Powerful Photos From Auschwitz Seen Through a Survivor’s Eyes
“I have told the story of the arrival to people … when I can see exactly how it happens through this photo, I relive it. Every emotion. It takes me right back.”
This grainy, black-and-white photograph depicts a chilling scene outside the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center, where Jews line up for the selection process. It captures the moment that Nazi officers decided who would live and who would be murdered in the gas chambers. The image was tucked away for more than 35 years, but resurfaced publicly in 1980. It is part of the “Auschwitz Album,” which is the only surviving photographic evidence that documents the arrival and selection process at the killing center.
But the photo tells another story. If you look closely in the bottom corner, among thousands of Jewish victims, is 13-year-old Irene Weiss searching for her younger sister after being separated during the selection process — where they’re chosen to live or die.
Today, she tells the story of this photo, this horrible day, and what it’s like to have survived.
A Destroyed Home
“I remember vividly when Germany invaded Poland, and the war started. I was playing ball on the side of the house.”
Irene Weiss (née Fogel) was born in Bótrágy, Czechoslovakia in November 1930. Life for the Fogels — a family of eight — changed forever when Irene was nine years old. Nazi Germany dismantled Czechoslovakia, leaving the town of Bótrágy under Hungarian rule. Hungarian authorities, active collaborators with the Nazi regime, banned Jews from attending school, confiscated Jewish-owned businesses, and conscripted thousands of Jewish men into forced labor brigades. Among them was Irene’s father, Meyer.
After fulfilling six months of his forced labor sentence, Meyer returned home to find life even harsher for Jews. In April 1944, after years of restrictive laws and oppression, Hungarian authorities rounded up Jews, including the Fogels, and drove them into a ghetto in Munkács. “It began by taking all of the Jewish families into the ghettos, but even then we didn’t know that Auschwitz was the next destination,” Irene said.
Hundreds of families were forced to live in overcrowded conditions with little food and constant threat of disease. Shortly after their arrival, all young girls were forced to have their heads shaved.
“In the ghetto there was an order given out one day for girls under sixteen to have their hair cut or their father would be punished. I didn’t even tell my mother. I just ran to this place and sat down. They cut my hair. I had long braids at the time. They had a way of having people comply.”
Her mother gave her a scarf to cover her bald head. At the time, Irene did not give much thought to wearing the scarf. Auschwitz changed that.
Arrival and Selection
“Who would have ever thought that being with my mother was the more dangerous place to be … ”
In a two month period starting in May 1944, nearly 425,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, including thirteen-year-old Irene and her family. When they arrived, all deportees were stripped of their belongings with the exception of the clothes on their body. Irene vividly recalls wearing her specially-tailored coat — made with extra growing room — before it was taken away from her.
They went through the selection process — men in one line, women in another. Nazi authorities quickly selected those who were considered “able-bodied” and those they assumed were above the age of fourteen. For the majority, their fate was quickly sealed — they were sent directly to the gas chambers. Despite being underage, Irene was chosen for forced labor. She believes the coat and kerchief her mother gave her made her look older than she was. “I think without that [scarf], I would not have been chosen as an adult. It was a strange coincidence.”
Irene was separated from her mother and two younger brothers. Still in line for selection, Irene was holding onto her younger sister Edith.
“He [the SS guard] separated me from her and sent her to where my mother went. I didn’t move. I stayed. I stood there, paralyzed. I was stunned … and terrified that she was taken from me.”
After moments of unsuccessfully searching for Edith, Irene ran to catch up with her older sister Serena, who was also sent to the forced labor camp. Distraught, Irene explained what happened to their sister. Their father had been selected for forced labor as a Sonderkommando, a corps of workers responsible for moving bodies from the gas chambers into the crematoria. It was the last time Irene would see her father, younger siblings, and mother. “I was absolutely devastated because suddenly the whole idea of the family staying together … was broken.”
Irene and Serena were sentenced to work in the “Kanada” warehouse. For eight months, the girls sorted the confiscated belongings of those sent to the gas chambers. In January 1945, SS personnel evacuated them to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Five months later, on May 2, Soviet troops liberated them from a subcamp of Ravensbrück..
Auschwitz Album: Evidence
“My daughter found it in a bookstore … I went through the pages and had no idea of this at all. Everything that I experienced was in there vividly and it was both a shock and some kind of verification that it really happened.”
On the day of its liberation in April 1945, a survivor discovered a photo album in the deserted SS barracks of the Dora Mittelbau concentration camp. Though the specific reason for why the photos were taken remains unclear, the album provides invaluable documentation of what occurred in Auschwitz. The collection of photos was donated to Yad Vashem in 1980.
Lesley, Irene’s daughter, brought a reprint of the 56-page album home to her mother. It was the first time Irene had seen photos of the deportation. “It was verified there. I couldn’t let go of the book.” She found two photos that devastated her. The first was of her family’s separation; the second photo was of her mother and brothers waiting to be sent into the gas chambers.
The photos in the collection were taken by either Ernst Hofmann or Bernhard Walter, both SS guards responsible for processing incoming deportees from the Subcarpathian-Rus, which had been annexed to Hungary.
“It is absolutely amazing that the pictures were taken. It shows in great detail what happened when a train arrived. I remember every step and every detail from the time that the cattle car door opened.”
The photo in which Irene appears is showcased on the walls of the Museum’s Permanent Exhibition. How can Irene be sure the face, one in a crowd of thousands, taken more than seven decades in the past, is hers? Through memory, camp identification photos, tracing services, and facial recognition software, Irene and other survivors are able to confirm their placement in photos.
“For a long time . . . I just came here and stared at it because somehow it was my picture and nobody else’s.”
Hannah Meyer is a Program Coordinator in the Division of the Senior Historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.