08 July 2022

The Polish Resistance photographs from Birkenau (1)


PMO = Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu (State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau at Oświęcimiu) 

APMO = Archives of PMO


[BSC] Renata Bogusławska-Świebocka & Teresa Cegłowska,  KL Auschwitz, Fotografie dokumentalne - Documentary photographs - etc. [in Polish, English, French, German and Russian], Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza, Warszawa, 1980 [relevant pages here]

[C] Clément Chéroux, Mémoire des camps. Photographies des camps de concentration et d'extermination nazis (1933-1999), Marval Paris 2001. [Relevant pages here. Page 88, too wide to be scanned in its entirety, is divided in a left half, not displaying the page number, and a right half.]

[DH2001] Georges Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout. In [C], 2001, pp. 219-241. [Relevant pages here.]

[DH2003] Georges Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris 2003. [Relevant pages here.] 

[G] Grypsy z Konzentrationslager Auschwitz Józefa Cyrankiewicza i Stanisława Kłodzińskiego, Irena Paczyńska ed., Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, 2013

[K] Andreas Kilian, Zur Autorenschaft der Sonderkommando-Fotografien, [here, German], last update 9.XII.2019.

[LC] Judith Lermer Crawley, Acts of Resistance, 2005 [here]

[LR] Ella Lingens-Reiner, Prisoners of Fear, Victor Gollancz, 1948 [here]

[P] Jean-Claude Pressac, Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas chambers, Beate Klarsfeld Foundation 1989 [here]

[S] Dan Stone, The Sonderkommando Photographs, Jewish Social Studies, New Series, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Spring - Summer, 2001), pp. 131-148. [Relevant pages here.]

Part 1: the message

Inside Auschwitz concentration camp, a very well organised Polish resistance group was active. Among other things, it provided a constant flow of information to the Polish resistance outside the camp. Opportunities to do so were not lacking. Every day, columns of inmates marched out of the camp to work outside. Here is what an Auschwitz inmate writes about leaving and re-entering the camp.

After the order given by the camp authorities, the orchestra, some 60 men strong, broke into military marches and the parade ("Ausmarsch") began. The view of thousands of prisoners marching by every morning in an impeccable order was of a tragic beauty. The kommandos [working details] succeeded each other, the men in rows of five, the groups of one hundred separated by small intervals.


In rows of five we returned to the camp at an hour which varied with the seasons, but always before nightfall. At the approach of the concrete enclosure [which existed only around the main camp Auschwitz I] we switched to rhythmic marching. We re-entered in a strictly prescribed order on the sound of the music, but the parade was less severe than in the morning, and the authorities were usually not present for the re-entry of the kommandos. But, when we passed the enclosure, SS guards randomly took prisoners to search them, in order to verify that no forbidden object from the working places was brought into the camp. [Original French text (1947) here, pp. 451-452]

In the opposite direction, civilian workers entered in the morning and went home in the evening. They were very crossed when, one day, they had to stay inside the camp for an extended period of time, during a general quarantine intended to confine the typhus epidemic.

In [G], 214 secret messages — Grypsy in Polish, Kassiber in German —are collected, the first being from 6.XI.1942,  and the last from 18.I.1945, the very day the camp was evacuated. At times, up to three different messages could be composed the same day. Their content ranges from actual German documents copied by prisoners employed in the camp administration to rumours whose veracity is sometimes highly dubious.

Below, we focus on the first week of September 1944; the numbers of the messages are those of [P]. People involved are

JC = Józef Cyrankiewicz, SK = Stanisław Kłodziński (in the camp), WP = Władysław Pytlik, EH = Edward HałonTL = Teresa Lasocka (outside).


No. 146,  2.IX.1944, JC+SK>WP. (...)

No. 147, 3.IX.1944, JC > TL. Dealing, among other things, with the necessity of an international action in defence of the Auschwitz prisoners.

No. 148, 4.IX.1944, JC+SK>WP. Nine numbered items are treated, the first two by JC, the others by SK. The second item of the nine, the last by JC, reads as follows.

2. Urgent: send as soon as possible 2 iron rolls of film for a photographic camera 6x9. There is the possibility to make photographs. — We send you photographs of Birkenau — of gassing action. Photograph shows one of the pyres in the open air where corpses are burnt when the crematorium cannot cope with burning. In front of the pyre corpses lie waiting to be thrown onto the heap. Other photograph shows one of the places in the wood where people undress allegedly to have a bath, after which they are sent in the gas. Send the roll as soon as possible! Send attached photographs immediately to Tell [=TL]. — Enlarged photograph can, we think, be sent further. 

The photographs of point 2, though announced, were not attached to this message. Instead, the Lagerstand of 2.IX.1944, mentioned in one of the other points, was attached. It gave the numbers and distribution of the inmates over the several "Auschwitz" camps, the grand total being some 100.000. 

No. 149, 4.IX.1944, JC+SK>WP. (...)

No. 150, 5.IX.1944 (or later), JC>EH+TL. (...)

No. 151, 6.IX.1944, SK>WP.  There are seven short paragraphs. The second one consists of two short sentences, the last being 

We attach photographs from Birkenau.

No. 152, 6.IX.1944, JC+SK>WP. (...)

No. 153, 6.IX.1944, JC+SK>TL. (...)

No. 154, 7.IX.1944, SK>WP. Eleven numbered items are treated, the first one being

1. The photographs are gone (have left).


The translations of the Polish message of 4.IX.1944 are not always very accurate. The one given above is ours, made word for word with the help of online translation tools. The whole message (Polish) here, and this is the manuscript [C, p.87]: 

Note several corrections by JC, including a change of the request from "a metal film roll" to "2 metal film rolls". The photographs will be discussed in part 2. It turns out there were four of them, including a failed photo not revealing anything. It makes no sense to smuggle a failed photograph out of the camp after it had been printed. This means that the shipment did not consist of photographs on paper, but of an exposed roll, i.e., an undeveloped film [C, p.87, Note with Image 114]). Hence, JC had not seen these photographs; he was told what was on them, and that's what he tries to write down. In describing the first of the two, he reuses some phrasing from more than a year before. In message No. 8 of 21.I.1943 (Polish text here, second paragraph under Gaz) he had written 

Lately, transports of Poles from the Lublin region go straight in the gas (men — women). Children are thrown right into the fire. Behind Birkenau the so-called "eternal flame" is burning — a pyre of corpses in the open air — the crematorium can't cope. 

This rumour was all over Auschwitz. Thus, according to a female Birkenau inmate: 

At that time [not specified] they used to light enormous bonfires near the crematorium, allegedly to burn the dirty, useless clothing of gassed people, for which there was no room in the ovens. Reliable friends from another camp, built nearer than ours to one of the crematoria, have told me that they saw with their own eyes how babies torn from their mothers' arms were thrown directly into those fires, without the detour through a gas-chamber. I did not see it myself; but I must believe it after all that happened.  [LR, p.73]

As far as I could find out, no one actually witnessed such an event in Auschwitz. The protoype of Germans throwing Slavonic children alive in a fire is found in Eisenstein's patriottic movie Alexander Nevsky (1938). 

Incidentally, the pyres mentioned by JC in his message are invariably interpreted as ditches by commentators who can compare the photographs with the actual scenery.

JC is not very outspoken about the utility of the "enlarged photograph", writing to TL that it might be "sent further", probably hinting at the "international action" mentioned in the preceding message to TL. In due time, the photographs did reach WP, but they were never sent anywhere.

In popular descriptions of the photographs, it is common to read that they were sent from the camp "with an explaining note". Actually, it's more the other way around. They were part of a big shipment of daily messages, and appear to have been regarded in the context of an international "awareness action" being prepared. Also, they were sent with a delay of two days, whereas the Lagerstand was sent right away. 

(continued here)