Wilhelm Brasse spent an astonishing five years in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a photographer in the identification office. His history of recollections are the basis of this book, although they are not direct survivor interviews, but a BBC interview and also a book he himself wrote. The sourcing of this is rather thin, and I have automatically removed a star for that reason.
That said, Brasse was arrested after refusing to fight for the German army after the invasion and capture of Polish. Although born in Poland to a Polish mother, his ancestry on his father’s side was German. For his refusal, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to Auschwitz. At first selected for hard labor, he was pulled from that work to head the new identification office, so the Nazis could keep track of the many Jews and others sent there to be exterminated.
The timeline in this narrative details how Brasse kept his head down and rarely looked out a window while at work- the better to survive what a part of him knew might very well be his eventual death in the camp.
After many chapters given over to the photographs of people arriving via train, the Nazis decided that cataloguing Jews and undesirables was a waste, since so many were killed straightaway. Brasse’s job then shifts more into portraiture: SS soldiers and officers getting their portraits made to send to their parents, for instance, and when the Birkenau barracks were constructed, the women bound for those instead of the crematoria that run nonstop.
There is a brief suggestion of an almost romance between Brasse and a Polish interpreter for the German kapo in charge of bringing female subjects for Brasse to photograph, but this eventually goes nowhere – how could it be otherwise, the way prisoners were kept to a rigid schedule.
Brasse and his office lived in better quarters and had steady, indoor work during brutal winters. They even managed to barter their services with the kitchens to keep themselves well fed.
When a large group of Russian POWs are brought the the camp, they are dutifully photographed for identification purposes, and like all the others, Brasse pushes their fate out of his mind as well as he can until someone tells him the Nazis are doing nothing to them: not selecting them for work or not, not feeding them, not anything. They are simply starved to death. Brasse happens to pass the area where they are being held and describes them as ghosts, thin, with their bones protruding as though they will break the skin, and with blank, dead eyes. He claims to have strayed near the fence where a Russian was standing, and reached through the wire to touch the Russian’s hand. The Russian soldier tells him that he is not a communist, then falls over, dead. This seems to be an iffy portion, as it is backed up by nothing other than Brasse saying it happened. We do know that Brasse was given an amount of freedom most other prisoners were not – his skills as a photographer saving his life, after all – but would he have been allowed to be anywhere near the Russians, as he was simply walking between one place and another through the camp?
Eventually, his boss calls him to what is a small viewing room, to show him a film. In it, the Russian prisoners are taken to a building that has been boarded up, and marched inside. The Nazis then throw canister of what are presumed to be Zyklon B into the building and close and seal the door. His boss has set up a camera inside the building, and has filmed the chaos of the people within trying to find an exit, only to find none. Throughout the book, Brasse claims that his boss speaks to him about declaring that he is German, and that it could be arranged for him to visit his family in Poland before he is sent to his assignment. He claims his boss attempts yet again to sway him, after viewing this film.
Later, Brasse becomes the photographer of choice for the doctors performing medical experiments, like forced sterilization of young women, and the various experiments performed by Josef Mengele himself, who wanted images of twins and dwarfs, along with another doctor who was fascinated by the prisoners with eyes that were different colors from one another.
There is a section describing the images and plates struck of counterfeit currencies, although this is very late and not very useful to the Nazis in the end.
As we know, the war was moving inevitably toward Germany. Toward the end, Brasse’s boss drives away to escape the advancing Russian army, and orders Brasse to destroy all of the negatives, photos, and especially the film of the Russian soldiers who were murdered there. As Brasse and his colleagues attempt to do so, these items will not burn. They concoct a story about how they tried, and even throw the tiny office into disarray, as if they had feverishly tried to follow the order, but Brasse stops them, and settles himself in to inform his boss of same, knowing it could mean a bullet in the head. However, his boss does not return, nor do any of the other SS men who escaped west toward Germany and away from the Russians.
After a few days, the camp is emptied and all the prisoners are forced to march out of Auschwitz. Brasse winds up in Mauthausen, and is eventually liberated. At 27 years old, he is finally a free man again.
After some time with his family, he sets out for another town in Poland to try to find the woman he’d met in Auschwitz, and of whom he had taken a portrait- the only thing he took with him when the prisoners were marched out. He does find her,but is disappointed when he finds her somewhat distant. He presents her with the photo, which she tears apart and allows to fall on the floor. She told him she didn’t like herself when she was there, and who could blame her? He leaves, dejected, and recalls his uncle saying something basically that meant women couldn’t be pleased, which I thought was a really shitty thing to include, regardless of whether or not it was true.
An afterword tell us that Brasse eventually married, had children and grandchildren of his own, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Interestingly, he could not bear to become a photographer again for a living, after having taken and developed between 40 and 50 thousand photos in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so went into a different line of work. I can’t say I could blame him for that.
There is also an afterword by the authors, indicating their sources, as I noted in the opening. The third item on their source list is Night, by Elie Wiesel, which I thought an odd inclusion.
At the end, there are also photos, although there are notes that indicate not all of these photos may have been taken by Brasse.
Overall, it is a challenging read because of the nature of the work Brasse and his colleagues did and the often arbitrary treatment of the prisoners in the camp. Squeamish readers may wish to skip the parts describing the work of the crematoria crews and the experiments carried out by Mengele and others.
Is it a good oral history from a survivor? It is well written, in a straight timeline, and the horrors witnessed by Brasse and other survivors is all too shamefully real, as we well know. The very small sourcing pool, though, should be held for more scrutiny. I would recommend it with these caveats
Three out of five stars.
Thanks to SourceBooks and NetGalley for the reading copy.