The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at Washington D.C. unveiled an important new addition to its collection: a personal photo album containing 116 pictures taken between May and December 1944 chronicling the life of SS officers and other officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The rare images capture SS guards and Nazi officials relaxing and enjoying time “hunting, singing, trimming Christmas trees, and more” all while Jews were being murdered at rates as fast as anytime during the Holocaust. The album was created and owned by Karl Höcker, an adjunct to camp Kommandant Richard Baer.
"It’s hard to fathom the kind of people who ran these camps and one always struggles to understand who they were and how they saw themselves," said Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield. "These unique photographs vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering. They offer an important perspective on the psychology of those perpetrating genocide."
The 116 new images represent a significant increase in the number of known pre-liberation images of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Previously, only about 320 images existed of the camp before it was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. This figure does not include photographs of prisoners as they were processed into the camp for forced labor.
The album complements the only other known collection of photographs taken at Auschwitz, published as the "Auschwitz Album" in 1980. Those images specifically depict the arrival of Hungarian Jews at the camp in late May 1944, and the selection process that the SS imposed on them. Some of the images contained in the new album were taken just days later. In contrast to documenting mass murder, they focus on the daily lives and recreational pursuits of Nazi officials, and no prisoner appears in any of the images.
Images in the new album include
- Photographs of Dr. Josef Mengele in uniform on the camp grounds; some of the only known photographs of his tenure at Auschwitz-Birkenau
- A funeral for Nazi officers most likely killed in the accidental December 26, 1944, American bombing of the camp
- A sing-along featuring an accordion player and approximately 70 SS men, including Höcker; Dr. Josef Mengele; Birkenau Kommandant Josef Kramer; former Auschwitz Kommandant Rudolf Höss, who was brought back to oversee the murder of Hungarian Jews; and Otto Moll, the gas chamber supervisor at Auschwitz-Birkenau
- Höcker trimming Christmas trees in December 1944, weeks before the Red Army would overrun the camp
- Female SS auxiliaries eating blueberries and then mockingly crying and posing with empty bowls turned upside down when they are gone
- Numerous hunting trips and portraits of Höcker’s favorite hunting dog
"The Holocaust is recent history, and much more remains to be learned," said Teresa Swiebocka of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. "We know there are many more hidden collections like this. They need to be found and preserved to help transmit the memory of the Holocaust to future generations. Some of these new, unique images will enhance our new permanent exhibition."
An online exhibition of the collection can be found on the Museum's Web site: http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/auschwitz
How the Museum Received the Auschwitz SS Album
In December 2006, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and former member of the Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) wrote to the Museum archives. As one of its many tasks as a military intelligence agency, the CIC conducted investigations of Nazi perpetrators for U.S. prosecutors in the Judge Advocate General’s Office after World War II. While stationed in Germany in 1946, this officer found a photograph album in an abandoned apartment in Frankfurt and took it home with him. In 2007, he donated the album to the Museum, but wanted his donation to remain anonymous.
The Fate of Karl Höcker and His Photograph Album
After the Germans evacuated Auschwitz-Birkenau in mid-January 1945, Höcker accompanied Baer to command Dora-Mittelbau. He fled that camp before it was captured by the Allies and was eventually captured by the British. Not recognizing him, the British released him in 1946 and he reentered civilian life as a banker. Not until the Eichmann trial of 1961 did anyone attempt to locate him. In 1963, he finally faced charges at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trial. Baer was also a defendant at the trial, but died of natural causes while in custody. During the final year of the Holocaust, Höcker was stationed at Auschwitz I, a labor camp. Although witnesses, including other Nazi officials, testified that he would have been aware of the gassing operations and was an administrator of the killing operations at Birkenau, a few kilometers away, prosecutors could not produce a witness or any evidence directly linking him to the killings there. Höcker claimed that he was ignorant of these activities. Yet, many pictures in his photo album show him socializing with Höss, Mengele, Moll, and others intimately involved with the killing process. It strains credulity to suggest he would have been unaware of their crimes. Höcker was sentenced to seven years in prison, but time served was deducted and he was released on parole in 1970. He returned to his banking job, and he died in 2000 at age 88 in Germany.