In the Nazi-occupied Europe, the Sonderkommandos were special groups of Jewish (and sometimes Russian) prisoners of war who were kept isolated from others and forced to carry out the atrocities. They emptied the gas chambers of bodies, cremated, buried, or grounded up the bodies. Since the Nazis did not wish the Sonderkommandos’ knowledge to reach the outside world, they regularly gassed the Sonderkommandos too and replacing them with new arrivals; the first task of the new Sonderkommandos would be to dispose of their predecessors’ corpses.
Conscious of their fate, Sonderkommandos sometimes rebelled, but their enduring act of defiance came in the form of four photographs that came out of Auschwitz in August 1944.
In 1943, the commander at Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss forbade the photography inside the camp; signs posted warned ‘Fotografieren verboten! No Entry! You will be shot without prior warning!’ However, two photographic laboratories operated inside Auschwitz for archival reasons: photographs recorded torture, executions, and experiments, and Hoss was even able to present the minister of justice with an album of Auschwitz pictures.
Of one and a half million surviving photographs related to the concentration camps, only these four depicted the Nazis’ assembly line Holocaust in action.
The photos were frequently cropped and edited to highlight their content but it is possible to locate where the photos were taken.
The photo showed the cremation of corpses in a fire pit, shot through the black frame of the gas chamber’s doorway or window.
Shadows in the August sun suggested that this was taken between 3 and 4 pm.
Like the previous photo, this was also shot through a doorway, at around similar time.
The photo was largely comprised of branches, except for group of women prisoners who appear in various states of undress at the bottom corner, just before they enter the gas chamber.
The photo was thought to be shot from the hip or an opening for pouring Zyklon B into the gas chamber, and therefore the photographer was unable to aim the camera with any precision.
The ill-composed photo showed only sunlight and trees, the result of the photographer aiming too high.
It was unclear how the Sonderkommandos smuggled a camera in (there were competing stories, but generally thought to be smuggled in with food); the photographer was usually named only as Alex, a Jewish inmate from Greece (sometimes identified as Alberto Errera). Other members of the Sonderkommando in the camp’s crematorium V took turns to hide the camera and acted as look-outs. The film was known to be smuggled out in a tube of toothpaste to the Polish Resistance.