08 July 2022

The Polish Resistance photographs from Birkenau (3)

(Continuation of part  2. The first part, where the abbreviations and references are given, is here.) 

3. The content of the photographs

A cropped and heavily retouched version of

#282a + #282

is shown here. The accompanying text starts with the sentence

Among the millions of photographs that are related to Nazi death camps, only four depict the actual process of mass killing perpetrated at the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

In fact, this standard interpretation relies on human testimonies, which provide the framework of what we see. Now human memory is very unreliable indeed, even with people in good faith. Specifically about these photographs: the testimonies passed down on this matter are highly contradictory (sehr widersprüchlich) and some that used to be taken seriously are since long untenable (längst nicht mehr haltbar) [K]. The only sound thing to do, therefore, is to disregard the testimonies altogether. After that, one is left with two photographically registered scenes in which criminal activity is far from evident. Needless to say, "absence of proof" is not "proof of absence".

The location of the first scene can be determined with relative certainty thanks to the combination of trees and a chimney (low in the image, right of the tree). Inspecting maps of the camp, one is inevitably led to the location of Crematorium V, which was completed in April 1943. There can be no doubt that the women are moving away from the building. Pressac was the first to notice this, but everybody can see for himself: the chimney, visible in the uncropped photograph, is behind their backs. Pressac adds: 

The photo was taken against the light, the south being in front of the photographer and the north behind him, with one of the two chimneys of a type IV/V Krematorium visible on the right. [P, p.424]

This may have been too crude a deduction, perhaps based on a print that was too coarse. In our image above, the woman most sharply printed has the upper right part of her body illuminated, while the shadow of her head falls on her left shoulder. The sun must have been high in the sky, i.e., roughly in the south, and the women must be heading roughly to the southeast. A sketch taking these various elements into account might look as follows. (Correctness, let alone accuracy, is not claimed.)

K IV= Crematorium IV with the pond east of it;
K V= Crematorium V;
Between these: the Ringstrasse, a part of the camp road.
Added in red, from top to bottom:
the two chimneys of K V,
the location of the activity involving buckets,
the women and their general direction,
the photographer and his line of sight.
In this reconstruction, the women seem to be heading for the camp road. Columns of naked women passing along the camp road from or to a far destination were not all that exceptional. The following quotation is by a female inmate of Birkenau.
The official attitude of the camp authorities in matters of public decency was contradictory, as in most other matters. Once the head wardress saw from a distance of 200 yards that a girl sitting in front of our hut had drawn her dress up above her knees, and was highly incensed. On the following day a great number of women walked naked across the camp road to the disinfection hut, past male prisoners and S.S. men who were repairing roofs, and nobody objected. [LR, p.26]

In the unpublished German typescript, on which the English translation is based, the last sentence of the quotation is

Am nächsten Tag gingen zahllose Frauen nackt über die Lagerstrasse zur Desinfektion, vorbei an männlichen Häftlingen und SS Männern, die gerade die Dächer reparierten, und es störte keinen Menschen.
During general delousings, such as happened in the summer of 1943, prisoners were even naked all day, and were marched to several successive destinations in that condition.

Strangely enough, among the conflicting testimonies (not considered here) there is one by a prisoner who claims to have made the photographs while repairing the roof of Crematorium V. Anyhow, whatever the destination of the women, in the photograph nobody hurries, no guards are to be seen, only male inmates busy, very casually, with buckets. So yes, the short caption 
Poland. Women naked, before their execution [here] 
may be perfectly true, but this photograph offers, by itself, no compelling evidence for that. 


The scene with the burning corpses occurred after the one with the naked women, but without testimonies we cannot know with what delay. Burning corpses is not a criminal act, neither in a crematorium nor in the open air. Moreover, Pressac (while being mistaken about the chronology of the photographs) writes 

One of the open-air cremation ditches was therefore operating quite close to the north side of Krematorium V while its furnace was not working, so that contrary to the testimony of Sonderkommando men, the ditches were not in addition to the furnace but were dug to replace it, as it was out of service. [P, p. 424]

If the crematorium was out of order, the open air incineration need not prove that the crematoria "could not cope" at the time. Yes, Cyrankiewicz had written so in his message of 4.IX.1944, but he had written the same, almost in identical terms, more than a year earlier, speaking then of Polish (not jewish) transports. Note in passing that  Pressac, like other commentators, takes the pyres described by Cyrankiewicz to be ditches. 

(continued and concluded here)