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Private Auschwitz

DW staff / DPA (nda)September 22, 2007

Photos of Nazis relaxing and laughing with friends while Jews and other victims were being gassed at Auschwitz have provided a rare and disturbing insight into the lives of those who ran the Third Reich's death camps.

The disturbing photos show Nazis relaxing while many die in the nearby the death campImage: picture-alliance / dpa

The collection of 116 black-and-white photos from an SS officer's private album, published for the first time by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington this week, shows officers lounging on a wooden sun deck, gathered for drinks at a hunting lodge and posing with laughing young women.

SS officer Karl Hoecker's album also includes rare photos at Auschwitz of Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the "Angel of Death" who conducted gruesome experiments on camp inmates in the name of medicine.

Germans girls line up on a fence in one of Hoecker's photographs
Those in the pictures seem oblivious to the horrors nearbyImage: picture-alliance / dpa

The photos give a rare glimpse of some of the men who ran Auschwitz, enjoying time off and evidently disconnected from the horror in which more than one million Nazi prisoners died.

"It's hard to fathom the kind of people who ran these camps," museum director Sara Bloomfield said. "These unique photographs vividly illustrate the contented world they enjoyed while overseeing a world of unimaginable suffering."

Nazis seen relaxing as if on holiday

Hoecker, the adjutant to the death camp's commander from May 1944 until its evacuation in January 1945, catalogues his stay at the most notorious Nazi killing site in much the same way as someone might present memories of a trip to a holiday idyll.

Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, the so-called "Angel of Death"
Josef Mengele features in some of the Auschwitz photosImage: dpa

He is seen lighting a candle on a Christmas tree, petting his favourite German shepherd and passing out blueberries to young German women sitting on a fence. Other camp leaders and Nazi officials also appear in the images.

In one photo, Hoecker is shown laughing, flanked by young women and an accordion player, as their sing-along on a bridge is apparently cut short by the weather. The picture carries the jaunty caption: "Rain out of a clear blue sky."

Many of the pictures were taken when Auschwitz's gas chambers and crematoriums were operating at and above capacity as Hungarian Jews were being deported to Auschwitz, the museum said.

Carefree moments during the Holocaust

On the same day Hoecker passed out blueberries to the female auxiliaries on the fence, 150 prisoners arrived on a transport to Auschwitz. The SS chose 21 men and 12 women for work, then killed the others in the gas chambers, the museum said.

When Hoecker lit the Christmas tree in December 1944, Soviet troops were advancing westward through what is modern Poland and the camp's liberation was just weeks away.

Museum officials say the album is only the second known collection of photographs taken at Auschwitz. The album was recently donated by a retired US Army intelligence officer who found it in an abandoned Frankfurt apartment in 1946, the year after World War II ended.

The train tracks and main gate of the Auschwitz camp after liberation in 1945
Auschwitz was liberated in early 1945Image: AP

The Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in January 1945 and Hoecker joined Auschwitz commander Richard Baer in fleeing to Germany. After the Third Reich surrendered in May 1945, he returned to his job at a small-town bank.

As post-war West Germany increasingly confronted the Nazi past, Hoecker was convicted in 1965 of the murder of thousands of Auschwitz inmates and served five years in prison. He died in 2000 at age 88 in Germany, according to the museum.