The Sonderkommando Photos

In the Nazi-occupied Europe, the Sonderkommando were special groups of Jews (and sometimes Russian prisoners of war) who were isolated from their fellows, and forced to carry out the atrocities: they emptied the gas chambers of bodies; they cremated, buried or ground the bodies. Since the Nazis did not wish the Sonderkommandos’ knowledge to reach the outside world, they regularly gassed the Sonderkommandos too and replacing them with new arrivals; the first task of the new Sonderkommandos would be to dispose of their predecessors’ corpses. Conscious of their fate, Sonderkommandos sometimes rebelled, but their most significant act of defiance came in the form of four photographs that came out of Auschwitz in August 1944.

In 1943, the commander at Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss forbade the photography inside the camp; signs were posted outside warned ‘Fotografieren verboten! No Entry! You will be shot without prior warning!’ However, two photographic laboratories operated inside Auschwitz for archival reasons: photographs recorded torture, executions, and experiments, and Hoss was even able to present the minister of justice with an album of Auschwitz pictures. However, of one and a half million surviving photographs related to the concentration camps, only these four depicted the Nazis’ assembly line Holocaust in action. It was unclear how the Sonderkommandos smuggled a camera in (there were competing stories, but generally thought to be smuggled in with food);  the film was known to be smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance. The pictures were sent to Krakow, but not to the Polish government-in-exile in London. They were, however, used in the Krakow trials for Nazi Crimes in Poland.

Frequently cropped and altered to highlight their content, it is possible to identify and precisely locate the scenes in the photos; the photographer apparently hid inside a crematorium doorway (Krema V) and took the photos secretly from the hip area. Only first two frames showed open-air incineration pits; the third is largely comprised of branches, except for group of women prisoners who appear in various states of undress at the bottom corner (zoom). The remaining image – also ill-composed – shows only sunlight and trees.