When Boston photographer Matthew Nash discovered a stack of his grandfather’s pictures — pictures that were taken inside a Holocaust concentration camp — it unlocked a family secret. He became obsessed, and turned his quest for answers into his first documentary film.
“As a teenager I saw the horror in the pictures," he says in the film, "but I never thought about the man who took them, the young soldier behind the viewfinder, snapping the shutter.”
Nash’s documentary has the air of a mystery. The ominous soundtrack immediately evokes an undercurrent of dread.
In the film’s first moments Nash takes us back to Christmas Eve, 1995. At 2 a.m. Nash and his sister sneak into a dimly lit room in their grandmother’s house. They're searching for some mythical snapshots their family only whispered about.
“Earlier that day our grandmother had threatened to destroy the pictures,” Nash says in his voiceover. “Slowly and quietly we laid them out on the truck and used the last roll of film in my camera to make copies. I could barely look at them, they were so gruesome and sad.”
The horrified teens put the photos — which were taken by their grandfather, Donald Johnson, during World War II — back where they found them.
Johnson died in 1991; the explanation behind the images appeared to have gone with him.
The Mystery Returns
Fast forward to 2008. On the campaign trail Barack Obama courted controversy after saying his uncle took part in the liberation of Auschwitz. The fact is, Russian forces freed that notorious death camp. What Obama should’ve said was that his relative had been at a sub-camp of Buchenwald called Ohrdruf.
Nash had heard that word Ohrdruf before in connection to his grandfather’s stash of photos. He became obsessed with finding those original pictures and decided to document his search.
Nash’s family knew very little about their patriarch’s combat experiences, besides that he was a medic and Gen. George Patton’s driver. To find out more Nash returned to his grandmother’s house with a video camera, and she reluctantly let him search through her deceased husband’s things.
On camera they rummage through drawers and boxes and Nash says to his grandmother, “Well, here, why don’t we open the one that says 'Holocaust'?”
They discover small, faded photographs inside — and a list in Johnson’s handwriting.
“It says pictures taken at Ohrdruf, first death camp overrun, April, 1945,” Nash reads to his grandmother before sharing the descriptions. “And then picture one is of the lyme pit ... picture two is of clothing.”
“He never showed me," Nash’s grandmother says quietly.
Nash hugs her and apologizes. She wanted nothing to do with the photographs because her husband never told her they even existed.
“That’s where I start, is actually getting the originals,” Nash said recently in his Jamaica Plain home. In front of him sat a three-ring binder where his grandfather’s photos are now stored. He patted the book, almost nervously. He said he didn’t set out to make his grandmother cry.
Then Nash explained how his documentary turned into a story about lost war photographs that he never expected to tell.
“You know I thought that once I had the photographs in my hands all questions would be answered,” he told me, “and in fact that was when the questions started.”
Questions like: Why didn’t Nash’s grandfather tell his wife and family about the fact that he had been at Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp to be discovered by American troops in Germany?
“I really just wanted to know where this one guy went, and what he saw,” Nash said.
But when he started doing some research he began to question his own understanding of the Holocaust.
“Hey, I’ve seen 'Schindler’s List,' I’ve read 'Night,' ” Nash said of the film and Elie Wiesel’s classic novella that’s set in a concentration camp. “We’ve all grown up with these stories. And then at the same time, I’m looking at these pictures that my grandfather took and I suddenly realize that I don’t know anything at all other than sort of what you get off the History Channel.”
While Nash is a fan of straight documentary, he decided to make his film more personal. He inserted himself into the action, kind of like Michael Moore, and he created stylized reenactments in the vein of Errol Morris.
In one scene Nash sits at a desk surrounded by a mountain of books. Then he speaks directly into the camera, asking if he really wants to spend a year of his life immersed in the gruesomeness of the Holocaust.
“That moment is a little bit staged,” Nash admitted, “but it was based on real journal entries and notes I was making at the time.”
He was conflicted and found himself saying, “I could stop now. I don’t have to do this. Like if I go down this rabbit hole I am going to be spending a long time thinking about really dark stuff.”
'Down This Rabbit Hole'
Well, down he went.
Nash arranged meetings with experts at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He watched hours of archival footage and newsreels shot in concentration camps (which he does not recommend for those with weak stomachs). Then Nash tapped into the network of World War II veterans.
This represented a turning point for the filmmaker. He was able to connect his grandfather to the 89th and 65th Divisions of the U.S. Army. Nash decided to focus on telling the veterans' stories as he tried to find out more about his grandfather’s pictures and experiences.
In all he interviewed six veterans, in person and on the phone. Their recollections are woven throughout the second half of the film.
“They missed D-Day, they missed the Battle of the Bulge, so in a lot of ways they’re the groups that history has left out of the story,” Nash said, “so I feel like guys in the 89th and guys in the 65th might’ve felt that their war experience hasn’t been told quite as thoroughly as some of the other ones. And they were the ones who were out front, they were the spearhead divisions who were finding Buchenwald, who were finding Mauthausen, who were finding Dachau.”
The 65th Division
Edwin “Bud” Waite was in the 65th Infantry Division and is featured in Nash's film. As a young solider, he went through Dachau after it was liberated. Sitting in his West Roxbury kitchen, the 87-year-old veteran took me back in time.
“I was just a plain ordinary private first class, and what they call a B-A-R man,” which is a Browning Automatic Rifle, he explained. “I lugged that thing around, very heavy gun. I was drafted at 18.”
Then he showed me his own sepia-toned photographs from his time with the 65th in 1944.
“Actually this was during combat,” Waite recalled as he showed me one. “We had taken over the city of Regensburg, Germany. Somebody had taken that picture, we had driven out the Germans at the time.”
Waite said he’s honored that Nash wanted to interview him for his documentary. He didn’t enter Ohrdruf and didn’t know Johnson, which isn’t surprising, he explained, because there were 15,000 men in the 65th Division. But Waite feels like he knows Johnson now — through his grandson. He’s seen Nash’s film and calls it “important.”
“I can only say so many of our young folks nowadays they’ve never heard of concentration camps," Waite said. "And they sometimes, if you tell them about this, that and the other thing — if you witnessed so and so and so forth — they have a hard time believing it. That’s why I admire Matt for following this through. Certainly he feels that it should be something that should forever be in people’s minds.”
Waite says his fellow 65th Division vets also viewed Nash’s documentary last month at their reunion. It got them talking, according to Waite, who says plenty of families have had to deal with uncles, grandfathers and dads who didn’t want to talk about the war.
Geoff Megargee, a researcher at the Holocaust Memorial Museum who’s also in Nash’s film, can relate.
“My dad saw Ordruf, but I had no idea that he had ever seen a camp before I started working here at the museum,” he said during a phone interview, empathizing with both Nash and Johnson.
“That kind of emotional silence is something that my dad and I have experienced personally," Megargee said. "And this particular kind of horror that you see in the camps, it’s something that a lot of soldiers I’m sure would not have been comfortable even trying to describe.”
Nash interviewed Megargee because he’s a lead editor for an ambitious encyclopedia project that’s documented, so far, 42,500 Nazi-created ghettos, slave labor and concentration camps throughout Europe. He says this new Holocaust documentary about Ohrdruf is unique because it’s personal, and it is adding to our understanding of history.
“There’s of course a dwindling number of survivors and liberators out there and we need to get their stories while we can,” he said.
'Behind This Camera'
Throughout “16 Photographs At Ohrdruf” we see Nash and others flipping through his grandfather’s pile of pictures, but the filmmaker doesn’t actually reveal them to us until the end. An actor dressed as a medical soldier snaps the shutter 16 times as we see what he sees through the viewfinder. This is by Nash’s design.
“I didn’t want this to be drive-by voyeurism,” he stated sincerely. “I didn’t want it to be, you know, 'Oh, hey, look at the atrocities, let’s go.' It was important to me that people watching it felt for maybe a second or two maybe what it felt like to be behind this camera.”
In other words: what it was like to be his grandfather, Donald Johnson.
Nash believes his grandfather would be proud of his documentary. In the last years of his life he tried desperately to get the Holocaust Memorial Council to take his photos. That organization went on to build the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where Johnson’s photographs are now on display.
“I think at the end of the day even if he didn’t tell his wife and his family about the pictures he definitely wanted the world to see them,” Nash said, “and if he couldn’t finish that job I think it’s pretty cool that I was able to.”