Chilling then-and-now photos show where Auschwitz monsters relaxed
Just a short distance from Auschwitz, where the defining crime of the 20th century was being carried out, in a picturesque setting on a hill by the bend of a river was a resort for the camp’s SS guards.
This rustic oasis of peace and leisure was where the perpetrators of the Holocaust could relax, sing and feast before getting back to the demanding task of murdering around one million Jews as well as Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and political prisoners.
The retreat operated from 1940 until it was closed down just before the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.
After the war it was used as a hotel for workers from the chemical plant in Oświęcim. Not much remains of the retreat and nature is slowly reclaiming the site, which will soon be lost forever.
This was why British Holocaust researcher and founder of the Auschwitz Study Group Michael Challoner decided to document what still remains and he has created a fascinating series of before-and-after photographs that serve as a poignant reminder of how the SS perpetrators of the Holocaust relaxed in their free time.
The original images from the 1940s that Michael used come from a collection of photographs known as the Hoeker Album, which was revealed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2007 after laying for decades among the documents of an American intelligence officer who came across the album in Frankfurt after the war.
The images in the album show senior SS officers having fun with the female clerks and secretaries of Auschwitz. In one photo, a group of women and three officers run gaily toward the camera grinning widely. In another dated July 22, 1944, an officer walks along a line of women serving them bowls of blueberries.
They must have felt they deserved a rest. In May, June and July that year, a period partly covered by the photographs, the camp staff had processed 142 trains containing 434,000 Hungarian Jews, the vast majority of whom were murdered within a few hours of arrival.
The crematoriums, which could process 32,000 bodies a month, were overwhelmed, so bodies were thrown into pits dug by prisoners and set on fire.
This was the period when Auschwitz emerged from the dark constellation of other extermination centres and earned its reputation as the most notorious death camp.
Michael has been studying the sub-camp system of Auschwitz for 10 years and he is the only person to have located and documented all of the 46 sub-camps.
As a Holocaust historian, he started to document the sites when he discovered that it was difficult to find information about the outer zones.
He told TFN: “Auschwitz was not a camp, but a city. The only literature on the sub-camps was written in the 1960s and 1970s, and all in Polish and German. So it started as a personal interest to rediscover the locations one by one.”
When Michael heard earlier this year from local contacts that years of overgrowth had been cut back and post-war cabins had been demolished and removed, he realised that it was a unique moment to visit the site and match locations with Hoeker’s photographs from 1944.
The extraordinary results will form part the book The Forgotten Sub-Camps of the Auschwitz Administration, which is due to be published next year.
The retreat opened officially in April 1941 to curtail contact between Germans and the local Polish population.
The camp staff were only given short breaks, not long enough to travel home to visit family, so they would kill time in local bars and restaurants often getting very drunk.
At Solahütte, they could be safely segregated from the suspicious glares and prying questions of locals.
To make the guests feel comfortable, the retreat was staffed by a group of female Polish and German Jehova witnesses.
Michael told TFN: “The Germans liked using these women for such purposes not only in Solahütte but in other SS buildings all around the complex, like canteens and kitchens.
“The Jehova witnesses were obligated by their religion to keep every oath they made and never to lie.
“Before starting working in places where they would meet SS-men or serve them, they were forced to sign a document saying they will never speak about that work and they will never reveal any secrets.
“That's why the Germans felt safe with them. The fact that most of them were well-educated and could speak German fluently also helped.
“The Germans would take care of those women quite well, making sure they were even vaccinated against typhus. Everything of course was done just to keep the SS-men and their families safe.”
Before the SS-men could enjoy the charms of Solahütte, the retreat had to be built. The first group of 20 prisoners were sent to Międzybrodzie at the end of October 1940 to unload building materials and to build a basement room in which later commandos would live.
Accounts from prisoners after the war reveal that the work was just as tough as in Auschwitz itself.
The steep bank that the prisoners had to climb with heavy rocks and the persistent harassment of the SS guards made the work a torment.
The well-known pre-war Polish boxer Tadeusz Pietrzykowski described the conditions: “Our task was to prepare the place where we would live and also unload and transport all of the construction material. At first we had to put the beams by the road, and then we had to take them and other materials up the mountain on our backs. The road we had to build was a couple of hundred metres long. I worked in a group of prisoners assigned to carrying cement bags. Each of them weighed 50 kilogrammes. This fact alone can make you realise how extremely difficult it was. And remember, we were hungry and we were exhausted.”
One method the SS used to make the work even more unbearable was to set their guard dogs on prisoners.
Władysław Krotkiewski explained in his testimony: “What was tragic about our situation was that the SS-men would let their dogs bite us, and they were hurting our buttocks and legs. The camp hospital was soon filled with badly bitten prisoners. When the news reached the commandant of the camp, he made the SS-men stop.”
The history of Solahütte is important not as a story of horror but as an example of how the perpetrators of the largest mass murder in history reacted to that horror.
Michael Challoner told TFN: “Solahütte was a reward for the SS to use on their time off from working at Auschwitz. The retreat was a day off from killing. Yet the photos we see of the SS enjoying themselves are comparable to any normal people on vacation. We don't want to believe they were human and yet this is what we see.”
The dissonance between the care-free life of the SS guards at Solahütte and the hell they were perpetrating 32 kilometres north is perhaps best captured in Hannah Arendt’s phrase the ‘banality of evil’.
The SS villains in Hoeker’s album look like normal people, like us. They are not the unshaven, bloodshot-eyed beasts of propaganda images. These were people who are well-tailored, even cultured, who enjoyed simple pleasures like eating berries or petting a dog.
The tragedy was that the Solahütte holidaymakers truly believed that their duties at Auschwitz was justified and that their private lives and pleasures were entirely consistent with their work.
Many held this belief unrepentantly to the end of their lives.