Category: Non-fiction

Reiner Engelmann
Der Fotograf von Auschwitz. Das Leben des Wilhelm Brasse
[The Auschwitz Photographer: The Life of Wilhelm Brasse]


Pictures of Horror Reiner Engelmann’s biography of the Auschwitz photographer Wilhelm Brasse

In the summer of 1940 Wilhelm Brasse set off from his Polish hometown of Żywiec headed for France to join the resistance against Nazi Germany. Shortly before he reached the border to Hungary, the then 22-year-old was arrested. An SS man offered to let him go, under one condition: Brasse, son of a Polish mother and an Austrian father, had to swear allegiance to his “German heritage.” Brasse refused to relinquish his Polish citizenship and was sent to Auschwitz, where he became “prisoner number 3444.” Prisoners survive at most for three months, announced an SS man in his “welcome speech” to the new arrivals in the camp.
Contributing to the fact that Brasse survived quite a bit longer was—aside from an enormous dose of luck—his skill with a camera. Six months after he was first incarcerated, the trained portrait photographer was assigned to the camp’s so-called ID department. From then on, his main job was to photograph other prisoners for their file: three pictures per person—profile, frontal, and semi-profile with a head covering. Sometimes Brasse shot portraits of more than one hundred people each day. Altogether he must have photographed around 70,000 people. For most of them it was the last photographs of their life.
Reiner Engelmann, who was able to interview Brasse extensively in October 2012, shortly before Brasse’s death, wrote the story of the “Auschwitz photographer” in a small yet remarkable book. In thirty-three short chapters, a panorama of the inhumanities is unfolded. It arouses such a strong feeling of anxiety, because Engelmann keeps his description completely free of sham pathos or false sentimentality. From the perspective of someone who lived through the times, reconstructed in a factual yet empathetic way, the life-threatening presumptions of everyday life in the camp are described. The arbitrariness and brutality of the guards are as vivid as the misanthropic cynicism of the camp doctors. In addition to the newly arrived prisoners, also the subjects of the Nazis’ “medical experiments” stood in front of Brasse’s camera. Sadists in white coats such as Josef Mendele and Carl Clauberg had their racial experiments, hunger experiments, and sterilization massacres documented in the camp’s photo studio.
Brasse was already well aware that what he got to view through his camera lens was only a fraction of the crimes that were committed in the so-called main camp of Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), not to mention the actual exterminatin camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the second half of 1941, the atrocities seemed to have reached a new dimension. Suddenly there were SS men walking around the main camp wearing gas masks. Rumors spread that people were being poisoned systematically and on a large scale with Zyklon B. Up to then the victims were generally hanged, beaten to death, or shot. At some point Brasse’s superior, Ernst Hofmann, gave him new orders in the photo studio: “Brasse, from now on you won’t photograph any more Jews. There’s no sense in that, they’ll die anyway.”
In passing as it were, without any tendency to inappropriately make Brasse into a hero, Engelmann sketches the character of his photographer subject. In order to survive, Brasse had to use his skills as a photographer in the service of the Nazis. Yet his moral compass remained intact. Whenever possible, he tried to help his fellow prisoners, but he was nevertheless overwhelmed by a feeling of powerlessness.
At a crucial moment, however, Brasse refused to obey. In January 1945, when the thunder of Red Army cannons was approaching, the head of the ID department, Oberscharführer Bernhard Walter, turned to him. “Brasse, the Russians are coming.” All documents and photographs were to be destroyed immediately. At first Brasse did in fact throw everything into the stove. But as soon as Walter left the room, he took it all back out. Almost 40,000 of his pictures have remained for posterity as documents against forgetting.
Engelmann’s book contains very few of Brasse’s photographs. But the author’s short, unadorned sentences create vivid pictures of horror in the minds of the readers.
Marianna Lieder

By Marianna Lieder, 13.10.2015

​Marianna Lieder works as a freelance journalist and literary critic for publications including the Tagesspiegel, the Stuttgarter Zeitung and Literaturen. She has been an editor at Philosophie Magazin since 2011.

Translated by Allison Brown