In stark contrast to The Book Thief the memory of Wilhelm Brasse of pre-war Germany includes the fact that young women in pre-war Germany used to wear around their necks lockets with photographs in them. When you opened one of those, there was a picture of Hitler.
Wilhelm Brasse was a trained photographer, his aunt had a successful photo atelier, and he was a young man working there when the World War II broke. Brasse joined the Polish army and along with his company attempted to join general Anders forces after Hitler invaded Poland. They were captured in Hungary and send to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Wilhelm Brasse became prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 1940 and remained prisoner until Auschwitz-Birkenau was freed on January 27. 1945 by the Soviet army. Of the 1,3 million people deported to Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau and Auschwitz-Monowitz 7,000 , most ill and dying, were still there, 1,1 million were dead.
Brasse became the camp’s photographer. Brasse was ordered to take prisoner’s archive file photographs; he estimates that he had taken between 40,000 and 50,000 of these, the Nazi's work entry card photographs, portraits they sent to their families and to document unbelievable cruelty that Mengele and others committed on the prisoners.
The book, and the film named Portrecista, are based on a long interview with Wilhelm Brasse, who despite repeated warning in the camp that his „future is black” survived. Brasse remembers prisoners as well as the commandants and guards.
His memory of the people, who were brought to him to have their pictures taken, includes a young Hungarian doctor whom somebody among the prisoners recognized, Brasse was asked to pretend that her picture did not come out, so that she might be able to come again- and live for that while. Brasse destroyed the negatives of the day, said that the film material was faulty and asked for the prisoners to be scheduled for another session. They were already gassed.
Groups of young girls were brought in from Mengele’s block, they were ashamed to stand there naked and be photographed, and Brasse describes painfully how this is truly despicable cruelty to force someone to be submit to such demeaning act, how he carefully tried to reassures the girls that nothing will happen to them in the atelier, how he never touched them or came close to them as not to scare them, how he and his assistant passed them pieces of bread- all the time knowing that once Mengele was done with them, they will be killed. Women were brought to the atelier, injected with anesthesia and their wombs photographed to mark progress of disease that was injected into them.
He remembers that his colleague on the crematorium commando was forced to cut off skin from the dead, people Brasse had photographed because they had interesting tattoos, and preserve the skin of the murdered for Mengele.
A 23 years old blond, pretty SS woman came to have her portrait taken. She wanted her breasts to show in the picture which both surprised and exited the young Brasse. The woman poisoned herself after she collected her pictures. She worked as a telephone operator behind the camp fence and had clear view of what what was going on in there. She could not live with it.
Brasse recognized two of the Jewish prisoners whose photographs he took. It is a memory that never left him; he gave the men some food and cigarettes and asked the brutal guard Szymborski to kill them, when it came to it, fast and with no pain. Brasse knew they would not live. He also knew that prisoners were often tortured to death and wanted to spare the men that last horror. To this day Brasse cannot comprehend horror of such magnitude that anyone has to beg for a mercy of easy death for people he knows.
He had taken a wedding picture of a Spanish woman and a prisoner with the child who was born while the newlyweds were separated. He remembers that the bordello was closed for the night so that the family might spend the night together. In the morning the wife and child left Auschwitz. Few weeks later the husband was hanged having been caught when he tried to escape.
Interestingly, Brasse remembers a whole array of people: Germans, Russians, Poles, Hungarians and Jews coming through his atelier. He also remembers that guards personal hatred varied, they tortured people not only on order but because they hated say, Russians because they were Russians.
At the end of the film we find out that when Brass’s company was captured, he and one other soldier, Mr. Adler, were given a choice: they could either go to Auschwitz- Birkenau or join the German army. Both decided not to join the Germans. A month later Adler was dead. I listened to the quiet, noninflected voice and it took me a long while to actually comprehend what is was hiding: that this man risked repeatedly his life to pass food to prisoners, to get them a short stave of death by inviting them back for pictures, that he attempted to rescue them from suffering, if he could not prevent their death. He kept his co-workers fed and alive by negotiating with Nazi who could kill him at will and expected to do so at the end. Through all that Brasse preserved his human revulsion of demeaning and torture, until today he excuses neither.
Brasse’s unpretentious humanity shows in his pictures. Photographing the living skeletons of imprisoned girls, he manages to capture their souls in their eyes. There is haunting picture of a young Jewish girl, many of men and women who passed through and yet each is a living individual in Brasse’s picture.
Often when we talk about concentration camps , the talk centers on the killers. The murderers and their deed take over and the victims become a faceless mass of the dead. Brasee makes them living, suffering humans. It is unique and needed. Holocaus will only be prevented if the victims are screaming about their humanity sacrificed to greed and hatred.
Brasse and his commando, that survived on food Brasse got from the guards in exchange for copies of their portraits, saved the archive of photograph to document what was happening in Auschwitz Birkenau. After the war Brasse could not return to photography. Any time he was working on a portrait, the faces of the dead returned to him.