A photographer's search for his mother in Nazi concentration camps
Documenting on the way
Piles of skeletal bodies, the doors to a crematorium, emaciated faces -- a photographer documents the full horror of the Nazi extermination camps in the spring of 1945, as he searches for his deported mother. One-time fashion photographer and having escaped as a prisoner from a train bound for Germany, later joining the Resistance, Eric Schwab was one of the first photographers to work for AFP after it was refounded in August 1944 in a liberated Paris.
(In pic: In this file photograph taken in April 1945, survivors of the Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp sit on a latrine, after the liberation of the camp by Allied troops.)
Witness to the horrors
As a war correspondent, he follows the Allied troops as they advance, becoming a witness to the horrors discovered as the forces progressively liberate the German death camps. A painful quest to find his mother drives him. Elsbeth, a Jewish German, was deported in 1943. Since then, he has not heard anything.
(In pic: In this file photo taken on April 29, 1945, a US soldier looks at a sign in front of the door of a gas chamber at the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, upon the liberation of the camp by Allied troops.)
"To each what he deserves"
One of Schwab's first published photographs is of the entrance gate to Buchenwald, bearing the terrible inscription "Jedem das Seine" ("To each what he deserves"). A few days earlier, Heinrich Himmler has given the order to liquidate the camp. The braziers are still smoking, and the bodies of prisoners executed by a bullet to the head are strewn across the site.
At Dachau, another concentration camp, Schwab takes portraits that lay bare the inhumanity suffered. He photographs the number tattooed on the bone-thin arm of a Jewish prisoner. Another shot shows a man in striped prison garb talking through barbed wire to a woman held in the camp's brothel.
Moments of hope
There are also captured moments of hope, as with a group of French prisoners listening to the Marseillaise national anthem. Or another of Polish, German and French priests celebrating mass for the camp's dead in the chapel.
Finding mother in the time of chaos
Schwab's journey takes him to the camp at Terezin (Theresienstadt), in what is today the Czech Republic. A few days from the end of the war, the region is in chaos as vast numbers flee advancing Soviet troops towards US-controlled territory. Here, the photographer's dream comes true. In May 1945, he discovers a frail woman with white hair, wearing a nurse's cap: his mother.
(In pic: In this file photograph taken on April 29, 1945, French prisoners observe a moment of silence, upon the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, near Munich, by Allied troops.)
Then aged 56, Elsbeth has managed to escape death and has been looking after child survivors at the camp. It is, naturally, an intensely emotional reunion but it appears that, out of respect, he refrains from photographing his mother, or at least from publishing the images. After the war, Eric Schwab and his mother leave France, settling in New York in 1946.
(In pic: In this file photograph taken on May 1, 1945, a group of Polish prisoners stand outside the infirmary block in Dachau concentration camp, after the camp was liberated by the US army on April 29.)
The photographer's iconic works
Photographic evidence of the concentration camp horrors was widely disseminated as early as 1945, but Schwab's work did not earn him the renown of some of the other photographers. As often happens with news agency photos, his images were printed in the media but not attributed to him by name. It would take several years for his talent to be fully recognised, particularly the powerful portraiture and composition found throughout his now iconic works. Schwab dies in 1977 aged 67.