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Holocaust survivors' photos given to the Jewish Museum

Maria John Sánchez
February 16, 2022

Photographer Konrad Rufus Müller photographed Holocaust survivors in Germany, Austria and Israel. He is now donating the 41 black-and-white photographs to the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Holocaust survivor Malvina Braun with three grandchildren.
Image: Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Foto: Konrad Rufus Müller

Six million European Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Those who survived the Holocaust were lucky — or helped by "guardian angels," as Holocaust survivor Rachel Oschitzki calls them. In her case, such guardian angels were an SS man who stopped her on her way to the gas chamber of theAuschwitz concentration camp and sent her back. An older inmate named Gabi, who told her to pretend to be over 18, since younger people were sent to the gas chambers. There was also a doctor who approved her for a job at a factory, which allowed her to leave Auschwitz — and a Czech man who stopped her from riding in a Russian truck after the war. The vehicle would have taken her — as she later learned — to Siberia. 

Rachel Oschitzki, born in 1928, is one of the few people who can still tell her story. She is one of the 25 Holocaust survivors whom lensman Konrad Rufus Müller and Austrian journalist Alexandra Föderl-Schmid visited to photograph and interview. At the time, Förderl-Schmid was working as a correspondent in Israel for the German newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung. She established contact with Holocaust survivors in Germany, Austria and Israel. The result is  41 black-and-white photographs, which Müller has just donated to Berlin's Jewish Museum. 

A black and white photo of a pair of hands folded together.
The photographer and journalist interviewed 25 Holocaust survivors for the projectImage: Jüdisches Museum Berlin/Foto: Konrad Rufus Müller

Faces and hands in focus

"Konrad Rufus Müller is a master of portrait photography, and this series shows that too," Hetty Berg, director of the museum, said in a press release. "The photographs focus primarily on the survivors' faces and hands, and attempt to trace the life experiences of those portrayed. This creates a very dense and impressive collection." Berg added that she is very pleased that the photographs are now coming to the museum.

Konrad Rufus Müller became famous in Germany for photographing German chancellors such as Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl. And he always did so in analog, using a Rolleiflex camera without additional lighting — how he still works today.

Müller's father refused to cooperate with Nazis

The now 82-year-old first heard about the Holocaust when he was eight, when his father gave him the book "Der SS-Stadt: Das System Der Deutschen Konzentrationslager" ("The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them"). Written by sociologist Eugen Kogon, the book is considered the first historical analysis of the Nazis' system of terror and how concentration camps were organized. The book "is truly not suitable for children, but rather for adults," Müller said in an interview with DW.

Many Jewish passengers on the ship "Exodus" in 1947.
Many Holocaust survivors emigrated to Israel after the warImage: Courtesy Everett Collection/picture alliance

His father worked in a fabric store in Berlin during the National Socialism time. The shop was run by a Jew who emigrated in 1938. "The Nazis offered my father the business, and he didn't take it," Müller says. "My whole life, I thought the fact that my father turned down this business was great. That's not something you do lightly — turn down something that can take you further in your career." 

The idea for the photo project came to Müller when he read an article by journalist Alexandra Föderl-Schmid about aHolocaust survivor. He then wrote her an e-mail and the two decided to embark on a trip to meet survivors. This resulted in the bo,ok "Unfassbare Wunder," ("Unbelievable miracles") which was published in 2019. "Alexandra talked to each person for an hour, and during that time I chose a place where I would then photographically portray the person or persons," Müller told DW.

Some survivors told their story for the first time

After these conversations, the interviewees were usually "so broken and finished" and emotionally shaken that photography became completely unimportant to them. "And in this respect, completely undisguised and very authentic portraits were created," says Müller. "They had turned their innermost selves inside out, they were completely with themselves." For some, it was the first time they had ever talked about their experiences during the Holocaust.

Some, like Malwina Braun, spoke only in fragments — if at all — about their experiences. Braun, who has since passed away, lived in the Krakow Ghetto for two years as a child. At the time, the Nazis forced all Jews to move there. The Braun family shared their apartment with two other families. Walls were built around the neighborhood, barbed wire put up — it was completely sealed off from the outside world and strictly guarded by the Nazi's SS guards. When the ghetto was cleared, the Braun family was separated. Malwina Braun never learned where her parents and sister perished. She lived in Germany until her death.

A black and white photo of a hand and arm
Some of the survivors interviewed for the project told their stories for the first timeImage: Verlag Böhlau/Konrad Rufus Müller

Israel as a place of hope

Other Holocaust survivors emigrated after World War II. They could not bear to stay in the country of the perpetrators. The newly founded state of Israelin 1948 became a place of hope for many.

This was the case for Manfred Rosenbaum, who left Germany in 1946 and settled in Israel. When he returned to Germany for the first time in 1957, it was a traumatic experience. "I couldn't sleep at night. I saw swastikas everywhere," Rosenbaum recounts in the book "Unbelievable Miracles." 

Photographs commemorate survivors

Others, like Arik Brauer, chose not to emigrate. As a child, Brauer experienced the "Anschluss" of Austria to Germany, i.e. the invasion of Austria by German troops in 1938 and Hitler'sincorporation of his homeland into the National Socialist German Reich. Brauer wanted to emigrate to Palestine after the war, but his mother and his cousin Rudi Spitzer stopped him: "Rudi said, 'Anti-Semitism can only be defeated if you fight against it here'" Brauer recalled.

Rudolf Gelbard also made the fight against fascism and anti-Semitism his life's work. He was a staunch denouncer of acquittals and light prison sentences for former Nazi perpetrators.

Konrad Rufus Müller's photographs depicting Rudolf Gelbard and other Holocaust survivors have now become part of the Jewish Museum Berlin's Photographic Collection. Although no exhibition featuring the photographs is currently planned, Konrad Rufus Müller said he is "immensely grateful" that the museum recognizes his photographs. He hopes that individual images or the entire series will be on display for everyone to see in an exhibition in the future. 

The portraits and interviews with the Holocaust survivors were published in 2019 in the book "Unfassbare Wunder" by Alexandra Föderl-Schmid and Konrad Rufus Müller by the Böhlau publishing house.

This article was translated from German.

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