photographs dominate how we picture the camp and, to some extent, the Holocaust.
The album documents the ‘efficiency’ of the SS in ‘processing’ trainloads of Jews: arrival; selection for work or for death; the walk to the gas chambers; sorting the belongings looted from the new arrivals. The photographs are organised no more than four to a page, across eleven chapters, the titles hand-written.
The photographs on this page narrate what the SS see as an ‘achievement’ – an unceasing rhythm of destruction. One train (now emptied of its transport) stands ready to depart, to be replaced seamlessly with another waiting to be opened and unloaded.
The photograph from the bottom right of the page is missing. It is one of five from the album given away soon after liberation to survivors who found an image of their murdered loved ones. In the decades since, others have searched these photographs desperately for a last picture of their parents, spouse, or children.
It’s not known for certain who took the Auschwitz Album photographs. However, it was most likely the work of one or two SS men: the head of the camp’s photographic department, Bernhard Walter, or his assistant, former schoolteacher Ernst Hofmann.
There was certainly nothing clandestine about their actions. The photographer stood in the open, in broad daylight, in full view. Given the scarcity of photographic evidence of what happened at Auschwitz, these images force us to share the gaze of the SS. To avoid sharing their worldview we need to read the photographs critically. The photographer has chosen an elevated position. He stands on the roof of the train taking in as much of the scene as possible, surveying the scale, organisation, agency and purpose of the SS at Auschwitz.
A process is laid out before us. The image is carefully composed, with the line of the train drawing our eye from the people in the foreground toward their destination: twin buildings on the horizon, their brick chimneys standing out against the sky. These are Crematoria 2 and 3, with their gas chambers and ovens. The juxtaposition of these elements narrates the process of mass murder. It shows arrival, direction of travel, and the place of murder in a single frame.
The individuals are of no concern to the photographer. But the camera captures more than he intends. It shows details that he wasn’t paying attention to. A close reading of this unwitting testimony enables us to look beyond his gaze.
To the photographer the crowd are just a passive mass, following the directions of SS men and their prisoner functionaries. But when we look more closely, we see that the individuals, regardless of their situation, maintain their agency.
Men and older boys have been divided from the women and young children, and now line up before an SS doctor. It’s the moment of Selektion. The doctor decides who will work in the camp and who will be sent straight to the gas chambers.
The photograph captures the length of time it takes for him to make that decision. You can see it in the regular, even-spaced gaps between each group of men as they walk from the selection toward the low building in the background – a distance covered in seconds. They join a column of men at the top right of the photograph. All are walking to their deaths.
One doctor, with a cursory examination and a wave of the hand, could make this decision hundreds of times a day.
Jewish women and children selected for death wait to be taken to the gas chambers.
The SS often kept mothers and young children together – it helped to keep people calm. To avoid blows from the sticks of the SS, people tried to be cooperative. They smiled and complied; they wanted to believe the Nazi assurances that they were about to start a new life.
Although many of the Auschwitz Album photographs are group shots, some focus on individuals. Ordinarily these might be described as ‘portraits’ or perhaps ‘documentary photography’ but the intention of the photographer seems to be something very different: the recording of ‘specimens’.
Unlike other death camps, Auschwitz was also a vast slave labour camp. Although all Jews were marked for death, with the vast majority killed on arrival, an SS doctor selected some to replace the slave labourers already worked to death. The photographer appears to be making his own selections: photographing examples of who, in his eyes, were of no use. The phrase Nicht mehr einsatzfähige Männer roughly translates as ‘Men unfit for work’.
German soldiers and their collaborators hacked off, ripped out, or set alight the beards of religious Jews for ‘sport’. Apparently, rather than be seen without the beard he has worn all his adult life, he has covered his face with a scarf. Even though this makes him stand out, inviting more violence, he continues to assert his identity. It was not the intention of the photographer to record the dignity of this elderly man. But it is to be seen nonetheless, if we look beyond the perpetrator’s gaze.
The Nazis and their collaborators murdered millions; the places where those crimes were carried out were changed forever.
Before the Second World War, local people from the Polish town of Oświęcim enjoyed the shade of a birch grove in the summer months. The birches gave another neighbouring village its name, Brzezinka. When Germany invaded Poland, Oświęcim became ‘Auschwitz’ and Brzezinka became ‘Birkenau’.
By the time these pictures were taken, the birch grove had been subsumed within the camp. The Jewish people pictured under its shady trees are waiting unknowingly for their turn in the gas chambers.
The SS photographer moves around freely. Nearby are Crematoria 4 and 5. His subject is the waiting crowd, kept calm and under control in the ‘efficient process’ of murder at Auschwitz. It raises the question what kind of photographs are these? Normally, in documentary photography, a photographer is an outsider, an observer. This is different. Here, the photographer is an active participant – he’s fully aware that he’s capturing these people’s last moments on earth.
During the Second World War, some 90% of all Jewish children in German-occupied Europe were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. They were shot in mass pits, died of starvation and disease in the ghettos, or gassed at specially built killing centres such as Auschwitz- Birkenau. Look closely and you will find a young child offering a flower he has plucked from the meadow in Birkenau to, possibly, a sibling. The snapshot collapses together a present moment, past relationships and future absence. It’s an image pregnant with destruction.
Those same trains did not leave the camp empty. The wagons returned to Germany laden down with goods stolen from the deported.
Most were given to families bombed out of their homes in Germany and to Germans who were now colonizing the Polish land. The economics of genocide extended across occupied Europe. Industrialists and businesses paid the SS to use concentration camp inmates as slave labour. People bought the possessions of their deported neighbours at public auction, moved into their homes, and took over their businesses.
The area of the camp where the stolen possessions of deportees were sorted and stored was nicknamed Kanada by the prisoners: Canada – ‘a land of plenty’. By the time the prisoner inmates had finished unloading and sorting these goods, most of their owners had already been murdered.
The photographer seeks to capture the ‘efficiency’ of Auschwitz – the last drop of value is being extracted. But the scene points to something else. We are looking at the end point of a process of theft that took place over a number of years, even before people arrived at Auschwitz. These bundles and suitcases were all people were left with. They had already been persecuted, driven from their homes and deprived of all worldly goods save those they could carry on their backs.
Important details in the background are incidental to the photographer. Top left, and just visible behind the storage barracks, are two chimneys of Crematorium 4 – one of them is partly obscured by a birch tree. Further on, one chimney of Crematorium 5 is also in view.
Smoke billows in the background, but it is not coming from the chimneys. In the summer of 1944 so many Jews were murdered at Auschwitz that there was not enough capacity in the crematoria ovens, and heaps of corpses were burned in open pits.
In April 1945, former Auschwitz inmate 19-year-old Lili Jacob was liberated by the American Army at another camp hundreds of miles away – Dora Mittelbau.
Although Lili had survived, she was very ill. Sick from typhus and close to starvation, she lay semi-conscious in the bunk of a former SS barrack. Awoken by the cold, she pulled open the drawer of a bedside cupboard, hoping to find warm clothing. Inside, beneath some neatly folded pyjamas, was an album bound with a beige linen cover. It bore the title Resettlement of the Jews from Hungary.
Turning its pages, Lili quickly realised that many of its photographs were from the very day she and her family had arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
She’s in the front row, along with other women from her transport chosen for slave labour, their heads freshly shaved. On the end of the line to her right, a woman covers her face from the photographer’s gaze.
As Lili explored the album she was confronted with pictures of her murdered family and friends including her brothers, nine-year-old Israel and eleven-year-old Zelig. She also saw her grandparents; her Aunt Tauba with four of her children; her rabbi and neighbours from her hometown.
While the SS photographs of the Auschwitz Album document the selection process, they do not contain explicit images of violence and mass murder. We follow lines of people walking toward the gas chambers, but go no further. No photographs exist of what took place inside the crematoria – the undressing; the gassing; the burning of bodies in the ovens.
However, in a remarkable act of resistance, members of the Sonderkommando, victims themselves, tried to photograph the fate of a murdered people.
It’s not known for certain how the Sonderkommando even had access to a camera. Most likely it was found in a suitcase among the belongings of the dead. Although a Greek Jew, Alberto Errera, operated the camera, he had the support of Szmul Fainzylberg, and two brothers, Josel and Shlomo Dragon – carefully planning the operation, keeping watch, covering each other. Errera later escaped Auschwitz, on 9th August 1944. He crossed the nearby Vistula River but was chased by the SS and shot dead.
Not only did the Sonderkommando record a different subject than the SS photographers, the quality of their photographs reveals radically different experiences of the same place and time. Consider the sharpness of the Auschwitz Album images nearby: the perpetrator’s considered viewpoint; careful composition, focusing and exposure. All speak to the time and ease the SS had to capture their images. Compare this with the frantic, urgent, fleeting and chaotic moments rendered here by the hand of the Sonderkommando.
In its shadows, we glimpse something of how the victims saw Auschwitz. It evokes fear. Th eir failure to capture a clear picture gives a sense of the extraordinarily dangerous risk the men were taking in attempting to photograph mass murder.
The Sonderkommando photographs are often shown cropped – all details, except for close ups of the victims, are removed. But this distorts what we see, as the perilous position of the photographer is lost.
Two of the photographs were taken through the open door of a gas chamber in Crematorium 5. The ovens were so choked with murdered people that – unwilling to slow the pace of the killing – the SS resorted to burning bodies in open pits. The full, uncropped images presented here reveal not only the horrific atrocity occurring outside, but also the furtive capturing of that scene from inside the crematorium. In the uncropped image, the photographer again becomes present, the risk he was taking evident.
Crematoria 4 and 5 were constructed in the birch grove of Auschwitz-Birkenau. They were single floor buildings, specifically designed each to house a large central undressing room; three gas chambers; and eight crematory ovens, connected in sets of four to two brick chimneys.
In October 1943, in a speech in the town hall of Poznan, Heinrich Himmler congratulated officers of the SS on their part in the murder of the Jews of Europe, but proclaimed that this would be ‘a page of glory in our history’ that would never be written. A special commando was already destroying the forensic evidence of the crimes, digging up and burning the bodies of the dead, destroying documents, hiding all trace.
But in many places across Europe, Jews created their own record of the unfolding genocide. In Auschwitz, Jewish members of the Sonderkommando hid documents in the hope that one day the world would discover the truth. The writings of one of them, Marcel Nadjari, were discovered many years later contained in this thermos flask, buried in the soil close to the gas chambers and describing his ‘work’ in Crematorium 3:
On 7th October 1944, the Sonderkommando rose in revolt. Jewish women working in a nearby munitions factory had been stealing small packets of gunpowder that were passed along a smuggling chain to those working in the Auschwitz-Birkenau crematoria. Understanding that they were soon to be murdered, the Sonderkommando attacked their SS guards, killing several of them, setting alight Crematorium 4, and attempting to escape. None who fought in the revolt are known to have survived.
We have no photographs of what happened inside the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. A handful of people who witnessed the atrocities survived the war, but only one was a trained artist: one person left alive who was able to depict what he saw with his own eyes.
David Olère was a Jewish, Polish-born, painter and sculptor living in France before the war, designing movie posters and film sets. Deported to Auschwitz in March 1943, he was selected for the Sonderkommando, first at Bunker 2 (a farm cottage converted into gas chambers) and later at Crematorium 3. Olère collected the clothing of the new arrivals, who were told by the SS to undress for a shower before they were ushered into the gas chamber. He was forced to drag out the bodies and saw the gold teeth pulled from the mouths of the dead, the hair cut from the women’s heads; and he cremated their corpses.
Returning home in 1945, Olère was exhausted and emaciated. Hardly able to eat or to speak, ‘little was left of him other than his eyes,’ recorded his son, Alexandre, many years later. And so, he drew. In the months after the war, in some 70 meticulous drawings, Olère carefully documented with extraordinary precision what he witnessed inside the crematorium.
Incineration room of Crematorium 3. Five of the room’s 15 ovens are depicted; in the background is the hoist by which corpses were brought up from the gas chamber below ground. David Olère (1945).
From 1941 thousands of people registered into the camp were photographed by the camp’s identification service. Prisoners with photography experience took many of the shots; forced to do so by the SS.
The images have become symbolic of an attempt to strip away a person’s identity – people’s heads and body hair were shaved, names were replaced by prisoner numbers, and here they are captured in a series of set poses, using a metal rod to keep their head in the required position.
There are thousands of mugshots; together they can become overwhelming. With their repeated format of full-profile, face forward and half- profile they have a patterned quality; scanned quickly the individual can be lost. But if we look closer, each person’s essence remains intact.
In early 1945, as the Soviet Army advanced on the camp, the SS attempted to destroy all evidence of their crimes, including the Auschwitz mugshots.
One of the people who had taken many of the images was Polish photographer Wilhelm Brasse, who was a political prisoner.
The SS ordered Brasse and a comrade, Bronisław Jureczek, to burn the photographs.
The men risked their lives by disobeying the SS order. They stuffed the air outlet of the stove they were using with wet photographic paper, photos and negatives. They knew that any photos by the stove door would be lost but that the fire would die out because there was no air to feed it. Using this method, they prevented the images of nearly 39,000 people from going up in flames – preserving valuable evidence of the Nazis’ crimes.
More than 8,000 SS men and, from 1942, about 200 female guards, served at Auschwitz for some period of time. There was nothing exceptional about them. In education, family background, and occupation they reflected the wider society from which they were drawn. Overwhelmingly, they do not appear to have agonised about the ‘work’ of the camp. Indeed, they adjusted to their roles rather quickly.
Karl Höcker, adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz. Aged 32 in this picture, he was a family man with a wife and two young children. Formerly a junior bank official, he had become one of the organisers of mass murder.
Otto Moll trained as a gardener before the war; at Auschwitz-Birkenau he supervised the gas chambers and was an enthusiastic killer.
Rudolf Höss, first Commandant of Auschwitz who had returned to oversee the operation named in his honour – Aktion Höss – the mass murder of Hungarian Jewry in the spring and summer of 1944.
Richard Baer, Commandant of Auschwitz Main Camp. Before the war, Richard Baer was a skilled confectioner – a maker of sweets and other delicacies.
Josef Kramer, a middle-class boy from Munich who became an accountant. By the time of this photograph he had risen through the ranks of the SS to become Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau – the largest killing centre the world has ever seen.
Dr Josef Mengele was one of the doctors who sent thousands to the gas chambers. An anthropologist and medical doctor, he performed obscene ‘medical’ experiments on Jewish and Roma children and was known to prisoners by the Yiddish phrase Malach ha’Mavet – the Angel of Death.
The Höcker Album is a collection of photographs showing members of the SS, not only at Auschwitz, but also enjoying themselves in a nearby holiday retreat.
In the images of the Auschwitz Album we see relatively little of the SS. This absence allows us to project our own ideas about what type of people they were. The SS can safely remain the ‘monsters’ of our imagination: psychopaths and sadists. We console ourselves with the false notion that they’d been brainwashed or had no choice except to obey orders.
The Höcker Album dispels that myth, confronting us with a more troubling picture. In its images of the perpetrators at rest and play, they suddenly appear much more like us.
The man relaxing on a deckchair, enjoying the sun, is Karl Höcker – the album is a record of his time at Auschwitz of which he was clearly proud.
Höcker was adjutant to the Commandant of Auschwitz – the Commandant’s administrative assistant. This senior role meant Höcker was fully aware of every aspect of the camp’s workings. Yet, in this and other photographs, Höcker’s intimate knowledge of the vast human suffering at Auschwitz does not appear to have weighed heavily upon his conscience.
How could people move from committing mass murder in Auschwitz-Birkenau in one moment and, in the next, relax, sing and sunbathe in the beautiful surroundings of Solahütte? The answer was very easily.
We see Auschwitz as a place of utter destruction. But for the Nazis, its gas chambers were bringing a new Europe into existence – a Europe empty of its Jews, its Roma, its ‘undesirables’. Solahütte epitomised the world they wanted to create.
As the killers relaxed, sang and played together, they shared a fantasy that what they were doing was right. In their camaraderie, they felt bound together in a common mission.
Their scenic retreat – a place for bachelors, couples, parents and children – provided relief from what they considered the ‘necessary’ work of Auschwitz.
Karl Höcker stands in the centre of a wooden bridge, his arms around women of the Helferinnen.
These were the typists, clerks and telephonists from the Auschwitz administration. They are enjoying a day’s outing together, just a short 20-mile drive from the crematoria of Auschwitz Birkenau.
Many photographs in the Höcker Album were taken at the SS resort of Solahütte.
A lodge set amid pine trees by the river Sola, in a region popular with tourists before the war, it was an ideal base for hiking in the mountains, and for outings to a nearby lake.
Approximately 2,400 of these photos still exist. The exact circumstances of how they were saved are not known. Research has shown that almost all the people in the collection came from two neighbouring Jewish communities in southern Poland – Będzin and Sosnowiec.
In August 1943, the Germans deported 30,000 Jewish men, women and children from these towns to Auschwitz-Birkenau. 80% were murdered on arrival.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum has been protecting the site of the former German Nazi camp since 1947. Two million people now visit it every year.
But the site isn’t the only place we can ‘see’ Auschwitz. The Holocaust destroyed entire communities – not only those who were murdered but the also the generations who now will never be born.
So, Auschwitz is also to be ‘seen’ in the void created in towns and cities throughout Europe – places that before the Second World War had large Jewish populations but which today have little or none.
First came reconnaissance planes, photographing the terrain; later, bomber aircraft with fighter escorts. But the bombing missions had nothing to do with helping the prisoners to escape or to halt mass-murder; their targets were military and industrial, including an enormous synthetic rubber plant. The chemical giant IG Farben built it beside the camp complex in order to exploit the camp’s vast supply of slave labour housed in Auschwitz-Monowitz, also known as Auschwitz III.
Although the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was never bombed, reconnaissance photographs provide an insight into both the camp’s structure and the Allies’ priorities.
In fact, these bombs were not falling onto the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau directly below, but rather on the IG Farben factory, a site several miles to the east, and not captured in the photograph itself.
In order to hit their target, bomber aircraft must drop their payload some time ahead of reaching it, calculating the bombs’ trajectory according to the plane’s altitude, speed and heading.
Detail from Allied aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Because the decision had been made not to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, this and more than 100 other Allied aerial photographs of the Auschwitz complex were not analysed for details of the killing process or for consideration of a mission to bomb the gas chambers. The labels in this photo were added decades after the war.
Reasons given for the lack of action were that it was not possible to accurately bomb the gas chambers; thousands of prisoners in nearby barracks could be killed; and – perhaps the factor that weighed most heavily in the decision – resources should only be used for targets that could help win the war as quickly as possible.
A train has halted inside the camp. This is where new arrivals lined up before SS doctors. Those selected for work walked through the space between the decoupled train wagons, through the main artery of the camp.
At the so called ‘Sauna’ they were registered, disinfected, shaved, tattooed and issued with the concentration camp striped uniform. Most, however, walked further along the train line to the gas chambers of Crematoria 2 or 3, or else to Crematoria 4 or 5.
Close to Crematorium 5 a plume of smoke can be seen. It’s rising from the pits where corpses were burned in the open, at times when the crematoria were unable to keep up with the pace of mass murder.
The physical distance between the camera and the place being photographed is symbolic of the distance between the world of Auschwitz and the world of the Allies.
Despite having received detailed information about the camp from escapees such as Witold Pilecki, Rudi Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler, Auschwitz was ‘seen’ by the Allies only in the context of other priorities – prosecuting a successful war and winning it as quickly as possible. The murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews was not a significant factor in that analysis.
In early January 1945, as the Soviet Red Army advanced across Eastern Europe towards Berlin, Heinrich Himmler ordered the full evacuation of Auschwitz and its subcamps.
As the SS guards abandoned Auschwitz, they forced some 60,000 prisoners to walk up to 60km to train stations at Gleiwitz and Loslau, where they were transported in open wagons to concentration camps deeper in Germany. The prisoners were starving and exhausted. They walked for days in wooden shoes or rags bound around their feet, only striped uniforms and a thin blanket to protect them from the bitter cold. Some 15,000 who were unable to keep up were shot by the SS or collapsed dead by the roadside, perishing from exhaustion, hunger and exposure.
In 1943, Alfred Glück was caught by the Germans on the Swiss border and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to its subcamp Neu Dachs, that used slave labour to work in the local coal mines. In 1945, Glück survived two death marches, the first in January from Neu Dachs to Buchenwald; the second in April, from Buchenwald to Bissengen, where he was eventually freed by French soldiers. Glück made his way to Bergen Belsen, where shelter and support were given to tens of thousands of people made homeless by the war. There a United Nations relief worker encouraged him to make a series of drawings of the events he had experienced. In 1946 he emigrated to Palestine. In May 1945, 14-year-old Hitler Youth member, Benno Gantner, heard the tramp of wooden clogs on the road approaching his village. Taking his camera, he went to the upper window of his parents’ house and photographed columns of concentration camp inmates on a death march from Dachau.
Years before, people across Germany had watched as their neighbours were taken from their homes and deported to the camps, many of them to their deaths. Now, as the war neared its end, they saw the return of camp inmates. Years later, Gantner recalled prisoners begging for water, the reactions of his family and neighbours, the brutality of the SS, and the shame he felt at all that he witnessed.
Soviet Army troops arrived at Auschwitz on 27th January 1945. The SS guards had abandoned the camp 10 days earlier, forcing some 60,000 prisoners on a death march deeper into the Third Reich. 7,000 inmates were left behind, those too weak to walk and who the SS had not had time to kill.
The SS tried to hide all evidence of their crimes, blowing up the crematoria as well as burning buildings and documents. But the scale of their crimes made hiding all traces impossible.
As they searched the camp, the Soviet soldiers found stacks of unburied corpses; thousands of articles of clothing; tons of human hair and piles of gold teeth. They heard first-hand accounts of gas chambers, of bodies being burned in the crematoria.
The evidence gathered at Auschwitz formed part of a wider project to prosecute war criminals that was to become the foundation of a new era of international law.
Seven tons of women’s hair was discovered, cut from the heads of 140,000 people. Forensic tests found traces of cyanide matching that of the industrial poison, Zyklon B. Such evidence was used in trials against Nazi war criminals, including Rudolf Höss, the former camp commandant; he was hanged beside the former crematorium of Auschwitz Main Camp on the 16 April 1947.
In 1948, the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was seen as a major legal step to prevent such crimes ever happening again. In 1998 the International Criminal Court was established: a permanent court to try the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2004, the United Nations Secretary-General appointed a Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and in 2008, a Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect.
And yet in every decade since the Holocaust, genocides and atrocity crimes have continued to scar our world. After Auschwitz came genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda and Srebrenica. Today
systematic killings, mass rape and torture are committed in many parts of the world, including against the Yazidis in Iraq and the Rohingya in Myanmar.
If we remain blind to such unfolding atrocities, if the international community does not become more effective in preventing genocide, can we really say that we have ‘seen’ Auschwitz at all?
As the war neared its end and the Allied armies advanced towards Berlin from the west and the east, concentration camp prisoners continued to die in huge numbers. The vast majority of Auschwitz survivors were not liberated when the Soviet Red Army entered Auschwitz, but only months later and many hundreds of miles away, in concentration camps deep inside Germany.
Miriam Weinfeld, former inmate of Auschwitz, was 18 years old and close to death when the British Army overran the Nazi concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, in April 1945.
More than 13,000 corpses lay unburied when the British entered the camp. The survivors were given medical treatment, food and shelter, but a further 14,000 continued to die in the weeks following “liberation”.
Months after the liberation of Auschwitz, in the first days of May 1945, two American tanks arrived at the gates of the Mauthausen camp, a few kilometres from the city of Linz, in annexed Austria. A significant number of the prisoners who received them were Spanish, although the story of their arrival at the camp had begun years earlier.
After the victory of Franco’s troops in Catalonia in February 1939, more than half a million people were forced into exile and interned in camps in southern France, under harsh conditions. The limitations imposed by the French government resulted in forced returns to Spain, the dispersion of women and children in different parts of France and enlistment in military units for men aged 18 to 40 – approximately 50,000 of them.
When the Wehrmacht invaded France on 10 May 1940, some 5,000 Republicans died in combat and another 12,000 were captured by the Germans and taken to prisoner camps. After the signing of the armistice, the Vichy government disregarded the non-French POWs, while Germany issued a directive in September that labelled them as political enemies of the Third Reich and identified them as Rotspanier – Spanish Reds. Stripped of their POW status, the Gestapo searched them, identified them, grouped them together, classified them as stateless – with a blue triangle despite the letter ‘S’ in the centre – and finally organised their deportation.
The first phase of deportations took place between 1940 and 1942, involving men enlisted in the French army and captured during the German conquest. The dreaded Mauthausen camp was their destination, where two out of three Spanish prisoners were killed.
In a second phase, from 1942 to 1945, members of the resistance against the Nazi occupation, both men and women, were the captured victims. On this occasion they were distributed to different camps: Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück, among others.
Because of their struggle in defence of the legitimacy of the government of the Republic and against the Nazi occupation of France, around 10,000 Spaniards, both men and women, were deported between 1940 and 1945 to different Nazi concentration camps. It is also estimated that Auschwitz was the destination of more than 50,000 of them.