'Seeing Auschwitz': A Haunting Human Reality of the Holocaust

A photographic exhibition in London attempts to “share the gaze of the perpetrator, the victim, the onlooker and to reflect on what this means” for the world today.

London: A new exhibition, ‘Seeing Auschwitz,’ showcases lesser-known photographs taken by victims, and Nazis in their off-duty hours, and aerial photographs taken by the Allies at one of the largest and deadliest of six concentration camps. Discovered from an album by a Holocaust survivor in the aftermath of the second world war, it is an attempt to “share the gaze of the perpetrator, the victim, the onlooker and to reflect on what this means” for the world today.

Friday, January 27, is Holocaust Memorial Day, dedicated to remembering Jews and others who were persecuted by the Nazis.

Initially conceived for the United Nations, the exhibition has been produced in collaboration with the Auschwitz museum that includes pictures taken over three months in 1944, during which more than hundreds of thousands were executed, mainly Jews, at the Nazi concentration camp.

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 1.3 million individuals were transferred to Auschwitz – a camp complex occupied in Poland. 1.1 million were Jews, and 960,000 of them were killed in the camps. The remaining 200,000 persons were mostly non-Jewish Poles, people with mental disabilities, Roma people, homosexuals, and Soviet prisoners of war.

Inmates of Auschwitz. Photo: Kalrav Joshi

With its intent to put the Jewish experience in the centre – along with its sensitivity and context – it intends to document a piece of reality seen from the Nazi perspective.

A team of curators composed of famous experts in the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Holocaust education was assembled to prepare it. They include Paul Salmons (chief curator), Robert Jan van Pelt (Holocaust historian and author of Auschwitz, 1270 to the Present), and Miriam Greenbaum (co-author of Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away). The photographs and images are powerful, and the accompanying sketches are insightful.

The first image portrays the confusion of a group of Hungarian Jews taken by the Nazis in mid-1944. They appear perplexed and befuddled, with a man in the foreground wearing only one shoe and no trousers. It’s difficult to imagine a picture more dissimilar than early descriptions of the “Final Solution’s” efficacy. It conveys chaos and disarray. How could the newcomers make sense of this new world after spending many days in cramped cattle trucks – hungry and fatigued?

Also read: The Ghosts of Auschwitz: Inside Hitler’s Killing Machine

The images are scenes of horror waiting to gnaw at reality even today: the entrance of the most notorious Nazi murder camps, masses of terrified people clutching their children or meagre goods, and the burning chimneys of crematoriums where their remains were burned.

“We asked the other prisoners when we would see our families. A woman pointed to the chimney and said, “Do you see the smoke?’ There is your family,” remembers Irene Weiss, one of the Auschwitz survivors.

This exhaustive body of work strikes a chord in them because of their historical subjugation. Despite being proud of their conscious attempt to wipe Jews out of Europe, Nazis realised the need to conceal proof of their atrocities, as they started losing the war.

Photographic exhibition ‘Seeing Auschwitz’ in London. Photo: Seeing Auschwitz exhibition website.

“The photographs are the only visual representation we have of the selection process at a death camp. But, although these photographs are remarkable evidence, they are also highly problematic. We explore how, because they were taken by Nazis to show how well-ordered the concentration camps were, we really need to think about what we are looking at. That is why we contrast these photographers from the perpetrators with those from the victims,” said Paul Salmos, lead curator, in an interview.

The most renowned of them is the “Sonderkommando photographs,” which were shot secretly in August 1944 and continue to be the only photographs taken of the gas chambers as they were being used to perpetuate the horrors of right-wing extremism.

Others depict a gathering of Jews in Birch Grove, including two images of young toddlers waiting with their mothers. The Nazis, and their collaborators, murdered about 90% of all Jewish children in German-occupied Europe, which is one of the many reasons why John Boyne’s bestselling novel, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, is so deceitful.

“Each person who ‘managed’ to enter Auschwitz as a prisoner was registered: after replacing their name with a number, they were photographed for ‘identification’. It was other prisoners who, forced by the SS (short for Schutzstaffle), took these thousands of portraits. The selection process at Auschwitz, carried out by SS doctors and guards, took place on a daily basis,” reads one of the texts accompanying photographs and testimonies. “It was a mechanical process: the trains ‘dropped off the load’, the SS ordered them to line up, and most were sent to the gas chambers.”

Inmates of Auschwitz. Photo: Seeing Auschwitz exhibition website.

Lili Jacob, a former Auschwitz inmate, was transferred to Dora Mittelbau in April 1945. She discovered a photo album. The majority of the photographs in the album were taken on the day she arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944. She recognised her murdered brothers, Israel (9) and Zelig (11), as well as many other members of her family, including her grandparents, Aunt Tauba, and four of her children, and a photo of Lili herself, with her head shaved.

The photographers, most likely SS men Ernst Hofmann and Bernhard Walter, were explicit about their involvement, sometimes posing in an elevated position for better composition and perspective, such as the roof of a train.

Hidden inside a bottle, there are also drawings, by an inmate known only as MM, depicting the brutality of the guards, and the despair of family members that were separated and those sent to the gas chambers.

A drawing from Auschwitz. Photo: Kalrav Joshi.

Some nuances in the exhibition have been enlarged to “re-humanise” the victims of Nazi dehumanisation. A woman holds hands with a youngster next to her, and a child glances directly into the camera lens.

The exhibition, in the most profound ways, encourages audiences to “look beyond the four edges of the photograph” and invokes them to look beyond “the veil of seemingly ordinary faces to confront the reality of what we are seeing.”

But it is worthy – and timely – to remember that, “Auschwitz did not start in the gas chamber.”

With the rise in cases of antisemitism, discrimination, genocides, systematic killings, mass rape and torture of specific communities across the world, how can we claim to say that we have understood, learned from and seen Auschwitz?

In an age of collective and systematic amnesia, will these images compel us to act and make us less complicit? Or like a social media platform, make us volatile with a mere number of retweets?

 Kalrav Joshi is a multimedia journalist based in London. He writes on politics, culture, technology and climate. He tweets at @kalravjoshi_