An awful history is repeating itself in Ukraine
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Those aren’t just bodies. That’s what I have to remind myself about some of the photos in this issue. That long, slim shape in the black bag? That’s someone’s dad. And over there, lying in the road beside spilled potatoes like some monstrous still life? That’s a mother’s son. Thinking of it that way helps me remember to pray.
In our cover story, Jill Nelson looks deeply at the multinational effort to hold Russian troops—and Vladimir Putin—accountable for crimes against Ukrainian civilians. The images are shocking. War crimes always are, exposing obsidian parts of the human heart, the photos like plumb lines: How deep does our darkness go?
The week we were putting this issue together for you, I went with my friend Suzy to see a play. Providentially, it was also about war crimes—and photos.
In Here There Are Blueberries, playwrights Moisés Kaufman and Amanda Gronich tell a true story that began in 2007, when a former World War II U.S. counterintelligence officer contacted an archivist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Though more than 60 years had passed since the war, he claimed to possess an album of never-before-seen photographs of the notorious Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The archivist was stunned. Only one other collection of Auschwitz photos was known to exist. Called the Auschwitz Album, it was found and carried away by a young Jewish woman named Lili Jacob, a camp survivor. The archivist and her team dubbed the new collection—the one from the American officer—the Hoecker Album after the young Nazi officer who compiled it. It contains 118 black-and-white photographs that chronicle the off-duty lives of the men and women who ran Auschwitz. Snapshots capture sing-a-alongs and holidays and smoke-break conversations, heads thrown back in laughter. Getaways at Solahütte, the resort right there on the Auschwitz property—a reward for particularly efficient killing. In one series of photos: A bevy of comely young women—the SS Helferinnen, or “helpers”—giggles for the camera as they share bowls of fresh blueberries.
As Suzy and I watched the play unfold, it seemed incomprehensible that the people in these images, so “terrifyingly normal” as Hannah Arendt wrote in 1963 of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, could hold a Christmas party for the officers’ children one day and head back to the office to methodically murder people the next.
Not one atrocity, not one prisoner appears in the Hoecker Album. The photos are obscenely carefree.
What struck me most, though, was a picture from the Auschwitz Album, shot by SS officers who were photo-documenting the stunning efficiency of the Final Solution. It’s May 26, 1944, and a whole sea of women is standing shoulder-to-shoulder, wearing dark dresses and plain shoes. Every one of them is bald. They are Hungarian Jews just off a train from the village of Bilke.
There’s a young woman standing in the front row looking straight at the camera. It’s Lili Jacob. A few months before, she was in high school, the daughter of a successful horse-trader, sneaking off to see movies with her boyfriend. But the day this photo was taken, Lili was forced at bayonet point into one line, while her entire family—mother, father, five brothers, grandparents—were marched off in another. Lili never saw them again.
Back home after the play, I looked up Lili Jacob, who was liberated from Auschwitz. After the war, she immigrated to Florida, where she worked as a waitress. As I read about her life, I developed a hope: Whatever problems I face, I hope I will always measure them against what Lili survived.
I also learned this: The village of Bilke, where the war crimes against Lili’s family began, still exists.
It’s in modern-day Ukraine.
History—and wickedness—repeats itself. Let us not look away.
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