Nazi Scrapbooks documentary showcases rare photos from Auschwitz

Though at times overly dramatic and poorly organized, “Nazi Scrapbooks From Hell: The Auschwitz Albums” still has the power to infuriate — especially as we near Yom HaShoah.

Making its debut April 27 on the National Geographic Channel, the historical documentary is about two sets of photos taken at roughly the same time at Auschwitz but with jarringly different themes.

The first scrapbook was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a former Army counter-intelligence officer, who discovered it while stationed in Germany after the war. The photos apparently belonged to Karl Höcker, adjunct to the commandant of the Auschwitz complex.

A couple things make these pictures especially interesting.

First of all, Höcker arrived at the camp toward the end of May 1944, around the time Nazis were delivering 8,000 Hungarian Jews a day for execution. The numbers were so overwhelming (about 437,000 in just a few months), the ovens couldn’t handle the volume. So the remains of many were burned in huge bonfires outside.

Just as important, these weren’t photos of the victims, but of the perpetrators at play (including the only known photo of Josef Mengele taken at the camp). After a hard day in the office beating and killing Jews, the SS returned to hearth and home for cocktail parties, sing-alongs and weekend excursions to pick blueberries.

As Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield notes, “It shows the killers as humans [and] pushes our comfort level where we don’t want to go.” She’s correct: It is much more comforting to think of the Nazis as animals.

The documentary also showcases photos taken about the same time by two SS photographers at Auschwitz. Called the “Jacob photos” (after Lili Jacob, a survivor who discovered them in an abandoned SS barracks), they are currently on display at Yad Vashem in Israel. The photos show the Nazis at work, beginning with the unloading of prisoners from their cattle cars and ending with flames. Only the gas chambers were not shown in operation.

This would have been much more effective if the two sets of photos were juxtaposed against each other. Instead, the filmmaker spends roughly the first third of his film on the photos showing the Nazis at play, frankly leaving the impression that this is what the entire documentary will be about. The Jacob album materializes seemingly out of nowhere and strikes a discordant note when it is introduced.

SS Officer Höcker was never convicted of causing any deaths in the camp. He did serve seven years in prison and died peacefully in his sleep as a free man. The film spends an inordinate amount of time with a couple forensic photographers attempting to determine whether it is Höcker whose back is pictured in the Jacob photos; this person is deciding who lives and who dies.

As Michael Berenbaum, a founding director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and current director of the Sigi Ziering Holocaust Institute in Los Angeles notes, “I’m not sure what difference it makes if he’s the person or not.”

In other words, why waste good film on this issue? Even if they could prove it, what are they going to do, dig him up and hang him?

Also, there’s a moment in which the cameras zoom in on what appear to be tiny sculptures of Jews being herded into the camps. The lights change from bright yellow to red and symphonic music plays louder in the background.

It’s not necessary. What we’re witnessing is dramatic enough — phony special effects are overkill that diminish rather than enhance.

In essence, there is a good half-hour documentary buried within this 60-minute documentary. But rather than dismiss it because it isn’t told well, the important thing is this story being told.

“Nazi Scrapbooks From Hell: The Auschwitz Albums” airs April 27 on the National Geographic Channel at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. The first showing is followed by “Hitler and the Occult” and “The Hunt for Hitler.” To see the photos, the stories behind the photos and a short film, visit www.ushmm.org/ssalbum.