I've said it numerous times before: Once David Remnick took over as editor of The New Yorker nearly a decade ago, the quotient of identifiable Jewish content in the magazine markedly rose — and continues to rise. And one of the most intriguing of these pieces, which also happened to be written by one of my favorites among the old stable of New Yorker writers, Alec Wilkinson, appeared in the March 17 issue, and dealt with a recently recovered photo album that depicts life among Nazi officers in and nearby Auschwitz.
How the album surfaced is a story in itself, and Wilkinson laid it all out skillfully. After World War II ended, an American officer arrived in Frankfurt and was told by his superiors to find a place to live in the area the Allies had closed off with barbed wire. He managed to find an abandoned apartment and, when he opened one of the closets, found the photograph album.
"It had 31 pages," wrote Wilkinson, "and 116 black-and-white images, the bulk of them a little smaller than a playing card, nearly all of them portraying German officers — at a picnic, at shooting practice, at a resort among fir trees and hills, at the dedication of a hospital, dressed as miners and visiting a coal mine, at a dinner at a long table with a white tablecloth and wine bottles and waiters, lighting candles on a Christmas tree, at a funeral in the snow where the coffins are draped with Nazi flags."
When the officer returned to the United States, he took a government job in Washington, D.C., and he and his wife settled in Virginia. They never had children, and the wife died about 10 years ago. In late 2006, as the officer, now aged, was disposing of some possessions, he wrote a letter, with assistance from a member of his church, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., asking if anyone wanted to look at the album. He said that from what he could read of the captions, the photographs appeared to depict "activities in and around Auschwitz, Poland."
Twenty-six-year-old Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist who's worked at the museum for five years, assesses all photos and, though she had doubts about what the officer, who wished to remain anonymous, said about the album, she asked to see it nevertheless.
The photos arrived in the middle of January 2007. It took Erbelding a while — some of the pictures were quite small, and they were still firmly pasted to the pages, even after 60 years — but she soon understood that here was an important document. She truly understood the point when she recognized Josef Mengele — Aushwitz's "Angel of Death" — standing in the center of a crowd picture.
The album, it was ascertained, belonged to Karl Hoecker, adjutant to the commandant of Auschwitz, who held his post from May 1944 until January 1945, an historically important period in the history of the war.
Wilkinson's article was accompanied by a handful of the spooky photos that make up the whole album and at least 10 more can be seen if you go to: www.newyorker.com.