The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

Shofar FTP Archive File: camps/auschwitz//images/burning-pit.ref

Pressac, Jean-Claude.  Auschwitz: Technique and operation of the gas
chambers. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, 1989.  p. 422-424

Presented in 1945 as the only photographs of the extermination of the
Jews, taken in August 194, they were attributed by Judge Jan Sehn in the
initial publications of the Central Commission for the investigation of
Hitlerian crimes in Poland and the Auschwitz Museum to the former prisoner
David Szmulewski.

Four photographs were taken with a camera smuggled into Krematorium V. Two
were of reasonable quality (Photos 15 and 16 [PMO neg. nos 280 and 281]),
one just about usable (Ohoto 17 [PMO neg no. 282]) and the last one
useless (Photo 18 [PMO neg. no. 283]). The clandestine photographer had
taken two pictures of corpses being burnt in the open air [Photos 15 and
16], one of naked women [Photo 17], and one of tree branches (Photo 18). 


Having the origional photographs makes it possible to identify and
precisely locate the scenes and the position of the photographer. Photos
15 and 16 were tken from the inside of a building, through an open door.
The only Birkenau Krematorium possessing the three elements to be found on
the two photos, a door giving onto a barbed wire fence with the birch wood
in the background, was Krematorium V. In the western section there the
door of the western gas chamber meeting these conditions and two doors in
the north side, that of the northern gas chamber and the double door of
the furnace room. A beam, the end of which is visible on the photos,
supported the porch roof over these doors (not shown on drawing 2036, but
visible on PMO neg. no. 20995/509). The porch roof outside the furnace
room was about a metre higher than the door and was not visible from the
interior, but those of the gas chambers, where the roof of the building
was lower, were only just above the doors and could be seen from the
interior. The line of the crown of trees inthe Birch Wood diminish from
left to right, while it would have been horizontal had the picture been
taken from the west end of the building. This clue together with the
orientation of the shadows indicates that the pictures were taken looking
northwest, the photographer being in the northern gas chamber of
Krematorium V [see sketch map]. The wind, normally from the north, was
blowing from the west, or more likely, northwest.

As regards Photo 17, possession of the origional is essential. It shows
that women are concentrated in the bottom left corner, while on the right
it is possible to see the top of a Krematorium chimney which does not have
the shape of those of Krematorien II and III, but those of Krematorien IV
and V. The scene cannot have been located at Krematorium IV, with no trees
in the immediate vicinity. Krematorium V was surrounded by birch trees.
The photo was taken against the light, the south being in front of the
photographer and the north behind him, with one of the two chimneys of a
type IV/V Krematorium visible on the right. Given this orientation and
these clues, the scene could be nowhere other than at the eastern end of
an area between the south wall of Krematorium V and the line of trees
bordering the Ringstrasse. The photographer was to the east of Krematorium
V and the naked women were moving with their backs to the gas chambers in
its western part. They were not running, but walking, awaiting their

The chimney of Krematorium V, as we might expect, is not smoking. We know
from David Szmulewski that the four pictures were taken virtually one
after the other, with only about fifteen minutes between the first and the
last. One of the open-air cremation ditches was therefore operating quite
close to the north side of Krematorium V while its furnace was not
working, so that contrary to the testimony of Sonderkommando men, the
ditches were not in addition to the furnace but were dug to replace it, as
it was out of service.

The author, having determined the location of the three photographs and of
the Sonderkopmmando man who took them, had a conversation with Mr. David
Szmulewski at the end of 1987, and established just how the episode took

In the summer of 1944, the Sonderkommando men asked the camp resistance
for a small camera so that they could record the criminal tasks they were
forced to carry out: emptying the gas chambers and incineration of the
bodies. The Sonderkommando organized some damage to the roof of the gas
chambers of Krematorium V and requested repairs. The internal camp
resistance came into action. A "flying squad" to which Szmulewski, a
member of this organization, belonged came to repair the damage.
Szmulewski was carrying a dixie can with a false bottom in which the
camera was hidden. Once the prisoner-repairman were on the roof,
Szmulewski pased the camera to a Sonderkommando man working at the
cremation ditch who had placed himself against the north wall of the gas
chambers, under the roof overhang which was 2.45 from the ground. This
prisner then quickly entered the north gas chamber whose door was open for
ventilation purposes. There he was safe, as the room had already been
emptied of corpses. Fromthe centre of this room he took photographs of his
comrades feeding bodies intot he cremation ditch. Then, hiding the camera
in his right hand, he emerged from the building and went along the north
wall to the eastern end of the building then about 30 metres into the wood,
moving parallel to the eastern end of the building, under the cover of
trees. In front of the Krematorium, to the south, a group of women
considered unfit to work, the next "batch", was undressing. Some of them
were already naked, a little way from the others, taking a few steps while
waiting. The sun was shining right into his face, through the trees lining
the Ringstrasse, so there could be no question of using the camera
normally, using the viewfinder as he had done in the gas chamber. From
rather far away, so as not to be noticed, he took the first picture of the
women by guesswork, holding his right arm against his side withthe camera
in his palm. Hidden behind a tree, he wound the film, emerged and took
another picture in the same way as before. The direction the lens was
pointing in was difficult to judge under these conditions and he pointed
the camera too high, photographing the tops of the three instead of the
women [Photo 18]. Retracing his steps,he returned to the comparitive
safety of the Krematorium, moving along the north wall to the gas
chambers. Szmulewski was watching out for him. A quick look around, no SS.
The Sonderkommando held up the camera which rapidly changed hands again
[see the photograph showing the assumed path of the photographer].
Szmulewski replaced the camera in the bottom of the dixie, the repair was
completed and the flying squad departed. The whole process had taken only
fifteen to thirty minutes. The photos were taken out of the camp and
handed over to the Polish resistance in Cracow.

After the Liberation, the prisoner who took the photographs did not come
forward, proabably having been liquidated after the Sonderkommando revolt
on 7th October 1944, so David Szmulewski became the sole survivor of theis
operation. The honor came to him and he was declared the author of the
photographs, though honestly enough he always stated that he had been on
the roof of Krematorium V throughout the whole episode. His friendship
with Judge Jan Sehn probably counted much for this designation. After the
war, David Szmulewski remained in Poland and was employed in an important
post, but in 1968, one of the periodic waves of anti-Semitism swept
through the Polish government and he lost his job because he was a Jew. He
emigrated to France and has lived there ever since.

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