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Book Review: Greetings from Auschwitz


Book Review Greetings from Auschwitz Edited by Pawel Szypulski Reviewed by Colin Pantall The photographs of Auschwitz that were taken during the war are revealing. They show the breadth of photography, the functions it serves, and the regimes it serves under. They encompass the history of photography.
Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski.
Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.
 
Greetings from Auschwitz
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

Greetings from Auschwitz
Edited by Pawel Szypulski
Edition Patrick Frey, Zürich, Switzerland, 2015. In German/English. 88 pp., 75 color illustrations, 8½x8¾".


Selected as one of the Best Books of 2015 by:
Aaron Schuman
Rafal Milach

The photographs of Auschwitz that were taken during the war are revealing. They show the breadth of photography, the functions it serves, and the regimes it serves under. They encompass the history of photography.

At an official level there are the identity photographs that in the early years of the camp were made of all prisoners who were selected for work. Those who were not selected on arrival were not photographed. They were killed. If you weren’t photographed, you didn’t survive.

These identity photographs were often made by prisoners. Wilhelm Brasse was the best known of the prisoner photographers and his pictures of camp inmates are moving in the extreme. But this wasn’t the only photography he or the other photographers of the Auschwitz Photography Department (which came complete with printers, retouchers, photographers and graphic designers) made.

Photography as a record extended to the medical experiments of Dr Mengele and others in Auschwitz’s pseudo-scientific physician community. For Dr Mengele, Brasse "…photographed Hasidic and traditional-looking Jews whose dress or physical features were regarded as 'interesting.'" Triplets, twins, Jewish and Gypsy children were also photographed as were people regarded as "strange," "diseased," "deformed," "disfigured" or "on the verge of dying," writes Janina Struk in her book Photographing the Holocaust.

But it wasn’t just Jews who were photographed. Propaganda pictures of Soviet prisoners were made (the pictures, like the prisoners, didn’t survive the end of the war), the construction of Auschwitz II-Birkenau was documented and made into an exhibition that was briefly put on public display (outside the camp) until the enlarged pictures of Birkenau’s 15 ovens received too many questioning glances from civilians passing through.

Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski. Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.

There were the pictures taken by Camp SS. Personal. Pictures were forbidden in the later years of the war, but were taken nevertheless; pictures of prisoners, atrocities, of the camp, and of Camp SS at play, were all taken. Most renowned of the latter category are those taken by Karl-Friedrich Höcker of SS staff relaxing at the Auschwitz SS spot for weekend breaks, Solahütte, an indication of the idea that for people like Camp Kommandant Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz was a place where his children “could live free and easy” and where his wife “had her paradise of flowers.”

Most importantly are the pictures that act as evidence and record the horrors of Auschwitz; there are those from the Lili Jacob album, the only surviving photographs that show the selection of Jews to be gassed. Or there are the secretly taken pictures of women running to the gas chambers and the burning of the bodies of those who have been gassed.

And then the war ended. More photography followed; of the surviving prisoners walking between rows of barbed wire, of children who survived Mengele’s experiments, and in 1947 of Camp Kommandant Rudolf Höss being hanged.

But then what? The history of the concentration and death camps transformed over the years as different national perspectives came up against realpolitik and the Cold War, the trauma of survivors and the unwillingness of many to hear their testimony.

Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski. Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.

Auschwitz itself became a museum, a testament to the suffering of many of those who had died inside. As with many camps, the museum served a nationalist narrative (it still does for many visitors); Auschwitz was of Polish suffering and sacrifice during the Second World War while, as Nickolas Wachsmann notes in his KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, "the memory of Jewish prisoners who made up the vast majority or the dead, was sidelined."

So even memory was contested, and is still contested. It is only since the 1970s that Roma, homosexual, and Jehovah’s Witness victims have been memorialized at some camps, while the criminal and asocial groups (both of whom had their own special identifying colored triangle) still remain largely ignored due to a lack of group coherence.

Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski. Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.

So there’s a bit of background. Now on to the book review. It’s called Greetings from Auschwitz and it shows another photographic aspect of the camp; it’s postcards of Auschwitz and the messages that were written on the back of them.

Postcards of Auschwitz were actually made during its time as a Concentration Camp and Pawel Szypulski, the author of Greetings from Auschwitz mentions the postcards made from photographs by Wilhelm Brasse during the war as well as the postcards that were sent home during the war by Jewish prisoners in a propaganda exercise called "Operation Mail."

But it’s the postcards that were sent out as Auschwitz became a museum and evolved into the overwhelming symbol of the Holocaust that it is today that form the bulk of images in the book, postcards that were helped in this evolution by recording and creating the iconography and performance connected to visiting the site.

Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski. Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.



And so the book starts with the original Auschwitz tourist shot, a 1950s card showing a group of visitors posing under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign. Next comes a map from 1946 of the Auschwitz 1 camp. "I didn’t get to see Zosie after all. Kisses," reads the message overleaf.

And so it goes on. There are pictures of the entrance, the wire, the gates, and streets in the camp. A color postcard shows a courtyard with a spray of carnations stuck in its gate, showing how the camp is becoming both a memorial and a site of pilgrimage. One side of the courtyard is the "death wall," the place where many victims were shot or beaten to death, especially in the early years.

Greetings from Auschwitz.  Edited by Pawel Szypulski. Edition Patrick Frey, 2015.

There are gallows, watchtowers, the space between the wire, the chimney, gas chambers and ovens. Some of the pictures show the camp in ruins, some show the train tracks approaching the camp, and then there are the most photographic ones – with stumps of burned down prisoner blocks rising up over lines of barbed wire, in a landscape that is apocalyptically doom-laden. There’s even a proper postcard picture, a montage of pictures of the camp complete with backlit skies and sunset.

The book ends on a very sombre note with a postcard of one of the pictures secretly taken from a window near the Birkenau gas chambers; it’s a shot of Sonderkommando prisoners moving bodies onto a fire (on a day when the crematoria could not cope with all the bodies being burned). In the background a plume of smoke is rising and the scene is one of blurry horror. Reality returns. Or does it? The flip side reads "Warm Greetings from Auschwitz, from Tadeusz." Such was photography then. And such is photography now.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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