Twelve SS auxiliaries sit happily on a fence railing eating blueberries given to them by an SS officer. The photo was taken in 1944 in Solahütte, a recreation home located near Auschwitz for the SS team in charge of running the concentration camp. Another shows the auxiliaries callously feigning tears once their bowls are empty.
These are just two of 116 images in a photo album made public by the United States National Holocaust Museum in Washington earlier this week. The museum obtained the photos at the year of the year from a retired US Army intelligence officer, who came across the album in an apartment in Frankfurt and has now given them to the museum.
The photos were taken between May and December 1944, and they show the officers and guards relaxing and enjoying themselves -- as countless people were being murdered and cremated at the nearby death camp.
In some of the photos, SS officers can be seen singing. In others they are hunting and in another a man can be seen decorating a Christmas tree in what could only be described as a holiday in hell.
"These unique photographs vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering," museum director Sara Bloomfield said in a statement. "They offer an important perspective on the psychology of those perpetrating genocide."
The director of the museum's photographic reference collection, Judith Cohen, said there are no photos depicting anything abhorrent, "and that's precisely what makes them so horrible."
The images are significant because there are few photos available today of the "social life" of the SS officers who were responsible for the mass murder at Auschwitz, the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper writes. The paper claims that these are the first leisure time photos of the concentration camp's SS officers to be discovered, though similar images do exist for other camps, including Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Buchenwald.
'Revelling next to the Gas Chambers'
Germany's mass circulation Bild newspaper, which has more than 4 million readers, described the images as "photos that are angering the world!"
"No other name is connected with greater horror and cruelty" than Auschwitz, an article in the Friday issue of the paper stated. "The death camp is the epitome of the Nazi murder of the Jews. ... Now photos of the perpetrators have surfaced, nightmarish documents that show how shamelessly and cynically the SS revelled next to the gas chambers."
The album belonged to Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the final camp commandant at Auschwitz, Richard Baer. Höcker took the pictures as personal keepsakes. The album also contains eight photos of Josef Mengele -- some of the very few existing snapshots taken of the concentration camp's notorious doctor during the time he spent there.
Prior to its liberation by the Allies, Höcker fled Auschwitz. After the war, he worked for years, unrecognized, in a bank. But in 1963 he was forced to answer to charges for his role at Auschwitz at a trial in Frankfurt. In his closing words in the trial, Höcker claimed: "I had no possibility in any way to influence the events and I neither wanted them to happen nor took part in them. I didn't harm anyone and no one died at Auschwitz because of me." In the end, though, he was convicted on charges of aiding and abetting the murders of 1,000 Jews and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He was released after serving five years. In 2000, he died at the age of 88.
Up until now, only 320 photos taken prior to the camp's liberation by the Russians were known to the public. The images were part of the so-called "Auschwitz Album," which was opened up for the public in 1980. The photos primarily documented the arrival of Hungarian Jews at the concentration camp at the end of May 1944 and their selection by SS personnel.
The newly discovered photos of the blithesome daily lives of Nazis at Auschwitz offer a macabre contrast to that album.