“Everyone has this idea of Auschwitz that you can picture when you close your eyes,” began Rebecca Erbelding, museum archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
What most people likely imagine are images from a set of 200 photos called the Lilly Jacob album. The collection, which was discovered immediately after the end of World War II, documents the arrival of two different transports into Auschwitz at the end of May 1944.
Outside of that album, only one other photo album of Auschwitz in operation has ever been discovered — it was found by Erbelding herself more than a decade ago. The album, which was sent to the museum by an intelligence officer that had been stationed in Germany, is a personal collection of photographs belonging to an SS officer named Karl Hoecker and chronicles the activities of SS officers at Auschwitz-Birkenau during their free time. It contains 116 images. However, only two dates and four names are written in the album, so the past decade has seen Erbelding working with the Holocaust Museum to figure out what events and people are depicted within.
On March 1, Erbelding presented many of the photos in a program entitled “Auschwitz Through the Lens of the SS” at Chizuk Amuno Congregation. The photos, which were taken between May and December 1944, depict Nazis singing, hunting and even trimming Christmas trees.
The event was co-presented with the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Baltimore Jewish Council and served as a supplement to the new exhibit at the Jewish Museum, “Remembering Auschwitz: History. Holocaust. Humanity.”
Erbelding explained that the album is so important because it documents a pivotal moment in Auschwitz history. “In 55 days between mid-May and early July, 437,000 Hungarian Jews are deported to Auschwitz, most of whom are killed on arrival,” she said.
However, the album depicts those charged with deporting and killing these Jews in a completely different light.
For example, many do not realize that there was a large population of both women and support staff that worked at the camp. However, the album shows members of the SS Helferinnen (female auxiliaries) enjoying their free time eating blueberries with Hoecker.
Other images in the album include photographs of many officers sunning themselves at Sola Huta, a retreat shown next to a river. The location, which is depicted on a common postcard from the time period as well, is a site that historians knew existed but were unable to find until further images were discovered in this album. It was located 30 kilometers south of Auschwitz on the Sola River.
Perhaps one of the most notorious photos from the album depicts what Erbelding refers to as “the chorus of criminals.”
The photo shows a whole chorus of people singing to an accordion player. Pictured in the front row are Hoecker, the owner of the album; Otto Moll, supervisor of the gas chambers at Birkenau; Rudolf Hoess, the first commandant of Auschwitz who returned to oversee the Hungarian transports; Richard Baer, the final commandant of Auschwitz; Josef Kramer, the head of Birkenau; Franz Hoessler, the head of the women’s division at Birkenau; and the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
It is an incredible photograph, depicting many of the most notorious Nazi war criminals side-by-side. Mengele, of whom there were no pictures at Auschwitz until the discovery of the album, is in seven pictures throughout. This specific photo was only dated within the past year after discovering a transportation report requesting a bus to go to Sola Huta on July 15, 1944. It was taken right before Rudolf Hoess returned to Berlin. The Nazis were celebrating a “well-done job” with the deportation of Hungarian Jews.
The presentation drew a crowd of more than 100 attendees. Avigdor Niv, a Holocaust survivor, was in attendance.
“I heard there was going to be a presentation about what the Nazi soldiers did in their free time after work, and all the way here, I was disgusted with the idea,” he said. “When I saw the presentation though, it is a tremendous working documentary. The presentation was excellent. This obviously is a well-educated, academic person who has researched the specific subject extensively.”
Niv, whose own transport was diverted from Auschwitz to Vienna, believed that a picture depicting the arrival of two train cars from the album could have been the other cars from his own transport, citing that the dates match up. He does not know why his car was diverted and the other two were not.
“The idea of looking at the humanity of the perpetrators is such a crazy idea but also so important because we tend to demonize the Nazis,” said Deborah Cardin, deputy director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “When you see them engaged in all of these human activities, it really changes your whole perspective.”