Wilhelm Brasse witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust through a camera lens. Forced by the Nazis to take photographs of inmates in the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, Brasse documented the faces of fear, confusion, anguish and anger of thousands of men, women, and children as they passed through, often to end up in gas chambers.
Brasse was a native Pole who was captured by the Nazis trying to escape to Hungary. He was given the option in enlisting in the German army since he spoke German but he refused. He was brought to Auschwitz. Prior to the war he was a professional portrait photographer and was forced to use his skill to take an estimated 40-50,000 thousand photos between 1940 and 1945.
Brasse worked mainly for Dr. Josef Mengele, a Nazi physician who was not only responsible for determining who would be put to work and who would be put to death but also used prisoners, including children, for horrific medical experiments. Mengele was known as the “Angel of Death.” (He escaped following the war, lived for a time in South America, but was never captured.)
It was Mengele who ordered Brasse to take three portraits of each inmate: one from the right, one from the front, and one looking to the left and slightly upward wearing cap or head covering. He was also asked to document life at the camp and some of the experimentation done on inmates.
According to Brasse, the Nazis took portraits of 35,000 Jews. After that they stopped because Jewish prisoners were no longer saved for labor, just sent directly to the gas chambers. Other groups were also documented including Poles, the Roma (aka “Gypsies”), and homosexuals.
In January 1945 as the Soviet Army approached Brasse was ordered to destroy the photographs. He did not. Because of his actions over 40,000 photos remain today, most of which are in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
After the war, Brasse tried to return to professional photography but the trauma of his five years at Auschwitz made it impossible.
Wilhelm Brasse died at the age of 94.
(Images are copyright of Wilhelm Brasse/AP and courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The top photo is of Czeslawa Kwoka a 14-year old girl who was brought to Auschwitz in December 1942 and killed there in March 1943. All the other portraits are unidentified.)
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