Wilhelm Brasse

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Wilhelm Brasse
Wilhelm Brasse 2005.jpg
Brasse in 2005 with one of his Auschwitz photographs (Portrecista)
Born (1917-12-03)3 December 1917
Żywiec, Partitioned Poland
Died 23 October 2012(2012-10-23) (aged 94)
Żywiec, Poland
Nationality Polish
Occupation Photographer (1940–1945)
Known for Photography done under duress as inmate of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau

Wilhelm Brasse (3 December 1917 – 23 October 2012) was a Polish professional photographer and a prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II. He became known as the "famous photographer of Auschwitz concentration camp"; his life and work were the subject of the 2005 Polish television documentary film The Portraitist (Portrecista), which first aired in the "Proud to Present" series on the Polish TVP1 on 1 January 2006.[1]

Brasse was of mixed Austrian-Polish descent. He learned photography in Katowice at the atelier of his own aunt.[2] After the 1939 German invasion of Poland and occupation of Brasse's hometown Żywiec, in southern Poland, he was interrogated by the Schutzstaffel (SS). He refused to swear allegiance to Hitler, and was imprisoned for three months. After his release, still refusing to capitulate to the Volksliste and forced membership of German Army, he tried to escape to Hungary and join the Polish Army in France but was captured, along with other young men, at the Polish–Hungarian border and deported to KL Auschwitz-Birkenau as prisoner number 3444.[3][4] Trained before the beginning of World War II as a portrait photographer in Silesia,[4] he was ordered by the SS camp administrators to photograph "prisoners' work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files."[5] Brasse has estimated that he took 40,000 to 50,000 "identity pictures" from 1940 until 1945, before being moved to another concentration camp in Austria, where he was liberated by the American forces in May 1945.[6][7][8][9]

While many of Brasse's photographs did not survive, some are on display in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, Israel's official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.[8] His photographs inspired Painting Czesława Kwoka (2007), which won a literary award.[10]

Personal history[edit]

Wilhelm Brasse was born on 3 December 1917 to a descendant of Austrian colonists and a Polish mother in Żywiec, in the Partitioned Poland. His father was a Polish soldier in the Polish–Soviet War of 1919–1921.[2][4][5] Wilhelm Brasse was "trained as a portrait photographer in a studio owned by his aunt" in Katowice, and "had an eye for the telling image and an ability to put his subjects at ease."[4]

After the September 1939 invasion of Poland, he was pressured by the Nazis to join them, refused, was repeatedly interrogated by the Gestapo, and tried to escape to France via Hungary, but he was captured at the Polish-Hungarian border and incarcerated for four months.[4] After continuing to refuse to "declare his loyalty to Hitler", on 31 August 1940, he was deported to Auschwitz concentration camp, soon after it opened.[4]

For Nazi German pacification of Żywiec, see Action Saybusch.

In February 1941, after having been called to the office of Rudolf Hoess, Auschwitz's commander, along with four others, and tested for "photographic skills", he was selected specifically for his "laboratory skills" and "technical ability with a camera" and for his ability to speak German, and then ordered to document the Nazi prisoners in the camp in the "Erkennungsdienst, the photographic identification unit."[4] A year and a half later, Brasse encountered Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who "liked" his photographs and wanted him to photograph some of the twins and people with congenital disorders moved to his infirmary on whom Mengele was "experimenting".[4] After the Soviets entered Poland, during the Vistula-Oder Offensive, from 12 January to 2 February 1945, along with thousands of other Auschwitz prisoners, Brasse was forcibly moved to Austria, to the concentration camp in Ebensee, a subcamp of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp complex (the last remaining in the area still controlled by the Nazis), where he remained imprisoned until the American forces liberated him in early May 1945.[4]

After returning home to Żywiec, a "few miles from" KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, Brasse tried to start "taking pictures again", but, traumatized, he found himself haunted by the "ghosts" of the "dead"—the subjects of his hundreds of thousands of Auschwitz pictures—and unable to resume his work as a portrait photographer, he ultimately established what would become a "moderately prosperous" sausage casing business.[4]

Although he had gone back to the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, "to talk with visitors about his experiences", and although he still possessed a "small pre-war Kodak" camera,[4] he would "never take another photograph."[4][11]

He died in Żywiec, at the age of 94.[2] He was married with two children and five grandchildren, and lived with his wife until his death.[4] His death was announced by an Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum historian.[12]

The Auschwitz photographs[edit]

See also: Czesława Kwoka

Trained before the beginning of World War II as a portrait photographer at his aunt's studio,[4] he was ordered by his SS supervisors to photograph "prisoners' work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files."[5] Brasse has estimated that he took about 40,000 to 50,000 "identity pictures" from 1940 until 1945, before being forcibly moved to another concentration camp in Austria, where he was liberated by the American forces in early May 1945.[6][7][8][9]

Dr. Mengele had insisted that Brasse take the "identity" portraits of Auschwitz prisoners "in three poses: from the front and from each side."[4] After taking hundreds of thousands of such photographs, Brasse and others disobeyed later Nazi orders to destroy them,[4] yet only some of his photos have survived:

although it is hard to say which were Brasse's, since camp photos as a rule didn't carry the photographer's name[,] ... Jarosław Mensfelt, spokesman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, says some 200,000 such pictures were taken, with name, nationality and profession attached. ... About 40,000 of these pictures are preserved, some with the identification cards, and 2,000 of these are on display in the museum.... others are at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.[6][7][8]

Some photographs credited to Brasse are in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum's permanent exhibit in Block no. 6: Exhibition: The Life of the Prisoners.[13] All visitors to the Museum are asked explicitly to respect the Site of the Death Camp and not to use cameras (both still and video) in its indoor exhibits.[14]

Similar individual "identification photographs" or "mug shots" of prisoners of Auschwitz and other German concentration camps are accessible in the searchable online Photo Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM); biographical-information cards including these photographs and each corresponding to a concentration-camp inmate are also distributed to Holocaust Memorial Museum visitors as they enter. Partially featured on the USHMM official Website is a photograph of the photo mural on a wall of its 3rd floor permanent exhibit.[15] A photograph of an adult female Auschwitz inmate by Wilhelm Brasse is accessible from the USHMM Photo Archives.[16] The USHMM official Website also features similar "identification photographs" credited to the "National Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum" (the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland), but without identifying the photographer (who may or may not be Brasse), as illustrations in "Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich".[17][18][19]

Documentary film: The Portraitist[edit]

Main article: The Portraitist
Portrecista (TVP1, Poland, 2005): The Portraitist
Photograph credit: Rekontrplan Film Group

This 52-minute Polish documentary film about his life and work, entitled The Portraitist (Portrecista, Poland, 2005), directed by Irek Dobrowolski, and produced by Anna Dobrowolska, was first shown on Polish television station TVP1 on 1 January 2006, in the "Proud to present" series,[1] and it premiered at West London Synagogue, in London, on 19 March 2007, with a second screening by popular demand, on 22 April 2007.[20] In the film Brasse relates the "story behind some pictures in the Auschwitz museum archives that he remembers taking."[8]

As the synopsis for the film emphasizes, after taking thousands of photographs from 1940 until 1945, and, with "courage and skill", documenting "cruelty which goes beyond all words ... for future generations", Brasse "could not continue with his profession...."[21]

Fergal Keane concurs that "Brasse has left us with a powerful legacy in images. Because of them we can see the victims of the Holocaust as human and not statistics. ... The photographs are the work of a man who fought to keep his humanity alive in a place of unimaginable evil."[4]

Work of art based on Brasse's photographs[edit]

Among Brasse's photographs of children concentration-camp prisoners exhibited in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, in Poland, "identity pictures" of Czesława Kwoka attributed to him inspired a collaborative mixed-media artwork entitled Painting Czesława Kwoka, by Theresa Edwards (verse) and Lori Schreiner (art), which was displayed at the Windham Art Gallery in Brattleboro, Vermont, from 1 June to 1 July 2007, as part of the exhibition Words & Images: A Collaboration.[22] According to the artists' exhibition catalogue statement, it "brings Czeslawa's image and voice into our lives,"[22] thus memorializing Kwoka and all child victims of the Holocaust, as well as others who lost their lives as a result of war.[23] After being featured in the online journal AdmitTwo, in September 2007,[24] it received the 2007 Tacenda Literary Award for Best Collaboration, from BleakHouse Publishing.[10]


  • Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State (BBC and PBS, 2005), "Surprising Beginnings" and "Orders & Initiatives" (Episodes 1 & 2) ["Auschwitz: 1940–1945"].[25]
  • The Portraitist (Portrecista, TVP1, Poland, 2005). (Original language: Polish; English subtitles.)[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "W cyklu Widzieć i wiedzieć – Portrecista w reżyserii Irka Dobrowolskiego" (Web). Polecamy w TVP1 (program feature article) (in Polish). TVP1, Poland. 16 January 2006. Retrieved 2 September 2008. 
  2. ^ a b c Polish Press Agency PAP (23 October 2012). "Zmarł Wilhelm Brasse, były więzień Auschwitz, fotograf (Died Wilhelm Brasse, prisoner of Auschwitz)". Wiadomości > Depesze. Gazeta.pl. Retrieved 23 October 2012. 
  3. ^ "Wilhelm Brasse" (Web). Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. Retrieved 29 August 2008. Brasse, Wilhelm b.3.12.1917 (Żywiec), camp serial number:3444, profession:fotograf. [dead link]
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Fergal Keane (7 April 2007). "Returning to Auschwitz: Photographs from Hell". Mail on Sunday (Mail Online (Evening Standard & Metro Media Group)). Retrieved 30 August 2008. 
  5. ^ a b c "The Portraitist (Portrecista)" (Web (catalogue entry)). New Polish Films 2006–2007 (Polish Film Institute). p. 61. Retrieved 2 September 2008. 
  6. ^ a b c Janina Struk (20 January 2005). " I will never forget these scenes' ". The Guardian (London: Guardian Media Group). Retrieved 28 August 2008. The Nazis at Auschwitz were obsessed with documenting their prisoners, camp life and camp guards, 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 [in January 2005], he talks to Janina Struk.... Sitting in a small, empty, dimly lit restaurant in his home town of Żywiec in southern Poland, Brasse, now 87 years old and stooped from a severe beating in the camp, recalls his bitter experiences of Auschwitz.... Thanks to the ingenuity of [Darkroom worker Bronislaw] Jureczek and Brasse, around 40,000 of [the photographs] did survive, and are kept at Auschwitz museum.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Struk" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  7. ^ a b c Janina Struk (2003). Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence. New York and London: I.B.Tauris, 2004. ISBN 978-1-86064-546-4. Retrieved 29 August 2008.  (Google Books provides hyperlinked "Preview".) Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Struk2" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  8. ^ a b c d e Ryan Lucas (Associated Press Writer) (8 July 2008). "Auschwitz Photographer, Wilhelm Brasse, Still Images". imaginginfo.com (Cygnus Business Media). Retrieved 29 August 2008. [dead link]
  9. ^ a b Marc Shoffman (15 March 2007). "The Auschwitz Photographer". TotallyJewish.com (Jewish News Online). Retrieved 29 August 2008. A Polish photographer, who was ordered to take pictures of concentration camp inmates during the Second World War, will visit London for the first time this week to see a film of his work 
  10. ^ a b "Awards". BleakHouse Publishing. 2007. Archived from the original (Web) on 22 November 2008. Retrieved 29 August 2008. Best Collaboration, 2007: Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, by Theresa Edwards (verse), [Lori] Schreiner (art), photographs by Wilhelm Brasse (Admit2). 
  11. ^ Struk (2004). Photographing the Holocaust. I.B.Tauris. p. 119. ISBN 978-1-86064-546-4. 
  12. ^ Leszkowicz, Dagmara (24 October 2012). "Auschwitz photographer Wilhelm Brasse dies at 95". Reuters (Warsaw). Retrieved 24 October 2012. 
  13. ^ "Block no. 6: Exhibition: The Life of the Prisoners". Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland. 5 October 2006. Archived from the original (Web) on 18 October 2007. Retrieved 3 September 2008. Part of the exhibition in Block 6. In this block, there is a presentation of the conditions under which people became concentration camp prisoners and died as a result of inhumanly hard labor, starvation, disease, and experiments, as well as executions and various types of torture and punishment. There are photographs here of prisoners who died in the camp, documents, and works of art illustrating camp life. [Auschwitz I. Exhibition department. Photograph by Ryszard Domasik.] Copyright 1999–2008 Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland. 
  14. ^ "Visiting the Site of the Death Camp". Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland. Copyright 1999–2008. Archived from the original (Web) on 30 April 2008. Retrieved 3 September 2008. Taking pictures indoors is not allowed. Photography and filming on the Museum grounds for commercial purposes require prior contact with the Museum. ... While staying on the grounds of the Auschwitz Memorial please respect the site[.]  Check date values in: |date= (help) The hyperlinked request directs visitors to maintain silence throughout the Site of the Death Camp and to refrain from using still and video cameras in the Museum's indoor exhibits.
  15. ^ "Photo Mural Displaying Mug Shots of Prisoners Interned in Auschwitz... Photograph #N02440" (Web). Photo Archives. USHMM. 1993–1995. Retrieved 18 September 2008. Photo mural displaying mug shots of prisoners interned in Auschwitz and a few of the badges they were made to wear to identify their nationality and prisoner category, that is on the third floor of the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. [Photograph #N02440]. Date: 1993-1995. Locale: Washington, D.C., United States. Photographer: Edward Owen. Credit: USHMM. Copyright: USHMM. 
  16. ^ "Mugshot of a Female Auschwitz Prisoner Lena Lakony (no. 34800). Photograph #66649" (Web). Photo Archives. USHMM (USHMM). 1941. Retrieved 18 September 2008. Mugshot of a female Auschwitz prisoner Lena Lakony (no. 34800). Date: 1941. Locale: Auschwitz, [Upper Silesia] Poland; Birkenau; Auschwitz III; Monowitz; Auschwitz II. Photographer: Wilhelm Brasse. Credit: USHMM, courtesy of Esther Lurie. Copyright: USHMM. 
  17. ^ "Photography: Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich: Media ID3161" (Web). Photo Archives. USHMM. 1941. Retrieved 18 September 2008. Identification pictures of a prisoner, accused of homosexuality, recently arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Auschwitz, Poland, between 1940 and 1945. – National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 
  18. ^ "Photography: Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich: Media ID3163" (Web). Photo Archives. USHMM. 1941. Retrieved 18 September 2008. Identification pictures of a homosexual prisoner who arrived in Auschwitz on November 27, 1941, and was transferred to Mauthausen on 25 January 1942. Auschwitz, Poland. – National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau 
  19. ^ "Photography: Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich: Media ID3164" (Web). Photo Archives. USHMM. 1941. Retrieved 18 September 2008. Identification pictures of a prisoner, accused of homosexuality, who arrived at the Auschwitz concentration camp on 6 June 1941. He died there a year later. Auschwitz, Poland. – National Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau 
  20. ^ "The Portraitist: New Screening" (Web) (Press release). The Spiro Ark. Retrieved 30 August 2008.  Updated announcement of screenings of premiere, co-hosted by The Spiro Ark and the London Polish Cultural Institute, at West London Synagogue, London, 19 March 2007 and 22 April 2007 (second screening). (Illustrated.)
  21. ^ "The Portraitist". interkulturforum.org. rekontrplan.pl. Retrieved 30 August 2008. 
  22. ^ a b "Words & Images: A Collaboration" (PDF) (Press release). Windham Art Gallery (Brattleboro, Vermont). May 2007. Retrieved 28 August 2008. Auschwitz prisoner #26947, Czeslawa Kwoka, a young girl photographed before her death at age 14, is the subject of a collaboration between painter Lori Schreiner and poet Theresa Edwards, 'this collaboration,' the artist and writer said in their exhibition statement, 'brings Czeslawa's image and voice into our lives.'  
  23. ^ Jon Potter (Reformer staff) (14 June 2007). "Thinking Outside the Book: Words and Images Combine in Exciting New Ways at WAG". Brattleboro Reformer (nl.newsbank.com (MediaNews Group)). Retrieved 28 August 2008.  (Subscription or fee required for access to archived articles.)
  24. ^ Theresa Edwards and Lori Schreiner. "Painting Czesława Kwoka" (Web). AdmitTwo (a2) 19 (September 2007). Retrieved 13 October 2013. 
  25. ^ "Production Credits: Wilhelm Brasse (for the BBC)" (Web). Community Television of Southern California (KCET), (BBC and PBS). 2004–2005. Retrieved 30 August 2008. 
  26. ^ Stanley, Alessandra. "The Portraitist (2005)" (Web). Allmovie (movies.nytimes.com (The New York Times Company and All Media Guide)). Retrieved 30 August 2008. 


Rees, Laurence. Auschwitz: A New History. PublicAffairs, 2006. ISBN 1-58648-357-9 (10). ISBN 978-1-58648-357-9 (13). Google Books. Retrieved 29 August 2008. (Provides hyperlinked "Preview".) [Companion book for Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State.]

External links[edit]

  • Archives. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). (Description of all its archives, including: "A combined catalog of published materials available in the Museum's Library, and unpublished archival materials available in the Museum's Archives. The published materials include books, serials, videos, CDs and other media. The unpublished archival materials include microfilm and microfiche, paper collections, photographs, music, and video and audio tapes." Among "unpublished" photographs in the USHMM searchable online Photo Archives are some of Wilhelm Brasse's "identification photographs", featured online with identification of Brasse as the photographer, credit to the "National Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum", identification of individual donors, and/or USHMM copyright notices. Those who download any of its archived photographs are directed to write to the USHMM for terms and conditions of use.)
  • Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Poland. English version. (Includes Centre for Education About Auschwitz and the Holocaust.) Further reference: "Technical page", with credits and copyright notice, pertaining to the official Website and official publications of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.
  • "Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Publications: Albums, Catalogues". (English version; also available in Polish and German.)
  • Photographs of Wilhelm Brasse on the occasion of "Ein Gespräch mit Erich Hackl, Wilhelm Brasse und Ireneusz Dobrowolski" ("An interview with Erich Hackl, Wilhelm Brasse and Ireneusz Dobrowolski"), moderated by Jacek St. Buras, about The Portraitist, 10 October 2006, featured in Deutschsprachige Gegenwartsliteratur in Polen at kroki.pl (Reihe Schritte/Kroki). (Text and captions in German.)
  • "Portraitist" ("Portrecista") – Official Webpage of Rekontrplan Film Group (Distributor). Adobe Flash content, including video clip. (Access: >Productions>Documentaries>Portraitist). Television Documentary film produced for TVP1, "a television channel owned by TVP (Telewizja Polska S.A.)" [Updated "Events/News" re: screenings at Polish film festivals and awards also on site.] (English and Polish language options.) (Original language of film: Polish.)
  • "Portrecista" on YouTube (2005) – Excerpts from the film, Portrecista, first broadcast on TVP1, Poland, on 1 January 2006, as posted on YouTube, by "skarleee", on 22 August 2007. (In Polish; no subtitles; hyperlinked related Video clips.) (9:45).
  • "Resources & Collections: About the Photo Archive" at Yad Vashem.