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Auschwitz- A tale of Two Albums

By: Dr. Alex Sternberg





On Jan 27, 1945 seventy three years ago, Soviet forces entered the

Auschwitz death camp in Poland and liberated 7000 sick and dying

survivors left behind by the fleeing Germans. My parents, both deported to

Auschwitz in June 1944 from their homes in Hungary, were by that time

shipped to other slave labor camps and had to endure several more months

of starvation, beatings and slave labor before they too were liberated at the

end of the war.


Much has been written about Auschwitz and who were there. Who were the

prisoners who died there? Who were the people who survived and were

liberated? And finally, who were the murderers who did the killing?

Established in 1940 after the fall of Poland, it was used, at first, to house

Polish political prisoners, such as resistance fighters, priests and other

enemies of the Third Reich. Later, gypsies, communists and homosexuals

were shipped to Auschwitz who were considered to be “sub-human” by the

Nazis and marked for extermination. In 1942, 15 high ranked members of

the German government and the Nazi party, convened a conference at

Wansee, a suburb of Berlin to discuss the “ Final Solution to the Jewish

Question”.

It was decided to exterminate the remnants of the 11 million Jews living in

Europe by sending them to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz and its sister camp

Birkenau, about 2 kilometers away, 5 gas chambers were built with

accompanying crematoria to gas and burn the Jews.


By the time Auschwitz/Birkenau was liberated, over 1.5 million men,

women and children, mostly Jews, were exterminated in the gas chambers of

the infamous death camp.

In May of 1944, with the war nearing its end, Nazi Germany along with her

ally, the virulently anti-semitic Government of Hungary, began to feverishly


speed up the deportation of the Jews of Hungary. The Hungarian Jews were

the last large Jewish community under Nazi control left, intact.

In less than 2 months, just over 55 days, the Hungarian government,

showing rare efficiency, forced tens of thousands of her Jewish citizens,

including most of my family, into cattle cars for daily transport. The victims

were told they were being shipped “east” for forced labor, but the destination

was Auschwitz.


The Hungarian countryside was being rapidly emptied of her Jews. What

happened to them upon arriving? My parents described arriving after a 5 or 6

day journey, 80 people to a car, without food or water or latrines. They told

me stories of disembarking and being selected for either the gas chambers

(usually the old, sick and the women with children) or a few of the more fit,

for slave labor. My parents were lucky, as they were selected for labor. My

fathers’ first wife and his 4-year-old little boy, along with his mother,

mother-in-law, brothers and sister, nephews and nieces, were all selected for

death. Growing up, I would hear these stories endlessly. Later, I read many

books by survivors. The stories were all the same.


Doing research for my book “Recipes from Auschwitz” the story of my

parents, I came across a remarkable photo album, called the “Auschwitz

Album” published by Yad Vashem the Israel Holocaust Museum.

It contains pictures depicting a train loaded with Jews arriving in

Auschwitz/Birkenau,


The pictures show the disembarkation from the cattle cars, the selection into

groups of men and women, the confiscation of the meager belongings they

still possessed, and the march toward the building housing the gas chamber.

One photo even shows a group of women and children patiently waiting in a

grassy clearing for their turn into the busy gas chamber, once the previous

group of Jews was removed. The photos show the entire story.


The Germans, meticulous record keepers, stationed photographers to record

and immortalize the “Final Solution” in action. The remarkable story of the

discovery of this album is detailed in the foreword of this book.

Lili Jacob, a Hungarian survivor found an album of pictures in a drawer of a

German officer’s barracks, after her liberation. She was astonished to

discover that the pictures were of her and her family taken the day they

arrived on May 26, 1944 in Auschwitz. Many years after discovering the

album, she donated it to Yad Vashem.


I studied the portraits over and over. Although they tell the story of Jews

from another part of Hungary, I feel as if I know them. Are they my family?

I look at the photos and my mother’s stories come alive. The photos show a

simple story. Simple men and women with resigned faces. Children

frightened, not knowing what is to become of them. Mothers clinging to

their precious little ones, or supporting parents. Some stare into the lens of

the camera, wondering. I realize that my parents looked just like them. So

did my grandparents and my little four year old brother. If you lived in

Hungary, at that time, the photos could be of your family. Most of those in

the pictures were killed. Very few survived.


The portrait of the murderers, however, is less clear. Who were these men

and women who were capable of the mass murder of millions of human

beings as if they were vermin or cockroaches? My mother told me of the

beatings administered by the female guards. They were often more sadistic

than the men. Did they know they were monsters? What made them hate so

intensely?


There is a second album, also containing pictures from Auschwitz. This one

was discovered in 2004 and contains photos of the German officers and staff

responsible for the killing. Far from looking like monsters, the pictures show

ordinary Germans relaxing at Solahutte, a resort located on the Auschwitz

complex, a mere few kilometers from the gas chambers. Documents reveal

that for meritorious work or for rest and relaxation, the Nazis were rewarded

with short stints at this resort to relax and recuperate.

Murdering 12 thousand people each day must be hard work.


The photos show women cheerily eating blueberries, groups of Germans

men in SS uniforms singing to the accompaniment of an accordion. They

looked like ordinary people out on a picnic, relaxing on a balmy summer

afternoon. Yesterday, they cruelly separate family members as they move

them into the gas chambers. Today, they relax, eating blueberries and sing

songs.


This album shows pictures of the top brass, the leadership of Auschwitz.

They are all there, Rudolph Hoess the camp commandant, Dr.Joseph

Mengele who did the terrible human experiments, Karl Hoecker, the owner

of the album, Otto Moll, the chief of crematories. The album contains

pictures of a who’s who of German murderers. Many were executed after the

war. But many more escaped. The very ‘ordinarity’ of the scenes and the

people in the photos is frightening. How could they shove a little 4 year old

into the gas chamber and go on to sing and eat blueberries?

What influenced these ordinary Germans to carelessly murder millions? The

Polish, the Ukrainians and the Hungarians?


The Germans may have created Auschwitz, but they did not create anti-

Semitism. Hatred of Jews has been a disease eating away the Christian soul

throughout Europe for two thousand years. It laid the groundwork for the

mass slaughter perpetrated by the Germans, the Hungarians, Ukrainians, the

Poles, leading up to and during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this is

the historical fact. No amount of revisionism or attempt to rewrite history

by Hungarians or Poles today, can change history. The Germans have

attempted to take responsibility for their role in the mass murder of Jews.

But the Hungarian and Polish governments stubbornly refuse and claim to

have been “victims”. Christianity, both the Vatican and the Reformed

Church have also refused to accept responsibility for two thousand years of

sermonizing Jew hatred that allowed the “good Christians” to calmly murder

Jewish children, parents and grandparents one day and calmly eat

blueberries and sing songs the next.


So, as we take a moment each year to commemorate the million and a half

men, women and children murdered in Auschwitz, we should make room

among the mourners only those who accept their role in the murder.

We all must have a stake to guarantee: Never again!


Dr. Alex Sternberg

Retired research doctor in Children’s pulmonary health and Master karate

instructor.

Author of the forthcoming book: “Recipes from Auschwitz-My Parents

Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry”




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Tel: 516.652.3211

© 2020 by Dr. Alex Sternberg

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