IAC :: Remember the past, be responsible for the future

Stauffenbergstraße 13/14
10785 Berlin

fon: ++ 49 (030) 26 39 26 81
Telefax: ++ 49 (030) 26 39 26 83

URI: https://www.auschwitz.info/

Service navigation:
language navigation:
language navigation:

Press Information published by the International Auschwitz Committee


taz interview with Marian Turski about ghetto photos

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Marian Turski looking together at photographs taken by the German military hospital nurse Helmy Spethmann in the Warsaw Ghetto. Photograph: Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Marian Turski looking together at photographs taken by the German military hospital nurse Helmy Spethmann in the Warsaw Ghetto. Photograph: Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel




Marian Turski (98), President of the International Auschwitz Committee, and Chairman of the POLIN Museum Council, appeals to Germans to rescue Holocaust documents.

taz: Mr Turski, as the representative of the POLIN museum of the history of Polish Jews, you received 23 photos from the Warsaw Ghetto a few days ago. What do these photographs depict?

Marian Turski: The photos were taken by the German military hospital nurse, Helmy Spethmann. They show scenes from everyday life in the ghetto: streets, people waiting for something – maybe work, food, a bit of luck? It is very cold. It is raining and windy. Even so, the year of 1941 was not the worst by any means. You can see that trams were still running to ‘Muranow’. But other photos depict death, a burial close to the Jewish cemetery, or maybe even at the cemetery itself. A wooden hearse, grave diggers, emaciated corpses on stretchers, a rabbi.

How important are these photos for the history of the Warsaw Ghetto?

Marian Turski: They are enormously important. Indeed, all photographs that document the Holocaust are very important. But we distinguish photographs according to the intentions of the photographer. The photos, taken by the Propaganda Kompanie for SS Major General Jürgen Stroop, are important because we have no others documenting the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. But when German soldiers are shaving off the beards and sidelocks of Polish Jews, and the photographers eagerly click the button, the intention is clear: contempt and humiliation. But these pictures are important for us, because they depict stages in the process of dehumanisation and annihilation of the victims.

And Helmy Spethmann. What kind of motive did a Wehrmacht nurse have?

Marian Turski: That’s hard to say. President  Frank-Walter Steinmeier also addressed this question when he handed over the photographs. In a few letters to her sister in the German Reich, Frau Spethmann did briefly describe ‘the terrible misery in the Jewish quarter’ and the ‘off-limits infected area where entry was strictly prohibited’. In her letters she often wrote that she would like to tell more about it when she returned home. But it seems she never did that. And she hid the photos inside the flap of a photo album. It looks as if she was scared. It was not until she was on her deathbed that she gave the album to her niece.

But can’t the photographer’s intention be deduced from the images?

Marian Turski: I personally think that she took the pictures out of empathy with the Polish Jews, but then became afraid of the consequences of her own courage. When President Steinmeier handed us the 23 photographs, he quoted Rachela Auerbach, one of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. I made a note of the quote: ‘The first cold days are whipping away those who were already living on the street, who had sold all their clothing and are now as feeble as the last flies in autumn. In vain the incredible life force of the Warsaw Jews. They will scream and fight back right up to the end, to the final hour and the last minute. But this hour and this minute will come.’ Steinmeier found the right quote, because this is exactly what Helmy Spethmann’s phographs tell us.

Why did the family wait so long to give the ghetto photographs to Polin, or another Polish museum?

Marian Turski: I don’t know. But as a Holocaust survivor I would like to say to all Germans, to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who took part in the war: It’s not your fault. You inherited this history, just the way it is. But, my urgent appeal to you is: look inside the drawers, in old suitcases and photo albums! Maybe there are photos from Polish ghettos, or from German-occupied Poland in general. Don’t throw these photos and mementos away! They are of great value to us. The Polin Museum is grateful for even the smallest piece of evidence.

This coming Saturday marks the 79th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz. What does this mean to you as a former Auschwitz prisoner?

Marian Turski: For me personally, January 27, 1945 was still not the date of my liberation. That didn’t come until May 9, when, following two death marches from Buchenwald, I was liberated in Theresienstadt. I had typhus, was utterly exhausted and incapable of feeling even the faintest spark of joy. But in general, January 27 is the day of liberation for all of us Jews.

At one of the recent remembrance ceremonies you called out to Europeans: ‘Do not be indifferent!’ Over the past few days hundreds of thousands of people have been taking to the streets in Germany to protest against the AfD. In Poland some twelve million people voted the governing far-right national populists out of office in October 2023. Is this what it all means to you?

Yes, absolutely. The demonstrators in Germany have already understood that it’s essential to stand up against populists and anti-Europeans before they are able to destroy democracy. In Poland the situation is different. For eight years citizens had to watch as corruption spread and went unpunished, and the ruling Law and Justice Party undermined the constitutional state. Millions of Polish people realised that each individual can do something to save the Polish state. Never before did so many Polish people go to vote, more than 70 per cent of the eligible voters. I’m not saying this has anything to do with me. But yes, the Polish people have recognised that they cannot be indifferent, passive onlookers in face of such a disastrous course of events. It is far more important for them to individually take control of their own destiny and defend democracy. And that’s exactly what they have done.


For further Information

Christoph Heubner

Executive Vice President
International Auschwitz Committee
Phone ++ 49 (0)30 26 39 26 81