When she first saw the photos stored in a room at Auschwitz, Ann Weiss said the impact of those images, depicting the lives of the people sent to the Nazi concentration camp only to be annihilated, has lasted a lifetime
Weiss, who was the featured speaker at the 65th annual Lycoming County Brotherhood Alliance banquet, shared some of the photos with those attending the event and entreated people to look into the eyes of the people just going about the normal activities of life — marriages, births, falling in love — never suspecting what the outcome would be.
“Quite simply, they are the photographs Hitler never wanted you to see,” Weiss said.
“You may wonder why — because the Nazis were telling their people that Jews are subhuman. That Jews are vermin. You cannot have photos like these,” she said.
To the people in the Warsaw ghetto, who had bravely, although hopelessly, held off the Nazi Army, they had lied and told them that they could take what they needed to start a new life.
“You’re going to go to the east. So men brought what they needed to earn a living, the tools of their trade. Women usually brought pots to cook for their family. Children brought their favorite toys,” Weiss said.
“And virtually everybody brought a photo they couldn’t leave behind,” she added.
The Nazis had intended for all photos that the Jews had brought with them to be destroyed, which is why the ones that Weiss featured in her book and presentation are so rare.
The photos Weiss discovered on her trip to the death camp escaped destruction due to one man’s efforts.
All the photos were from one transport that had arrived at Auschwitz from south central Poland. A leader of the Jewish underground he had been one of the first prisoners at Auschwitz, as a political prisoner, because he had fought against the Nazis. Because he had been there for some time, he could see transport after transport arriving loaded with Polish Jews, Weiss said.
“By the time this transport arrived…in August 1943, virtually all the other ghettos, not every single one, but virtually all the other ghettos had already been destroyed,” she said.
Seeing this, he told the teenage girls whose job it was to sort through all the things confiscated from the Jews to save the photos.
“He said to them, ‘if we can’t save the people, let us at least try to save their memories,’” she said.
“And that’s how 2,400 photos were hidden and saved. Not for a week, not even for a month, but for a year and a half from August ’43 to the liberation of Auschwitz, which was January ’45,” she added.
Weiss discovered the photos in 1986 when she traveled with a group to Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia and Poland while it was still under Communist control.
She told of a gallery filled, floor to ceiling, on both sides, with broken shoes, about 30,000 pairs.
“These were the shoes that had been passed from somebody dead to somebody not that dead,” Weis said.
“The tour guide said the this is what was left in the last few days of killing when the Nazis ran the gas chamber around the clock. So many lives. They had survived everything — all the horror, all the brutality, all the beatings, all the starvation. They were alive and just to kill more they were thrown into the gas chamber,” she said.
“I’m generally a grounded person, who’s grounded in reality, but those shoes had such a profound impact on me. I kind of almost feel the souls of the people who had once been in those shoes,” she added.
It was when she became separated from the group she was with that an employee showed her the room with the photos.
Weiss shared the stories of some of the people in the photos in her presentation. Among them was the story of Benny, a young boy, whose parents sent him to safety, while they remained behind in Poland.
“I said goodbye, without knowing I was saying goodbye,” he had told Weiss as an adult.
Following the montage of 200 photos Weiss shared at the banquet, she said that she thought at one point her work was done. But, an elderly man coming up to her after one of her presentations made her realize there was much more to do.
“He pointed to that wedding photo…and he said these words, ‘I danced at that wedding,’” Weiss said.
“Instead of being done, the way I thought, I realized I had barely started. Unless I went back to Poland. Unless I somehow got access again to copy every single one that exists, the 2,400, I was leaving somebody’s mother, father, grandparents or siblings or friends, I was leaving them in that dark, locked room,” she said.
During the banquet, five people received citations for their work in the community. Barry Rake, the Rev. Gwen Bernstine and Allen Page III received Pickelner Brotherhood citation Awards, and John Brink and Ron Insinger, Ray Keyes Sports Awards. Two new awards, the Unsung Heroes Awards were given to Aly Creasy and her mother Kristy for the Aly’s Monkey Movement and to Paul Nyman.
In keeping with the mood of the evening, Weiss concluded her portion of the event by asking everyone to remember their loved ones by doing something good in their honor.
“Jews have a way of remembering their loved ones, of course with prayers, of course with memories. But there’s another aspect to the way we remember our loved ones, and that’s with actions,” she said.
“So, I’m going to make a request that together with your own loved people that you’ve lost that you try to remember one of these faces that you saw here tonight and in their merit, in their memory, that you do something good, something extra that you would not have done. Make a difference for somebody else. And I think by doing that each of us will create a better world, a kinder world and a more just world,” she said.