Sunday, January 29, 2017

Auschwitz and the photographic record of Wilhelm Brasse

January 27th was the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi extermination and concentration camp  Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet Red Army troops in 1945.

Over 1.5 million people died in Auschwitz, most of them Jewish men, women and children.

The photographs of Wilhelm Brasse are one of the most haunting and shocking photographic records of the Holocaust.

Wilhelm Brasse was a Polish professional photographer who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, who was forced to photograph thousands of inmates for Nazi identity records, as well as documenting medical experimentation on the prisoners. Prior to the war Brasse was a photographer.

Brasse estimates that in the years he was a camp photographer he took between 40,000 and 50,000 images of inmates and German officers and staff between 1940-1945. 

Being a camp photographer saved Brasse's life. He was treated better than other prisoners and received better meals.

As the Russian army drew closer to Auschwitz in 1945 Brasse was ordered to destroy the images. He refused. With the help of another inmate Brasse manged to bury the tens of thousands of picture negatives in the camp’s ground. They were recovered later.

Although only a proportion of the images survived, Brasse's work remains one of the few surviving photographic records of Auschwitz.

Brasse was one of 20,000 inmates who managed to survive. He was moved to another concentration camp in Austria where he was liberated by American forces in May 1945.

After the war, Brasse lived  just a few miles from Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was so traumatized and haunted by the "ghosts" of the photographs of his subjects that he was unable to to resume work as a portrait photographer and ultimately established a sausage casing business.

Brasse would never take another photograph.

Brasse had two children and five grandchildren, and lived with his wife until he died in 2012 aged 94.

Articles about Wilhelm Brasse are here, here, here, here and here.

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