Visual Culture

Auschwitz Photographs Hidden from the Nazis Are Given New Life in Color

Laura Mallonee
Nov 26, 2018 6:23PM

Maria Schenker. © Faces of Auschwitz/Marina Amaral/Auschwitz Memorial Museum.

When World War II began, Maria Schenker was a Jewish pianist and office clerk in Kraków, Poland. But in 1942, the Nazis shipped her to Auschwitz and, soon after, summoned her to pose for a mugshot. She sat before a large-format camera, her head held in place by a metal rod behind her, the yellow Star of David shining on her breast as she gazed past the lens.

Schenker’s black-and-white portrait—likely the last ever taken of her—is among 38,916 surviving registration photos made at Auschwitz between February 1941 and January 1945. The Nazis created them to track their victims, but the images became damning evidence against them in the Auschwitz trials, putting individual faces and stories to the overwhelming statistics of genocide. Now, Brazilian artist Marina Amaral has colorized 20 of the photos for her powerful project “Faces of Auschwitz.”


“I want to give people the opportunity to connect to the victims on an emotional level, in a way that is perhaps impossible to do if you see them in black and white, representing something old, a historical event that took place so many years ago,” Amaral told Artsy.

The registration photographs are among hundreds of thousands of images the Nazis took of their own crimes, including gassings and medical experiments. At Auschwitz I, SS sergeant Bernhard Walter did his part by running the Erkennungsdienst, a photographic unit with a full-blown lab in Block 26, where roughly a dozen prisoners developed negatives and prints. New arrivals were ordered to appear for their mugshots cleanly shaven, their heads covered, and their striped uniforms embellished with a star or triangle (yellow for Jews, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, pink for homosexuals).

Today, it’s a marvel that any registration photographs survive. In January 1945, with the Soviet Army closing in, Walter ordered the prisoners to burn them. Instead, they stuffed enough prints, negatives, and wet photo paper into the stove to block its exhaust pipe and kill the fire before it consumed them all. They also scattered prints throughout the lab. “I knew that during the hurried evacuation, nobody would have time to take everything and something would survive,” Wilhelm Brasse, a prisoner, has recalled.

Czeslawa Kwoka. © Faces of Auschwitz/Marina Amaral/Auschwitz Memorial Museum.

The photos are now safely preserved in the archives at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, where they continue serving a purpose their creators didn’t intend. “When we look at the registration photographs taken in the camp, we stand face to face with real people,” said museum spokesperson Pawel Sawicki. “[We] look into their eyes, guess their emotions, notice individuality in images that were meant to dehumanize.”

This is precisely the effect they had on Amaral when she stumbled on 14-year-old Czesława Kwoka’s mugshot in 2016. Staring at her screen in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Amaral saw a frightened child, her frail frame swallowed by an oversized uniform, her lip bleeding from a guard’s blow. “I couldn’t forget her face or stop thinking about her,” Amaral said. Having begun colorizing historic photos the previous year, she opened the image in Photoshop and started to paint. (This August, Amaral published 200 colorized photographs in a book with historian Dan Jones.)

This spring, Amaral’s colorized portrait of Kwoka went viral online, and the staff at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was so impressed that Amaral was given access to its entire archive of registration photos.“My ultimate goal would be to colorize them all, but that would take years,” Amaral said. “If I can tell at least 200 or 300 individual stories, I’ll feel satisfied.”

Salomon Honig. © Faces of Auschwitz/Marina Amaral/Auschwitz Memorial Museum.

Colorization is not without its challenges, of course. Every artist approaches the same historic photograph differently, and it’s easy to get it wrong. There’s also the danger that some viewers will mistake the color version as an original source. But the museum trusted Amaral to approach it sensitively. “It’s always a risk,” Sawicki explained, “but the fact that Marina agreed to always show the black-and-white image, add the historical information we give, and listen to our comments and advice is very valuable here.”

The process is complex and emotionally taxing. Every few weeks, the museum emails Amaral a batch of randomly selected images with matching registration cards detailing hair and eye color, death certificates, and other records she uses to piece together their story. She researches the colors of the uniforms and patches—project historian Dr. Waitman Beorn helps with that—and studies the subtle shading of skin, eyes, and hair. Finally, in Photoshop, Amaral begins coloring, starting with the prisoner’s identifying patch. It takes an hour or so to build up 15 layers. “I feel exhausted after I finish,” she said.

The colors don’t resurrect the victims, but they do help transport viewers back in time to Block 26, where Maria Schenker and so many others sat for their last portraits. It’s heartbreaking to see their dignity and humanity, and to know that the Nazis somehow didn’t. Many were murdered just weeks later, their lives cut short because they had the “wrong” race, ethnicity, religion, politics, or sexual orientation. As the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum noted after a white nationalist meeting in 2016, “The Holocaust did not begin with killings: it began with words.”

Though Block 26 is now closed to the public, Amaral was able to visit in October while filming a documentary about the project. It looked nothing like it used to: The building caught fire years ago, was subsequently restored, and now holds offices. But it was still surreal—cathartic, even—to stand in the same room as her subjects more than 75 years before.

“It was as if we were paying tribute,” Amaral said, “letting the victims know that we did not forget them.”

Laura Mallonee