08 July 2022

The Polish Resistance photographs from Birkenau (2)

(Continuation of part 1, where the abbreviations and references are given.)

Part 2: the physical photographs

Confusing information continues to circulate, up to this day, concerning the Polish Resistance photographs. Useful, if incomplete, information is provided in [P, p. 422-424]. Our summary would be as follows.

(a) the undeveloped film smuggled out on 6.IX.1944 contained four negatives of which the receiver thought they would be relevant. 

(b) he made contact prints of the four negatives, and a second set of contact prints for three of them, resulting in a set of seven positive contact prints.

(c) dismissing one of the negatives as a failed photo without importance, he made enlargements of the other three, cropping the images to what he thought was relevant.

(d) in due time, PMO acquired first the three enlargements described in (c), and later the seven contact prints described in (b). The original negatives are considered lost.

Confusingly, PMO has labeled both the enlargements described in (c) and the contact prints described in (b) as "negatives", though none of the ten items is a negative. The numbers added to the word "negative" are 277-279 for the enlargements and 280-283 for the contact prints, see below for the exact labels.

The three enlargements

PMO negative 277 [BSC, p.185]

PMO negative 278 [BSC, p.185]

PMO negative 279 [BSC, p.184]

The seven contact prints

The set of seven, with the right labels and references, is available on the internet (here), and we reproduce them below.

PMO negative 280

PMO negative 281

PMO negative 281a

PMO negative 282

PMO negative 282a

PMO negative 283

PMO negative 283a

There is an irregular band of light bordering the negatives. Additionally, a transparent dark band is visible along the lower edges. Photographers are well acquainted with such light leak artifacts along the edges in roll films. 

Apparently, three of the negatives were given a second contact print (281a, 282a, 283a) in an attempt to improve their quality. The following differences can be noticed. 
  • In 281a the overlap along the left edge is wider, and the dark band along the lower edge is narrower than in 281.
  • In 282a the prominent fold from 282 has disappeared.
  • In 283a the "vertical" twig in the centre, interrupted in 283, is completely visible but grey shadows in the dark zone have disappeared. 

Adding to the confusion, different authors have used labels different from the above. Pressac, writing in 1989, was unaware of the second set of prints, and his "negative 282" is in fact 282a. Others, too, have dropped the "a" in one or several of their labels, and/or used 278-277 instead of 280-281a. One should be aware of this when consulting any of our references.

The transparent photo corners of the series given above are lacking everywhere except for two in [LC]. The photo corners left aside, it's rare to find the photographs not subjected to some extra modification. The rotation, often applied to 283, is entirely trivial but the universal habit of cropping may, and generally does, remove information that was present in the clumsy contact prints. 


A contact print is made in a darkroom by placing the negative on a larger sheet of photographic paper and then exposing the whole. This results in a technical photograph of sloppy composition, consisting of the negative turned positive, on a background sheet turned black. Our items 280 up to 283a are colour photographs, given the traces of blue ink, and they show the actual contact prints held in transparant photo corners. These corners have sides of approximately 1 cm. (I measured a vintage one of 9 mm and a brand new one of 11 mm.) This allows one to determine the absolute sizes of the negative and of the sheet of blackened paper. A superficial glance at, for instance, #282a reveals that the negative is square, some 6 cm x 6 cm. The film, therefore, must have been exactly 6 cm high.

Vintage roll-film 120 (also manufactured by Agfa).
Note the wooden core of the left spool.

I had my Mac do some precision measuring on a keynote slide with #282a in it. It turned out that, if the film is 6 cm high, the sheet of blackened photographic paper is 6,5 cm x 9,5 cm. The actual exposed image is 56 mm x 56 mm, which means there is a border of 2 mm on four sides. The 6 x 6 format of the photographs had been mentioned in 2001 by [C, p.86 and 87] and [DH2001, p.236, note 109].  

Vintage 6,5 x 9,5 photographic paper (also manufactured by Agfa).
The photographs in "portrait" mode, #280 and #281, placed side by side, cover exactly the "landscape" photograph #282a, see below (the guidelines give the boundaries of #282a).

Hence, the "portrait mode" prints are perfect halves of a 6,5 cm x 9,5 cm sheet. They have only survived in a cropped form, but the original negatives were square like the others.

Most fortunately, #281(a) exhibits, on the left side, an overlap with #282(a). Their perfect aligment proves that they are on a continuous strip of film, and are not two separate negatives that have been manually or accidentally placed so. Allowing for a border of 2 mm on each side, the strip with the two successive negatives must have been as follows:

The grey looking vertical strip left of the center is where both prints (perfectly) overlap. We have uniformly filled #281 with black, though it is not impossible that in the right portion of it some details may have been visible before the crop. Thus in #280 we do (partially) see a bright "something" situated left and above the bright quadrangle. (In 2009, Pieter Kuiper reconstructed the film strip with all 4 negatives, see here.)

Assuming that the negatives have been correctly placed on the photographic paper, i.e., with the exposed side up, #282 was taken before #281. But it cannot be altogether excluded that they were accidentally mirrored. Anyhow, #280 and #281 must have been contiguous. It seems natural to make the "failed photo" #283 contiguous with #282, but strictly speaking we cannot be sure where it was on a film that stops left of #282. Also, there are no films with room for only four photographs. Where have the others gone? Even if they were trivial family shots by the previous owner of the camera, they might have conveyed some information that the Poles must have wanted to leave the camp. After all, on 20.XI.1944 they smuggled out a complete photo album from Lodz which had been abandoned on the unloading platform. [G, No.198]   

The PMO website (here) displays three of the prints, namely

When asked about the dimensions of these photographs, Dr. Wojciech Płosa, Head of Archive at PMO, confirmed that these were (apart from the lettering) the actual photographs taken in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, originals that are kept in our archival collection size 6 cm x 9 cm. Strange, because the last two photographs evidently have different aspect ratios, none of which is 2:3. When the third PMO-photograph is given its correct square form, we obtain this:

Notice the stain, low in the right border. As #282a does not have that stain, we're not just looking at another crop. Is this yet another contact print? Inspecting the numerous reproductions of the Polish Resistance Photographs one notices many such variants. Below we reproduce Pressac's version of 281(a)  (which has, high in the bright quadrangle, a faint blue stamp by PMO) alongside 281a. 

The left contact print has been considerably "embellished" by cropping, with the heavy crack nevertheless preserved. The right one has lost the loose part altogether and partially overlaps with the preceding negative. Pressac must have been unaware of the uncropped version; otherwise, he would have deduced the correct chronology of the pictures from the overlapping negatives. Now he's mistaken about the chronology.


As far as I could find out, PMO-Negative #282, looked upon as a failed version of #282a, has been nowhere reproduced except here. The negative had a fold when it was placed on the photographic paper, which resulted in large portions being blurred. But the non-blurred part of #282 is more revealing than its counterpart in #282a. Below are two corresponding parts from #282 (top) and #282a (bottom).

detail from #282

detail from #282a

The shadow in #282 strongly suggests the outline of a normally dressed inmate, carrying a bucket, passing in front of the tree. In #282a the man (if that's what it is) has been absorbed by the dark mass of the tree, while only his protruding bucket remains visible. Once you pay attention to it, the "floating bucket" in #282a is a very strange object indeed. 

If we place a rectangle from #282 on top of #282a, deliberately leaving the boundaries recognisable, we obtain the following:  

#282a + #282

This combination must be closer to the original photograph than each of the prints separately. Notice that, if we do see a man with a bucket in the foreground, he has several colleagues active in the background. They are clearly distinguishable in the cropped enlargement 279:

Unfortunately, the foreground tree and the floating bucket have not been preserved in this enlargement. And to say that, for many years, the photograph was only known in this cropped version! Moreover, it has been the subject of different, often crude, retouchments. In 1989, Pressac wrote that three different versions were known to him. [P, p.423]


Combining 283 (deliberately somewhat overexposed) and 283a, and rotating the whole in such a way that the dark band along the lower edge of the negative is now on the left side, we obtain this:


For comparison, place #283+#283a alongside #282+#282a, and rotate each in such a way that the tree in the latter and the dark mass in the former are more or less vertical.

The regions roughly delimited in red and blue in both images could be views of the same. The perspective is evidently different because the right image was obtained with the camera closer to the tree and aiming more or less vertically instead of more ore less horizontally. It's difficult to compare the grey shadows in front of the tree, because, unlike the trees and the sky, they may be left by humans who were not static between the two shots. In both cases, these may also be artifacts and nothing more. If our reconstruction is correct, negative #283 was produced first, followed by #282 with the camera tilted 90° between the two shots. Later #281 and #280, in that order, followed.

The film and the camera

So the Polish resistance members in Auschwitz had a camera that produced square negatives 6 cm x 6 cm, yet asked for iron rolls of film for a photographic camera 6x9. To a photographic layman like myself, the conflicting formats (6 x 6 versus 6 x 9) are puzzling. Mr. Jost Simon, Experte für Fototechnik und Historie at Foto-Museum Uhingen was so kind as to clarify things and to provide the appropriate photographs. 
  • There are two films of size 6 cm: the one called 120 film had a wooden axle, and the later 620 film had a thinner metal axle allowing slimmer cameras. The disadvantage was a much thighter wound film which led to problems with the flatness of the film during exposition. Informally, both were called film for 6x9. Depending on the camera, the negatives were 6x6 or 6x9.
  • The metal spool film requested in the Kassiber could only have been a Kodak 620 film, as nobody else used this film in Europe.
middle: the original spool of the 120 with the wooden core
left: same spool as it exist till today (plastic)
right: the all metal spool of the 620 (Kodak only)

  • Two cameras, both made by the Kodak company in Stuttgart, used the 620 film and produced 6x6 negatives. The Kodak Suprema was a very sophisticated and expensive camera of which only few exist. The other one was a regular amateur camera called the Kodak Vollenda 620. Despite a short production time (1940 to 41) it must have sold well, as they easily available and carry no great collector value.
left: Kodak Suprema 620
right: Kodak Vollenda 620

Given the popularity and availability of the Kodak Vollenda 620, there is a good chance that this was the camera that the Poles had somehow acquired inside the camp. 

Kodak Vollenda 620 closed

When closed, it's compact and relatively easy to carry and conceal.

(continued here)