Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet soldiers in 1945. The Soviet Red Army found about 7,500 prisoners left, 600 corpses, and thousands upon thousands of suitcases, shoes, toothbrushes, eye-glasses, men's and women's clothes, and tons of human hair all in enormous piles; testimony to the roughly 1.5 million people who perished there.
Probably the most poignant and riveting artifacts from Auschwitz are the surviving identification photographs made for some prisoners sentenced to "extermination through labor." It is estimated that about 200,000 such photographs were made. Only about 40,000 survive; most of them are divided between the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland and the Yad Vashem Institute in Israel.
One of the camp photographers (all of them prisoners) Wilhelm Brasse survived and helped to save a remnant of the photographs and negatives after German officers ordered them to be destroyed in the last weeks of the Second World War.
The overwhelming majority of people who entered Auschwitz went unrecorded. They were killed as soon as they disembarked from the transport trains, and no records of them were kept.
These photographs show as no verbal testimony or written record could the brutality of the whole enterprise, and the still burning embers of humanity in each of these people. Many of them show the effects of starvation, exploitation, and some show signs of violence. Most of the people in these photos are Jews; they were the overwhelming majority of victims at Auschwitz. But, some are Poles, and couple of photos toward the end are of men condemned for homosexuality. The youngest person in the photos was 14 years old.
This is Czeslava Kwoka who was 14 at the time of her death in Auschwitz, here photographed by Wilhelm Brasse.
The following photographs are of 2 men condemned for homosexuality wearing the pink triangle. The top is Otto Herzfeld identified only as a 33 year old man who worked as a "laborer." He was killed in 1942.
The bottom photograph is Friedrich Kühne, a store clerk whose age and fate remain unknown.
Auschwitz and other death camps like Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Belzec are the black hole in the heart of modern history, an abyss of death and destruction. They were the fullest expression of the most radical rejection of the principle of common humanity. People died in the millions upon millions, not so that some conqueror could steal their land or resources or exploit their labor, but simply because someone decided that particular types of human beings had no right to live. In the long history of mass murder, genocide is unique to the modern era; people wipe out an entire genus of humanity solely for the sake of getting rid of them.