Among the millions of photographs that are related to Nazi death camps, only four depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. They show a completely different perspective, which makes them unique when dealing with visual material of the Holocaust and the Holocaust as a topic itself. They were taken inside the epicenter of the horror, from which no other visual material exists. They were taken clandestinely at the height of the Final Solution in 1944 by one of the so-called Sonderkommando – Jewish prisoners forced to help carry out the atrocities by removing the Nazis’ victims from the gas chambers and destroying the corpses through fire or mass burial. One of the photographs shows a group of naked women; the others show the cremation of corpses.
Even though the identity of the photographer/s is uncertain, some surviving records left by members of the Sonderkommando indicate the names of those involved in taking the images. The photographs were hidden and smuggled out of the camp and given into the hands of Polish resistance fighters in order to show the world what was happening and to give testimony about the extermination. A note, which accompanied the photographs, was dated September 4, 1944 and signed “Stakło”, a pseudonym for the Polish prisoner and leading member of the camp resistance, Stanisław Kłodziński.
Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6×9 camera as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you snaps from Birkenau – gas poisoning action. These photos show one of the stakes at which bodies were burned, when the crematoria could not manage to burn all the bodies. The bodies in the foreground are waiting to be thrown into the fire. Another picture shows one of the places in the forest, where people are undressing before ‘showering’ – as they were told – and then go to the gas-chambers. Send film roll as fast as you can! Send the enclosed photos to Tell – we think you should send the enlargements further on.1
Tell was the pseudonym of a member of the underground movement in Krakow, Teresa Łasocka-Estreicher.2
The former Sonderkommando member Alter Fajnzylberg gave his own account of how the pictures were taken:
[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.
These quotes highlight the fact that taking these photographs was a collective act of resistance, taken by the person smuggling the camera into the camp, the one taking the pictures, the ones guarding him and the ones smuggling them outside. The plan included various people and was part of a well-organized underground resistance. The photographs were taken to warn people of what was happening – to warn them not to trust the Germans – and also to inform the world, to bear witness and to leave a testimony for future generations.
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