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Auschwitz Photographer, Wilhelm Brasse, Still Sees Images
Associated Press Writer

It was done on the orders of SS camp doctors, Brasse said.

Most new arrivals at Auschwitz went straight to the gas chambers, but those selected for work or experiments would be photographed - at least until 1943, when the Nazis switched to tattooing ID numbers on inmates' arms. But Brasse's work wasn't over.

One day in 1943, his boss, an SS officer named Bernhard Walter, called him into his office. An immaculately uniformed SS officer was waiting. The stranger politely addressed Brasse as "sir." It was Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous camp doctor and practitioner of cruel medical experiments, he learned afterward.

"He said that he was going to send some Jewish girls for pictures, and that I had to take pictures of them naked. One from the front, but the whole body; the second from behind; the third as a profile of the whole figure."

Soon afterward, Brasse said, a group of some 15 Jewish girls were brought in.

"The girls undressed, they were about 15 or 16 years old, and there were some around 25 or 26..." He paused. "It was all so unpleasant."

"They undressed and I said that they have to stand straight and I had to move the camera back to get the whole figure," he said. "I took the pictures just as Mengele had indicated."

The doctor ordered pictures of other prisoners he was performing his "experiments" on - Jewish twins, dwarfs, stunted people, people with noma, a disease common in the malnourished that can result in the loss of flesh. Mengele, who had written his dissertation on the formation of jawbones in supposedly non-Aryan people, was interested.

"I had to take close-ups. He said sometimes you will be able to see the whole bone of the jaw, and that I have to do close-ups of it."

"I did the close-ups, in harsh light, and you could see to the bone," Brasse said.

"Later, my boss called me in, and Dr. Mengele expressed his happiness with the pictures I'd taken, that I'd taken them just as he had needed them to be done," Brasse said.

Asked how he felt about taking the pictures, Brasse said, "it was an order, and prisoners didn't have the right to disagree. I couldn't say 'I won't do that.' I only listened to what I had to do and because I didn't harm anyone by what I was doing, I tried to address them politely. I explained that they didn't have to be afraid here, that nothing bad was going to happen to them here, nobody would yell at them."

As the allies advanced on Berlin in late 1944 and early 1945, the Nazis scrambled to cover up their crimes. Boxes of Brasse's pictures were shipped out of the camp, Brasse said. He doesn't know where to.

As Russian troops closed in on Auschwitz in January 1945, Brasse's boss, Walter, worried about the photos still in the camp. He told the young Pole: "Ivan is coming. Burn everything. All the photographs, all the negatives, files, burn it all."

But the negatives were fireproof. Walter swore and left. Brasse and another inmate doused them with water. Most of Brasse's photos disappeared, but some survived, although it is hard to say which were Brasse's, since camp photos as a rule didn't carry the photographer's name. However, in the TV documentary he told the story behind some pictures in the Auschwitz museum archives that he remembers taking.

Mengele hid in Bavaria, then fled to South America, where he died in 1979.

Jaroslaw Mensfelt, spokesman of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, says some 200,000 such pictures were taken, with name, nationality and profession attached.

About 40,000 of these pictures are preserved, some with the identification cards, and 2,000 of these are on display in the museum. Others are at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial.