Wilhelm Brasse, 95, a former Auschwitz prisoner who survived the camp after the Nazis discovered he was a professional photographer and put him to work taking pictures of other prisoners, has died. A spokesman at the Auschwitz-Birkenau state museum, Jaroslaw Mensfelt, said Brasse died Tuesday in Zywiec, a town in southern Poland.
Brasse, who was born in 1917 and was not Jewish, was sent to Auschwitz at 22 as a political prisoner for trying to sneak out of German-occupied Poland in the spring of 1940. Because he had worked before World War II in a photography studio in southern Poland, he was put to work in the camp’s photography and identification department.
It was an emotionally devastating task that tormented him long after his liberation. The images made by Brasse, one of several photographers pressed into service, are haunting: naked and emaciated children at Auschwitz standing shoulder-to-shoulder, adult prisoners in striped garb posing for police-style mug shots.
The job helped to save his life, enabling him to get better treatment and food than many others. After the war, he had nightmares for years of the Nazi victims he was forced to photograph. Among them were emaciated Jewish girls who were about to undergo cruel medical experiments under the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele.
“I didn’t return to my profession, because those Jewish kids, and the naked Jewish girls, constantly flashed before my eyes,” he said in a 2006 interview with the Associated Press. “Even more so because I knew that later, after taking their pictures, they would just go to the gas.”
Brasse said he believed he took about 40,000 to 50,000 of the identity photographs that the Nazis used to register their prisoners — part of the Nazi obsession with documenting their work. These pictures are among some of the notorious images associated with the camp.
At the war’s end, with the Soviet army about to liberate Auschwitz, the Germans ordered the photos destroyed, but Brasse and others refused the order and managed to save thousands of them.
— Times staff and wire reports