A few weeks ago Polish photographer Wilhelm Brasse who, as a prisoner himself, was ordered by the S.S. to use his skills to document the living skeletons of Auschwitz, died at ninety-four. This is a remembrance (edited for length) from New York Times writer Dennis Hivesi.
When ordered to destroy the evidence, Mr. Brasse refused.
There were images of living virtual skeletons; prisoners standing shoulder-to-shoulder in striped uniforms; people with deformities; disemboweled victims of purported medical experiments. There were tens of thousands of prisoner identification photos: three of each inmate, one taken from the front, one from the side, the third at an angle, usually with a cap on the prisoner’s head.
Many were made by a young man, Wilhelm Brasse, who died on Tuesday at 94 in Zywiec, Poland. “It was an order, and prisoners didn’t have the right to disagree,” Mr. Brasse recalled. “I couldn’t say, ‘I won’t do that.’ ”
What Mr. Brasse did do was preserve thousands of those pictures, despite an order to destroy them.
“The photographs were taken for administrative purposes and for the personal amusement of the Nazis,” Judith Cohen, the director of the photo archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said Wednesday. “However, the same photographs that were commissioned by the Germans later became some of the most damning evidence of their crimes. One of Brasse’s great acts of heroism is that when he was ordered to burn all of the mug shots, he saved tens of thousands.”
Like photographs, memories were etched in Mr. Brasse’s mind. “They put the spade handle onto the prisoner’s neck and dangle his legs until he suffocated; I saw that several times,” he said in a 2010 interview for “Portrecista” (The Portraitist), a Polish documentary about his experiences. “They were killing Jews in that way.”
In a 2009 interview for Agence France-Presse he said: “We photographed all the prisoners at the beginning — Jews, all nationalities. But after No. 35,000, we didn’t photograph Jews any more. They weren’t recorded. That’s because they were being taken straight to the gas chambers.”
Mr. Brasse, who was not Jewish, was 22 when he was arrested by the Nazis in August 1940 while trying to cross the border into Hungary, hoping eventually to join Polish exiles in France. Fluent in German, he was given a chance to join the German Army, but refused.
Mr. Brasse was working in a photo studio in Katowice, near the German border, when the Nazis invaded. “When he arrived at Auschwitz he was sent to work as a laborer,” said Janina Struk, the author of “Photographing the Holocaust” (2004). “When they found out he was a photographer, he was put in charge of the identification department.”
Besides the individual prisoners he photographed for identification, Mr. Brasse was also forced to photograph young Jewish girls, disabled people, dwarfs, and victims of the medical experiments performed by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. "The Nazis had a morbid curiosity for documenting these things — internal operations, like taking out the womb and examining it,” Ms. Struk said. She quotes Mr. Brasse as saying: “They’d bring the women into the room and strip them naked” and “inject them with a kind of anesthetic, unless they were Jewish, in which case experiments would be performed without” anesthesia.
After [liberation he returned to Poland]. Mr. Brasse married and had two children. He opened a business making sausage casings. He had tried to work again as a photographer, but was too haunted by his experiences. "When I tried to photograph young girls, for example, dressed normally,” he told Agence France-Presse, “all I’d see would be the Jewish children.”
Join me in saluting this gutsy fellow, one of so many whose unsung decency evil could not crush.