Jonathan Wolfman's Blog
NOVEMBER 4, 2012 7:02AM

COURAGE: He Saved His Photos of the Living-Dead at Auschwitz

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     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.

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While Hannah Arendt was right, evil environments work on people who would not otherwise commit evil acts, there are brilliant exceptions and we must honor them.
It's haunting to read this yet as you say,it is our duty to honour those who resisted the perpetration of evil.
Thank you for helping preserve Mr. Brasse's memory and his work. R
Heidi yes, our duty, especially bc we'll never kno all their names.
Trudge thank You for stopping by...and feel free to pass this on.
I bet he lived in hell during his nightmares and even during the day. That is something you never forget, awake or asleep.
Scanner you have to be right re: this; must be a strange mix of horror and pride for one's courage.
When the number 35,000 emerged,this struck me as brutal reality because the ones killed after this had gone into the millions. Trying to make sense of this ,or even take one single person out of the line to identify them apart from their numbers(if they had any since they went into the gas chambers straight from the train and the
following selection)it is an act of agony and despair.
As for their names:Jesaja 43:12,19
No one is ever lost.
His story is encouraging as it is humbling, to know such bravery existed amid such inhuman madness. Thanks for this, Jon.
I applaud him and I understand him.
Matt people like him awe me.
Kosh I can only hope to have that courage.
A powerful and truthful story is all I can say.
Powerful piece, almost overwhelming.
Brassawe quite a remarkable man!
Don't take this the wrong way JW, but it's a good thing those photos were taken. It's shocking how many deny the extermination aspect of the concentration camps and every bit of evidence to demonstrating the atrocities serves a purpose.
Oh, Jon! You have moved me deeply here. This makes me wonder if my elderly friend and compatriot (now gone) had his picture taken at the same facility.
I love how you phrased your final statement regarding "unsung decency."
Simply brilliant.
P.S. It is the anniversary of my friend's birth today....
How difficult his life must have been during this and living with all he knew after. I am surprised he was able to go on and live as long as he did.
Racism is a bitch! It's amazing that any of us have survived anything.
That last quote is haunting. Thank you for sharing this.
That speaks volumes of his character. Wow...
Abra I understand and wholly agree.
Delorys let's see what the US says late Tues night as to that. :)
Sheila speaks to extraordinary strength!
So important that he was able to bear witness. RIP.

One of the many stories I've never heard. How did he manage to hide/keep all the pictures? Where are they now?
Cat I believe he turned them over to the Allies after the war and that they found their way into various archives.

Thanks. Maybe there will be a tour of the photos. It may be thought of as looking at a car wreck, but I would still like to see them. It won't be long before the last of the people in the pictures are gone. If you hear of a link to an online viewing will you let us know?
Cat the US Holocaust Museum has many similar ones.
I am curious as to how he preserved tens of thousands of photos in what must have been very limited personal space. Also, why wasn't he just told to hand them over? I am not doubting his story, but it needs some rounding out.

Also, I find it remarkable that the great humanists of Open Salon have not yet come to this post to lament.

Anyway, thanks for posting.
Arthur It'd be great for you to investigate.
I am speechless Jon!