The US Holocaust Museum has unveiled a new addition - a personal photo album with 116 pictures taken in 1944 chronicling the life of SS officers and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp guards. The images capture SS guards and Nazi officials enjoying time off - sunning themselves, singing, trimming Christmas trees - all while thousands of Jews were being murdered daily in the camp's gas chambers. The album was created and owned by Karl Hocker, adjutant to camp Kommandant Richard Baer, and contains rare photos of some of the most notorious figures of Auschwitz.
He appears quite normal and rather agreeable, does Ausch-witz's "angel of death," who by a casual flick of the finger controlled both death and life. Dr. Josef Mengele looks trim, pleasant, a genial smile playing on his lips. His hand and fingers are not shown, but one supposes that they too were quite normal. During working hours the good doctor, resplendent in his black SS uniform and immaculate white gloves, would casually make the selections on the train platform at Auschwitz. This new snapshot shows him during off hours. He is part of a large group of SS officers engaged in a sing-along.
Rudolph Hoess also looks like a decent chap. One might even buy a used car from him. His responsibility: the murder of Hungarian Jews. This required great efficiency and careful attention to detail. Here he is in the same snapshot, right in front of the accordion player. Nearby the gas ovens are working beyond their capacity, able to kill 10,000 Jews per day - which, he once boasted, was twice the output of Treblinka. It is very demanding work, and a man needs some time off for relaxation. What sweet German lieder are they all singing in this picture? I think I hear Christmas carols about peace on earth, good will toward men, but I could be wrong.
Karl Hocker, the adjutant and second in command at Auschwitz, also looks pleasant enough, the kind of person who would help an elderly lady cross a busy street. The owner of the album, he wanted his children and grandchildren to see him and his comrades in full Nazi regalia as they carried out their duties to the Fatherland. Surely they would like to see, despite all the war propaganda, that they were normal human beings who were simply doing their job, and who in their off hours sang and had picnics and sunned themselves on the veranda - just like ordinary people do.
NEXT TO him, singing merrily away, is Otto Moll. Otto is overall supervisor of the gas chambers. He must fill his quota every single day, ascertain that there are sufficient canisters of gas in the storeroom, and that all the furnaces and pipes are working efficiently. It is not just the gassing that is crucial; disposing of the bodies afterwards is imperative, and unless done well could easily interrupt the smooth flow of things. Sometimes the bodies have to be exhumed and burned, in accordance with a strict timetable.
The tension requires that he relax from time to time. These sing-alongs are just what he needs. He stands right next to Mengele. A good time is being had by all.
THE CREMATORIA? They are working full blast not far away. If you are a good administrator, you do not have to be on hand constantly. Your staff can do what has to be done, while you take a needed break.
The photos of the female SS auxiliary? Officially, they were in charge of camp communications, but on occasion they helped guard the women prisoners and made certain that all regulations were strictly enforced. They had to be tough, hardened and, when necessary, ruthless. Order had to be maintained at all costs. It was taxing work, and they needed occasionally to sun themselves in the deck chairs of the recreational center not far from the furnaces.
In the photo above, adjutant Hocker and 15 of these women are sunning themselves. They cannot hear the hum of the furnaces, and cannot see the smoke pouring from the chimneys. Because they were unable to hear and see, they were able, in another snapshot, to laugh heartily when caught in a rainstorm on one of their outings, and, in another shot, to enjoy their blueberries during a picnic. It was not easy to be part of the female auxiliary at Auschwitz, but it had its occasional rewards.
JOSEF, RUDOLF, Karl and Otto and their lady friends, oblivious to the belching smokestacks behind them, were probably good family people. On Sundays, after perhaps attending church in the morning, they undoubtedly took their children out on picnics in the park. They were surely the very models of model German citizens. Once their weekend furloughs were over, they had to return to work.
To expedite the murder, one of their tasks - especially in the early stages of the Holocaust - was to see to it that the Jews were lined up in an orderly fashion at the edge of pits and ditches so that the Einsatzgruppen could machine gun them, men women children, the elderly and the young. The officers would then order bulldozers to cover the bodies in the mass grave as they glanced at their watches.
Ah, time for lunch with fellow officers - perhaps some beer, some German gemutlichkeit, smiles, jokes, flirting with the female guards. This knackwurst is excellent. Oh, is it two PM already? Time flies. Back to work. What is this? Someone has moved my Zyklon -B canisters. Please do not take my canisters without informing me first. It is not right.
JOSEF, RUDOLF, Karl, and Otto and the ladies - what happened to them after the war? Mengele became a fugitive, and apparently died in Paraguay in 1979 at age 68. Hoess, the beast of Bergen-Belsen, describing himself as soft-hearted, was hanged for his crimes. Moll, after denying everything and blaming Hoess, was also hanged.
Adjutant Hocker, the album owner? Under an alias, he was a bank cashier. Huge amounts of money passed through his hands, but he stole not a pfennig, for he was an honest fellow. He was ultimately found out, and after several years in prison for war crimes, returned to his same bank job, still considered trustworthy, very likely viewed by his countrymen as a patriot who was victimized by the cruel American conquerors. He died a natural death at age 89.
As for the good ladies, they drifted back seamlessly into society. Model wives and matrons, working for various good causes, they occasionally recalled the outings and the socializing. Did they recall the sadism and brutality? Dimly, but wasn't all that necessary in order to serve the Fatherland?
THESE JOLLY snapshots elicit a shudder of horror. In a way they are as chilling as the infamous photos of the gas chambers and the mass graves. Had these SS officers at least looked like monsters; if only in their barracks at night they had engaged in cruel fights or savage games - the mind could absorb their atrocities. But while the industrialized murder, starvation, beatings, attack dogs, and burnings-alive continued, they returned to their quarters, these cultured people, and tended their flower beds and played Bach.
The mind reels at the incomprehensibility of it all. But 2,500 years earlier, God's prophet Jeremiah, (17:9) had already noted man's incomprehensibility: "Deceitful is the heart above all things, and wanton; who can know it?"
Only God can penetrate the masks that evil wear. "I the Lord search the heart, and probe the inward regionsâ€¦." Evil invariably wears masks of righteousness and innocence. The Biblical Esau, prototype of evil, tried to impress his blind father Isaac with his mask of piety, asking him about the details of serving God. Says Midrash Rabba 65 of him: He was just like the pig, which always extends its hoofs when lying down. "Look," it says, "my hoofs are split; I am kosher."
TO SOME extent all of us, not only evil men, wear masks. We have an infinite capacity to lie to ourselves, to justify whatever transgressions we commit. These candid shots of human monsters at play only underscore the fact that evil is not extraordinary. It can surface in any place, at any time, in anyone. Man, formed both from a clod of earth and the breath of God, can easily succumb to the animal lurking within him. For without an awareness of the constant presence of God and His inviolate code of discipline and morality, he can, with a pleasant smile on his lips, quickly become a barbarian. Note Solomon's words in Ecclesiastes (3:19): "Man hath no pre-eminence above a beast."
As these snapshots demonstrate.
WHICH, incidentally, is why a newly released book on the Holocaust, focusing on the other side of the crime, is so heartening. Esther Farbstein's Hidden in Thunder - deserving a column on its own - recounts new instances of Jewish faith and genuine piety during those horrific years. What emerges is breathtaking spiritual strength on the part of the victims of breathtaking evil. The Nazi album, all smiles and fun, desolates; her book, grim as it is, revives the soul.
Truly righteous people, as Proverbs 10:28 says, are "the foundation of the world"; without them, the world is unfit for human habitation. In addition to the Jewish righteous, one is grateful for the courageous and righteous Gentiles who heroically saved Jews - grateful not only for their personal heroism, but because they restore faith in the future of mankind.
Genesis 5:5 avers that the "inclination of man's heart is only evil continually." But Psalm 8:5 says "Thou hast made man a little lower than the angelsâ€¦." Who are we really - monsters or angels, or a bit of both? And if both, to which do we grant mastery?
It is a question worth pondering.
The writer, formerly a rabbi in Atlanta GA, is past editor of Tradition magazine, and author of numerous books and articles. He is presently on the editorial staff of the Encyclopedia of Mitzvot.