War Prisoners Return by Ernst Haas, 1949

The first transport from the Soviet Union carrying the repatriated prisoners-of-war arrived in Austria on 12 September 1947. Like other Austrian press photographers, Ernst Haas started covering these Heimkehrer (homecomers) starting in October 1947. His pictures soon came to attention of Heute, an illustrated magazine edited by the US occupying forces in Munich and Inge Morath, an editor responsible for covering Austrian topics and pictorial material.

On 3rd August 1949, Heute published “Und die Frauen warten … Die Geschichte jedes Krieges wird mit Tränen geschrieben” (‘And the women are waiting … The story of every war is written in tears’), a photo-essay written by Morath and illustrated with Haas’s photos.

The first photos showed the crowds, mostly women, held back by the police, followed by a double-page spread where there was an outbreak of joy. One woman recognised a family member and another embraced a POW. The following double page further showed the waiting and had a full-page photograph of an old lady holding up the photograph of a missing young soldier while a smiling young returnee passed by (the photo above that would be reprinted widely in the following years). The last double-page spread captured the pain and sadness of those still waiting for their missing family members.

Heute’s American editor in chief, Warren Trabant, was extremely impressed by the photos and ensured the worldwide distribution of Haas’ photographs. Just a few days after their first publication in Heute, the photographs were in LIFE magazine (August 8, 1949). A month later, they were published again in Swiss magazine Du. Success of the photos paved the way for both Haas and Morath to join the Magnum agency in Paris. Trabant remembered:

When I saw the first set of pictures, I knew I had stumbled upon a genius and I felt a chill up and down my spine – a rare treat for someone who had shuffled through thousands of photographs, appreciating some, being impressed by others, but never really thrilled until that day.

In the original publication, Morath’s accompanying essay was short. She mentioned the Südbahnhof in Vienna as the location where the photographs were taken, but neither the Second World War nor Nazism was mentioned. Working in an Austria still divided between Soviet Union and the Western Allies, she also could not write freely about Stalin’s delaying tactics in repatriating POWs. When they were published, LIFE used a harsher tone, an anti-Communist viewpoint, and more contextual information about Austrian POWs. It wrote: “Although Austria claims that some 6400 prisoners of war are still to be accounted for, the grim assumption is that they are dead or lost in the void behind the Iron Curtain”.

According to the historian Stefan Karner, 156,681 Austrians were held prisoner in the Soviet Union, of whom 10,891 died and 145,790 were repatriated.

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21 thoughts on “War Prisoners Return by Ernst Haas, 1949

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