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Saturday, June 25, 2011

In Hours, Online Readers Identify Nazi Photographer

Private collection, via The New York Times
Shots from the album of prisoners of war.
Private collection, via The New York Times
Nazi soldiers on the Eastern Front.

The self-portrait that led to crediting the snapshots to Franz Krieger, a military photographer and driver.

Krieger, both professionally and privately, took a range of photos, including motorcycle demonstrations.

Also included in the album: rare shots of Jewish prisoners wearing Star of David patches.

The unsigned album of World War II photographs that has been identified as made by Franz Krieger.
Then came black-and-white images of prisoners of war, some in rags, some in jackets with Star of David patches, staring blankly into the camera.
A few pages later were photographs of Hitler in a train station. As he framed the shot, the photographer was almost as close to the Führer as he had been to the Führer’s captives.
The photographs were obviously taken during World War II. But who was the photographer?
That was only one of the secrets the album had kept.
This week the photographer was identified in less than three hours, thanks to the collective expertise of online readers. He was Franz Krieger, who joined — and then quit — a Wehrmacht propaganda unit known as the Propagandakompanie. Seventy years ago this August, when he was in his mid-20s, the unit sent him on a tour of the Eastern Front.
Krieger’s identity emerged on Tuesday morning after the Lens blog of The New York Times and EinesTages, a site run by the German magazine Der Spiegel and loosely translated as “Once Upon a Time,” published posts with some of the photos. Lens and EinesTages asked readers for information about who had created the chilling little album.
Only one of the 214 photographs bore a caption, faintly penciled in: “Bregenz 1.1.1942.” A town in Austria. The first day of the year, 69 years ago.
The posts generated immediate interest. Marc Pitzke, a New York-based correspondent for Der Spiegel, said EinesTages recorded more than seven million page views on Tuesday. That figure was second only to that for its live blogging of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan. Traffic was also unusually heavy on the Lens blog.
There was little to go on in the album itself. No name was scribbled inside the front cover.
The first clue came from Harriet Scharnberg of Hamburg, Germany, who spotted the photographs online, identified them as Krieger’s and said they were taken during his trip to Minsk, in what is now Belarus, in 1941. On the way back to Berlin, she said, he took the pictures of Hitler meeting with Adm. Miklos Horthy, the regent of Hungary, in Marienburg (now Malbork, Poland).
Ms. Scharnberg said that in her research for a Ph.D. dissertation on German propaganda photographs depicting Jews, she had come across Peter F. Kramml’s 2008 book, “The Salzburg Press Photographer Franz Krieger (1914-1993): Photojournalism in the Shadow of Nazi Propaganda and War.”
Dr. Kramml all but confirmed that the photographs were Krieger’s when he sent The Times a copy of a Krieger self-portrait taken in a rear-view mirror. It was identical to one in the album.
The album had been in the hands of a 72-year-old garment-district executive who brought it to The Times, hoping coverage would establish its worth. He wants to sell it to pay his bills. He has undergone quadruple-bypass surgery and has other health problems, and he has filed for bankruptcy — an unpleasant element of personal history he does not want widely known. So he had asked not to be named if any articles were written about the album.
He said he got the album and 50,000 baseball trading cards from a man he knows in northern New Jersey who was having trouble making ends meet. He said he had lent the man some money, and the album and the baseball cards amounted to repayment.
The executive said the man told him the album had come from an older German man whose lawn he used to mow regularly.
The Lens blog reached out to a number of experts before publishing a post, but Krieger’s work was apparently not well enough known to be recognized.
“It doesn’t surprise me the photos were identified,” said Marvin J. Taylor, the director of the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University, to whom The Times had shown some of the photos before the first post. “It was just a matter of time, given the number of people who were looking at this. The Germans have taken good care of the history of their photographers.”
Krieger, according to Dr. Kramml, had photographed the Salzburg Festival in the mid-1930s and had become a photographer for the Nazis in that city, taking “most of the important pictures in Salzburg from 1938 until 1941.”
Krieger later joined the Schutzstaffel, the Nazi special police, but he left the SS in 1941 for the Propagandakompanie, which sent him to the Eastern Front in August 1941.
A couple of months later Krieger left the Propagandakompanie and “became a simple soldier, a driver,” Dr. Kramml said. In November 1941 he started training in Bregenz, the Austrian town mentioned in the album’s one caption.
By August 1942, Krieger was back in Russia, this time as a supply driver. That put him near Stalingrad. In what might be considered a lucky break, he developed jaundice and was evacuated by train before the Battle of Stalingrad. His illness may explain the pictures of what appear to be convalescing soldiers toward the end of the album.
Dr. Kramml said that Krieger, who had been a store owner before he took up photography, went into business — but not the photography business — after the war. Krieger told people that his mother had given away some of his wartime photographs. “Perhaps he wanted to hide them,” Dr. Kramml said.
Some of those pictures — perhaps the mystery album itself — were presumed to have ended up in Bavaria, he said. Krieger died in 1993.
David G. Marwell, the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, said that photo albums like the one the garment-district executive brought to The Times turn up from time to time at flea markets. “What made this one interesting,” he said, “was the range, the way this guy traveled, that gave him access to these different places and the close proximity.”
He mentioned a scrapbook from 1944 that had arrived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 2007. It was the personal album of an SS officer. Judith Cohen, the director of the photo archives at that museum, said that what stood out in the album were the photographs of the Jewish prisoners.
“There are very few photographs of Jewish P.O.W.’s with stars,” she said. “These photos are very few and far between and have historic significance.”

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