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Man who photographed the Holocaust for the Nazis dies at 94

By Greg Goodsell
October 28th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Forced by the Nazis to document the atrocities at Auschwitz with his camera, photographer Wilhelm Brasse has passed away at the age of 94. His photographs live on as an example of one of humanity's darker hours. Haunted by years by the photos he was forced to take, he took some satisfaction that his pictures were later used to convict the Nazis for war crimes.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - Brasse was forced to take photographs of frightened children and victims of gruesome medical experiments mere moments from their deaths. More than 1.5 million people died at the notorious camp.

Brasse was forced to relive those horrors, was considered a hero after he risked his life to preserve the harrowing photographs.

It's estimated that Brasse took some 40,000-50,000 photographs.

Brasse had trained as a portrait photographer in a studio owned by his aunt in the Polish town of Katowice. He had an eye for the telling image and an ability to put his subjects at ease.

This easy life was shattered with the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. The son of a German father and Polish mother, "When the Germans came, they wanted me to join them and say I was loyal to the Reich, but I refused. I felt Polish and I was Polish. It was my mother who instilled this in us."

The then-22-year-old Brasse, after several Gestapo interrogations, tried to flee to Hungary but was caught at the border. He was imprisoned for four months and then offered another chance to declare his loyalty to Hitler.

"They wanted me to join the German army and promised everything would be OK for me if I did."

He refused and in the summer of 1940 he was placed on a train for the newly opened concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Summoned to the camp commander's office in February of 1941, Brasse was certain that this was the end -- but when he arrived he discovered that the SS was looking for photographers.

There were four other contenders. "We were five people. They went through everything with us - the laboratory skills and the technical ability with a camera. I had the skills as well as being able to speak German, so I was chosen."

A daily parade filed through his makeshift photographic studio. Each day he took so many pictures that another team of prisoners was assembled to develop the pictures.
One especially horrific story of his time at the infamous death camp was the time the diabolical Dr. Josef Mengele requested Brasse to take a photograph of a man's Garden of Eden tattoo. The man was immediately killed afterwards, and later saw that Mengele had carved the tattoo of the man from his body to have it stretched into a picture frame.

Brasse and another inmate managed to bury thousands of negatives in the camp's grounds which were later recovered.

After his time at Auschwitz, Brasse tried to return to photography -- but the experience had scarred him for life.

"When I started taking pictures again, I saw the dead. I would be standing taking a photograph of a young girl for her portrait but behind her I would see them like ghosts standing there.

"I saw all those big eyes, terrified, staring at me. I could not go on."

Abandoning photography, he set up a business making sausage casings and lived a modestly prosperous life.

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