The Photographer Whose Work Signed Himmler’s Death Warrant | OZY

Catalan revolutionary Francesc Boix left an indelible mark.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

This Catalan revolutionary left an indelible mark.

A young man of 26 stands up to give evidence, a full black mop of hair tucked under a set of earphones. As he looks at the prosecutor, his face betrays neither his nerves nor the nearly five years of internment he endured in the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen in Austria. When he is asked by one of the prosecutors of the Nuremberg trials — which would condemn thousands of Nazi war criminals — what he knew of the Holocaust, Francesc Boix replied, “I know so much that one month would not suffice to tell you.”

But he would not need a month. Over two days of testimony, Boix — and the thousands of photographs detailing the Nazis’ crimes against humanity that he’d help preserve — would make the story plain. 

Born in Barcelona in 1920, Boix joined the Spanish communists at the age of 15 and fought against Franco’s fascist army in the Spanish Civil War. But unlike the other soldiers, he carried a camera everywhere he went. Boix “became the equivalent of an embedded photographer,” explains historian and Barcelona-based guide Nick Lloyd.

They also managed to smuggle negatives out of Mauthausen, sewn into the clothes of teenage prisoners

After Franco defeated the Republican Army in Spain, Boix, like many others, fled over the Pyrenees into France. When World War II broke out, Boix joined the French Foreign Legion and was captured at Belfort in June 1940. As a former Spanish Republican, he was earmarked for a concentration camp, marked by a triangular patch with an “S” emblazoned on it. He was one of 8,000 Spanish refugees sent to the camps, of which around 2,000 survived.

On discovering that Boix was a photographer, the Nazis sent him to Mauthausen, which was known as Knochenmühle — the bone grinder. It was also where the SS’ official photographic identification service was located. They took photographs of all new prisoners at the camp, as well as ethnographic photographs to support Nazi racial theories. The two SS photographers who worked there also documented public executions and visits by high-ranking members of the Nazi party. Some of the more grotesque photos were simply taken as “souvenirs for SS members,” according to Lloyd.

KQMKE3LLHFAN7AOK6WXP36ETAA

Francesc Boix with his Nazi-condemning camera.

Before Boix arrived, the other photographic assistants had been saving one extra negative of each photograph, hiding them in a drawer of discarded images. But according to author and Amherst professor Sara Brenneis in her book Spaniards in Mauthausen, there is evidence to suggest that on Boix’s arrival, this clandestine operation was considerably expanded. By 1944, Boix was copying all SS photographs and hiding them with the help of the camp’s underground resistance movement. They also managed to smuggle negatives out of Mauthausen, sewn into the clothes of the teenage prisoners who had laboring jobs outside of the camp’s walls. The boys would deliver them to an Austrian anti-Nazi sympathizer by the name of Anna Pointner, who hid them for the rest of the war behind a rock in her garden wall. 

By the time the American 11th Armored Division liberated Mauthausen on May 5, 1945, Boix and his comrades had managed to save more than 3,000 images detailing Nazi crimes. Few such photographs from other camps survived; the Nazis’ made a point of destroying evidence as they prepared their retreat. “The fact that Boix and other Spaniards in Mauthausen preserved these illicit images,” writes Brenneis, “remains one of the most enduring acts of resistance.” 

On Day 44 of the Nuremberg trials in 1946, Boix would sit in the witness box while the images he had saved were projected onto a screen above him. “What is this picture?” the French prosecutor asked. And Boix recalled: “A Jew whose nationality I do not know. He was put in a barrel of water until he could not stand it any longer. He was beaten to the point of death and then given 10 minutes in which to hang himself.”

And so Boix’s testimony continued, recounting the story of each image. Using the photographs as proof of what he had seen firsthand, he would explain just who had sent people to the gas chambers, who had pushed men off the 70-foot-high cliff into the quarry and who had simply killed for the fun of it.

After detailing this monstrous brutality, Boix went on to produce photographs of Heinrich Himmler — the second most powerful man in the Third Reich — in the quarry at the camp where thousands were worked to death. On the second day of his testimony, Boix stood up and pointed out Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister of armaments, as one of the people he had a photograph of at the camp. Boix’s images would seal both men’s fates: death for Himmler and 20 years in prison for Speer.

Sadly, Boix would die just four years later, at age 30, of the tuberculosis he contracted at Mauthausen. But in 2013, some 1,400 negatives by an unknown Spanish Civil War photographer were sold at an auction to a Catalan historical memory association. After some intensive research, it was discovered they were Boix’s — another moment in his short life, now part of history.