A Sympathetic Codicil to Dr. Hall’s Speech

Editor’s Note: Reporter Ed Hoffman wanted to provide a follow up to last week’s speaker,  Dr. Patrica Hall, on her presentation:  Music Making at Auschwitz Comes Alive Again.  Ed has provided pictures to the right and below. Also, Holocaust Survivor Martin Lowenberg will be speaking May 1st- at 7:30 pm at Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor

In 2007 a uniquely sinister and macabre item entered the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, DC. Its donor remains anonymous. It is an album of 116 photographs. They are pasted two to four to a page, on paper toned to a caramel hue. A caption appears below each photo, printed in a thin, mid century German hand. They are simple yet descriptive; lighthearted; like the fond reminiscences of a summer camper. Centered on the first sheet, which acts as a kind of title page, appears a double portrait of two uniformed officers. One is young, the other middle-aged, but both are handsome, earnest-looking. Strip away the uniforms, and you would think it a portrait of a CEO and his protege for the annual report of a major insurance company. Below this is inscribed “Auschwitz 21.6.1944.”

The young officer, a first lieutenant named Karl Hoecker, was the photographer and the album’s original owner. He was also the adjutant to the older man — Richard Baer — commandant of the Nazis’ most horrific extermination camp.

But this is no ‘working portfolio’ of industrial-scale mass murder, and certainly not the snapshot souvenir of a crude sadist. There are no guard towers, crematoria, or alleys of barbed wire; no clusters of bewildered new arrivals clutching bags and suitcases; no German Shepherds arching against their leashes; no pyramids of eyeglasses and shoes. There are no bodies. Only lush hillside forests, panoramic views, tanned men and women, sleeves rolled up, laughing, hiking, lolling in deck chairs, eating blueberries.

This is life at Solahutte, or, more officially, SS-Hutte Soletal, the rustic-style retreat built by slave laborers in 1942, 18 miles from Hell. Here, the Reich’s exhausted workhorses, the Totenkopf-SS camp staff and female auxiliaries, could restore themselves for a day or a week, depending on their degree of ‘service’. Senior officers could, of course, visit more frequently (Auschwitz’s first commandant, Rudolf Hoess, had a private cabin, which still stands); regardless, the accent was on rest, fresh air, good food, hikes and hunting excursions, comradery — fun. Since the gift (known as the ‘Hoecker,’ or ‘Auschwitz,’ Album) was made public, much scholarship has focused on the chilling aura of workaday normality pervading each picture. Officers stand around smoking and laughing: Hoess, who will hang in 1947, is in the midst of telling a joke; listening and grinning broadly is handsome Mengele, the monster doctor, sporting an impressive head of dark hair; and behind Hoess towers Josef Kramer, Birkenau’s commandant, who personally aided in the gassing of prisoners, and who, at Bergen-Belsen, would conduct American soldiers on an officious tour of his liberated boneyard.

A few months later, in September, Anne Frank and her family will arrive, with hundreds of others, at the workplace of these people. The Franks will survive the initial selections at the ramp, but be separated and assigned to slave labor details. Edith, Anne’s mother, will die of starvation, having smuggled all her scanty rations to her daughters through a hole in an infirmary wall. Later, Anne and her sister, Margot, will be shipped to Kramer’s Belsen, and die (probably) of typhus. Father Otto will survive to confront the SS sergeant who seized his family in Amsterdam. When Lt. Hoecker was taking his happy photos, in the summer of 1944, these men were preparing for the greatest series of exterminations of Jews in the camp’s four-year history.

Yes, it’s a rogues’ gallery like no other, but perhaps the most disquieting images are those with the women, the helferinnen, the SS-affiliated office workers. Here they are, seated shoulder-to-shoulder along a railing, beaming like harvest maidens, being served bowls of blueberries by a smiling Hoecker, who has captioned this photo “There are blueberries here.” The dissociation is obscene. Another photo shows the women running up the steps of the main lodge to escape a sudden downpour; and yet another of Hoecker (he manages to insert himself into nearly every picture), chatting amiably with a woman on the half-hour bus ride to the resort from Auschwitz. Even more unsettling to your reporter than the “banality of evil” (to quote Hannah Arendt’s famous expression) promenade exhibited in the photos, is that most of the faces of those depicted look absolutely contemporary — the smiles appear genuine; the gestures, like ours today; gratitude for a day’s rest and fun, authentic. Put wine or martini glasses in the hands of those uniformed monsters on the terrace and you have the “Plastics” scene in The Graduate, or a moment at any generous Ann Arbor cocktail party or fundraiser. What we are seeing in the Auschwitz Album is the apotheosis of justification. These people may be insane, but they have become so through the course of innumerable decisions: the belief that a Jewish cabal “stabbed Germany in the back” in 1918 and caused the European Depression; the decision to join paramilitary groups in the ’20s, and the SS a few years later; and the decision to become the Reich’s broad shoulders, overseeing the cleansing of whole countries for Aryan colonization.

And, what of Solahutte? Like Auschwitz, it was overrun by the Russians in April, 1945. The Polish Communist Party, and its socialist successor, the PZPR, used it as a resort for dignitaries (Brezhnev’s son, Yuri, was a guest) until the regime’s collapse in 1989. By the late 90s the main lodge, now resembling a dilapidated motel, had been picked clean by tourists, vandals, and urban archaeologists. It was finally demolished in 2011, eleven years after the death of Karl Hoecker, at age 88.

Dr. Patricia Hall gave voice “to a vanished world…beyond the grave,” when she discovered, translated, and recorded the foxtrot composed by a group of musician-prisoners at Auschwitz in 1943. It is a superlative testament to the human need to create; a cry of inspiration capable of penetrating the grime and smoke and human grease shown in the orchestra drawing — and laminating Auschwitz, the memorial, even today.