Auschwitz Album Photo Analysis

Submitted by Penny Selle
Notre Dame de Sion Upper School
Kansas City, Missouri

Introduction to the Assignment

The Auschwitz Album is concrete evidence of one system the Third Reich’s used in its attempt to murder Europe’s Jews. It was used during the 1960’s in testimonies at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. The photographs in the album record the deportation of Hungarian Jews, some wearing the Stars of David on their coats, from the Berehova Ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau circa 26 May 1944. They depict the selection process on “the ramp” off the newly built spur which allowed trains to unload inside the camp. Previously, prisoners had to walk into the camp. The spur enabled more efficient sorting of large numbers of people. The most haunting images are those of the women, children, and elderly walking toward and waiting outside the crematoria in the grove of birch trees which gave Birkenau its name. We know where they are going; but they did not. The album shows us what happened to those who were chosen for work on the day they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. And the album also shows us what happened to the victims’ possessions.

The Auschwitz Album is unique. Except for a few clandestine photos, there are no others that document what happened at the Nazi death camps. So why were these photos taken? And by whom? And why was the photographer allowed such unprecedented access with his or her camera? We don’t have solid answers for these questions.  There is speculation about who took the photos. It is thought that they were made by one or both of the “staff” photographers at the camp who typically spent their days taking “mug shots” of the prisoners.  If that is the case, Ernst Hofmann and/or Bernhard Walter immortalized these souls.

Although little is known about the album’s creation, its re-discovery is an incredible story.  Lilly Jacob was a Hungarian Jew sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau in late May 1944. When she was liberated from Dora, a sub-camp of Nordhausen, she weighed no more than 80 pounds and had to be lifted on a stretcher.  Lilly found the album in a deserted SS barracks 400 miles from Auschwitz where she was being housed. As she looked through the album, Lilly recognized her rabbi. Then she spotted family members, pictures of herself, and people from Bilke, her community near the Carpathian mountains of Hungary. She kept the album for several years and eventually sold glass plate prints to the Jewish Museum in Prague to have money for passage to the United States for her daughter, husband, and herself.

Once Lilly settled in Miami, news spread of the rare collection of photographs. Survivors began to arrive to examine the images, to see if, by chance, their loved ones were among those pictured.  On the rare occasion that people would be able to identify themselves or a family member, Lilly would give them the photo.  Recently, one of these has been donated back to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel. Serge Klarsfeld, a famous Nazi-hunter, convinced Lilly to donate the album and all of the remaining prints to Yad Vashem in 1980.  A database of the information on each photograph was created and conservators at the museum restored the suite. Each image was digitally scanned in 1999. 

When viewing the pictures, taken individually or as a series, I am pulled to pore over them. Simultaneously, I am hesitant to look for very long. I feel an instinct to leave these people alone for the last few moments they will ever have with their loved ones.  There is an inherent intimacy here. I don’t belong. I have information they do not.  I know what will happen to them soon after these pictures are taken.  And I don’t want this information. Not while I am looking into their eyes.

Yet, in some inexplicable way, I am drawn in by the belief that I can become one link of an unending chain of witnesses. I experience an emotion I don’t have while viewing other photographs. I want the power in the photo to stop time. I feel, in every sense of the word, a new definition of the verb we often use for creating photographs – they were taken – from a moment of time, in a matter-of-fact way, as witness. Taken as slices of time, from lives; taken from families; taken from culture; taken from history; taken from what-could-be-in-the-future.  And this robbing changed everything. As we peer into the past and imagine lost futures, we are taken – transported. And we must ask ourselves – Is the time when the photos were taken really so much different from our time?

While we are not sure why the photos in the Auschwitz Album were taken, I am incredibly grateful that they exist – to bear witness.  In an age of easy photo enhancement, I know the incalculable value of these pictures to speak the truth about what happened to the victims of the Holocaust. A few years from now, no human being alive will have actually experienced these atrocities. It will be even more important that we teach young people how to analyze photographs – how to look carefully, how to interpret information accurately, how to discern the facts from the fakes, how to see what is not in the photo as much as what is in the photo. I hope this lesson will provide a starting place.


I teach art – including photography. I use this lesson to teach photo analysis. The Auschwitz Album serves as an example of photojournalism and as a photographic historical record. This photo analysis guide could be used in social studies/history courses, language arts courses, or humanities courses. Learners might use the analysis guide to prepare for a class discussion. The analysis guide might help students who are learning how to respond to DBQs (document based questions); it could serve as a practice exercise on its own or be used alongside texts in a full-fledged DBQ.

Questioning might begin with reading this quote based on Elie Wiesel’s personal experience of arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau from Hungary:

“Every yard or so an SS man held his gun trained on us.  Hand in hand we followed the crowd. ‘Men to the left. Women to the right.’ Eight words spoken, indifferently, without emotion.  Eight short simple words. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sister moving to the right. I saw them disappear in the distance while I walked on with my father and the other men. I did not know that at that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and my sister forever.”

Questions for Class Discussion:

  • Do you think this image/these pictures from the Auschwitz album present(s) an ordinary day of unloading prisoners? 
  • Do these photos seem to be staged or planned, set up in any way?  What specific things do you see that make you believe that? 
  •  What would be the advantage of taking so many different pictures, from so many angles? 
  •  Did you see any of the same people more than once?  How did you recognize them?  Again, what would be the advantage of having multiple images of the same people at different times? 
  •  Do you see any pictures that look like they were taken one right after the other?  Which one happened first?  How can you tell? 
  • How long do you think the whole group of pictures took to shoot?  What clues do we have? 
  •  What do YOU think would be the reason to make such a detailed, visual record of this day?

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