Frolicking in the shadow of hell

i-63e46fdb78b5a7dcdfef86085e8291ec-Picture1-104.jpg

While I happen to have found myself back on the subject of the Holocaust and Holocaust denial again today, I thought I’d mention this, something I’ve been meaning to blog about since I found out about it last week.

Beginning this week, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum will start featuring a display that, to me at least, is almost as disturbing as the usual pictures of the horrors of Auschwitz and other Nazi camps with which we’ve become so familiar and to whose horrors we have perhaps become inured. Basically, it’s a recently discovered scrapbook with photos depicting the daily life of the SS Officers assigned to Auschwitz:

i-1ed22f1f4d52eeb77a3aa8e59828ed2b-Picture1.jpg

Dr. Josef Mengele is in the center.

As Erbelding and other archivists reviewed the album, they realized they had a scrapbook of sorts of the lives of Auschwitz’s senior SS officers that was maintained by Karl Höcker, the adjutant to the camp commandant. Rather than showing the men performing their death camp duties, the photos depicted, among other things, a horde of SS men singing cheerily to the accompaniment of an accordionist, Höcker lighting the camp’s Christmas tree, a cadre of young SS women frolicking and officers relaxing, some with tunics shed, for a smoking break.

In all there are 116 pictures, beginning with a photo from June 21, 1944, of Höcker and the commandant of the camp, Richard Baer, both in full SS regalia. The album also contains eight photos of Josef Mengele, the camp doctor notorious for participating in the selections of arriving prisoners and bizarre and cruel medical experiments. These are the first authenticated pictures of Mengele at Auschwitz, officials at the Holocaust museum said.

The photos provide a stunning counterpoint to what up until now has been the only major source of preliberation Auschwitz photos, the so-called Auschwitz Album, a compilation of pictures taken by SS photographers in the spring of 1944 and discovered by a survivor in another camp. Those photos depict the arrival at the camp of a transport of Hungarian Jews, who at the time made up the last remaining sizable Jewish community in Europe. The Auschwitz Album, owned by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, depicts the railside selection process at Birkenau, the area where trains arrived at the camp, as SS men herded new prisoners into lines.

The comparisons between the albums are both poignant and obvious, as they juxtapose the comfortable daily lives of the guards with the horrific reality within the camp, where thousands were starving and 1.1 million died.

For example, one of the Höcker pictures, shot on July 22, 1944, shows a group of cheerful young women who worked as SS communications specialists eating bowls of fresh blueberries. One turns her bowl upside down and makes a mock frown because she has finished her portion.

On that day, said Judith Cohen, a historian at the Holocaust museum in Washington, 150 new prisoners arrived at the Birkenau site. Of that group, 21 men and 12 women were selected for work, the rest transported immediately to the gas chambers.

i-a641b5f3b5464b8b6e78240cda03b225-Picture4.jpg

i-3548d2ce3a06a5f781ba4a213c90818c-Picture3.jpg

As Rebecca Erbelding reminds us in the slideshow of some of these images, “The album reminds us that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were human beings, men and women with children, families, and pets who celebrated holidays and took vacations.” It’s also particularly creepy to remember that these photos were taken during the time that Auschwitz was killing thousands upon thousands. Some photos were taken even as late as Christmas 1944 and show SS officers putting up Christmas decorations mere weeks before the rapid Soviet advance led the Germans to flee Auschwitz, taking what prisoners they could on a brutal death march back into the Reich. How human beings could hold sing-alongs, parties, and frolick in the shadow of hell is disturbing to watch. I agree again with Deborah Lipstadt in that on a certain level these photos are even more disturbing than the usual photos of piles of corpses.

These photos very much remind me of Robert J. Lifton’s seminal book, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. In it, he describes a phenomenon known as “doubling,” in which an “Auschwitz self” was created that was viewed as not the same or as separate from the “real” self. This allowed officers to avoid guilt:

The way in which doubling allowed Nazi doctors to avoid guilt was not by the elimination of conscience but by what can be called the transfer of conscience. The requirements of conscience were transferred to the Auschwitz self, which placed it within its own criteria for good (duty, loyalty to group, “improving” Auschwitz conditions, etc.), thereby freeing the original self from responsibility for actions there. Rank spoke similarly of guilt “which forces the hero no longer to accept the responsibility for certain actions of his ego, but to place it upon another ego, a double, who is either personified by the devil himself or is created by making a diabolical pact”16; that is, the Faustian bargain of Nazi doctors mentioned earlier. Rank spoke of a “powerful consciousness of guilt” as initiating the transfer;17 but for most Nazi doctors, the doubling maneuver seemed to fend off that sense of guilt prior to its developing, or to its reaching conscious dimensions.

And:

Doubling is an active psychological process, a means of adaptation to extremity. That is why I use the verb form, as opposed to the more usual noun form, “the double.” The adaptation requires a dissolving of “psychic glue” as an alternative to a radical breakdown of the self. In Auschwitz, the pattern was established under the duress of the individual doctor’s transition period. At that time the Nazi doctor experienced his own death anxiety as well as such death equivalents as fear of disintegration, separation, and stasis. He needed a functional Auschwitz self to still his anxiety. And that Auschwitz self had to assume hegemony on an everyday basis, reducing expressions of the prior self to odd moments and to contacts with family and friends outside the camp. Nor did most Nazi doctors resist that usurpation as long as they remained in the camp. Rather they welcomed it as the only means of psychological function. If an environment is sufficiently extreme, and one chooses to remain in it, one may be able to do so only by means of doubling.

In many of the anecdotes from those who had worked at Auschwitz, this feeling of a “second” self that did all those horrible things was a recurring theme. Alcohol was also a frequent escape valve. Even so, it’s hard for us in the U.S. to understand how one could have parties and sing-alongs knowing full well what was going on and knowing their part in it. These photos, besides being creepy and reminding us of the human dimension of the perpetrators at Auschwitz, also bring to mind the doubling process that allowed so many of these officers to avoid (at least in their own minds) blame for their crimes. They document some of the times when these perpetrators were able to take shed their “Auschwitz self” for brief periods of time.