Imagine being captured by an invading army and then forced to watch as your captors torture and murder people you know as friends, neighbors, and countrymen. You are not only forced to witness these horrors, but to photograph them for your tormentors’ perverse records – knowing that yours will likely be the last photographs ever taken of these poor souls. Would you protest, knowing that you would be killed instantly and the atrocities would only continue? Or would you force yourself to snap photo after photo in order to create a record of the brutality for future generations?
This was the dilemma of Wilhelm Brasse, a 23-year-old Polish photographer who was sent to Auschwitz as a political prisoner in 1940. For five years, the Nazis forced Brasse, later nicknamed “the photographer of Auschwitz,” to photograph more than 40,000 prisoners in Auschwitz for “identity pictures” and to document such Nazi brutality as medical experiments on children. Brasse’s account of Auschwitz is presented in the Polish documentary “The Portraitist,” which was shown recently at New York City’s YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Lori Schuldiner Schor, our fellowships administrator, and program officer Tony Rodriguez attended the screening and were amazed by the photography and story of Wilhelm Brasse, who recounted his story and feelings about what he did in the film.
“He recognized that generally he’d be photographing people and then they’d be killed,” Lori said, as she recalled the “haunting” film. “In some sense, this is what survived of them.”
In early January 1945, aware that the Russians were closing in on the camp the Nazis ordered Brasse to burn his photo lab and all the pictures he had taken during his time there. Brasse quickly extinguished the fire that had been set in the lab, saving what has become a definitive account of the horrors of Auschwitz. Some 40,000 pictures survived and are now archived at Yad Vashem in Israel and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland.
As Lori watched and listened to Brasse’s testimony, she couldn’t help thinking how he could have continued photographing all of those atrocities. It was a survival technique for him to play that role, she said, and because of it he created part of the record, the testimonial of Auschwitz. But Brasse was so tortured by what he had done in the camps, Lori said, that he never went back to photography. “It was horrifying for him to do it, but in the end at least there was a record,” she said.
The Nazis wanted to document their horrific deeds in order to show their triumph, Tony explained, but in the end they sealed their own fates by providing evidence to war tribunals. Some, according to Tony, may question whether this photographic evidence should remain the domain of those bringing Nazi criminals to justice, or be released to the public – academics, museums, authors, and filmmakers. And what about concerns of privacy for the victims and the survivors depicted in these gruesome images?
Sensitivity should be balanced with the need for advancing education, according to Tony, and one should not be sacrificed for the other. “We have a responsibility to survivors, but we have a responsibility to the greater public as well,” he said. “And not exposing these things is of no help to anyone.”
The Holocaust is an extreme example of how a government can impose on the rights of its people, according to Tony, but there are varying levels of how this can happen and we need to be able to recognize them. Images like the ones Wilhelm captured are warnings to be mindful of current events and what government abuses of personal rights can lead to. “We probably won’t see the Holocaust again in the form it took in the 1940s, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t see variations of it – and we are now,” Tony said. “These kinds of films just make us aware of the possibilities.”
“The Portraitist” was written, directed, and edited by Irek Dobrowolski, and produced by Anna Dobrowolska for TVP1, Poland. It first aired in January 2006 and went on to win the Grand Prix “Golden Phoenix of Warsaw” award in the Warsaw International Film Festival’s “Jewish Motives” division, and the National Competition Silver “Lajkonik” at the 46th Krakow Film Festival. It has since been shown at film festivals across Europe and North America. To purchase a copy, visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum website.