A tale of two photgraphs

2009-08-14 00:00

THIS is a parable of two photographs, and how what they don’t tell us is more powerful than what they do. The first, which I came across some years ago in Dragon’s Wrath*, a book about drama­s in the Drakensberg, is of Natal University student and climber Ian Muller. He is shown, in April 1955, with a heavy pack on his back, on his way to the summit of Champagne Castle, cautiously probing the grass for a snake and holding his hat in his left hand to shield his eyes in case it is a spitting cobra.

Above: Climber Ian Muller probing for a snake in the grass near Champagne Castle in the Drakensberg in April 1955.

The second, which I came across some weeks ago on television**, is of guards and their female helpers at a little-known resort called Sola­hütte in Poland in May 1944. One of a spread of six photos entitled Hie­r gibt es Blaubeeren (Here there are blueberries), it shows an SS officer named Karl Hoecker with a row of young women, to whom he has given blueberries, sitting on a fence.

Above: Auschwitz guards and their female helpers at a little-known resort called Solahütte in Poland in May 1944.

Both images tell us something of two occurrences, captured 11 years apart, one in Europe and the other in Africa. In each case, what’s being depicted is made harrowing by its full context.

The same day the photograph was taken, Ian Muller was bitten by a snake. To steady himself while crossing a stream he had put out a hand to grasp a sapling that was protruding from a bush. As he did so, a snake sank its fangs into an artery in his wrist. What followed is a harrowing account of how his two companions injected him with serum and treated him as best they could through a bitterly cold night while he gradually weakened, until he died the next morning.

Experts aren’t sure what snake it was. They later narrowed down the options to either a Rinkals or a Berg Adder. The fact that Muller had a pathological fear of snakes may have induced a degree of hysteria that could have contributed to his death. A chilling postscript to this tragedy is that the photograph of him prodding the grass with a stick would only have been processed after he died from the very danger he was seeking to avoid.

The context of the other photograph requires more explanation. Not far from the Solahütte resort, where it was taken, is Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi death camp, and how we know what’s actu­ally happening at the blue­berry high jinks is because of two photo albums.

Quite by chance, one was found just after World War 2 by Auschwitz survivor Lili Jacob in the drawe­r of a bedside table in an abandoned SS barracks where she was recovering from typhus. She was dumbfounded to see that the carefully captioned photographs of Auschwitz included some of her own arrival in a train load of Hungarian deportees. There was even a photo of herself, and another of her two brothers, who didn’t survive. Also captured were shots of SS guards selecting who should be used for forced labour and who should be sent directly to the gas chambers. These historic photographs are among the few to survive of Auschwitz in action and have been used widely in commemorative displays of the Holocaust.

But what bearing they have on the blueberry sequence was crystallised by another chance discovery. This too occurred just after the war, when an American intelligence officer who was in Germany to gather information on SS activities found another album, this time in an abandoned Frankfurt apartment. For some reason the officer felt disinclined to make the evidence public until January 2007, when he did so provided he could remain anonymous.

What is so remarkable about this second album, which was once the property of SS officer Karl Hoecker, is that not only is it also meticulously captioned and dated, but that it records almos­t exactly the same period as the other album.

Because of this synergy, it is possible to see both pictorial sequences as two perspectives on a single story. In May 1944, extermination at Auschwitz was at full throttle, and of the approximately 150 Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners who had arrived from Hungary by train with Lili Jacob, only 21 men and 12 women were selected for work, while the remainder were sent directl­y to the gas chambers.

But what is most noteworthy is the bigger story that the albums tell. While the Jacob one gives us a glimpse of what was happening during the SS guards’ working hours, the Hoecker one gives us a glimpse of what the same kind of people where doing after hours. In other words, the men and women who were guzzling blueberries at the Solahütte resort were, in effect, relaxing after a hard day at the offic­e killing people.

The Drakensberg in 1955 and Poland in 1944 may seem a long way away from us today, so what can we learn from these two remarkab­le photographs?

The one of Ian Muller is a rem­inder of how fragile life is, and that despite many precautions we are always vulnerable, and that we should never take it for granted.

And, to quote the New York Times, the Auschwitz photos provide “both hope that no evil can hide forever and a reminder that evil has a very human face”.

* Dragon’s Wrath: Drakensberg Climbs, Accidents and Rescues by R. O. Pearse and James Byrom – MacMillan 1986.

** Scrapbooks from Hell: The Auschwitz Albums — National Geographic Channel.

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