The Nazis, Auschwitz and the Man Named Wilhelm Brasse

Wilhelm Brasse with the abandoned Asuchwitz camp in the background (left) and the camp as it was during WWII (right).
Wilhelm Brasse with the abandoned Asuchwitz camp in the background (left) and the camp as it was during WWII (right).

Wilhelm Brasse with the abandoned Asuchwitz camp in the background (left) and the camp as it was during WWII (right).
Wilhelm Brasse with the abandoned Asuchwitz camp in the background (left) and the camp as it was during WWII (right).

He was forced by the Nazis to capture images that would haunt him throughout his lifetime…this is the story of the Nazis, the camp named Auschwitz and the man we know as Wilhelm Brasse.

The disturbing stares of fearful children…the skinny and naked bodies of frightened girls…young victims of monstrous medical experiments…pictures taken moments before their deaths…Wilhelm Brasse was a photographer forced by the Nazis to take some of the most haunting and terrifying images  during WWII in a location where some of the vilest war crimes ever done to humanity was done – the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The resulting pictures he took preyed upon him for the rest of his life.

The eerie pictures snapped by the camera lenses of Wilhelm Brasse are too distressing to look at. For the photographer, they brought about pain due to the heavy memories connected to them. The photographer had to contend with these insufferable recollections day in and day from the moment he pressed the shutters up to the day he died.

Conceivably, no other man was able to witness the extent of the Nazis’ evil crimes than Wilhelm Brasse himself.

Pole photographer Wilhelm Brasse was in his early 20s when he became the chief photographer at the ill-famed Nazi prison camp where about 1.5 million people whop were mostly Jews met their death.

Wilhelm was a prisoner himself in Auschwitz as he refused to join the German army and believed that he was damned to a dark death just like the subjects of his haunting images.

But then, he became a hero to these helpless prisoners. He became driven with the desire to be able to tell the stories of these poor souls once the war was over ultimately risking his life just so he could preserve the countless photographs he took even when he was strictly ordered to destroy them.

At the end of the war, a barely alive Wilhelm Brasse was freed by US troops. He only weighed 6 stones that time. The photos he took went on to become hard evidences against the inhumane crimes the Nazi monsters, the same ones who employed him to take them, did.

“Those Jewish kids, and the naked Jewish girls, constantly flashed before my eyes. Even more so because I knew that later, after taking their pictures, they would just go to the gas.

I saw all those big eyes, terrified, staring at me. I could not go on. These are things you can never forget,” he revealed in an interview shortly before his death in 2012 at the ripe age of 94.

Quote from the Daily Mirror

His Story

Wilhelm Brasse was born in 1917 to an Austrian father and Polish mother. He spent his early years in Katowice, Poland. It was also there that he trained as a portrait photographer in the studio which his aunt owned.

Nazi invasion came on September 1939 and despite being interrogated mercilessly by the Gestapo, young Wilhelm Brasse refused to give his allegiance to the Führer.

One year later, he was apprehended while trying to sneak out of Nazi-occupied Poland into Hungary. He was imprisoned for four months and was given another chance to pledge his loyalty to Hitler. He again refused to do so.

Because of his defiance, he was sent via train to Auschwitz, newly opened at that time but would in course of days become the very essence of systematic mass murder.

“The SS chief told us the average life expectancy was two weeks. The strongest would survive for around three months but it was death in the end, however tough you were. It was constant hitting and kicking and humiliation,” he recalled.

Quote from the Daily Mirror

Rudolf Hoss, the ruthless commander of Auschwitz who later was hanged for the war crimes he committed, summoned Wilhelm Brasse to his office in February 1941. He braced himself thinking that his end had finally come.

Portrait photographer Wilhelm Brasse took photos of prisoners for Nazi documentation.
Portrait photographer Wilhelm Brasse took photos of prisoners for Nazi documentation.

But then, instead of death, Hoss offered him a proposition – become the camp’s photographer. His responsibility was to take pictures of the prisoners; part of how the Nazis were sticklers on documentations.

being the camp’s photographer saved his life. He was treated better than the other prisoners as well as was given better meals. he also was kept cleaner as he had to work with the Nazi’s paramilitary force, the SS.

Throughout the two years he acted as the camp’s shutterbug, Wilhelm Brasse amassed as much as 50,000 portraits of the camp’s prisoners and was able to witness the harsh treatments they received from the Nazi guards.

“As the prisoners waited in a queue, the kapos (prisoner overseers) would beat them mercilessly if they made the slightest mistake,” he said.

Quote from the Daily Mirror

Young Polish girls like Czeslawa Kwoka were not exempt from these cruelties.

“She was so young and terrified. The girl couldn’t understand what was being said to her so this woman kapo took a stick and beat her about the face,” Wilhelm Brasse recalled then added…

“This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal.”

Quote from the Daily Mirror

Czeslawa died like many others in the camp. She was only 14.

There was also one incident where Wilhelm was asked to take a photograph of an intricate tattoo of Adam and Eve inked on one inmate’s back. Half an hour later, he came upon that inmate again though that time, he was already dead and skinned.

One of the pictures included in the Wilhelm Brasse book "Photographer of Auschwitz". (Photo: Nowa Historia)
One of the pictures included in the Wilhelm Brasse book “Photographer of Auschwitz”. (Photo: Nowa Historia)

“The skin with the tattoo was stretched on a table waiting to be framed for this doctor. It was a horrible, horrible sight,” he remembered.

Quote from the Daily Mirror

Another barbarous medic – Doctor Josef Mengele – also forced Wilhelm Brasse to photograph his victims.

“Mengele said he wanted me to photograph some of those he was experimenting on. They’d bring the women into the room and strip them naked, then inject them with a kind of anesthetic – unless they were Jewish, in which case experiments would be performed without anesthesia,” he stated.

Quote from the Daily Mirror

Aside from women, he ad to take pictures of children who became Mengele’s subjects in his gruesome science experiments. These kids were forced to undergo dreadful sadistic procedures which include organ removal, castrations and amputations without anesthetic.

When the Allies penetrated Berlin late 1944, the Nazis scuttled to burn up all the photographs taken in the Auschwitz camp to cover up their horrible crimes. However, Wilhelm Brasse with the help of another inmate manged to bury the tens of thousands of picture negatives in the camp’s ground. They were recovered later.

Mr. Brasse returned to his home in Poland in 1945 after he was freed. He resumed his normal life before WWII, got married and had two children.

Wilhelm Brasse and his Auschwitz photos.
Wilhelm Brasse and his Auschwitz photos.

Nevertheless, being Auschwitz’ photographer had affected him so much he couldn’t work as photographer again. So he resorted to making sausage casings to provide for his family.

Still, he carried on being a witness. The fire which once fueled him as he snapped pictures of the helpless victims to Nazi cruelty continued to burn in him. He was still very determined to let their stories out to the world through the pictures he took.

Thanks to his pictures, these victims’ faces and the horrors of the Holocaust will be forever etched in history.

Auschwitz’ Angel of Death – Dr. Mengele

Nazi medic Dr. Josef Mengele was evil personified. He was infamously known in Auschwitz as the Angel of Death due to the gruesome experiments he conducted using the prisoners as his subjects.

Fascinated with identical twins, around 3,000 pairs were charged to his cruel operations. he loved to portray “Uncle Mengele” to the camp’s innocent children offering them blankets and sweets as he trolled through the prisoners looking for his next victims.

His inhumane experiments included sex change and infecting inmates with deadly germs.

Mengele was able to elude being captured and  fled to South America after WWII ended where he died out of natural causes in Brazil on 1979.

The Mirror reports 

Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE