Wilhelm Brasse was a Polish portrait photographer trained at his aunt’s studio before World War II broke out. It was in 1939 when the German invaded Poland including his hometown, Żywiec. After being interrogated by the Schutzstaffel (SS) and refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler, he was imprisoned for three months. However, on his release, he still refused to give in and had tried to escape to Hungary so he could join the Polish Army in France. Unfortunately, he got caught and was shipped off to the Nazis’ most notorious concentration camp – Auschwitz-Berkinau – as prisoner no. 3444.
When the SS camp administrators learned he was a portrait photographer, they ordered him to take pictures of “prisoners’ work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files.”
His photos even included subjects the notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele experimented on. Upon seeing the pictures he had taken on the camp’s prisoners, Dr. Mengel came to “love” Brasse’s work he personally asked the photographer to take pictures of some of the twins and people with congenital conditions who were moved to his infirmary and he was conducting tests on.
Brasse later estimated the photographs he had taken during his stay in Auschwitz as numbering from 40,000 to 50,000 “identity pictures” taken between the years 1940 and 1945 – the duration of his stay in Auschwitz before being moved into another concentration camp until he was liberated by American troops in May 1945.
After the war, Brasse had tried to get back to his old life as a photographer but felt haunted by the images of the Auschwitz prisoners he took. At the end, he put up his own sausage-casing business and when the business proved successful, he never took another photograph his entire life even if he still had a “small pre-war Kodak camera“ in his possession.
Brasse died at the age of 94 last year.
Recently, Anna Dobrowolska, launched a new book in honor of this ‘Auschwitz Photographer’. Dobrowolska was also responsible for making a documentary based on Brasse’s life way back in 2005.
The book, Photographer from Auschwitz (Fotograf z Auschwitz), broke ground in Warsaw last November 20 and was based not just on the surviving haunting photographs taken by Brasse in Auschwitz but also on the nearly 20-hour interview the author had with the photographer while he was still living.
“He was an extraordinary witness to the Holocaust,” Miss Dobrowolska said.
Though not all of Brasse’s photos survived throughout the war but those that did can be seen in the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum.