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Photos by first eyewitness document concentration camps

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AFP/ERIC SCHWAB PHOTO
AFP/ERIC SCHWAB PHOTO

MONTREAL – Montrealers have a rare opportunity to see the disturbing images that shocked the world into realizing the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, in an exhibition in the foyer of Cummings House.

On until Nov. 24, 1945: Discovering Reality is also a homage to the French photographer, Eric Schwab, who was one of the first eyewitnesses to the atrocities, which he documented as each camp was liberated.

Although the photos were published widely in the international media at the time and have since become icons of what is unspeakable, Schwab (1910-1977) is little known today. As often happened at the time with news agency photos, they included no credit.

The exhibition is organized by the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre in co-operation with Agence France-Presse (AFP). The photos featured are from three camps in Germany: Dachau, Buchenwald and Leipzig-Thekla.

Schwab, who worked for AFP, which had been founded the year before, was an accredited war correspondent with the U.S. Army working with American journalist Meyer Levin. They accompanied the troops as they advanced from camp to camp, capturing proof of the extent of what had gone on there.

It was Schwab who took the pictures of heaps of bodies and skeletal, hollow-eyed survivors that haunt us 70 years later.

A hellish assignment for any journalist, but it was acutely painful for the German-born Schwab because his Jewish mother had been deported in 1943. At the time, he did not know her fate. She did survive, and he would find her, at the end of his journey with the troops, at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia.

Amid the abominable, there are signs in some of the photos of life going on, such as a Dachau prisoner chatting with a woman identified as a prostitute through a hole in the fence.

Schwab’s photos, which number only a few dozen, have been preserved in the AFP archives in Paris, and the exhibition was produced from a selection of them.

Thanks to research by historian and Holocaust expert Annette Wieviorka, more is known about Schwab today. The war dramatically changed his early life of shooting fashion and theatre subjects. Before joining AFP he had fought in the French army, was captured and escaped, and then joined the Resistance.

After the war, Schwab and his mother settled in New York. He continued to shoot for AFP, mostly of the city’s jazz scene, then left in the early 1950s to work for various United Nations agencies in New York and Geneva.

He died leaving no known written account of his discovery of the camps or his reunion with his mother (whom he did not photograph). It was Meyer Levin’s son Mikael who finally identified the photos as having been taken by Schwab, many years later.

MHMC president Susyn Borer said the centre’s intention in showing 1945: Discovering Reality is “not to shock, but to educate.” The exhibition brings home the fact that “liberation” was not only about celebration, but was far more ambiguous.

The photos also provide hope, she said, as “humanity shines through the horror.”