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Chilling photo album reveals how SS officer who helped run Auschwitz wanted to remember the concentration camp

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

The picture shows a group of women enjoying blueberries next to a man, smiling. Another man poses at the back, playing an accordion. 

The image is one of 116 photos in an album that belonged to an SS officer who helped run the day-to-day operations of Auschwitz. The album doesn't show any prisoners or gas chambers, instead it shows some of the most infamous officers at the camp seemingly enjoying themselves: singing, socializing, and lighting a Christmas tree at a time when more Jews were being exterminated at the camp than any other period during the Holocaust. 

Acclaimed playwright and director Moises Kaufman spent 14 years creating a play about the album after seeing the images. Many of Kaufman's family members died at Auschwitz and he was struck most by the total lack of remorse shown by the Nazis in the album.

"Seeing that in a photograph so clearly articulated is terrifying," he said. "This is terrifying because they all look so much like us."

How the Nazi photo album was found, identified after WWII

A U.S. counterintelligence officer said he found the photo album inside a trash can in an abandoned apartment in 1946 in war-torn Frankfurt, Germany, where he was hunting down Nazi war criminals. Decades later, the man donated it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC on one condition- that he remain anonymous. 

Museum officials weren't sure what to make of the album when they received it in 2007, but it turned out to be a rare personal scrapbook of a Nazi who helped run Auschwitz, where about 1.1 million people — mostly Jews — were murdered between 1940 and 1945. Historian Rebecca Erbelding and her colleagues at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum spent months analyzing the album to figure out who made it and what it showed.

"I didn't see any trains. I didn't see anything I recognized. It was maybe the third time flipping through it," she said. "And that's when I saw Josef Mengele."

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

No pictures of Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz had ever been found before, according to Erbelding. Mengele was known at the camp as the "Angel of Death" because he conducted gruesome medical experiments on prisoners, mostly on children, and selected who was fit for work and who would go to the gas chambers.

Historians also found Richard Baer on the album's first page. He was the last commandant of Auschwitz, which helped them realize the man next to him was his deputy, Karl Höcker. It turned out the album was Höcker's personal scrapbook of his time helping run the camp.

The original pages of the album are now stored in a high-security, climate-controlled facility in Maryland. 

What the photos from Auschwitz show

Few photos of Auschwitz exist. The Nazis worked hard to conceal their crimes, and no one had ever seen images like the ones in the Höcker album. Höcker got to Auschwitz in May of 1944. 

He was a struggling bank teller before the war, so becoming an SS officer at Auschwitz was considered a big step up. Höcker helped run the daily operations of the camp and was, as Erbelding puts it, a "crucial cog in the Nazi killing machine."

The 116 pictures in the album show Auschwitz as Höcker wanted to remember it. One picture shows Höcker with his dog, Favorit. Others show Christmas 1944. Höcker, who likely knew Soviet troops were marching towards Auschwitz to liberate it, can be seen lighting the camp's tree.

Pictures revealed something else museum officials hadn't seen before; the SS built a vacation resort, called Solahütte, at Auschwitz. A series of photos show a gathering of top SS officers there in July 1944. Erbelding believes it was a party where Nazis were congratulating themselves for successfully murdering more than 350,000 Hungarian Jews in just 55 days. 

An Auschwitz survivor and a Nazi's grandson react to photo album

While Höcker and other officers enjoyed their lives, prisoners at Auschwitz were being slaughtered. Irene Weiss, now 93, was 13 when she arrived at Auschwitz -- just one day after Höcker started working at the camp. Her parents and four of her siblings were killed, but she and her older sister survived. For eight months, they had to work outside a gas chamber sorting belongings of the dead. They watched thousands of women and children walk into the gas chambers.

Weiss said she couldn't cry. 

"Tears are for normal pain," she said. 

Weiss wasn't surprised by the photos in Höcker's album. "They were taught that they're doing it for a higher purpose," she said. "I knew that they were animals."

Irene Weiss
Irene Weiss 60 Minutes

When the pictures were released in 2007, they made headlines around the world. In Germany, Tilman Taube saw an article about them while on his lunch break and was surprised to see that his grandfather, Dr. Heinz Baumkötter, was in the album. Baumkötter was the head physician at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Taube had known for years that his grandfather was a murderer – sending thousands to be killed at other camps – and had done medical experiments on prisoners, but he didn't know exactly why his grandfather had been at Auschwitz. 

Taube connected with Erbelding and learned that he had been part of a high-level delegation of camp doctors that toured the killing facilities there. Taube realized how deeply involved his grandfather was in the Holocaust. He now helps the museum search for more photos and documents by reaching out to other descendants of Nazis. 

"There are still many, many facts that are undiscovered," Taube said. "You want to be part of some kind of movement that helps preventing things like that from happening again."

How the Nazi photo album became the subject of a play

Kaufman wanted to write his play, which opened last week off Broadway, because of several images from the album showing Karl Höcker giving his secretaries blueberries. The caption read: "Here there are blueberries," and that became the title of Kaufman's play. One photo in particular showed a woman pretending to cry because she'd finished her blueberries. 

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

"So she's so sad because she's run out of blueberries," Kaufman said. "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?"

His Pulitzer-nominated play, co-created with his longtime collaborator, Amanda Gronich, is based on the true story of the photo album. It also spends time exploring the perspective of Nazi descendants and the motivation of the Nazis. They didn't wake up each morning thinking, 'I'm an evil monster. I'm going to do evil, monstrous things,'" Gronich said. "They woke up each day, and they went about their lives filled with justifications and beliefs in what they were doing."

Kaufman said the play makes audience members ask questions of themselves, including: What am I capable of doing? 

"When the audience comes in, they sit here and they go, 'Who would I have been in that picture?'" Kaufman said.

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