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Auschwitz Photographer Haunted by Memories

Wilhelm Brasse was forced to document Nazis' prisoners and Mengele's subjects. After the war, he stopped taking photos.

March 05, 2006|Ryan Lucas | Associated Press Writer

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

Eventually, the 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 details of running a concentration camp. Brasse recently told his story on Polish television.

Later, speaking to a reporter over coffee and pork cutlets at a friend's restaurant in Zywiec, his hometown in southern Poland, he was cheerful, friendly and sharp-witted at 89.

But his voice occasionally wavered as he remembered.

Brasse, who isn't Jewish, survived at Auschwitz because of his photography job, which enabled him to get better conditions than other inmates and to swap food for pictures with the guards. About 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 Poland, which was occupied by Germany, in the spring of 1940. Because he had worked in a photography studio in Katowice, in southern Poland, he was put to work in the camp's photography and identification department.

"I was given a bath, a new prisoner uniform in decent shape, and moved to another block," Brasse said. Because he was working with the SS, the Nazis' 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 documentation.

"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.

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

"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."

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

One day in 1943, his boss, an SS officer named Bernhard Walter, called him into his office. A uniformed SS officer was waiting. The stranger politely addressed Brasse as "sir." It was the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele, 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 about 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.

"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, an infection common in the malnourished that can result in the loss of flesh. Mengele, who had written his dissertation on the formation of jawbones in "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."

"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.

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