Wilhelm Brasse is the author of over 50.000 pictures of prisoners of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. Anna Dobrowolska's book brings his memories on paper.
Brasse, an extraordinary witness of the Holocaust, talks about his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp and the trauma in a gripping way. Anna Dobrowolska, who recorded nearly 20 hours of conversations with the man, discloses how Brasse "speaks very matter-of-factly, very concisely [...]. Brasse was an extremely honest person, his honesty was almost painful for his conversation partners, sometimes it made your blood run cold." His account abounds with "numerous examples, episodes, experiences, he builds a large-scale image of the camp" Jacek Lachendro, historian from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum adds, "Although in the recollections from his time in Auschwitz he mainly speaks about himself, he overcomes subjectivism, he sheds light on various aspects of the functioning of the camp. In some passages, you can feel the atmosphere of terror that reigned."
The book gives a gruesome image of the daily existence of Auschwitz prisoners, and "through the voices of young people who wanted to survive" includes the memories of other prisoners. This desire to survive was shared by Dobrowolska's protagonist, who was put in the camp at the age of 23.
The book is deep and alarming, a complex window into a horrific episode in the history of humanity. Brasse recalls his work as the camp's photographer,
The most difficult was the first contact with the prisoners. At first their eyes were bursting with fright, with time, they became indifferent. The vision of a starving human being is forlorn, looking into infinity. Nothing interests him, all his thoughts are concentrated on eating. That's the only daydream, goal, dream ... [...] When I was taking pictures of them, I asked them not to look into the camera directly, but just to the side of the camera. 'Don't smile, don't cry' - I would say
Wilhelm Brasse was born in 1917 in Żywiec. His grandfather was Austrian, his mother was Polish and his father fought in the Polish army. Before the war, Wilhelm Brasse worked as a photographer in Katowice, where he learned the profession in his aunt's atelier. His specialty were portraits and identity card photographs.
After the beginning of the war, he refused to sign the Volksliste (German People's List), he worked as a photographer in Krynica and eventually decided to join the Polish army. During an attempt to cross over to Hungary, he was detained by the Germans in March 1940. He was brought to Auschwitz on the 31st of August 1940. He wore the number 3444.
In January of the following year, Brasse ended up in the division responsible for taking pictures of the prisoners. He took over 50.000 pictures (almost 40.000 of which survived the war) intended, among others, for the pseudo-scientific experiments of Josef Mengele and Eduard Wirths.
In January 1945, after the evacuation of Auschwitz, Brasse was taken to Mauthausen, then Melk and Ebensee, where he was eventually liberated. After the war he lived in Żywiec. He attempted to go back to his profession, but fraught with memories, didn't succeed in picking up a camera. He died in 2012 in his hometown at the age of 95.
Dobrowolska met Brasse in 2001. She recorded almost 20 hours of conversations with him about his memories, only 40 minutes of which are used in the film (excerpt above). Dobrowolska recalls,
We knew that memories recollections such as these could not be forsaken, that they had to go out into the world and reach people [...]. I spent many days and nights with this man while working on this book [...], I wish to pay him a tribute.
- Anna Dobrowolska's book "Fotograf z Auschwitz" / "Photographer from Auschwitz" came out on the 20th of November 2013 and is available in bookstores in Poland.
Editor: MJJ 25.11.2013 translated with edits from the Polish language article