Revealed: How Auschwitz SS got away from it all

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The name Karl Höcker had almost disappeared from history until a former US intelligence officer contacted an archivist at the American Holocaust Memorial Museum last year. Before the former spy died, he wanted to donate an album of photographs of Auschwitz, which he discovered in a bombed-out building 60 years ago in Frankfurt, Germany.

When his package containing 16 cardboard pages with photos on both sides arrived at the museum's archive room, its significance was immediately apparent to historians. Here was a set of 116 pictures showing the lives that the SS officers and their staff lived when not engaged in murder. Up until that point the only pre-liberation photos of the death camp were images of the "Auschwitz Album", which shows bewildered Hungarian Jews arriving in spring 1944.

But here was another set of photographs taken the same year, many showing the SS winding down from the stress of running one of the most notorious murder machines in history. Judith Cohen, the museum's historian, said the photographs reveal how they saw themselves as ordinary human beings even as they carried out atrocities.

Some of the photos show SS men relaxing with young women at a special lodge near the camp where they were sent as a reward for shooting Jews. In one photo, SS auxiliaries, one of them crying theatrically, hold up empty containers of blueberries they had just eaten. On the same day, 22 July 1944, a group of prisoners arrived at the Birkenau site – 33 were selected for work details; the rest were dispatched to the gas chambers.

Eight photos show Joseph Mengele, the camp doctor who selected prisoners for cruel medical experiments. They are the only known photographs of Mengele at Auschwitz. The pictures were taken by SS photographers even as Germany was losing the war, said Ms Cohen, who helped identify Karl Höcker, the owner of the album.

Ms Cohen's research revealed that it was Höcker, the adjutant to the camp commander, who appeared in almost every photo. He was not even mentioned in the most authoritative account of the Nuremberg trials, and when he was finally brought to trial in 1961, he denied any role in the murders taking place at Auschwitz. As camp adjutant, however, he was intimately involved in its daily administration. As the war was ending, the levels of killings increased to the point where the crematoria broke down.

One set of photographs shows Höcker lighting candles on a tree during Christmas 1944, even as Russian forces were approaching. Auschwitz was abandoned in January 1945.

British forces captured Höcker with false documents showing that he was a combat soldier and Nazi hunters only tracked him down in 1961. Brought to trial in Frankfurt, he was sentenced to seven years and on his release worked in a bank. Höcker died in 2000, aged 89.