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Auschwitz prisoner survived through photos

A concentration camp prisoner who was conscripted by the Nazis to photograph other prisoners comes forward to share the experience, and the nightmare, of some 60 years ago.
A prisoner identity photo taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II.
A prisoner identity photo taken by Wilhelm Brasse while working in the photography department at Auschwitz, the Nazi-run death camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died during World War II.Auschwitz Museum / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

For years afterward, photographer Wilhelm Brasse saw them in his dreams — emaciated Jewish girls, herded naked in front of his camera at Auschwitz.

Eventually, his dreams stopped. But he never took pictures again.

“I didn’t return to my profession, because those Jewish kids, and the naked Jewish girls, constantly flashed before my eyes,” he said.

“Even more so because I knew that later, after taking their pictures, they would just go to the gas.”

Even today, more than 60 years after it ended, there are still stories to be told about the Holocaust, and the grisly nuts and bolts of running a concentration camp. Brasse recently told his on Polish television. Now he is talking to The Associated Press over coffee and pork cutlets at a friend’s restaurant in Zywiec, his hometown in southern Poland. He is cheerful, friendly and sharp-witted at 89.

But his voice occasionally wavers as he remembers.

Job was a lifeline
Brasse, who isn’t Jewish, survived because of his photography job, which enabled him to get better conditions and to swap food for pictures with the guards. Some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died at Auschwitz from gassing, shooting, disease, hunger or beatings.

Brasse was sent to Auschwitz at 22 as a political prisoner for trying to sneak out of German-occupied Poland in the spring of 1940. Because he had worked before World War II in a photography studio in Katowice, in southern Poland, he was put to work in the camp’s photography and identification department.

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY MARCH 5 ** FILE ** This undated photo taken by Wilhelm Brasse and released by the Auschwitz Museum, shows SS officer Maximilian Grabner. Brasse took photos for extra food while he worked in the photography department at Auschwitz, the World War II Nazi concentration camp where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jewish, died. (AP Photo/Auschwitz Museum)Auschwitz Museum / AP

“I was given a bath, a new prisoner uniform in decent shape, and moved to another block,” said Brasse. Because he was working with the SS, the Nazi’s fanatical elite force, he was kept cleaner, “so as not to offend the SS men.”

As the only professional photographer in the office, he took the prisoners’ pictures for camp files — part of the Nazis’ obsession with documenting what they were doing.

“I must have taken 40,000 to 50,000 of those identity pictures,” he says.

Sometimes the prisoners had been beaten too badly to get a clear photograph of their faces.

“The picture wasn’t taken and the prisoner was sent away and called back later, but sometimes it happened that there wasn’t anybody to call back because they’d been able to murder him in the meantime,” he said.

Hell on earthOther prisoners eventually took over the ID photos and Brasse was given new tasks, including pictures of prisoner tattoos. As he remembered a prisoner from Gdansk named Zylinski, he fidgeted with his car keys on the table.

“He had a gorgeous tattoo on his back; some artist must have done it for him, because paradise was done so beautifully. Adam and Eve, a tree of paradise, and Eve handing Adam an apple. It was really beautiful, and done in two colors, blue and red.”

“Some time later, maybe a month, word came from the crematorium, from a friend who worked at the crematorium, that he had something interesting to show. I saw it,” he said, his voice catching.

“The skin was cut out from the back of the prisoner. They cut out the whole piece, and kept the piece of skin, and tanned it.”

It was done on the orders of SS camp doctors, Brasse said.

Most new arrivals at Auschwitz went straight to the gas chambers, but those selected for work or experiments would be photographed — at least until 1943, when the Nazis switched to tattooing ID numbers on inmates’ arms. But Brasse’s work wasn’t over.

Meeting with MengeleOne day in 1943, his boss, an SS officer named Bernhard Walter, called him into his office. An immaculately uniformed SS officer was waiting. The stranger politely addressed Brasse as “sir.” It was Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous camp doctor and practitioner of cruel medical experiments, he learned afterward.

“He said that he was going to send some Jewish girls for pictures, and that I had to take pictures of them naked. One from the front, but the whole body; the second from behind; the third as a profile of the whole figure.”

Soon afterward, Brasse said, a group of some 15 Jewish girls were brought in.

“The girls undressed, they were about 15 or 16 years old, and there were some around 25 or 26...” He paused. “It was all so unpleasant.”

“They undressed and I said that they have to stand straight and I had to move the camera back to get the whole figure,” he said. “I took the pictures just as Mengele had indicated.”

The doctor ordered pictures of other prisoners he was performing his “experiments” on — Jewish twins, dwarfs, stunted people, people with noma, a disease common in the malnourished that can result in the loss of flesh. Mengele, who had written his dissertation on the formation of jawbones in supposedly non-Aryan people, was interested.

“I had to take close-ups. He said sometimes you will be able to see the whole bone of the jaw, and that I have to do close-ups of it.”

“I did the close-ups, in harsh light, and you could see to the bone,” Brasse said.

“Later, my boss called me in, and Dr. Mengele expressed his happiness with the pictures I’d taken, that I’d taken them just as he had needed them to be done,” Brasse said.

Asked how he felt about taking the pictures, Brasse said, “it was an order, and prisoners didn’t have the right to disagree. I couldn’t say 'I won’t do that.’ I only listened to what I had to do and because I didn’t harm anyone by what I was doing, I tried to address them politely. I explained that they didn’t have to be afraid here, that nothing bad was going to happen to them here, nobody would yell at them.”

A scramble to cover tracksAs the allies advanced on Berlin in late 1944 and early 1945, the Nazis scrambled to cover up their crimes. Boxes of Brasse’s pictures were shipped out of the camp, Brasse said. He doesn’t know where to.

As Russian troops closed in on Auschwitz in January 1945, Brasse’s boss, Walter, worried about the photos still in the camp. He told the young Pole: “Ivan is coming. Burn everything. All the photographs, all the negatives, files, burn it all.”

But the negatives were fireproof. Walter swore and left. Brasse and another inmate doused them with water. Most of Brasse’s photos disappeared, but some survived, although it is hard to say which were Brasse’s, since camp photos as a rule didn’t carry the photographer’s name. However, in the TV documentary he told the story behind some pictures in the Auschwitz museum archives that he remembers taking.

Mengele hid in Bavaria, then fled to South America, where he died in 1979.

Jaroslaw Mensfelt, spokesman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, says some 200,000 such pictures were taken, with name, nationality and profession attached.

About 40,000 of these pictures are preserved, some with the identification cards, and 2,000 of these are on display in the museum. Others are at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.

Retiring the camera Ahead of the Soviet advance, the Nazis evacuated Brasse and thousands of other prisoners under heavy guard to Austria. American troops freed him from the Ebensee camp months later. He weighed 88 pounds.

He recovered in an American hospital, and went home to Poland and his family — all of whom survived the war — in July 1945. He wanted to work as a photographer, but couldn’t. Eventually, he started a business making sausage casings.

“I didn’t have a camera, I didn’t have anything,” he said. “After everything, after Dr. Mengele, I had an unpleasant feeling taking pictures.”

“When I started to take them, it always seemed to me that I saw those naked Jewish girls that I’d taken pictures of. That came to mind and I stopped taking photos.”

He still keeps a prewar Kodak Retina camera at home. It sits unused.