Photo series from Munich: Understanding photos of deportations
The first large-scale Nazi deportations from the German Reich began in the fall of 1941. On one single day – November 20, 1941 – almost 1,000 Jews were deported from Munich to Kaunas in Lithuania, where they were later murdered. Fourteen photographs of this deportation have survived – a rare exception. Historians are now carrying out a systematic analysis of the pictures as part of our #LastSeen project.
It was early in the morning on November 20, 1941, when the Secret State Police (Gestapo) crammed 997 Jews onto a deportation train at the freight depot in the Milbertshofen district of Munich. The group included women, men, and children, many of those deported were families. They were all taken to Kaunas in Lithuania, some 1,500 kilometers away – none of them returned. This was the first of 36 deportation trains that took Jews, Sinti, and Roma from Munich to places like Kaunas, Piaski, Auschwitz, or Theresienstadt.
A few days before their deportation, the Jews from Munich and the surrounding area had been taken to the nearby Milbertshofen assembly camp, where officials checked their identity papers and their luggage. Some of the pictures were taken there, while others were taken at the station a few days later, when the deportees were forced to board the train. Together they make up one of the few series of photos of the deportations from the German Reich that are known to exist today. In total, 14 photos have survived.
The pictures and their history
Ten of these pictures are of people arriving at the Milbertshofen assembly camp. They show people who were to be deported along with their luggage, but also helpers, and the completely overcrowded camp barracks. The other four pictures are of different scenes. People wearing uniforms are supervising the Jews as they board the train at the freight depot on one of the photos. None of the pictures show people being picked up from their homes or being transported to the assembly camp.
It is still not clear who took the photos. They turned up in Michael Meister’s estate, which was given to Munich City Archive in 1999. He was a doctor of law, a lawyer, and the author of a manuscript titled “Die Geschichte der Juden in München” (The History of the Jews in Munich), an antisemitic pamphlet that he illustrated with photos of the deportation. However, he probably did not take the photos himself; it is more likely that they were given to him by one of the authorities involved in the deportations in Munich.
Reconstructing historical contexts
The historians at the Institut für Stadtgeschichte und Erinnerungskultur (Institute for Town History and Remembrance Culture) of the City of Munich are now hoping to find out more about the history of the pictures by carrying out meticulous research. What was Michael Meister’s relationship to the perpetrators? For what purpose were the photos taken? One suggestion is that the photographs may have been intended to show the orderly nature of the deportation, because many photos focus on small details and show scenes that are conspicuously well organized. However, because no negative strips have survived, only prints, it is not possible to reconstruct the exact sequence of the photos in the series.
Identifying people and places
Special attention is paid to analyzing the content of the images and answering the following question: Who are the people on the photo? A valuable tool which can be used to help identify people is the Biografische Gedenkbuch (Biographical Memorial Book), which contains information on over 5,000 Jews from Munich who were murdered by the National Socialists. It includes passport photos of many of them taken in 1938/39. Using the automated search function which filters the data according to specific criteria, such as age, sex, events, or relationships, it is possible to narrow down the number of possible candidates. By comparing photos manually and conducting further research, the historians try to reconstruct the names and life stories of the people on the photos.
Further research is carried out with the aim of finding out exactly where the photos were taken. Is it possible to identify specific locations and vantage points precisely? To help find the answers to these questions, the researchers examine historical plans, aerial photos, or photographs of the assembly camp, for example, and look for striking details in the deportation photos. Sometimes it is even possible to identify the position of buildings or railroad tracks in the city today.
#LastSeen digital image atlas
The painstaking process of indexing the photo series from Munich in depth is part of the #LastSeen initiative. The results will be incorporated into a digital image atlas that will be developed within the framework of the #LastSeen initiative. The atlas will go online by the end of 2022. One important aspect of the project will be to indicate what remains to be clarified and who has not yet been identified. Because:
»Transparency is the fundamental principle of digital curation. We need to be aware of the limitations of indexing, be open about our methods, and lay bare any uncertainties or gaps in our knowledge in order to get closer to what really happened.«Dr. Maximilian Strnad, Institute for Municipal History and Remembrance, Munich
Dr. Maximilian Strnad is a research associate at the Institut für Stadtgeschichte und Erinnerungskultur München (Institute for Municipal History and Remembrance, Munich), one of the partners in the #LastSeen initiative. The subject of his thesis was “mixed marriages” in 1933-1949. One of the core themes of his work is the history of Nazi persecution of Jews with a focus on deportations. He is currently working on communal remembrance of the victims of Nazi persecution with a focus on digital forms of remembrance and on how to connect them.