Photographer tricked Nazis to save Auschwitz images
A Polish photographer forced by the Nazis to document the terror at Auschwitz saved the historically important negatives by duping his commander.Wilhelm Brasse was put through daily torture photographing the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp but the young Pole pulled a fast one over his Nazi captors to make sure the terrible events were not forgotten.
Brasse, now 91, had to take pictures of women whose genitals were butchered by Nazi "Angel of Death" Josef Mengele, of Jewish prisoners arriving at the camp to go to the gas chamber and even of the camp brothel where women were turned into sex slaves.
Somehow, Brasse survived the war. However, as the Soviet Red Army approached, his Nazi commander ordered him to burn all his negatives on January 17, 1944. "He said: ‘Brasse, the 'Ivans' are coming - destroy everything,’" the photographer recalled in an interview to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January. "But he didn't know the negatives were non-flammable. I put them in the stove, lit it, my boss waited 10 minutes and when he left I poured water on the flames."
It was one of the miracles of Auschwitz. Brasse, a portrait photographer from Katowice, managed to save many of the photos.
"This one, it's a special photo ordered by Dr. Mengele in 1943,” said Brasse, holding up a photo of four living skeletons. “They were Jewish teenager girls, two sets of twins."
"They were so young, terrified and so embarrassed standing naked in front of me, a 23-year-old man," he added, showing a photo of himself as a young man, prisoner number 3444. "I knew they would die in a few days or a few hours. It was their last photo."
Brasse was forced by the Nazis to work in a unit documenting the death camp.
"The only thing I could tell them was that nothing else would happen to them," he said.
Brasse was also forced to document inhuman pseudo-medical experiments performed by Mengele and other doctors.
"The victims, women, were anaesthetized,” said Brasse. “Their uteruses were pulled out through their vaginas and I was forced to photograph the organs in detail."
He also photographed prisoners arriving at the camp.
"When they arrived at Auschwitz, people's faces were full, they looked normal,” he said. “Just weeks later, if they were still alive, they were unrecognizable."
He had tried to get to France to join a free Polish force but was caught at the border and shipped to Auschwitz among 460 Polish political prisoners.
"The Germans wanted me to declare I was German," said Brasse. But he refused to renounce his Polish nationality. "My mother was Polish, I felt Polish even though I spoke German well, just like my grandfather.”
He became a photographer because his parents were too poor to pay school fees. After working as an apprentice, he became a portrait photographer in Katowice. "I was the only professional photographer in the 'Erkennungsdienst,'” he said. “The Germans needed me, this is why I survived.”
He was ordered to photograph the severed head of a prisoner who had drowned in the Sola river, adjacent to the camp. Brasse was also required to photograph women forced to work in a camp brothel and the elite German SS officers who ran it.
The horrors did not end with the liberation of Auschwitz. Four days later, he was evacuated in an infamous Death March of 60,000 sick and dying prisoners over hundreds of kilometres west to Gross-Rosen and Buchenwald.
He survived and was held at the Mauthausen, Melk and Ebensee camps in Austria before being liberated by US troops on May 6, 1945.
Historians estimate 1.1 million people died at the hands of Poland's German occupiers at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps between 1940 and 1945. Ninety percent of the victims were Jews.
"After the war, I tried to work as a photographer, but I couldn't,” Brasse said. “Those poor Jewish children were always before my eyes. There are things you can never forget."