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The Sonderkommando Photographs
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Jewish Social Studies 7.3 (2001) 132-148


Recent debates concerning the possibility of representing the Holocaust focus on postwar attempts to do so, often by people who did not experience the events directly. The much-discussed works of survivors were of course produced after the liberation of the camps. Much of the existing literature on the representation of the Holocaust, dealing with retrospective reconstructions or responses, tends to concentrate on literature, poetry, film, or historiography. The special problems of photography -- especially photography from the period-- as a medium of representation have until recently been overlooked.

The Sonderkommando photographs, however, are so important precisely because they are not recollections. There is an urgency, an immediacy about these photographs that appears to render the whole discussion of representation problematic. In the face of full-frontal atrocity, the impulse to theorize seems almost offensive. Can one say more about these photographs than confirm Ernst Jünger's claim from 1931 that "Already today there is hardly an event of human significance toward which the artificial eye of civilization, the photographic lens, is not directed. The result is often pictures of demoniacal precision through which humanity's new relation to danger becomes visible in an exceptional fashion"?

In the following pages, I argue that the Sonderkommando photo-graphs, far from revealing the inadequacy of theoretical thought, actually demand an awareness of it, because these photographs go far beyond what Jünger had in mind in 1931. The photographs themselves are of such manifest importance that I must state at the outset that this article is only an attempt to broaden an awareness of the existence of these photographs with the aid of a theoretical vocabulary. If the language of representation is of use, then a discussion in its terms should be a promising way to approach these photographs.

One thing that makes these photographs so significant is that, unlike the well-known SS photographs in the so-called Lili-Jacob Album (or Auschwitz Album) or the photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto clearance, these photographs were taken by inmates of Birkenau. Specifically, they were taken by one or two members of the Sonderkommando, the special squads composed mainly of Jewish inmates but also of Russian prisoners of war who were forced to work in and around the gas-chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, in the summer of 1944.

Furthermore, despite some knowledge of the circumstances in which the photographs were taken, we do not know for sure who took them. In her contribution to the official publication of the Auschwitz museum, Barbara Jarosz says that the photographs were taken "by members of the Sonderkommando of crematorium V: Alex from Greece (his full name is unknown), Shlomo Dragon and his brother Josel, Alter Szmul Fajnzylberg (known in the camp as Stanisîaw Jankowski), and David Szmulewski." On the information board placed by the museum on the grounds of crematorium V in 1995, the photo-graphs are ascribed to the Greek Jew, Alex. One should note also the testimony of Fajnzylberg, who says: "I want to emphasize once again that when these pictures were taken, all the prisoners I mentioned were present. In other words, even though the Greek Jew, Alex, was the person who pressed the shutter, one can say that the pictures were taken by all of us." Unfortunately, in Gideon Greif's book of interviews with surviving Sonderkommando members, we learn nothing new about the photographs, even in the interview with the Dragon brothers. All we can be sure of is that -- along with the hidden Sonderkommando writings --these photographs are among the most astonishing of the various artifacts to have emerged from Auschwitz. In terms of the visual record, they are unquestionably the most important documents that we have. Photographs taken by members of the SS are today no less horrific to our eyes for the fact of their authorship, but the Sonderkommando photographs are especially harrowing, not only because of their content but also because of the extreme difficulties involved in taking them, smuggling the film out of the camp, and having them developed in Kraków.

What I want to discuss here is precisely the status of these photo...

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