AFP’s ‘Behind the news’ series examines what it’s like to cover world events through the eyes of those working in news

February 19, 2015 8:52 am
AFP’s ‘Behind the ’ series examines what it’s like to cover world events through the eyes of those working in .

A prisoner dying of dysentery at Buchenwald concentation camp, as it was liberated in April 1945. AFP photo / Eric Schwab
* Warning: Graphic content
It comes
down to a few dozen pictures by Eric Schwab, preserved in the Agence
France-Presse archives. An insignificant number in a photographic fund
of more than 30 million digital documents and seven million analog
files. But whose value in historical terms is inestimable.
One of
the first photographers to work for the modern-day AFP, founded in 1944
as France was freed from Nazi occupation, Eric Schwab was among the
very first witnesses to the boundless horror that Allied forces
uncovered as they advanced into Germany, liberating the death camps one
after the other.

Prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
Prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp in April 1945. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
Schwab formed a partnership with the American writer and
journalist Meyer Levin, travelling together into the darkness on board
their jeep “Spirit of Alpena”.

Both were on a painful quest, Levin to investigate the fate of
Europe’s Jews in World War II, and Schwab to find his mother who was
deported in 1943.
“We had known. The world had vaguely heard,”
Meyer Levin wrote in his account of that time, published in 1950 and
entitled “In Search”. “But until now no one of us had looked on this….
It was as though we had penetrated at last to the center of the black
heart, to the very crawling inside of the vicious heart.”
The two
Jewish war correspondents were “among the very first to enter that
hell,” wrote the French historian Annette Wiervorka in a recent study
entitled, “1945, the discovery” – which is prefaced by Levin’s words.
Born
in September 1910 in Hamburg, to a French father and a Jewish German
mother, Eric Schwab arrived in Paris in the early 1930s where he cut his
teeth as a photographer shooting fashion shows and film sets. When war
broke out in 1939, he was called up and briefly saw action in northern
France, before being taken prisoner in June 1940, along with thousands
of other French troops, after the Allied defeat at Dunkirk.

Inmates of Block 61 at Buchenwald death camp. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
Inmates of Block 61 at Buchenwald death camp. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
Little is known about that time in his life. But we do know
he managed to escape from a train packed with prisoners and bound for
Germany, returning to the Paris region and joining the Resistance.
Annette Wierviorka’s research next locates him near the Loire River in
1944, fighting with the French Forces of the Interior as the Resistance
was then known.
AFP’s pre-war ancestor, the Havas news agency,
was taken over by the occupying forces from 1940 to 1944 and renamed the
French Information Office (OFI). On August 20, 1944 a group of
journalists from the Resistance seize the OFI’s office and issue the
first dispatch from a liberated Paris, under the name of Agence
France-Presse.
The following month, Schwab begins to work for
AFP. Accredited with the US army, he becomes a war correspondent,
following the Allied troops in their advance.

The gate of Buchenwald camp, with the words 'To each what he deserves'. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
The gate of Buchenwald camp, with the words ‘To each what he deserves’. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
In early 1945 he meets Meyer Levin. The powerful encounter
marks the beginning of a great friendship, and a shared journey into the
world of the concentration camps.
The first they reach, in
April, is Ohrdruf, an annex of Buchenwald, in what is today the German
land of Thuringe. There are no surviving Schwab pictures of the camp –
probably due to a gap in the archives, according to the Holocaust
historian Wierviorka.
From there the pair head deeper into Germany, to the camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, Leipzig-Thekla and Terezin.
Schwab’s
first known pictures are taken in Buchenwald and Dachau, including the
entrance gate to the first camp, bearing the terrible inscription «
Jedem das Seine » (« To each what he deserves »).
Piles of
skeletal bodies, emaciated faces, the doors to a crematorium, survivors
who look like corpses themselves. In two dozen shots, many of them
unbearable to behold, he tells the full horror of the Nazi extermination
camps. He photographs inhumanity laid bare.
His image of a man
dying of dysentery is abominable. Taken around April 12, it shows a
man’s hunched, fleshless upper body, his eyes staring emptily ahead. It
runs on the front page of the French magazine Franc-Tireur later that
month. Another of his shots, taken at Leipzig-Thekla, makes front pages
for its depiction of an unidentified man sitting with his head in his
hands, a few metres from a dead body.

The camp of Thekla, where the Germans locked in and burned alive burned hundreds of plane factory workers ahead of the arrival of Allied forces at the end of April 1945. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
The camp of Thekla, where the Germans locked
in and burned alive burned hundreds of plane factory workers ahead of
the arrival of Allied forces at the end of April 1945. AFP Photo / Eric
Schwab
Among the inmates at Buchenwald, Schwab finds members of
the Resistance and journalists who worked for the clandestine media
under the occupation. On one photograph of seven survivors, there are
two former journalists for Havas: Christian Ozanne, pictured in a
prisoner’s black-and-white stripes, and Maurice Negre who would go on to
become AFP director general three times between 1946 and 1954.
In
Dachau, Schwab photographs the number tattooed on the bone-thin arm of a
Jewish prisoner. Another shot shows a man in striped prison garb
talking to a woman described as a camp prostitute.
There is also
some hope amid the darkness, as with his image of a group of French
prisoners standing listening to the Marseillaise national anthem. Or
another of a priest celebrating mass for the camp’s dead.
After
the horror of Dachau, the two war correspondents witness the capture of
Itter Castle in Austria, used to incarcerate high-profile French
figures- from ministers and political leaders to generals and diplomats.
Among
them were two former prime ministers, Edouard Daladier who signed the
infamous Munich Agreement on France’s behalf in 1938, and Paul Reynaud,
as well as the generals Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, the former
tennis champion Jean Borotra and Marie-Agnes Cailliau, the sister of
General Charles de Gaulle.
US troops – fighting alongside small
contingent of anti-Nazi German soldiers – take the Tyrolian castle on
May 5, 1945, allowing Schwab to shoot a fine series of portraits of the
illustrious captives and their liberators.

A prisoner chatting with a prostitute at the Nazi camp of Dachau in May 1945. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
A prisoner chatting with a prostitute at the Nazi camp of Dachau in May 1945. AFP Photo / Eric Schwab
The last stage of his journey takes him to the camp at
Terezin, known in German as 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 from advancing Soviet troops towards US-controlled
territory.
By this point most of the camps have been liberated.
Eric Schwab is still searching for his mother, Elsbeth. At the entrance
to Terezin, he leaves his travelling companions to head towards the
barracks. After some time he returns, with a small woman by his side.
Then
aged 56, Elsbeth has managed to escape death and has been looking after
child survivors at the camp. It was, of course, an intensely emotional
reunion. It would also appear that out of respect he refrained from
photographing his mother – or at least from publishing the images.
After
Terezin, Schwab and Levin part ways, according to Annette Wieviorka.
The first has reached the end of his journey, having miraculously found
his mother, alive. The second will pursue his investigation into the
annihilation of the Jewish people.
Photographic evidence of the
concentration camp horrors was widely disseminated as early as 1945, but
Eric Schwab’s work did not earn him the renown of some of the other
photographers who documented the camps’ liberation, such as Margaret
Bourke-White, Lee Miller or George Rodger.
As often happens with
news agency photos, his images were printed in the media but not
attributed to him by name. Few people remember his face. Annette
Wieviorka’s book includes one of his rare self-portraits, taken with a
Rolleiflex camera, in which he poses in a war correspondent’s uniform.
It
would take several years for his talent to be fully recognised,
particularly the powerful portraiture and composition found throughout
his now-iconic works.
For the historian of photography Clement
Cheroux, Schwab’s work stands apart in that, as a Jew himself, he was
documenting the suffering of his own people. “As the son of a deportee,
he was clearly seeing his own mother’s ordeal as he photographed these
survivors,” he writes in his book “Memory of the camps”, about the work
of Schwab and fellow photographers of that black chapter.
It was
Meyer Levin’s son, Mikael, who pieced together the story of the two
men’s journey in a book entitled “War Story”, enabling the
identification of Schwab’s pictures within AFP’s image fund.
“Mikael
was the conduit for his father’s work, but also for Schwab’s,” says
Annette Wierviorka. A large part of his work is now collected in the
French national library. Schwab’s work was the subject of an exhibit
organised jointly in 2004 by AFP, the French national archives and the
Resistance Museum of Champigny-sur-Marne.
After the war, Eric
Schwab and his mother leave France, settling in New York in 1946. For a
few years he continues to work for AFP – on far lighter subjects. A
passionate jazz fan, he shoots the streets of Broadway, the jazz clubs
of Harlem, people swimming off Coney Island. AFP still has in its
archives a few shots of Nat King Cole, which he took at a concert at the
Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1950.
Eric Schwab leaves AFP in the
early 1950s. He goes on to work for various UN bodies in New York and
Geneva including the World Health Organisation. He continues to travel
widely and takes a particular interest in the refugee question. A
picture he took of a family of refugees from India’s Punjab in 1951 is
included in the legendary 1962 photo exhibition in New York entitled
“The Family of Man.”
Eric Schwab dies in 1977 at the age of 67,
leaving no known account of the discovery of the camps, nor his reunion
with his mother.

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