The Photographer from Auschwitz
#language & literature
default, The Photographer
from Auschwitz, Wilhelm Brasse during a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2011, photo: Czesław Czapliński / Fotonowa / East News, wilhelm_brasse_portret_en.jpg
Wilhelm Brasse is the creator of more than 50,000 pictures of prisoners of the Nazi German concentration camp Auschwitz. Anna Dobrowolska's book brings his memories to paper.
In the book, Brasse, an extraordinary witness of the Holocaust, talks in a gripping way about his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp and the resultant trauma. Anna Dobrowolska, who recorded nearly 20 hours of conversations with him, 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, a historian from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum adds:
Although in the recollections from his time in Auschwitz he [Brasse] 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 was 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, he decided to join the Polish army. In March 1940, during an attempt to cross over to Hungary, he was detained by the Germans. He was brought to Auschwitz on 31st 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 more than 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 (The Photographer from Auschwitz), published by Rekontrplan, came out on 20th November 2013 and is available in bookstores in Poland and on Amazon.
fotograf z auschwitz
photographer from auschwitz
Translated with edits by MJJ, 25 Nov 2013