ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 228

A man pushes an elderly woman in a wheelchair as she carries a suitcase on her legs. In the back can be seen a truck from the shipping company sent to pick up the luggage. The wall projection on his right shields the photographer from being seen. Breslau, Silesia, November 21, 1941. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)
Breslau, Silesia, November 21, 1941. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)
'This is one of the most valuable findings in recent years'

A Jewish photographer’s rare images of an early Holocaust transport are now online

13 recently published pictures covertly taken in Breslau, Silesia, in November 1941 show one of Germany’s first deportations of Jews through the lens of the victims and not the Nazis

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Breslau, Silesia, November 21, 1941. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

LONDON — Unique and chilling images of one of the first deportations of German Jews from their homes during World War II have been published for the first time by a Berlin-based international research project.

The set of 13 pictures — discovered by chance in an archive in Dresden by historian Steffen Heidrich — were taken clandestinely. They are believed to be the only ones chronicling a deportation captured by a Jewish photographer.

The photos show hundreds of Jewish men and women — from elderly people in wheelchairs to young children grasping their parents’ hands — being rounded up and herded into a beer garden in Breslau, Silesia, on November 21, 1941.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union that summer, Hitler ordered the deportation of 300,000 “Reich Jews” to the East in September 1941.

“The images from Breslau are one of the most valuable findings of such photographs in recent years,” says Dr. Alina Bothe, director of Freie Universität’s #LastSeen project. “For the first time, we have a sequence of photos in which a persecuted photographer documents the deportation systematically. Their existence is an act of resistance to Nazi annihilation.”

Launched in October 2021, #LastSeen collects, researches and publishes photos of Nazi deportations. It plans to finish publishing 750 pictures from 60 locations across Germany by the middle of next year.

Historian Steffen Heidrich, who is completing a doctorate on Jewish life in Germany between 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, found the photographs in a small archive belonging to the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden. (Courtesy)

In all, 1,005 Jews were arrested in Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland) on November 21, 1941. They were held at the city’s Schießwerder restaurant and beer garden for four days in freezing temperatures before being taken by train from Odertor station to Kovno in Lithuania. When they arrived four days later, they were forced to march four miles to the notorious Ninth Fort, part of a 19th-century fortress on the outskirts of the city, where they were massacred by the SS.

A further image, taken of a second deportation from Breslau in April 1942, was also discovered by Heidrich. Almost 1,000 Jews were taken from the city on this occasion to a transit ghetto in Izbica in eastern Poland. Only two of the deportees survived.

This image was not taken in 1941, but in April 1942, during the second deportation from Breslau, Silesia. The light is very different, the luggage carried on the back, by order of the Gestapo, and you can, if you zoom in, see that in entrance windows some trees with leaves are mirrored. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

Heidrich, who is completing a doctorate on Jewish life in Germany between 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall, found the photographs in a small archive belonging to the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden (the association of Jewish communities in Saxony). They were stashed in an envelope marked “miscellaneous” among pictures of Jewish life in Dresden before the Holocaust, and images of Jewish children at a holiday camp in communist East Germany after the war.

“It was clear that these were scenes from a deportation, it was not difficult to see that,” recalls Heidrich, who immediately made contact with the #LastSeen team.

Together with Bothe, Heidrich began to research the photographs and the man who took them. They believe him to be Albert Hadda, a Jewish architect who escaped deportation because he was married to a Christian. Hadda had worked in Berlin for the famed German-American architect and founder of the Bauhaus School, Walter Gropius. But when he was barred by the Nazis from practicing as an architect in 1934, Hadda found a job working with the Jewish community in Breslau. He had access to the site at the time because he had been assigned to look after the Jewish deportees. Nonetheless, the researchers say, the photos were taken secretly, with Hadda appearing to capture the tragedy unfolding from behind a wall and while hiding in a cargo truck.

Jews wait with their luggage in the Schießwerder beer garden in Breslau, Silesia, which was used as an assembly point. As yet, some chairs are vacant. In the right-hand edge, a truck tarpaulin behind which the photographer hid blocks the view. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

“Hadda was a very keen amateur photographer with some excellent equipment,” notes Bothe. “He had a lot of different cameras and his own darkroom to develop the photos himself.”

Hadda, who was involved with resistance activity, also took photos of Breslau’s synagogue after it was destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938 and, defying a ban on their ownership by Jews, is known to have still had a camera in 1941. Although he was deported to a labor camp in 1944, Hadda escaped back to Breslau in the war’s closing months. He later migrated to Israel, joining his daughters there.

Jews waiting in front of the Schießwerder beer garden assembly point. The area is cordoned off along the trees by a wire rope, Breslau, Silesia, November 21, 1941. (Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

Bothe says the images are very clearly different from the hundreds of other deportation scenes she has examined. Normally, the perpetrators are in the foreground — with the commanding officer and those giving the orders highlighted — and are designed to emphasize the efficiency and order with which the operation is being conducted. Hadda’s pictures, however, are squarely focused on the Jewish victims. A policeman with a rifle slung over his shoulder has his back to the camera and is partially obscuring a Gestapo officer standing next to him.

“They differ from what we have in other images which are shot from the perpetrators’ point of view,” says Heidrich. “They are not dehumanizing. They show ordinary people being forced together. It’s a whole different point of view, which gives them their value.”

Several groups of people stand in front of the Schießwerder beer garden. In the center, a physician, probably Dr. Herbert Hayn, can be seen. To his right stands an armed municipal police officer, hidden behind is a Gestapo officer. Breslau, Silesia, November 21, 1941. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

“What is really unique for me as well is that these are photos which are showing the deportees without the antisemitic motives we have in many of the other deportation photos,” adds Bothe.

It is thought that the 13 photos found their way to Erfurt with a group of survivors from Breslau, including Hadda, in the late summer of 1945. It is not yet entirely clear how they came to be in Dresden.

Breslau, which had a Jewish population of 8,000 in 1941, was “at the forefront” of the Nazis’ effort to deport the Reich’s Jews, says Bothe.

In the background, a man stands on a pile of luggage overlooking the crowd of Jews at the Schießwerder beer garden in Breslau Silesia. In front of him to his right is a municipal officer with a bicycle. On the upper edge of the picture, a truck tarpaulin cuts into the view. November 21, 1941. (Courtesy of the Landesverband Sachsen der Jüdischen Gemeinden in Dresden)

Preparations had begun in early November and were led by Gestapo officers Alfred Hampel — who had traveled to Berlin to observe the implementation of deportations in the capital — and Hermann Fey. Some 300 police were deployed to arrest Jews in their homes in the early hours of November 21, 1941.

There was, however, no attempt by the Nazis to conduct the deportations surreptitiously. By this point, they had already learned that they would face no resistance from the wider population. As Bothe notes, images of other deportations clearly show members of the public watching — and, on occasion, cheering on — the round-ups.

“This is in broad daylight and it is really a display of power and humiliation,” she says.

The researchers believe, however, that few of the Jews pictured being rounded up in Breslau would have expected that they were mere days from death. Many are likely instead to have thought they were being taken to a labor camp.

Together with four other transports from Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna, the Breslau transport was originally bound for a ghetto. But, with ghettos in Riga, Lodz and Minsk already overflowing with deported Jews, the decision was made to send the transport to Kovno.

By late 1941, Einsatzgruppen — the SS paramilitary death squads — had already killed thousands of Jews in mass shootings, which came to be known as the “Holocaust by bullets.” However, the “Ninth Fort massacres” of the 5,000 “Reich Jews” on November 25 and 29 were the first systematic mass killings of German and Austrian Jews during the Holocaust.

SS commander Karl Jäger, the Einsatzkommando officer who oversaw the massacres and those of most of Lithuania’s Jews, was responsible for over 137,000 murders in just five months. He recorded the killings in an infamous near-daily log of his unit’s murderous activities. After the war, he worked on a farm and escaped justice for over a decade. Arrested following the discovery of his Einsatzkommando report, he committed suicide in a German prison cell in June 1959 while awaiting trial.

Dr. Alina Bothe, director of Freie Universität’s #LastSeen project. (Courtesy)

The #LastSeen project is appealing for relatives of those who may be in the images to make contact and help identify some of those pictured.

The researchers have been aided by a German police unit that is using technology to match photos provided by relatives to the discovered images. As yet, there have been no conclusive matches.

Given the age, quality and nature of the pictures, the process is technically difficult, notes Bothe.

But it is exacerbated by the human toll Nazism took on its victims. Even pictures of people taken in the late 1930s can be difficult to match with those captured in the 1941 images.

“These years of persecution changed how someone looked,” says Bothe.

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