Something shocked me as I watched a preview of the one-hour documentary, “Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell,” which will air on the day after Passover, jointly sponsored by the National Geographic Channel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).
This program, debuting from 9 to 10 p.m. on April 27, is the first chance we have to look inside the now-infamous photo album from 1944 that made headlines around the world last year. That’s when archivists at the USHMM knew enough about the scrapbook, produced by Auschwitz SS officer Karl Höcker, to go public with news of the album’s contents. These pages contain 116 extremely rare snapshots of Höcker and the rest of the Auschwitz death-camp staff enjoying themselves in their off hours. In this case, that means, relaxing after an exhausting shift of murdering an average of 8,000 Jewish men, women and children per day.
What’s so shocking, now that we get to see the full range of images in this scrapbook, are not horrific scenes of torture, starvation
and piles of human remains that we’ve all seen so many times before. They’re missing from this scrapbook.
Rather, what’s so shocking is the realization that, often, it’s impossible to tell from a person’s exterior what extreme evil is lurking inside.
What we’re glimpsing here is confirmation of Hannah Arendt’s landmark book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.” That book was based on Arendt’s coverage of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichman’s trial in Israel, stories that Arendt filed for the New Yorker magazine in the early 1960s.
In the book based on those articles, Arendt’s central conclusion was that Eichmann should not be dismissed as a monster. He showed no signs of mental illness. In fact, he
was a typical bureaucrat in an imperial system that morally justified
his role in organizing the Final Solution as if it were merely a noble
example of patriotic work by a loyal civil servant.
The USHMM staff, aided by other historians and scholars, make the same point in the new documentary concerning these snapshots saved by Höcker.
Without any other background, if someone handed you this photo album of fun times in the ’40s, you easily might mistake these cheery men and women for beloved family friends. You’d see them playing with dogs, enjoying picnics, lighting Christmas trees, singing to accordion tunes and picking bowls of fresh blueberries.
Except, if you looked a little more closely, you would spot some SS uniforms.
Look a little closer — and you might spot Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous medical torturer, as one of Höcker’s grinning friends.
Perhaps this should not have shocked me. I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years and, in those decades, I’ve been involved in reporting on many deeply disturbing news stories, including the decades-long pattern of abuse of thousands of children by hundreds of Catholic priests. (But more on that sad chapter of history in a moment.)
After previewing the new hour-long documentary, I needed to know more about this scrapbook. I’ve reported on the USHMM over the years and, once again, the museum staff was helpful.
They connected me via telephone with Rebecca Erbelding, 26, a curator who you’ll meet in the documentary, sharing some of her reactions to Höcker and the scrapbooks. She was the USHMM staffer who first received an unexpected contact from a former, WWII-era, U.S. counter-intelligence officer who decided late in his life to donate this strange album to the museum.
Immediately after WWII, this officer was part of the U.S. team that investigated Nazi war crimes — and he discovered this album left behind in an apartment abandoned by a fleeing officer. He kept the album a secret for many years, but finally decided it belonged in the museum collection.
When Rebecca began to flip through the album with colleagues — she was stunned. No one had ever seen such photographs of the Auschwitz staff at leisure.
“It’s jarring to see them playing with dogs and lighting Christmas trees — because we know exactly what was going on in their world,” Rebecca told me. “Looking at this album for the first time, we don’t move closer to explaining the most important question of the Holocaust: How could this happen? This seems to take us farther away from an answer. These people don’t look like monsters. They look normal. It looks like someone’s vacation album — the kind of thing that you or I might have taken during a year abroad with friends.”
At first, the most disturbing photos for the USHMM staff, Rebecca said, were the images of Nazis with their pets and Christmas decorations. “But, when we finally went public with the album, a lot of the media paid attention to a section of the scrapbook in which Höcker went blueberry picking with young women who worked at the camp.
“This was in the summer of 1944, when Auschwitz was killing people at full capacity. That’s when Höcker went blueberry picking with these good-looking young women in their late teens and early 20s who were obviously enjoying themselves in the photos.
“We went back and learned a lot more about these girls. When we looked more closely into their story, these photos became even more frightening because we realized that these young woman actively bought into what they were doing. They were called ‘helferinnen‘ and worked as communications specialists and secretaries and teletypists in the camp. They were considered part of the SS and they had to apply for these positions. We looked in their files, which are preserved in the National Archives — and you can still read the biographical essays they wrote for their applications as they pleaded for posting at Auschwitz.
“They would write things like, ‘Please send me. I would love to be of service to the Reich,’ and they would request a position there,” Rebecca said. “They worked in the camp office; they weren’t camp guards. But one of the basic parts of their job would be conveying to Berlin what happened each day. We have the template of the communications they would send to Berlin after a transport would come in. They’d report that this-numbered transport came in and there were this many women, this many men and this many children — and it very specifically says: ‘This many were selected to be gassed.’
“So, these women enjoying the blueberries with Höcker may not have been dropping pellets of poison gas into the gas chambers, but they knew what was going on day by day — and still they wanted to be a part of this society that had formed at Auschwitz.”
There’s a lot more that unfolds in the hour-long film. For example, Höcker — who now is dead himself of natural causes — for many years denied full culpability for the death toll at Auschwitz. The mystery of Höcker’s role at the camp is analyzed scientifically in the course of this new documentary. Experts use his own album as evidence — and the outcome is something right out of “CSI.”
You’ll be intrigued by that mysterious segment of the film.
But the timeless challenge here — the Passover theme within this story — is the challenge of discerning the evil that may be lurking beneath otherwise beautiful, cheery exteriors. Freeing people from the evil powers of this world is all about discernment, a theme that runs throughout the timeless Exodus story.
On Friday, before Passover started on Saturday night, I spent a couple of hours in a Jewish neighborhood in the home of Dr. Joe Lewis, a professor of English, an expert in Jewish traditions and a modern pioneer in publishing books that help people who aren’t fluent in Hebrew enjoy ancient Jewish traditions.
Visit Dr. Lewis’ site www.Singlishps.net to learn more about that important part of his life’s work.
But, while I sat with him at his kitchen table and various Lewis family members prepared for the holiday, I described the upcoming Holocaust documentary.
“They picked blueberries? Blueberries?” Lewis said, shaking his head. “Actually, we have a neighbor who grew up in the town that eventually became Auschwitz and she said they used to enjoy going out to pick blueberries. There were good blueberries there.”
He paused, then said at length, “People can do such awful things to each other. I’m teaching a class right now about the aftermath of the Holocaust, and we’re looking at the question: How do we understand what happened? What was the meaning of this? These are very difficult questions — and they make the Holocaust such an important thing to study.
“We cannot say simply that this was a matter of insanity. Primo Levi addresses this issue and talks about this complex system of violence that evolved over time.
“Somehow these people were able to separate their work from the other parts of their life. They were able to disconnect true values that faith teaches us from the work that they were doing. Somehow, they were able to go work for a day, killing thousands of Jews, and then at night? At night, perhaps it was time to go to church for the holidays.”
Lewis said, “This is a documentary that I definitely want to see. I’d like to show it to my class and ask them what they think about these issues.”
And here’s where Pope Benedict XVI comes into the story — in relation to his unexpected and quite elaborate efforts during his American visit to address the evil committed by some of his priests against thousands of children over many years.
The pontiff’s remarks in recent days were criticized by some survivors of this abuse, who said his words were too few and too late — but, by and large, his pastoral attention to this issue was welcomed by many Catholics, including many survivors.
I am NOT for a moment trying to equate the abuse of children within the Catholic church to the enormity of the Holocaust — and, to be clear, the National Geographic documentary focuses entirely on Auschwitz, period. However, issues raised in the documentary haunted me.
I realized that in both criminal cases — a small minority of priests abusing their power to prey upon children — and officers within the vast bureaucracy of these death camps — the problem of discerning evil was a core issue.
I did realize in a deeper way this past week one truth that we as journalists may not have appreciated sufficiently in covering the Catholic abuse crisis. It’s this: As journalists, we tended to regard bishops as evil if these bishops dragged their feet in removing abusive priests, when accusations finally came to light — or if they believed these accused priests’ professions of innocence and transfered them to new posts.
We tended to view these bishops like corrupt politicians — as bad leaders who enabled evil doers to escape justice. And, some bishops were, indeed, bad men. Some bishops had overwhelming evidence of evil presented to them and swept it under the carpet.
But, I have a new appreciation for how difficult it must have been for these bishops to see clearly when they were confronted with reports of great evil committed by priests who they had known for years as professional friends. They had eaten meals with these priests, studied with them, gone on retreats with them — stood around admiring holiday decorations with them. They knew only the Höcker-album version of these priests’ lives.
To this day, Detroit’s retired Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, who was himself abused as a child and who is a nationally respected advocate for men and women recovering from childhood abuse, refuses to publicly name the priest who abused him. That priest now is dead, Gumbleton has said, and he does not want to mar the man’s memory.
The Höcker-album versions of people’s lives may be so beautiful and so warmly remembered that it seems almost impossible that evil could be a part of these people’s lives, as well.
The most important thing the pontiff has been doing in recent days is making an effort from his supreme position in the church to drive home — again and again, day after day — that there is no room for evil against young people within his church. He is chipping away at anyone within his church’s mid-level leadership who still may be caught up in the Höcker-album vision of the church’s past in this regard.
Dr. Lewis raised the question: Is the new, hour-long, National Geographic film about Auschwitz appropriate for use with high-school students?
I’m responding here with an emphatic: Yes.
Again, let me be crystal clear: I am not for one moment equating abuse within the Catholic church to the enormity of the Holocaust. However, both historical eras raise this important issue of discerning evil within people’s lives. The issue remains urgent in our world today.
See the film, which explores Auschwitz from perspectives we haven’t glimpsed before. And tell us what you think.
Want to explore this subject further?
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum offers an in-depth Web page on the Auschwitz photo album. Within that USHMM page, if you click on the link to “Explore the Album,” a screen pops up that lets you flip through dozens of images from the scrapbook. (The four black-and-white images that appear with today’s story are from the Höcker album and we are showing them to you here simply as examples from this documentary, illustrating some of the scenes you’ll see when you tune in April 27.)
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