- Published: 16 March 2021
- ISBN: 9780857527462
- Imprint: Doubleday
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 304
- RRP: $40.00
The Auschwitz Photographer
Based on the true story of Wilhelm Brasse
Auschwitz: An Afternoon at the Identification Service
Wilhelm Brasse switched on the enlarger and a bright beam of white light fell on to the sheet of photographic paper. The negative had been developed that morning by Franek, one of his colleagues, and Brasse hadn’t even glanced at it. Franek was a skilled lab technician, so Brasse was sure the negative would have the correct contrast and exposure. Brasse also knew his way around the enlarger well, having worked with it for so long, and he was sure that with this medium-density negative, a dozen or so seconds of exposure would be enough to create the print. After exactly twelve seconds he switched off the white light and the room returned to semi-darkness, illuminated only by the red safety lamp.
His boss, SS Oberscharführer Bernhard Walter, had asked him to produce large prints, so Brasse had placed a thirty-by-forty-centimetre sheet of photographic paper on the base of the enlarger. Now he took the sheet – which already contained the secret of the image projected from the negative, but was still invisible, still immaterial – and immersed it in the developing tank. He waited impatiently, as he always did at this stage of the operation, and slowly the image began to take form. It was a face, there could be no doubt about it.
First to emerge were the outlines of the eyes and a few darker strands of hair, then the features and the neck. A woman with a dark complexion. She was young and wore a coloured scarf tied around her head. When the pupils had become fully black, Brasse took the sheet out of the developer, rinsed it quickly and submerged it in the tank of fixer: half a minute would be enough. He didn’t even look at the timer sitting on the shelf next to him. This process had become second nature to him, and for a while now he’d no longer needed instruments to measure it. Finally, he extracted the sheet from the fixer, washed it carefully once more so that the print wouldn’t turn yellow, and hung it on a line to dry. He had asked Walter for a print dryer but his superior was having trouble getting new equipment sent from Berlin. As for looking for one in Warsaw, there was no point: the Germans had already taken anything from there that could possibly be useful.
Only after he’d hung up the print did Brasse switch the darkroom light back on. Standing there, in front of the line, he studied the image. He felt a surge of satisfaction: the print was perfectly developed and the contrast was just right. But that feeling quickly gave way to one of unease. The woman’s eyes fixed him with a terrible gaze.
Disturbed, he took a step back to take a better look.
He wouldn’t have been able to say from what distant country she came: the portrait was too close up for him to deduce anything from her clothes or other details. It was a face similar to the thousands of others that he himself had immortalized here in the Erkennungsdienst – the camp’s Identification Service. The woman could be French or Slovak, a Jew of any nationality – Romani, even, although her features weren’t like those of the nomads seen in Auschwitz. She could be German, punished for something the Nazis didn’t like.
He didn’t know.
The photograph had been taken by Walter, who didn’t waste time explaining things. Brasse himself never went outside to take photographs. He had the authorization to do so but didn’t want to. Unless they ordered him to do otherwise, he preferred to stay here, shut away in the warm studio, working alongside the other men in his kommando – as the SS called the various teams assigned to different tasks in the camp. Walter, on the other hand, liked taking photographs and producing short films out in the sunlight. He would then take everything back to the studio to be developed and printed.
The Oberscharführer appreciated and respected his chief portraitist, but he never failed to remind Brasse that he himself was an SS man and Brasse was a prisoner, worth less than zero. Brasse’s abilities were too useful to him, though, and with time he had even developed a fondness for this Polish deportee. They chatted to each other, and Walter would ask Brasse’s opinion on technical problems and entrust him with the most difficult jobs.
That morning Walter had come into the studio early – before the queue of prisoners to identify and register had even formed – and when he appeared everyone sprang to attention. The German had a roll of film in his hand and, judging by the care with which he was carrying it, it must have been something precious, and there was a lot of it – several metres.
‘In the darkroom,’ answered Tadek Brodka, who was preparing the equipment for the morning’s work.
Walter crossed the room quickly and knocked on the door to the laboratory. He didn’t want to barge in while the red light was on: he would have ruined his favourite prisoner’s work. Only when he received permission to enter did he open the door.
‘Good morning, Herr Brasse. How are you today?’
The photographer smiled at him. ‘As well as ever, Herr Oberscharführer. How can I help you?’
Walter held up the roll of film, then put it down on a table. ‘Here’s some more work for you. When do you think you can develop it and get it printed?’
Brasse looked at the reel. ‘I’ll start today, as soon as we’ve finished the registrations. May I ask what it is?’
Walter shrugged his shoulders. ‘Some pictures I took yesterday, as I was going around the camp. But they’re very important to me – and they’re for my superiors. Do you understand?’
The photographer understood perfectly. These pictures were not destined for Walter’s personal album; they would be seen by the highest-ranking officers in the camp. He must work on them with the greatest of care.
‘Don’t worry. Your prints will be perfect.’
After this brief exchange, Walter had left and Brasse had gone back to his usual tasks. He had worked on the reel in the afternoon and his prediction was confirmed: he produced perfect prints, and even cropped some of them to improve the Oberscharführer’s mediocre framing. And now here he was, looking at this woman’s face, allowing her gaze to fix upon him.
Her eyes were crying without shedding tears. The deep, black pupils were full of terror and despair. Wide open, staring. Lower down, the curve of her lips betrayed how afraid the woman was. She’d seen something – a dead body, perhaps, or corpses being piled one on top of the other.
Brasse realized immediately where and when the picture had been taken.
The gas chamber. The woman was at the entrance to the gas chamber. Perhaps she had watched the heavy doors opening or closing, and had seen inside, where they were clearing up after the previous load. All of this showed in her eyes: the fear, the horror, and the tremendous realization that every - thing was about to end. That she would be next.
He’d already seen many people die, there in the camp, but he had never seen eyes like this woman’s: the eyes of someone alive but who, in a matter of moments, will meet their death. The eyes of someone who is watching the doors of hell open in front of them.
He moved away hastily and rushed to switch off the light. The darkroom fell back into a reddish gloom. The windows were closed and he felt secure. As long as he was in there nothing could happen to him.
He calmed down gradually and set about the day’s work registering prisoners for the Identification Service. He didn’t want to fall behind.
Auschwitz 1941: Hiding to Survive
‘Keep still! Good . . . Don’t lift your chin too high. Don’t move . . . That’s it.’
The shutter clicked and the prisoner’s image was exposed on to the large six-by-twelve-centimetre negative. Brasse approached the revolving chair on which the prisoner was sitting. His subject drew back instinctively, as if he were afraid of being hit, but the photographer reassured him.
‘It’s all right. I just want to adjust something.’
He neatened the collar of the man’s uniform: one of the buttons was half undone.
Back behind the camera, he looked through the viewfinder again.
‘Take your hat off and look straight at the lens. Don’t blink, don’t smile. No grimacing, please . . . What sort of a face is that?’
The prisoner couldn’t hold his expression, even for the few seconds needed to take his picture. He was Polish, and answered Brasse’s questions in their mother tongue.
‘My back hurts. It’s really bad.’
The man who had escorted the prisoner to the studio was also a Pole. He was a kapo – a prisoner promoted to a position of authority in the camp – and he now approached the chair and gave the man a slap.
‘Sit up straight and do what the photographer tells you. Here, all you do is obey!’
Brasse glanced at the kapo. He hadn’t seen him before and didn’t know which block he was from, but he wasn’t afraid of him. Brasse was in charge in the studio, especially when it came to the ‘clients’, and he didn’t want prisoners to be needlessly mistreated.
‘Kapo, don’t hit him again! Not in my studio! Do you understand?’
The man swore under his breath and went back to lean against the wall. ‘All right, all right. But we’ll deal with this disgusting rat later . . .’
Brasse repeated his requests to the prisoner and the man finally looked at the lens, his forehead wrinkled, eyes wide and neck straining with the effort of holding the pose. The shutter clicked.
When Brasse raised his head again, the prisoner hadn’t moved. It had taken so long to get him into position that he was struggling to come back to reality. His eyes, still wide open, looked enormous in his emaciated face, and they were bright, so bright. In this moment, when he had forgotten everything, they gave a certain splendour to the rest of his face and his whole being. It was as if there were a stubborn flame deep within them that was determined not to be extinguished.
It was Brasse who broke the spell.
He reached out and pulled a nearby lever. Immediately, the prisoner’s chair rotated ninety degrees, allowing him to be photographed in profile. But when Brasse looked in the viewfinder he saw that the man, who had come to, was now too high up. Another lever lowered the chair and finally the deportee’s neck was at the right height.
‘Don’t put your hat back on. Look at the wall opposite you.’
The man obeyed and the photographer took his final picture.
‘Good. You can go.’
‘Come on, walk!’ shouted the kapo.
The man got to his feet with a look of disappointment. He wanted to savour the respite afforded by the photography process. He didn’t want to go outside into the cold. He wanted to stay there, in the warm. But there was no time. Another prisoner was ready to take his place. Already the queue was snaking out of the room. Brasse glanced over and saw at least twenty other prisoners waiting. They were standing up straight, not speaking, looking ahead. Not one of them dared infringe the rule of total silence.
When one of them – perhaps the third in line – dared to sniff, the kapo exploded.
‘Bastard! Disgusting animal! Jewish piece of shit!’
He began to punch and slap the man, first his body then his face. His victim bent over, trying to shield his head with his arms and hands. He didn’t dare react and only moaned quietly, almost in a whisper, but that was enough to send the kapo into a frenzy. The other prisoners moved away in terror. This had to be stopped, or the man would end up dead.
‘I want him now!’ Brasse pointed to the prisoner, who was now on the ground.
The kapo had to stop. He was panting, full of rage. ‘Why him? It’s not his turn.
The photographer took the kapo’s arm and drew him away from the group. He spoke to him politely, not wanting to make an enemy of him, but his tone was firm and carried the hint of a threat.
‘Perhaps you didn’t receive the order to bring the men from your kommando here to be photographed?’
‘Of course I did.’
‘And who will be held responsible if we don’t take the photographs?’
The kapo stared at him for a moment, his fists clenched. It was clear that he would have gladly beaten up Brasse, too. For all the photographer’s airs, he was just another deportee, a louse. He restrained himself, though.
‘What do you mean?’ he mumbled.
Brasse tried to speak even more politely.
‘My orders are to photograph only those prisoners who look presentable. The pictures must be decent. I don’t want beaten-up faces, black eyes, broken bones. I don’t want suffering prisoners. My boss doesn’t like that sort of thing. Do you understand?’
The kapo’s lips tightened. He understood. He tried to stretch his mouth into a smile. ‘You won’t tell your boss about this little incident, will you now?’
Brasse shook his head reassuringly. ‘I won’t say anything. But let’s photograph this man before the bruises appear on his face. Which kommando are you from?’
‘We’re from the garages. They’re mechanics, and they’re all settling in, getting too comfortable . . .’
He snorted, as though it had fallen to him to re-establish discipline at Auschwitz, then barked at the prisoner he’d just assaulted to come into the studio and get on the revolving chair.
First shot: three-quarter view with cap.
Second shot: full face, without cap.
Third shot: in profile, again without cap.
After each portrait, while Brasse worked on the framing, Tadek Brodka took the heavy case containing the negative out of the Zeiss to change it. Meanwhile, Stanisław Trałka composed written signs and placed them next to the prisoners so that they would appear in the third picture. They detailed where each individual came from, their identity number, and why they were in Auschwitz. Brasse saw that the prisoner beaten up by the kapo was a ‘Pol S’, a political prisoner from Slovenia, and that his identity number was 9835. Brasse calculated that this man must have arrived at the concentration camp a few months after him.
When Brasse had finished, he signalled to the prisoner that he could leave, and caught a look of silent thanks in the man’s eyes. The prisoner knew Brasse had saved him from a worse beating, but the photographer looked down and didn’t respond. He had wanted to save this man from further punishment by intervening, knowing full well that if he had sent him away without taking his picture there would have been a gap in the records: ninety-nine times out of a hundred the prisoners did not return for a second sitting. They were murdered before there was a chance.
He had also been thinking of himself. Nobody knew what was going on in the Germans’ minds, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if he himself had been blamed for the missing photographs. He just wanted everything to run smoothly.
As the garage kapo pushed the next prisoner on to the revolving chair, Brasse glanced at the cuckoo clock on the studio wall. It was almost midday – soon the little bird would pop out of its door and sing. He found the sound annoying – it would always distract him at precisely the wrong moment – but he hadn’t worked up the courage to ask the Germans to remove the cuckoo. It amused Bernhard Walter, and that was enough. Another minute passed, the bird sang, Brasse felt a strong pang of hunger and returned to the camera.
At that moment, Franz Maltz, the kapo of the photog - raphy studio, entered the room.
Brasse greeted him deferentially. ‘Welcome back, kapo. Is it a beautiful morning outside?’
Maltz shook himself, trying to warm up, and went to stand next to the heater, covering it with his large behind. ‘Concentrate on your work, you Polish brute, and don’t worry about me.’
Brasse lowered his head without replying, and looked through the Zeiss’s viewfinder.
Nobody knew where the kapo spent most of his time, but it was clear he didn’t understand the first thing about photography and could do nothing beyond producing a few copies in the darkroom. How he had become the Identification Service kapo was a mystery, but nobody dared ask him for an explanation. He was their direct superior, and that was all that mattered. He would often stand there next to the heater, eyeing Brasse as he made fine adjustments to the framing of a portrait.
A boy was now sitting on the chair.
He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, and Brasse felt his throat tighten as he studied him. He wore the yellow tri - angle on his chest, with a red one sewn over it to form the Star of David. He too was Jewish, and would certainly not live long, but it was not this that stirred Brasse’s compassion. It was the boy’s gaze. His eyes were pale and clear, with the trusting look of a youth only just past puberty.
Freckles peppered his face, his eyelashes were long – almost feminine – and his demeanour was gentle. There wasn’t a hint of facial hair on his cheeks or chin. Brasse felt sure that no insult would ever pass this boy’s lips. He would die calling out to his mother, staring at his executioners, stunned, without understanding why they were killing him. He probably had about two weeks to live. Work, cold, hunger and beatings: it was only a matter of time.
As soon as the third photograph was taken, Maltz shouted, ‘Weg!’
It was the German order to get lost, beat it.
The boy was French and presumably didn’t understand German, but he understood the curt tone of the command and tried to get up as quickly as he could. It wasn’t fast enough.
His feet weren’t yet on the ground when the garage kapo pushed the lever next to the desk, causing the chair to turn quickly back to its original position. The boy was thrown to the ground like a doll, hitting his face on the edge of the platform on which the Zeiss stood.
As he lay on the ground immobile, Brasse felt the impulse to assist the boy. But it was forbidden to help deportees and he would have got into trouble. So, while Maltz laughed madly, the Jewish boy got up with difficulty. Once he was on his feet again, the garage kapo shoved him out of the door, laughing. This little game was new to him and he was enjoying it enormously.
‘Very good! Shall we do it again?’ he said to Maltz.
Maltz, who was still doubled over, managed to reply, ‘Did you see the look on his face? I could die laughing! They’re so upset . . . Oh God, his face. So upset . . . Yes, let’s do it again!’
The revolving chair threw three more prisoners to the ground.
One in particular – an old man – broke his arm as he fell. He lay on the ground, crying out in pain and fear. In pain because his arm was bent into an unnatural position. And in fear because he knew that this incident would mean the end for him. He would be taken straight from the studio to the hospital, and from there to the crematorium. Nobody had any interest in feeding and caring for an old man. The sooner he was out of the way the better.
All this – the broken arm, the fear in the man’s eyes, the chaos created in the studio – increased the two kapos’ hilarity all the more. They didn’t stop to catch their breath for several minutes, but then Maltz regained his habitual frown. He had let off some steam and didn’t want to joke any more.
He stretched and yawned. ‘I’m going to buy something to eat. Do you want anything?’
He sniggered, knowing full well that Brasse and the others working in the studio didn’t have money to spend. So he left them alone to deal with the prisoners.
Brasse looked at the cuckoo clock. It was nearly one o’clock. His hunger pangs were intensifying but he would have to wait. They still had many hours of work ahead of them.
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