AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU, Poland — Surrounded by children and older women, an adolescent girl tilts her head and grins. Unlike most Jews in the “transport,” she does not have a Jewish star affixed to her clothes. Her name is Bella — Baila in Yiddish — and she seems to be showing off the new Passover dress made by her aunts.
It was a clear day in late May of 1944 when 16-year old Bella Solomon — my grandmother — stood for “selection” at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Those thick chimneys are for bakeries, the new arrivals were told. Families will be reunited after disinfection, and make sure your luggage is marked.
The photograph of my grandmother appears strangely sanitized. There is no sense of the hell-upon-arrival described by Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. It’s daytime, so no floodlights are pointed at people emerging from boxcars under the whip. No dogs are trained on the victims.
The image of my grandmother is one of 197 photographs in the so-called “Auschwitz Album,” one of the most important but poorly understood primary sources of the Holocaust. Although I’ve known about the album for at least 20 years, I did not consider searching within its pages for my grandmother until 2015.
For reasons unclear to historians, an SS photographer (either Ernst Hoffman or Bernhard Walter) documented the 11-step “processing” of Hungarian Jews during several days that spring. The camp had just been modified to handle a record influx of 424,000 Hungarian Jews, most of whom were murdered upon arrival. Innovations included extending the train-tracks into the camp itself to hasten the process.
“The Auschwitz Album” is arranged into 11 chapters, each of them given a title corresponding to “special handling” procedures. Chronologically, the album begins with victims being unloaded from boxcars. It ends in “the grove” where Jews selected for death — mostly children and the elderly — waited among the birch trees. Those grove images were labelled, “Bodies that are no longer capable.”
‘Nobody got married without me’
Before I could find my grandmother in “The Auschwitz Album,” I needed to listen to her testimony.
A few years after the release of “Schindler’s List” in 1993, both of my paternal grandparents gave testimony to Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. I was the first person in my family to view Bubby’s interview, although not until 2010. By then she had been gone for three years.
Born in 1927, Bubby came from the town Znacova in today’s Ukraine. The half-Jewish farming community was not far from the Hasidic center Munkacs, where Bubby and the Jews of her town would be imprisoned in a ghetto.
One of eight children, Bubby grew up speaking Yiddish, Czech, and Ukrainian. Owning farmland, the family hosted impoverished Jews for Shabbat and sent food to the needy. Znacova was not exactly a shtetl, but there was no electricity and news was announced in the town square.
My grandmother described herself as a wily child, always on the lookout for her “religious fanatic” of a father. “When my father wasn’t there, I was there,” she told the Shoah Foundation interviewer. She enjoyed sneaking into churches to see brides and grooms: “Nobody got married without me,” she said.
In addition to her multiple languages and sense of adventure, Bubby was adept at many forms of needle-craft. Unlike her siblings, she moved easily in non-Jewish society, so her mother sent her into town to sell produce. She loved showing off her clothes and was thin as a rail, Bubby said with her wide, saggy smile.
From the time I learned that my grandparents were in the Holocaust, I was told they were from Czechoslovakia. I knew most of Bubby’s family members were murdered at Auschwitz and that she had been imprisoned there. But I never considered my grandmother could be in “The Auschwitz Album” because those photographs were of Hungarian Jews.
At the end of 2015, I had a breakthrough in my research: The region Bubby lived in had been under Hungarian control during the war. Immediately, I wondered if any of the people identified in the album were also from Znacova. I examined every caption in a Yad Vashem-published version of the album, and there were indeed people from Znacova and other towns in the Carpathian-Ruthenia region.
Equipped with Bubby’s self-description as impish, very thin, and free-willed, I scrutinized the image of a girl early in the album. I had noticed her before, the awkward girl with a gap between her teeth and that out-of-place grin at Birkenau. But now I saw myself in her eyes for the first time.
Immediately, I started comparing the image to my grandmother’s post-war photos. The similarities, everyone agreed, were overwhelming. My grandmother’s self-description helped me find her among hundreds of women and children in the album.
‘Give away the child’
On the last day of Passover, “with the dishes out to be washed,” Bubby and the Jews of Znacova were rounded up and sent to the Munkacs ghetto.
For six weeks, they slept on the floor of a factory. On the day before Shavuot — May 27 — everyone was herded onto boxcars. There was a lot of praying, Bubby recalled of the journey, and the corpse of someone who died along the way was taken off.
After the chain of boxcars lumbered into Birkenau, the transport was unloaded. The arrivals were greeted by Hungarian Jewish women in white caps.
“Give away the child, the child is not gonna have what to eat,” my grandmother recalled the women saying. Some mothers handed babies to grandmothers or older aunts, assuming there would be better conditions in a “family camp.” After everyone was divided into “selection” lines, the SS photographer captured “The Auschwitz Album” image with my Bubby.
Because the SS was ordered to ‘process’ nearly half a million Hungarian Jews in two months, there was no time to brand a tattoo onto my grandmother’s arm
According to my grandmother’s testimony, her mother and three younger sisters were “selected” for the showers, along with her father and two younger brothers. One of the brothers, Simon, was 15-years old, and he might have been able to get through selection — Bubby suspected — had he pretended to be one year older.
Because the SS was ordered to “process” nearly half a million Hungarian Jews in two months, there was no time to brand a tattoo onto my grandmother’s arm. With several transports arriving daily, the system began to sputter, so some steps were skipped. Most critically for the SS, the capacity of the “ovens” could not handle so many thousands of corpses each day.
“They had no room to burn them,” said Bubby in her testimony.
The overflow conditions played a role in uniting the paths of my grandmother and her father near the birch grove. As Bubby and her sisters were marching from the “sauna” disinfection building to the Hungarian women’s camp, the words “Shma Yisroel” were shouted in their direction.
“I take a look, it’s my father,” said my grandmother. “He saw us passing by and began to yell. He recognized us even without our hair. He did recognize us.”
‘Conformity to the expectations of authorities’
Like my grandmother, Lily Jacob of Bilke came to Auschwitz in one those late May transports from Hungary. Also like my grandmother, Jacob was transferred from Auschwitz to another camp. In Jacob’s case, that camp was Dora-Mittlebau in Germany.
Just following liberation, Jacob went into formerly off-limits buildings in search of food, clothing, and medicine. Rummaging through drawers in a barracks, she came across a beige photo album titled, “Resettlement of the Jews from Hungary.”
Within its pages, Jacob saw the faces of her murdered relatives. She also found herself in a wide-shot of women prisoners whose heads had just been shaved. There were closeups of rabbis she knew from Bilke and a now-iconic image of her two younger brothers in matching coats and hats.
Since the 1960s, images from “The Auschwitz Album” have been used in thousands of books, articles, museums, and documentaries, and served as evidence in the Eichmann Trial and other proceedings. Remarkably, nearly three-quarters of the victims whose faces appear in the photos have been identified by either themselves, survivors, or relatives.
However, despite the fame of the album, there are quite a few gaps surrounding our understanding of the carefully prepared photo collection.
“Known by all, no one truly questions or analyses [the album] as one should any historical document, particularly using the tools of external and internal criticism,” wrote French historian Tal Bruttmann in an academic paper on the album last year.
Calling “The Auschwitz Album” an “isolated document” among Holocaust sources, Bruttmann wrote, “[The album] was designed to show the smoothness of operations and their conformity to the expectations of the authorities.”
In part through a painstaking cataloging of dozens of train carriages built in four European countries, Bruttmann confirmed the presence of least seven deportation trains in the album. Additionally, he determined the photos could not have been taken in one day, as claimed in some printed versions of the album.
‘It’s impossible to say anything more’
“Regarding the Lili Jacob album, It’s impossible to confirm or not confirm anything,” said Pawel Sawicki, head of press relations at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Like the guides he works alongside, Sawicki refers to the document as “The Lily Jacob Album,” and not “The Auschwitz Album.” This is because there were several albums made about the death camp, including one of the camp’s SS officers at their retreat near the camp.
Sawicki has an encyclopedic knowledge of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and he created a fascinating book in which “Auschwitz Album” photos were juxtaposed with his photos of the same locations. To make the matches, he paired features from the old images — such as fence posts and chimneys — with remains of the camp today.
At the end of May, I brought a group of college students to Auschwitz-Birkenau for a service-learning mission. “The Auschwitz Album” photos, I told them, were taken exactly 75 years ago, including the one of my grandmother. I spoke about the confusion in dating the photos and shared what Sawicki told me.
“When we look at the images, compare the types of train cars and length of the shadows, we can see that there are at least two different periods of the day and two different transports. But it’s impossible to say anything more,” said Sawicki.
In 2002, Nina Springer-Aharoni of Yad Vashem was one of several scholars who wrote essays for the book, “Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport.” Since we now know the photos depict several transports, the title is a misnomer.
In Springer-Aharoni’s essay, “Photographs as Historical Document,” she provided readers with insights into the photos, including when they were taken.
“I relied on the testimonies of the many survivors identified in the album at the time,” Springer-Aharoni told The Times of Israel. “Most of the survivors did not [name] an exact date, but they stated specifically that they arrived on the eve of the Shavuot holiday, including Lily Jacob,” said the retired Yad Vashem museum curator.
“I also tried to check the date according to the names of the ghettos from which the transports were deported and trains departed, plus 2-3 days — the duration of travel and arrival to Auschwitz. It seemed correct to follow the majority of the survivors, and record the date as May 27-28, 1944, on the eve of Shavuot,” wrote Springer-Aharoni in our exchange.
My grandmother said she was taken from the Munkacs ghetto on the eve of Shavuot. So she was not on the same transport as Lily Jacob, who — in any case — was deported from a different ghetto. Bubby’s transport would have arrived one or two days after the holiday in which Jews commemorate the receiving of the Torah, during a week in which more than 20 deportation trains were processed at Birkenau.
Within hours of her smile being frozen in time by an SS photographer, my grandmother learned the law of Auschwitz. The chimneys were not for bakeries and families would not be reunited.
Her father’s “Shma Yisroel” shouted near the gas chambers were his last words to her. Bubby never saw him, her mother, or her five younger siblings again.