The US Holocaust Memorial Museum on Wednesday unveiled a photo album containing 116 rare photographs of senior SS officers and other officials at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The photos were taken between May and December 1944. Many were taken as the gas chambers and crematories were operating at and above capacity as the Nazis frantically sought to eliminate Jews in Europe as the war neared its end.
The German camp in Poland was liberated by the Soviets on Jan. 27, 1945. The images were in an album that had been maintained by Karl Hoecker, the adjutant to the camp commandant.
Hoecker's personal album depicts a sing-a-long with an accordion player and about 70 SS men, including Josef Mengele, the camp doctor notorious for his bizarre and cruel medical experiments. Mengele was joined by other infamous camp leaders, including Josef Kramer and Rudolf Hess.
The eight photos of Mengele are the first authenticated pictures of him at Auschwitz, museum officials said.
SS officers at resort near Auschwitz, Rudolf Hess and Dr Josef Mengele standing at the front (Photo: AP)
Also among the images are SS guards and Nazi on numerous hunting trips, Hoecker lighting the camp's Christmas tree, and female SS auxiliaries eating blueberries and then mockingly crying and posing with empty bowls.
Lighting a Christmas tree
Judith Cohen, director of museum's Photographic Reference Collection said the album "adds nuance and illustration to the things that were hard to imagine, namely that the SS officers were able to simultaneously lead normal lives - they were able to socialize on one day - and commit mass murder on another, and not recognize the contradiction inherent in it," she said.
"The fact that they're engaged in common activities makes what they were doing all the more horrific," Cohen said.
A field trip near death camp (Photo: AP)
Cohen said the Christmas tree lighting pictures also evidenced the SS officers' oblivion to what was happening on the front. "It's three weeks before Auschwitz was evacuated, and they're lighting a Christmas tree?" she said. "The social lives of the officers continued up until the end."
The museum in Washington obtained the photos earlier this year from a retired US army intelligence officer who found the album in an apartment while stationed in Germany in 1946. The donor, who asked to remain anonymous, died this summer.
"It's hard to fathom the kind of people who ran these camps and one always struggles to understand who they were and how they saw themselves," museum director Sara Bloomfield said in a statement.
"These unique photographs vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering," she said. "They offer an important perspective on the psychology of those perpetrating genocide."
New artifacts waiting to be uncovered
The album provides a stark contrast to the only other known collection of photographs taken at Auschwitz.
The so-called Auschwitz Album is a compilation of pictures taken by SS photographers in spring 1944 and discovered by a survivor in another camp. Those images show the arrival of Hungarian Jews, who at the time made up the last remaining sizable Jewish community in Europe.
Sunbathing. SS officers with their families (Photo: AP)
Curators currently do not have plans to exhibit the Hoecker album photos, but they are displayed online at the museum's website, www.ushmm.org.
Cohen said the discovery of these photographs is important on a narrow perspective because "we have photographic evidence of people whose activities are well known, but whose visages are not known." She said that from an archival point of view, it is good to have photographs of Mengele.
"People were under the impression we already knew all there was to learn, and this shows us that new artifacts are waiting to be uncovered," Cohen said.