Scrapbookpages Blog

November 14, 2014

British students amazed by photos displayed at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Photos displayed in the Sauna building at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Photos displayed in the Sauna building at Auschwitz-Birkenau

My 2005 photo above shows a wall of photos, which are displayed in the building called the “Sauna” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The floor in the room is covered with glass, and the wall of photos is reflected in the glass, making it look like two walls of photos, but there is only one wall and the reflection of the wall.

I previously blogged about the Sauna on this blog post:

The photo wall at Auschwitz-Birkenau consists of photos found at the camp after it was liberated.  Allegedly, these photos were selected and saved, by the Nazis, from a larger number of photos, which had been brought to the camp by the Jews.

How did the Nazis decide which photos to save and which to burn? Look at the photo above again.  Almost all of the photos, on display at Auschwitz, are color photos.

Recently, a group of British students were taken on a tour of Auschwitz by the HET; you can read about the trip here.

This quote is from the news article about the HET trip:

We were taken to a room which was full of photographs on display. When the prisoners packed a suitcase to leave their homes, the most important possessions were photographs.

The majority of them [the photos] were burned by the Nazis. But a small collection were left behind. It was touching and poignant to see all the smiling faces of families and loved ones of those who perished in Auschwitz.

I find it strange that the students were so concerned with the photos, and not with the purpose of the Sauna building, where the exhibit of the photos is located.

What criteria did the Nazis use in selecting photos to save?

Look at the photo below, which shows a wall of photos at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.

Hall of photo at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Hall of photo at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Notice that the photos, in the display shown above, are mostly black and white, while the photos displayed in the Sauna at Auschwitz are almost all color photos.

I can see it all now: those evil Nazis were going through the luggage of the prisoners and sorting the photos into piles for a future Museum at Auschwitz, and a future Museum in America.

One thing that the British students, on the HET trip, might not have realized is that most people were not taking color photos with their primitive box cameras in the 1940ies.  Color film was expensive and it had to be sent to Rochester, New York to be processed.

The first modern color film, Kodachrome, was introduced in 1935 based on three colored emulsions. Most modern color films, except Kodachrome, are based on technology developed for Agfacolor (as ‘Agfacolor Neue’) in 1936.

Unfortunately, when WWII came along, color photography was still a novelty. The first batches of color film from Kodak were hard to find, leaving combat and civilian photographers with little choice but to record events in black and white.

When I was taking photos back in the 1940ies, I had a box camera like the one shown in the photo below.

Box camera used in the 1940ies in America

Box camera used in the 1940ies in America

Students today, who are taking selfies with their iPhone do not realize the significance of color photos in 1944.  A person who had color photos of their family members, in the 1940s, was a rich privileged person.

The purpose of the Sauna building, where the exhibit of the photos is located, was to save lives by disinfecting the clothing to prevent the spread of disease, and to provide a shower for incoming prisoners in an effort to prevent disease.

The room with the photos is at the end of the present-day tour of the Sauna.  These students weren’t impressed by the effort to save lives; they were only concerned with the (dubious) claim that the Nazis went through the photos in the luggage and callously burned some of them, while selecting other photos to save.

I suspect that the students were not told that this building was closed to tourists for 60 years.  I believe that the building was closed so that tourists would not realize that the Nazis made a big effort to save the lives of the Jews who were sent to Auschwitz.