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The young SS "helpers" at Auschwitz concentration camp

The SS "helpers" at Auschwitz
The SS "helpers" at Auschwitz 05:29

This week on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper reported on a photo album received by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that turned out to be the personal scrapbook of a high-ranking SS officer, Karl Höcker. Höcker worked at the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.

A play that has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, "Here There Are Blueberries," is now telling the story of the historians and archivists who uncovered the identities of the people in the haunting photographs.

The play's title comes from a series of photos in the album— young secretaries who worked under Karl Höcker are seen eating blueberries. A caption next to the photographs reads, "Here there are blueberries."

"And outside of the frame, there's 1.1 million people who are being killed," playwright and director Moises Kaufman told Anderson Cooper. 

"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?"

Kaufman's co-creator, Amanda Gronich, said she couldn't help but wonder what the young women in the photographs knew about the systematic killing of Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz while they were there.

"And one of the things the play explores is, 'How much did they know? How much did they know about what was going on?'" Gronich said.

Rebecca Erbelding is a historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. She received the Höcker album in the mail in 2007. "Here There Are Blueberries" is based on her and her colleagues' investigation of the album. 

Cooper viewed the Höcker album with Erbelding at a high-security facility in Maryland where the museum's collections are stored. As she turned the yellowed pages, she revealed the smiling faces of Auschwitz's "helpers" in the "Blueberries" series of images.

"They were called 'Helferinnen,' or 'helpers.' And they weren't just young women who got drafted and sent there," Cooper told 60 Minutes Overtime.

"These were young women who were true believers, who grew up with Nazi ideology."

Erbelding explained that many of the women who applied to serve as "helpers" were members of the women's division in the Hitler Youth program, Bund Deutscher Mädel, or the League of German Girls. 

BDM members were required to have "Aryan" parents, to ensure racial purity according to Nazi racial theory. They were instructed from early ages to adhere to Nazi ideals and find "appropriate" partners. The intention behind the program was to create a future generation of Germans who were faithful to Nazism.

The "helpers" of Auschwitz worked in communications, as telephone, telegram, and radio operators. They would report back to superiors in Berlin with information about the camp's operations.

"Part of the communication that they had to do was communicating the arrivals of trains, how many people had been selected for work, and how many people had been selected to be gassed," Erbelding told Cooper.

Erbelding thinks the "helper" holding the blueberry bowl upside down and mock crying in one of the photographs is Ruth Astrosini. 

After Auschwitz, Astrosini worked at Bergen-Belsen, another infamous concentration camp where tens of thousands of prisoners died from starvation and disease. Astrosini was eventually arrested when the British liberated the camp and sentenced at a trial in Krakow, Poland, in 1948.

Another woman believed to be in the photographs is Charlotte Schünzel Bartsch. She testified at the trial of Karl Höcker that she had informed her superiors in Berlin about the trains arriving at Auschwitz and how many prisoners had been sent to the gas chamber.

"They were doing monstrous work," Cooper told 60 Minutes Overtime. 

Irene Weiss is a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor. She and her family were sent to Auschwitz when she was 13 years old. Most of her family died in the camp. She is one of the few who survived.

Weiss said she wasn't shocked by what she saw in the Höcker album. She had seen that dark side of humanity at Auschwitz.

Weiss told Cooper that all it takes is "permission" from a higher authority, a government, or a leader, for people to turn on their friends and neighbors. 

She recalled testifying at the trial of two former guards who had worked at Auschwitz. She said one of the guards, even in old age, in her view, had taken a position during the trial that he was "following orders" and was just doing what was expected of him.

"They were taught that they were doing it for a higher purpose," she said. "The propaganda, patriotism of his kind was so strong… [he] couldn't let it go."

The video above was produced by Will Croxton. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger. Georgia Rosenberg was the broadcast associate. 

Photos courtesy of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Imperial War Museum and video courtesy of USHMM, gift of Julien Bryan Archive. 

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