'I will never forget these scenes'
The Nazis at Auschwitz were obsessed with documenting their war crimes and Wilhelm Brasse was one of a group of prisoners forced to take photographs for them. With the 60th anniversary of the death camp's liberation approaching, he talks to Janina Struk
It happened many years ago, but the memory still makes Wilhelm Brasse's eyes moisten. "I made photographs of young women for Dr Mengele. I was aware that they were going to die. They didn't know to photograph these women and to know that they were going to die was so highly distressing. They were so full of life and so beautiful ..." He breaks off.
The 22-year-old Wilhelm Brasse arrived at Auschwitz with around 400 other Polish political prisoners on August 31 1940. After two weeks in quarantine and six months' forced labour he was put to work in the Erkennungsdienst the identification service that produced photographic documentation of the camp regime. Around a dozen prisoners, mainly Polish, were put to work some with professional skills as photographers, darkroom technicians, retouchers, designers and writers. The Nazis were obsessed with documenting their crimes.
The Erkennungsdienst, which came under the control of the camp Gestapo, was established in January 1941. On the orders of camp commandant Rudolf Höss, 30-year-old SS sergeant Bernhard Walter, known for his indulgence in alcohol and gambling, was transferred from the Erkennungsdienst at Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin to head the department, and manage the camp cinema.
Initially the main task was to take identity photographs of newly arrived prisoners. Brasse had all the requisite skills. He had been a photographer in a studio in Silesia before the war and spoke German, a department requirement; speaking Polish was not allowed. In the well equipped studio he and his fellow workers made mugshots in three poses of those categorised as political prisoners.
Sitting in a small, empty, dimly lit restaurant in his home town of Zywiec in southern Poland, Brasse, now 87 years old and stooped from a severe beating in the camp, recalls his bitter experiences of Auschwitz.
In September 1941, 600 Soviet POWs and 250 Poles were among the first victims of a Zyklon B poison gas experiment at Auschwitz. More Russians were brutally killed in the execution yard of Block 11. Walter made a film of this shocking scene, and Brasse remembers with horror the sadistic enthusiasm with which the SS sergeant showed him and his fellow workers the film of the naked Soviet POWs being axed to death. "I have never forgotten, and probably will never forget the scenes in this film," he says.
Walter took pleasure in taking pictures of suffering and the dead. He and his assistant, former schoolteacher SS corporal Ernst Hofmann, would turn up to photograph prisoners who had been shot trying to escape, or who, unable to endure the misery, had hanged themselves or thrown themselves on the electrified fence. Pery Broad, a functionary in the Gestapo, later wrote that "the officers of the Erkennungsdienst hurried to the place and photographed the body from all angles".
From 1942, with the arrival of the notorious Auschwitz camp doctors and the first transports of Jews, the work of the prisoner- photographers became increasingly macabre. Prisoners the doctors considered to be interesting Hasidic Jews, triplets and twins, the diseased, deformed or disabled, and even those with unusual tattoos were lined up for the camera. Brasse recalls photographing a prisoner who had "a beautiful Adam and Eve tattoo" on his chest. He later saw the tattoo skin removed from the body, and "stretched on a special canvas". Darkroom worker Bronislaw Jureczek claimed that Walter had an album of photographs of tattoos locked away in his office. "This is what they found entertaining," says Brasse, "photographs like this. Why anyone wanted to look at this kind of thing I haven't a clue."
When the doctors, including Eduard Wirths and Josef Mengele, performed their pseudo-scientific medical experiments on prisoners they sometimes ordered Brasse to take the photographs. Wirths and Dr Samuel, a German Jewish professor, performed horrendous gynaecological experiments on young women. "On a couple of occasions," says Brasse, "I had to take colour photographs of these experiments but this film was sent to a lab in Berlin. They said the work was about research for cancer of the womb but they could have been doing anything."
Although the work in the Erkennungsdienst was top secret and closely supervised, the workers were sometimes able to pass on documents and pictures to the underground in Krakow via the Auschwitz resistance. Brasse helped forge documents for prisoners attempting to escape and once smuggled medicine to Birkenau in a tripod case.
I ask Brasse if he had ever secretly taken a photograph in the camp. He pauses, lowers his eyes, and says quietly: "Only once. It was just a photograph of a woman, a fellow prisoner, who looked extremely pretty." This simple, demure act in such a barbaric environment was important to him. At great risk he smuggled the picture out of the camp to his mother. After the war ended he found the woman and gave her the print. She said she didn't like the way she looked and destroyed it.
From January 1944, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the main centre for the extermination of Jews. More than 200 photographs taken at the ramp where the transports arrived have survived. They were pasted into a photo album which a former Auschwitz prisoner, Lili Jacob, found in another camp after the war. She recognised herself and her family most of whom had been murdered. Most of the photographs were probably taken by Walter, though he denied it at a trial of 22 Auschwitz guards in Frankfurt in 1963. According to prisoners' evidence, he was often seen riding his motorbike to Birkenau, and sometimes took his camera. He would return dusty, tired and drunk to process his film. Occasionally he gave it to a prisoner to process, sometimes to Brasse.
Hofmann was also known to have taken pictures at the ramp, and near the gas chambers. "I know this," says Brasse, "because I developed and printed some of these photographs for him." He recalls one image in particular. "It was a photograph of an elderly woman taken at the moment when she was entering the gas chamber, just to see her face to see her reaction her face was terrible, frightened and with a horrible expression."
I show Brasse a copy of Lili Jacob's album (the original is at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem). He turns the pages slowly and says he recognises some of the photographs which he had printed in the Erkennungsdienst darkroom and which must have been taken by either Walter or Hofmann. The album is the only surviving photographic evidence of the selection process at the ramp at Birkenau.
As the mass killings continued through the summer of 1944, the crematoria could not cope with the numbers and pyres had to be lit to dispose of the corpses. These horrific scenes too were photographed, but secretly, by the Sonderkommando, a special unit of prisoners whose job it was to burn the bodies of those who had been gassed. Somehow they managed to acquire a camera and, when the coast was clear of SS guards, took pictures from a window which show the burning pyres and a group of naked women being driven towards the gas-chamber of crematorium V.
The pictures were smuggled to the underground in Krakow with a note written in code, dated September 4. It began: "Urgent. Send two metal rolls of film for 6x9 camera as fast as possible. Have possibility of taking photos. Sending you snaps from Birkenau ..."
Three of these remarkable images have survived. Former Sonderkommando Alter Fajnzylberg, later described how the pictures were taken. "We all gathered at the western entrance leading from the outside to the gas chamber of crematorium V: we could not see any SS men ... Alex, the Greek Jew, quickly took out his camera, pointed it towards a heap of burning bodies, and pressed the shutter ..."
By late December 1944, as the Soviet army approached, Walter, the SS sergeant, had packed the photographic evidence off in crates; no one knows where. By mid-January 1945 only a few prisoners, including Brasse and Jureczek, were left in the Erkennungsdienst. As the red army drew nearer, Walter began to panic and ordered that all remaining photographs and negatives be burned.
Jureczek described what happened: "We put wet photographic paper and then photographs and negatives into a tile stove in such large numbers as to block the exhaust outlet. This ensured that when we set fire to the materials in the stove only the photographs and negatives near the stove door would be consumed, and that the fire would die out due to the lack of air. Moreover I had deliberately scattered a number of photographs and negatives in the room of the lab. I knew that with the hurried evacuation of the camp, no one would have time to gather them all and that something would survive." Thanks to the ingenuity of Jureczek and Brasse, around 40,000 of them did survive, and are kept at Auschwitz museum.
On January 27 1945 the red army arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. More than one million Jews and tens of thousands of other peoples had been slaughtered there. Soviet and Polish military photographers began to record the desperate scenes they found, and the photographers of the Erkennungsdienst were forgotten.
In 1948 Walter began a three-year prison sentence in Poland, after which he returned to Germany and became a movie projectionist in Bavaria. Hofmann disappeared; according to Brasse, he never returned to his family in Germany. Jureczek went to work in the steelworks in Bytom, a few miles from Auschwitz (Oswiecim in Polish). As for Brasse: he went back to Zywiec, a few miles from the camp, and would never raise a camera to his eye again.
© Janina Struk
Janina Struk is author of Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, published by IB Tauris. To order a copy for £15.15 (with 5% discount and free UK p&p), call the Guardian book service on 0870 836 0875 or go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop