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Nazi's photo album shows Auschwitz officers singing and socializing as gas chambers operate

Play based on Nazi’s photo album from Auschwitz
Photos of Nazis enjoying themselves at Auschwitz become subject of a play | 60 Minutes 13:21

By the time a new play opened last week off-Broadway by acclaimed writer and director Moises Kaufman, it had already been nominated for a Pulitzer prize. It's based on the true story of a photo album from Auschwitz that was sent to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC in 2007. Museum historians weren't sure what to make of it at first, but the album turned out to be the scrapbook of a Nazi - an SS officer - who helped run the day-to-day operations of Auschwitz, where about 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered between 1940 and 1945. The album doesn't show any prisoners or gas chambers, what it does show are some of the most notorious killers in history seemingly enjoying themselves. That's what museum officials found so chilling, and what Moises Kaufman spent 14 years creating a play about.

Moises Kaufman: When I first saw the photographs I got goosebumps, and I-- I remember thinking-- you know, s-- many of the people in my family died in Auschwitz. And these are the people who were doing it. And they don't seem to have any remorse. Seeing that in a photograph so clearly articulated is terrifying. This is terrifying because they all look so much like us. 

The photographs may appear unremarkable at first - SS officers at dinner parties drinking, socializing, flirting with their young Nazi secretaries - but when these pictures were taken, the Germans were losing the war and exterminating more Jews in Auschwitz than at any other time in the Holocaust. 

Several images show an SS officer giving his secretaries blueberries while a man plays an accordion. The inscription reads: "here there are blueberries." Moises Kaufman picked that for the title of his play. 

Moises Kaufman: I wanted the audience to have the experience that we had looking at the photographs.

Anderson Cooper: What was it about the series of the women eating blueberries that-- that so struck you?

Moises Kaufman: That they were just, you know, teenage girls who were secretaries. Everyone is showing the photographer their empty plates, there's one of the women who's pretend crying. So she's so sad because she's run out of blueberries and outside of the frame, there's 1.1 million people who are being killed. So how do you lead your daily life and at the same time participate in one of the largest killing machines in the history of mankind?

Moises Kaufman
Moises Kaufman 60 Minutes

Kaufman's play is centered on the museum historians who worked with survivors and even descendants of Nazis themselves to uncover what the album was. 

No one had ever seen images like these before. There are few photos of Auschwitz because the Nazis worked hard to conceal their crimes.

Kaufman's main character is Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the Holocaust museum, played by actor Elizabeth Stahlmann.

The real Rebecca Erbelding received the album from a former U.S. counterintelligence officer. He said he found it in 1946 in an abandoned apartment in war-torn Frankfurt while hunting down Nazi war criminals. He donated it to the museum but wanted to remain anonymous. 

Anderson Cooper: How did you go about finding out who made this?

Rebecca Erbelding: I didn't see any trains. I didn't see anything I recognized. It was maybe the third time flipping through it, and that's when I saw Josef Mengele.

No pictures of Dr. Josef Mengele in Auschwitz had ever been found before. To see the album, we went to a high security, climate-controlled facility in Maryland where the original pages are stored. 

Anderson Cooper: That's Dr. Mengele.

Rebecca Erbelding: That's Mengele. And these are still the only known photos of Mengele while he was stationed at the camp.

Mengele was known by prisoners at Auschwitz as the "angel of death." He conducted gruesome medical experiments, mostly on children, and often stood on the platform when trains arrived, selecting who would be sent to work and who would die immediately in gas chambers.

Rebecca Erbelding: Not only is it Mengele, these are some of the most infamous officers at the camp. So you see there's Baer. 

Richard Baer is on the album's first page, he was the last commandant of Auschwitz. That helped historians identify his deputy, Karl Höcker. And it turned out this was Höcker's personal album - his cherished memories behind the scenes of a massacre.

Anderson Cooper: May 1944 is when Höcker got to Auschwitz.

Rebecca Erbelding: Yes. So this is the entirety of his time at Auschwitz.

Before the war Höcker had been a struggling bank teller. Becoming an SS officer at Auschwitz was considered a big step up. 

Rebecca Erbelding and Anderson Cooper
Rebecca Erbelding and Anderson Cooper 60 Minutes

Rebecca Erbelding: He had been staffed at the Majdanek camp before this and so he had experience with prisoners arriving, with selections, with gas chambers. He signed receipts for Zyklon B, the lethal gas that was used for killing people. He is a crucial cog in the Nazi killing machine.

The 116 photos in the album show Auschwitz as Karl Höcker wanted to remember it. 

Anderson Cooper: Wow.

Rebecca Erbelding: It's a mix of, like, candid things and really official. This is his dog. His dog's name is "Favorit."

Anderson Cooper: I mean what's so stunning about them is how–

Rebecca Erbelding: Normal.

Anderson Cooper: Yeah.

Rebecca Erbelding: Yea.

Anderson Cooper: I mean, who hasn't taken a photo of them shaking their dog's hand?

Rebecca Erbelding: Uh-huh. So this is "Yule Fire 1944," which is–

Anderson Cooper: Wow.

Rebecca Erbelding: -- Nazi Christmas.

Rebecca Erbelding: They know that the Soviets are coming. They are not far. They can probably hear the bombs and here-- here they're lighting–

Anderson Cooper: And they're lighting a Christmas tree.

Rebecca Erbelding: Yeah.

The album revealed something else museum officials hadn't seen before. The Nazis built a vacation resort at Auschwitz. It was called Solahütte. These pictures show a gathering of top SS officers there in July 1944. Rebecca Erbelding believes it was a party - they were congratulating themselves for successfully murdering more than 350,000 Hungarian Jews in just 55 days. 

Anderson Cooper: This looks like they're singing.

Rebecca Erbelding: They are. This front row is really what the director of the museum, Sara Bloomfield, calls the "chorus of criminals." So you have Höcker. You have Otto Moll, the head of the gas chamber section. There's Rudolf Höss.

Anderson Cooper: The former commandant of Auschwitz.

Rebecca Erbelding: The former commandant of Auschwitz. Mengele is here.

Anderson Cooper: They're celebrating the-- the successful– 

Rebecca Erbelding: The successful mass–

Anderson Cooper: --slaughter–

Rebecca Erbelding: --murder. Yeah.  

Irene Weiss: It was, somebody labeled it, a metropolis of death. And that's what it was. It worked like an assembly line factory.

Irene Weiss
Irene Weiss 60 Minutes

Irene Weiss got to Auschwitz the day after Karl Höcker started working there. She arrived when she was 13, on a train packed with Jews from Hungary. Separated from her parents and four of her siblings, she says she found herself on the platform holding her younger sister Edith's hand as they approached Dr. Mengele. 

Irene Weiss: And everything was in a matter of seconds, you know, the stick came down between us. He held life and death with that stick. All of a sudden, I was alone. 

She didn't know it at the time, but that moment was captured by a Nazi photographer documenting the arrival and processing of Hungarian Jews. It appears in one of the only other albums of Auschwitz. This photo has been colorized. 

Irene Weiss: This is the group already going to the gas chamber.

Anderson Cooper: Wa-- where are you in this picture?

Irene Weiss: Well, I am right here

Anderson Cooper: This is you–

Irene Weiss: That's me right here.

Anderson Cooper: So this is the moment after you'd been separated from your little sister, Edith.

Irene Weiss: The very moment, yes. That's what I'm looking at. I can't leave. I left her.

Irene Weiss never saw Edith, her parents, or her brothers alive again. What she has is this photo. That's her mother Leah sitting on the ground just behind her brothers Gershon and Reuben at Auschwitz. After this picture was taken, they were led into a gas chamber. 

Irene Weiss: They had to kill the children so there will not be a new generation. And they discovered that if they also killed the mothers, then they didn't have to worry about the chaos that that would create, separating.

Anderson Cooper: The children wouldn't be upset by being separated?

Irene Weiss: And the mothers wouldn't be-- wouldn't be upset.

Weiss spent the next eight months working outside one of those gas chambers. She sorted shoes and other belongings of the dead.

Irene Weiss: We saw these columns of women, mothers and children, and going into the door there talking to us. And they're told they're walking into a bathhouse, you know? They're asking questions, "Where are you from?" And a half hour later, the chimney's belching fire. And that went on day after day and night after night. 

Anderson Cooper: So you saw thousands of women, children walking into gas chambers?

Irene Weiss: Absolutely.

Anderson Cooper: And you talked to some of them. In the last seconds of their life, minutes of their life.

Irene Weiss: Yes, but we couldn't cry. It was an amazing thing. This is beyond crying. Tears are for normal pain. That kind of brutality from fellow mankind is so deep that, you know, people say broken heart. The heart keeps working, but the soul never forgets.

Irene Weiss wasn't surprised by the photos in Karl Höcker's album, but when they were released publicly, they made headlines around the world. Tilman Taube read about them online in Germany while on his lunch break.

Tilman Taube
Tilman Taube 60 Minutes

Tilman Taube: And there was an article, "New photos from Auschwitz have appeared." I thought, "This is interesting."

When he looked at the photos, he was surprised to see his grandfather - Dr. Heinz Baumkotter. 

Tilman Taube: On the first picture, it wasn't 100% clear. But then I flipped two more pictures. It was absolutely 100% clear that-- that was him.

Taube knew his grandfather was head physician at Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and had done medical experiments on prisoners and sent thousands to be killed at other camps. But Taube wasn't sure why his grandfather had gone to Auschwitz.

He connected with Rebecca Erbelding and soon discovered just how deeply involved his grandfather was in the Holocaust.

Anderson Cooper: When you see the picture of your grandfather, I mean, does that feel like your grandfather?

Tilman Taube: For me, strictly speaking, it's two different persons. The grandfather that I knew was a rather normal grandfather. And the SS officer is-- is a different person for me.

Anderson Cooper: It's impossible to reconcile the two.

Tilman Taube: It's difficult, difficult, really.

Taube now helps the museum search for more photos and documents by reaching out to other descendants of Nazis.

Tilman Taube: Of course, you want to be part of some kind of movement that helps preventing things like that from happening again.

Anderson Cooper: You know your grandfather and you know what he did. Does it make you think differently about human beings, what we are all capable of?

Tilman Taube: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

The play about the Höcker album by Moises Kaufman and Amanda Gronich, his co-writer and longtime collaborator, raises difficult questions… not just about our past, but about ourselves.

Anderson Cooper with Amanda Gronich and Moises Kaufman
Anderson Cooper with Amanda Gronich and Moises Kaufman 60 Minutes

Amanda Gronich: When we look at these pictures, we're looking through the lens of how they saw what they were doing.

Anderson Cooper: Why is it important to see Auschwitz through their eyes?

Amanda Gronich: Because they didn't wake up each morning thinking, "I'm an evil monster. I'm going to do evil, monstrous things." They woke up each day, and they went about their lives filled with justifications and beliefs in what they were doing. 

Anderson Cooper: It makes all of us ask the question, "Well, what am I capable of doing?"

Moises Kaufman: I think that's what's happening. When the audience comes in, they sit here and they go, "Who would I have been in that picture?" 

Irene Weiss: The most dangerous animal in the world is man because other animals will hurt you if they're hungry or it's their nature of hunting, but man can turn into an animal in no time. All he needs is permission. As soon as permission is given from higher-ups, from government, it accelerates. Even a hint of permission that it's okay to attack this group or exclude this group or shame that group. It's-- it's happening. I-- it's never stopped.

Produced by Nichole Marks. Associate producer, John Gallen. Broadcast associate, Grace Conley. Edited by April Wilson.

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