Auschwitz: Photographs from Hell
This week, the world paused briefly to remember 27th January 1945 when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz. The press release from the White House, now improbably occupied by a man who has surrounded himself with anti-Semites, did not even mention the Jewish victims of the said concentration camp.
Yet this has alarming parallels dating back to 1945. While 1.1 million (90 percent of whom were Jewish) died at Auschwitz — 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in its gas chambers — its significance was downplayed immediately by the Red Army which saw the atrocities first hand. In a new narrative that Soviet Union was writing, the Jewish suffering was to be downplayed, even as Soviet sacrifices were hailed.
As Richard Levy wrote in Antisemitism, as “many Soviet citizens …. benefited from the Nazi extermination of Jews — taking over abandoned Jewish houses, stolen property, and vacated jobs”, they feared the return of Jewish refuges. In such a climate, the Soviet control of Eastern Europe depended on hiding the true extent of the Nazi horrors. Pravda’s short initial report on Auschwitz on February 2nd 1945 did not mention Jews; a detailed coverage wasn’t made until Ogonyok’s March 20th article, which did mention Jewish deaths.
Not liberated alongside Auschwitz was Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish inmate who was forced to take photographs of Auschwitz during the war. Along with thousands of other Auschwitz prisoners, Brasse was moved to Mauthausen concentration camp by the Nazis as the Red Army approached Auschwitz.
While at Auschwitz, Brasse was ordered by the SS to photograph “prisoners’ work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files.” He took “identity” portraits of the prisoners “in three poses: from the front and from each side, taking about 40,000 to 50,000 of them from 1940 until 1945.
These images, of which only a few survives, form a powerful visual legacy, enlivening the victims of the Holocaust into people who lived and loved, rather than as numbers and statistics. Among the most haunting was the portrait of Czesława Kwoka, a 15-year old girl, whom Brasse recalled:
She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo [a prisoner overseer] took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.
Kwoka would perish in the camps just a few months later. It is depressing to commemorate Auschwitz, even as tolerance dims in the United States with each stroke of the presidential pen. We have largely shied away from discussing modern politics on this blog, but this is no time for decent men, of any political stripe and especially of the president’s party, to remain silent.
Cruel. Inhumane. Lacking in Empathy. Enacted without due process and deference to legality. These are some words that come to mind when we reflect on the Executive Orders of last few days. We must not confuse religious, political, or ideological differences with disloyalty. There is a fine line between national security and infringement of civil rights, and between protecting and persecution citizens — and the president has stepped over it a week into his term.
We worry about the remaining 207 weeks of his administration. That’s we are going to put a link to American Civil Liberties Union’s donation page here.