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
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
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
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
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
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
Author of the forthcoming book: “Recipes from Auschwitz-My Parents
Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry”