A photographer, Brasse spent World War II in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp — as an inmate. The Nazis put his skills to work: he was the camp’s photographer, shooting identity photos of every prisoner who came in and not slated to die immediately. Each prisoner had three shots taken: profile, front, and an oblique view. But beyond those, he was also ordered to take photos of the sometimes horrifying results of medical “experiments” done at the camp. “It was an order, and prisoners didn’t have the right to disagree,” Brasse remembered. “I couldn’t say, ‘I won’t do that.’” Well he could: and he’d be killed.
Later, when ordered to destroy tens of thousands of the photos, he defied the order — the only record of where many of the prisoners ended up. “The photographs were taken for administrative purposes, documentation and personal amusement for the Nazis,” says Judith Cohen, who oversees the photo archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “However, the same photographs that were commissioned by the Germans later became some of the most damning evidence of their crimes.” But the sheer numbers even overwhelmed the Nazis. “We photographed all the prisoners at the beginning,” Brasse recounted later. “Jews, all nationalities. But after No. 35,000, we didn’t photograph Jews any more. They weren’t recorded. That’s because they were being taken straight to the gas chambers.” Brasse himself wasn’t Jewish: he was Polish, and was caught in 1940, trying to escape to Hungary. Because he spoke German, he was offered the chance to join the German army, but he refused. He ended up in Birkenau, and wasn’t liberated until May 1945. He gave up photography, because he couldn’t escape the visions of what he had seen. “When I tried to photograph young girls, for example, dressed normally,” he said, “all I’d see would be these Jewish children.” Brasse’s story was captured in the documentary Portrecista (“The Portraitist”) in 2005. He died October 23 in his home town of Zywiec, Poland. He was 94.