When the Nazis came to take them to concentration camps, forcing them to leave behind all but a few of the accumulations of a lifetime, many of Europe’s Jews clung to their family photos. These visual reminders of better times, and of family and friends from whom they were now separated, were their most prized possessions.
For most of the prisoners sent to Auschwitz, however, even this shred of personal connection was taken away as they entered the camp.
“In addition to the crematoria used to dispose of human remains, there was a special unit where photos were destroyed,” according to Ann Weiss, a researcher and writer who has spent almost 30 years seeking and sorting the relatively few pictures that survived.
On Feb. 10, she shared some of these photos, and the story of their discovery, at a presentation arranged by Chhange, the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. The program commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Weiss, author of The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, told an audience of about 120 how emotionally pulverized she felt on her first visit to the Nazi death camp in the mid-1980s.
“I’m the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, and I’d read extensively about Auschwitz. But nothing can prepare you adequately for the horrible pain, suffering, and death that occurred there,” she said.
During that initial visit, Weiss said, she lingered in one room and became detached from her group, which included a number of Western VIPs. “I was so mesmerized by what I was seeing that I never heard them leave the room,” she said.
At the time, Poland was still under the control of the communists, and Weiss said she started to search frantically for the rest of her party. “Pretty soon, I was lost. As I passed one doorway, an employee spotted me and motioned me inside a locked room that wasn’t on the itinerary. Even though he didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Polish, he made it clear he wanted to show me something,” she said.
What he had, Weiss recounted, were numerous photos belonging to people who died at Auschwitz.
Weiss believes she and her traveling companions were never supposed to see those pictures. But she had seen them, and they troubled her deeply. “Once you see something, you can’t un-see it,” she said.
After returning to the United States, Weiss determined that these unknown artifacts of Jewish history had to be shared with the world. “I was a single mom at the time with two small daughters to support,” she said. “Still, I managed to scrape up the cost of an airline ticket to Poland, where I negotiated with the government. Eventually, they allowed me to see the photos again and, much later, to copy and publish them.”
She learned that all of the approximately 2,400 pictures that were found came to the camp during three days in early August 1943. It’s believed that one longtime prisoner — someone who had wangled limited privileges — convinced teenage girls working on sorting the clothing and belongings of new arrivals to hide the photos.
Since the pictures have become public, Weiss has worked tirelessly to show them to as many people as possible, and especially to people who may have a chance of recognizing some of the subjects.
“As a result,” she said, “some 750 have been identified.”
In one instance, Weiss said, “I was able to show one man, a survivor who had no living relatives, 60 pictures of his extended family. He said, ‘My table was empty. Now I have a full table again. This is my revenge on Hitler.’”