A calendar on a wall. A large group of men under armed guard. A bath house with a distinct façade. These were all clues that convinced Marek Tomaszewski the photos he had received from Canada were genuine and historically significant.
It began with a file attachment from a friend that landed March 1 on Mr. Tomaszewski’s WhatsApp messaging service.
Mr. Tomaszewski, who lives in the Polish city of Tarnów, collects old photos, postcards and other memorabilia. He has published five books about Tarnów history.
The WhatsApp message contained black-and-white photographs of Tarnów that Mr. Tomaszewski eventually identified as previously unknown pictures of a key moment in the city’s history: the departure on June 14, 1940, of the first mass transport of prisoners to the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz.
The discovery was made public this summer, on the anniversary of that first deportation, with the announcement that Mr. Tomaszewski had published the new photos in a book, titled Tarnów – KL Auschwitz: First Transport to Hell.
Mr. Tomaszewski has now shared with The Globe and Mail new details about the Canadian provenance of the pictures and about the steps he took to confirm that they documented the beginning of Auschwitz’s operations.
The first transport isn’t well-known outside Poland, but it is significant, a reminder that Auschwitz began as a place of repression by the German occupiers against the Poles before it became an extermination centre. An estimated 1.1 million victims, mostly Jews murdered in gas chambers, died in Auschwitz and its complex of satellite sub-camps.
There are few visual records of operations at Auschwitz before it was liberated by the Soviet Red Army in January, 1945.
Officials at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum say the images that Mr. Tomaszewski uncovered are as noteworthy as two better-known photo albums: the one found by camp survivor Lilly Jacob showing the arrival of a convoy during the 1944 deportation of Hungarian Jews; and the album of the SS officer Karl Höcker, with its snapshots of SS guards and female auxiliaries acting merry while off-duty.
Like the other two albums, the latest documents are poignant because they don’t explicitly show the camp’s barbarity. One just sees images of a large group of civilians – 728 men – being marched to a train ramp, unaware they are being taken to what would become the Third Reich’s largest, deadliest camp.
“They give a unique insight into the process of a transport as well as the very early stage of the operation of the camp,” Pawel Sawicki, a spokesperson for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, told The Globe.
Mr. Tomaszewski said the pictures’ original owner was a Toronto-area lawyer who had an interest in wartime photography.
The lawyer had purchased the album from a collector in Berlin a few years ago. He didn’t talk about the pictures and didn’t show them to anyone. After his death, his children sold his collection and Mr. Tomaszewski’s friend, who lives in Canada, eventually acquired the photos.
The friend, who was born in Poland, then contacted Mr. Tomaszewski this spring.
One photo showed the men under guard in front of a building with a crenellated façade and windows shaped like Moorish arches. The distinctive structure was a Jewish bath house in Tarnów that later became a restaurant. Mr. Tomaszewski recognized it because it is in front of the public square from where the prisoners set off on the first transport.
The men deported on June 14, 1940, were the only ones who were marched through the square, Mr. Tomaszewski said. Other details also matched, such as the large number of prisoners and the use of a passenger train rather than the freight or cattle wagons of later transports.
The photos appear to have been taken by one of the German police guards. In one picture, a German in uniform sits next to a 1940 wall calendar from Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party newspaper.
Among the prisoners was 17-year-old Sigmund Sobolewski, who would survive more than four years at Auschwitz, then later immigrated to Canada. In his biography, Prisoner 88: The Man in Stripes, the late Mr. Sobolewski said he was among thousands of Poles rounded up after Germany’s 1939 invasion.
Hundreds were detained in the Tarnów prison and 728 put on the first transport. After a stopover in Krakow, where the guards cheered as loudspeakers announced the Germans’ capture of Paris, the train arrived at Auschwitz.
The camp barracks weren’t ready and initially the prisoners were kept in a warehouse of the state tobacco monopoly. They were forced to perform demeaning, exhausting drills, and those who couldn’t keep up were kicked and beaten, foretelling the horrors ahead.
“In Auschwitz, if you tried to understand what was going on, you drove yourself insane,” Mr. Sobolewski said in his biography. “You had to throw away all that old mentality and simply work on the process of survival.”