The Auschwitz album

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Amid the horror, camp officers and staff went about their lives: sunbathing, going on picnics, putting up decorations. As these astonishing photographs show, Auschwitz was not hell for everyone. By Alec Wilkinson

In June of 1945, after the war with Germany had ended, an American Army officer arriving in Frankfurt was told to look for a place to live within a part of the city which the Allies had enclosed with barbed wire. He found an abandoned apartment and did what he could to make it livable. Opening a closet door, he discovered an album of photographs. It had 31 pages, and 116 black-and-white images, the bulk of them a little smaller than a playing card, nearly all of them portraying German officers - at a picnic, at shooting practice, at a resort among fir trees and hills, at the dedication of a hospital, dressed as miners and visiting a coal mine, at a dinner at a long table with a white tablecloth, wine bottles and waiters, lighting candles on a Christmas tree, at a funeral in the snow where the coffins are draped with Nazi flags.

Eventually, the officer returned to America. He took a job with the government, in Washington, D.C., and he and his wife lived in Virginia. In December 2006, the officer, elderly and disposing of his possessions, wrote to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, offering it an opportunity to look at the album. The images, he wrote, appeared to depict 'activities in and around Auschwitz, Poland'.

His letter was delivered to Rebecca Erbelding, a young archivist there. Erbelding examines nearly all texts and photographs offered to the museum. The most common are liberation photographs - scenes from concentration camps set free by the Americans or the British, usually made by army photographers, and given to soldiers so that they could take them home and show what they had seen. Erbelding assumed that the album consisted of these, and that, given the abundance of them in the museum's collection, she would recommend another home for it. She also assumed that the officer was mistaken about Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, in southern Poland, was the largest of the Nazi concentration camps. It enclosed 15 square miles and was divided into three parts: Auschwitz I contained the camp offices; Auschwitz II, also called Birkenau, contained the gas chambers and the crematoriums; and Auschwitz III had a synthetic-rubber-and-oil factory, operated by forced labour.

Auschwitz was also the camp where the most people died: approximately 1.1 million. There was a photography studio, where portraits were made of certain prisoners, but, except for official purposes, such as documenting construction or a dignitary's visit, photography was forbidden; what went on at Auschwitz, as in all the camps, was a state secret. There was only one album known to portray life at Auschwitz, and it came to light years ago. Originally, it included about 200 photographs, taken on 26 May, 1944, depicting the arrival of a train of prisoners and their dispersal. Often called the Lili Jacob album, after the young woman who found it, it is now at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. In addition, there are three photographs, at the Auschwitz Museum, of bodies being burnt and women being sent to the gas chambers, which were taken clandestinely, probably in August or early September 1944, by inmates with a camera apparently discovered among the belongings of arriving prisoners.

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