The faces of the Jewish girls who would die at Auschwitz are thick and sullen, framed by the peasant scarves of Eastern Europe, and then, beyond, an April sky made ashen by crematoriums that smoked 24 hours each day. This is a photograph of them straight off the cattle cars. Their eyes are ringed like those of raccoons, their bodies wrapped in lumpy coats that have, absurdly, the decorated fur collars and cuffs of another life.
One woman holds a crumpled scarf to her mouth. "She's crying because they took her child away from her," says one who was there. Near the crying woman is a young girl. In a burst of puckishness still intact from that other life, she sticks out a tongue at her Nazi picture-taker.
The one who was there: Lili Meier, 54, Miami Beach waitress, grandmother and owner of a rare photo album chronicling the horror inside Auschwitz. Her picture is in it, as are those of her brothers, parents and grandparents. Only she survived. "I never look at it alone," she says. "Never." It is an album that chills even those who weren't there. And it is an album that is not easy to look at, even on a bright afternoon at home.
Tomorrow, the collection of 192 pictures taken by a member of the German SS will be donated to the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, a memorial to 6 million Jews who died in Holocaust. Lili Meier will be there and so will Serge Klarsfeld, the Nazi-hunter who knocked on her door this summer. They talked through the screen. She had an album, he'd heard, and could he come in?
What he saw in her den made him pale. These are not pictures of nameless bodies, of open pits. These are faces -- broad, rough faces from rural Hungary -- that show human pain. These are faces of individual lives, haunting faces frozen on film: a small but enduring defense against the Nazis who captured them. They are both awful and wonderful souvenirs.
"Without that album," says Klarsfeld, "You wouldn't have a visual sense of the selection process, of the separation of families, of the way to the gas chambers."
Says Susan Sontag, the cultural critic and author of a book on photgraphy:
"In a certain way, these are more interesting than all the photographs made of what happened after the camps were closed. Any record of what these people did while living in the camp is extremely precious to us."
How Lili Meier found the album is one of those astonishing tales that emerge from the chaos of war. It was December 1944, and she was 17 and sick with typhus at a German camp hospital. The day was cold, and so she reached for a pajama jacket laying on a nightstand near her bed. Under it was a beautiful brown photo album. "Something just pulled me toward it right away," she said.
She clutched it to her thin chest as much for warmth as anything else. Then she slept. When she woke, she leafed through it and there, toward the end, she saw herself: a bald girl shorn of her long, dark hair standing with hundreds of other bald girls in front of a building at Auschwitz. She also saw her brothers and her parents, long since dead. She screamed.
"You must understand the miracle," says Klarsfeld. "One day, this man took his photographs and he photographed the woman who would one day find the album. It is very extraordinary. She understands that she had to give it to the museum. It's too important for a private person."
In this picture are two young boys, and even though the photograph is in black and white, you can tell that their cheeks are rosy. The one on the left stares straight at the lens. A pout. The one on the right is taller and stares off to the left, his right hand tugging at a button on his coat. He wears the cloth Star of David mandated by the Nazis, and behind him is the cattle car. The boys are too small to work, so soon they will die.
These are two of my brothers," says Lili Meier. "Zrilu is 8 1/2 and Selig is 10."
Lili Meier, who was Lili Jacob back then, had five brothers in all. They lived in Bilky, Czechoslovakia, a small border town in the Carpathian Mountains that had changed hands from Hungary. Now it is part of the Soviet Union. Surrounding it were potato fields and pines. The streets were cobblestone.
Lili Jacob's father was a horse trader who made enough money to keep his wife in crocheted curtains and a live-in maid. Lili went to high school in Bilky, took a train to see movies in the next town, and had a boyfriend her parents didn't like because his mother ran a rooming house. She was tall and dark and remembers taking long wlaks with him under fruit trees, another part of a pre-Nazi life she has come to paint as nothing but idyllic. Sometimes she would hear Hitler on the kitchen radio, but he was dismissed all around. "Everyone thought he was kind of a maniac," she says.
The maniac's troops marched into Czechoslovakia one day, and Bilky once again became part of Hungary. The the rumors started. He was after the Jews.
The knock on her door came in April 1944. She and her family were ordered out, first to the yard of the town's synagogue, soon after to a ghetto in Berehobo, where they slept on the floor of a brick factory. Next there was a three-day train ride.
They got off at Auschwitz.
"Here's the train," says Lili Meier, pointing with a maroon fingernail to a picture numbered 35 in the album. "And here's the watchtower, and the smoke, constant, you know. Right away we started inhaling it from the crematoriums. Everybody got nauseous."
The train is long and black and beside it are huddles of people. Everyone looks hunched over, round and dull as old sacks in a row. Already the selection process is beginning. In one line are the women and children, in another the men. Soon they'll be subdivided into those strong enough for work and those who aren't. The sky, but for the gray smoke, is a flat off-white.
"I was standing next to my mother as they were sorting us," says Lili Meier. "The German came over and put me in the working group. But he noticed that I ran away, back to my mother. He stuck me in my arm with his bayonet and he said, 'You're in a concentration camp and you'd better behave or you'll be shot on the spot.' Then my mother marched away, and my father, and my five brothers. I never saw them again."
Lili's job was to clean the toilet cans. They were put on a cart that she pulled, horse fashion, with three other girls to the fields. There they emptied them, sometimes two and three times a day. If the girls weren't fast enough, the German soldiers whipped them across their backs.
Her breakfast was a slice of bread and water. Dinner was barley soup and bread again. Sleep was escape. "At least while you slept," she says, "you couldn't think."
A woman, stooped and bent, walks away from the camera to what she was told were the showers. Her arms are spread like mother-duck wings around three small children. She seems to be hurring them along, hurrying them toward cleanliness. Behind her is a tiny overcoat with two spindly legs, the left foot stepping just ahead of the right as it dutifully follows grandmother. Above the shoes are two little anklets. At least you can't see the faces.
Lili Jacob was at Auschwitz six months, tattooed in blue ink on her forearm as number A10862. Serge Klarsfeld thinks that the man who took the pictures of her and the others was Ernest Hoffmann, a teacher and deputy to the chief of the camp's indetification service. "All of the photographs from that album were taken in one day or so -- maybe two," says Klarsfeld. Many of them are identical, as if the potographer took two to make sure the event was properly recorded.
The album itself is titled "Um Siedlung der Juden aus Ungarn," or, "The Downfall of the Jews from Hungary." The pictures are in neat chronology from arrival to crematorium, and appear to be presented as a proud testament to the efficiency of the Germans. But somehow, in seeing the agony of the faces, there comes a suggestion of sympathy from the photographer.
"No," says Lilli Meier. She will not even discuss it.
"He can't wipe that expression off people's faces," says Sontag. "He could be looking at it in a sadistic wayand reveling in their pain."
Lili Meier's pain has never really ended. She was liberated, still sick with typhus, by American troops in December 1944. By this time, she had been moved to another camp hospital nearNordhausen, Germany. One day the prisoners heard English in the streets and realized they were free. To prove it to themselves, they rushed overto the German barracks. Lili, who passed out, was carried by friends and placed on a bed inside the barracks.She found the album there.
Afterwar, she went back to Bilky where she waited. "Every day I would go to the train to see if somebody came back from my family -- but nobody came back" she says. She soon married another camp survivor, then immigrated to America in 1948. She paid for her passport by selling some copies of the picture to a museum in Prague. The have been reproduced in books on the Holocaust.
She and her husband, a butcher, settled near what is now Little Havana in Miami. The warm air was always softly protective, and the winter skies just plain brilliant. Hibiscus bloomed red, and sometimes, on trellises and backyardporches, you could smell night jasmine. There was no gray in this world, no sights or smells to tug at her past. "I just love it here," she says.
In 1977 her husband died, and she hassince remarried. She was, and still is, a waitress at The Famous in SouthMiami Beach, a kosher restaurant with seltzer and chocolate syrup on tables that are crowded and noisy on Friday nights. The place is loaded with yiddishkeit and waitresses who announce, "I've got one piece of chocolate cake left, you want it or not?" If you don't, they bring it anyway.Lili Meier has worked there for 26 years.
She kept her album in a closet or under a mattress. Looking at it always terrified her; yet, there was her mother, her brothers, her own bald head. They were pictures she loved as much as hated.
Regularly, she woke up screaming. It's better now. "I couldn't have spoken to you the way I've spoken now, with the years," she says. "I did see professional help, I'm not embarrassed about it. I always asked him 'How long am I going to cry?'"
Always there was the tatoo. Then in1958, she was picked "Queen for a Day" on the old television show. Her requested prize was a plastic surgeon to remove A10862 from her forearm. Nogeneral anesthetic. "I said," she says," 'Look, doctor I was wide awake when they tatooed it. I want to be wide awake to see that it's out.'"
She lives in a small house on Southwest 14th Street with her second husband, surrounded by plastic knick-knacks, pictures of her grandchildren and a life that is contentedly middle-class. Her two daughters are grown, and have come to see the album on their own terms. One wants to inherit copies of the pictures; the other refuses to even look at them.
There is still the loose end of Auschwitz. Part of the trip to Jerusalem -- her first -- will include a stop at the remains of the camp. "I want to see for myself that my parents are not there, that my parents are really dead," she says. "That's the only way I can rid myself of that memory."
The photographs are soon to be published in a book. She is pleased, and she announces this fact with pride. She wears white polyster pants, a purple velour top, endless gold jewelry and a bouffant hairdo. She drinks a glass of liquid protein as she tiptoes through the album. Finally, she comes to the last picture.
It is a close-up of the ovens. Three of them. The doors of two have been opened, perhaps by a guard under instructions from the photographer who wanted a precise documentary. They are empty and, except for the ashes and the few leftover bones, could just be old-fashioned ovens for baking bread. They are horrible.
Lili Meier puts her hands to her neck, then her face. This is impossible for her to see.She bounds from the den to the kitchen. "You're sure I can't offer you some lunch?" she says. She busies herself with coffee, grapefruit juice, cheese and soda crackers.
Later, back in the den, she can talk."I have lived with this for so many years," she says. "It's been weighing so heavily on my heart. Now I want the album to be shown to the world. I don't want it hidden anymore."