Photographing the Holocaust


When the very first photos from Belsen Bergen and Buchenwald concentration camps were released in the late April 1945, the general public was incredulous. Yes, they had read the newspapers and heard the rumors, but they didn’t necessarily believe them, dismissing them as typical wartime propaganda by exiled governments. There were precedents, too: during World War I, it had been widely rumored that the Germans on the Western Front were melting down human bodies for fat (these rumors later turned out to be false).

Radio reporter Richard Dimbleby, a man of unimpeachable integrity, had had great difficulty persuading a dubious BBC to broadcast his fast eye-witness report from Belsen. A London cinema showing the first film from the camps was picketed by an angry crowd, protesting government ‘lies’. Their anger was shared by millions of Germans, who while aware of the camps, were convinced that the atrocities had been grossly exaggerated by Allied propaganda.

Photos helped turned this around. By the end of April 1945, eighty-one percent of the British population believed the Holocaust stories, up from thirty seven percent only six months earlier. On May 1, 1945, the Daily Express organized an exhibition called ‘Seeing is Believing’ in London, where people queued in thousands to see the pictures from Buchenwald. Later, a film from Belsen was shown in the cinemas: skeletons bulldozed into burial pits, and German civilians standing beside the SS at the graveside, all of it filmed in one take, so that there could be no accusations of trick photography.

The photo above and below showed Dr. Fritz Klein, a German doctor at Bergen-Belsen, at Mass Grave 3. It was photographed by a soldier from  The British Fifth Army Film & Photographic Unit shortly after the camp’s liberation on 15th April 1945. Unrepentant Klein, who began his work at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was eventually hanged in December 1945.

— some text incorporated from Nicholas Best’s Five Days That Shocked the World


Anne Frank

If a single individual could be held up to “personify” the Holocaust, that person would be Anne Frank. On June 12th, 1942, Anne received a modest red-and-white-checkered, clothed covered diary for her 13th birthday. On that day, she wrote in neat schoolgirl hand: “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”

Three weeks later, to escape an order of deportation to Germany, Anne and her family went into hiding. Their home for the next 25 months was a secret attic behind a bookcase at an old building at 263 Prinsengracht Street in Amsterdam (now renamed Annefrankhuis, and is a memorial to the 100,000 Dutch Jews who perished in concentration camps). Anne Frank retained both her diary and sunny look to life behind her confined quarters. Her ambition was to be a writer and she used her diary to deal with both the boredom and her youthful array of thoughts, which had as much to do with personal relationships as with the war and the Nazi terror raging outside.

On Tuesday, August 1st, 1944, Anne wrote her final entry in her faithfully kept diary. The hiding place that Otto Frank found for his family, the Van Pels family, and Fritz Pfeffer was raided by Nazi forces three days later. They were betrayed by Gestapo informers and its occupants were deported to Auschwitz. The Allied forces which had landed in Normandy two months before arrived too late to save the Franks. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen three months before her 16th birthday.

Her diary was discovered by friends, and published by her father, the only member of the family to survive. The Diary of a Young Girl, published in 1947, includes photos of Anne and the people she hid with, plus a map of the secret annex in the house on Prinsengracht. On the cover was the above haunting photograph taken by an automatic photovending machine in 1939. The simple photograph of Anne gazing away with wistful innocence into distant dreams that never materialized seems to be asking ‘why?’ to incomprehensible horrors unleashed by the Holocaust.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising


Its title was mirthless: “Es gibt keinen jüdischen Wohnbezirk in Warschau mehr!” (The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is no more!); while it was an official dossier laden with bureaucratese that numbed and insulated the Nazis for the enormity of their actions, it also was a souvenir album for Himmler. Only three copies were made, all recovered after the war, and photographs they held within them were used at Nuremberg Trials.

Among them was one of the best-known pictures of the war, titled, “Forcibly pulled out of dug-outs”: the photo of a young boy with his hands up (his identity since been disputed) being driven from the Warsaw ghetto. Since its first publication in a Polish persecutor’s report in 1948, the photo has served as a touchstone for everyone from Elie Wiesel to Susan Sontag to revisionist ranters on the web. Although other people in the photo were accurately identified, the identity of the young boy was never conclusively proved. The photo was probably taken by Franz Konrad, the Nazi photographer and aide to Jürgen Stroop who oversaw the liquidation of the ghetto and wrote that mirthless report. Both Konrad and Stroop were executed for war crimes.

Nearly 400,000 Jewish men, women and children had been sealed into the Ghetto in 1940 – the prelude to the Final Solution, which murdered almost all of Poland’s three million Jews. The children played an important role inside the Ghetto; they begged everywhere, in the Ghetto as well as on the ‘Aryan’ side. Six-year-old boys crawled through the barbed wire under the very eyes of the gendarmes in order to obtain food. Often a solitary gunshot in the distance told that another little smuggler had died in his fight. 

Last Jew in Vinnitsa


In summer 1941, in their push to invade Soviet Union, Adolf Hitler’s German army marched through Ukraine. On July 19th, Vinnitsa, Ukraine was captured by German troops. The town of Vinnista witnessed its own share of tribulations in the 30s and the 40s. As many as 10,000 Great Purge corpses were exhumed by the Germans. Adolf Hitler established his eastern most headquarters FHQ Wehrwolf near the town and spent a number of weeks there in 1942 and early 1943. But the greatest turmoil came during Rosh-ha-Shana holiday (September 22th) when 28,000 Jews were massacred by the Nazis. According to the census data of 1926, 21,800 Jews lived in the region which means the entire Jewish people were exterminated in Vinnitsa.

This famous picture, inscribed on the back of the photo as of the Last Jew in Vinnitsa, was taken by German Einsatzgruppen solider before he was shot by another Einsatzgruppe Dofficer. His haunting face and hollow, distracted eyes were as symbolic of the Holocaust as later Margaret Bourke-White images. Present in the background of the photo are members of the German Army, the German Labor Service, and the Hitler Youth.