The Auschwitz Photographer: Based on the True Story of Wilhelm Brasse, Prisoner 3444

Written by Maurizio Onnis
Review by Douglas Kemp

Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish prisoner at Auschwitz in 1941, is recruited by the SS to take photographs of all the new arrivals. This is before Auschwitz-Birkenau was converted into the utterly horrific mass killing centre, by which time there could be no possibility of photographing the thousands of individuals arriving every day. Hailing from Katowice, as an ethnic German and hence considered to have an Aryan background, and with excellent photographic skills, he can survive, whilst being a witness to the ever-present mistreatment, torture and killing of the camp’s inmates. Photographing the SS staff of various seniority gives him an opportunity to receive food and other essentials to allow him and his team to survive, but with the ever-present mortifying knowledge that their lives could be extinguished on a whim. The infamous Dr Josef Mengele uses Brasse to take pictures of the victims of his foul medical experiments, and slowly Brasse feels ensnared in the National Socialist mentality, as collaboration on the outside is the only way that he and his group can survive the nightmare of their precarious existence.

This is that rather strange medium of historical events treated to a semi-fictional account, where the authors describe events, conversations and feelings that can only be surmised. While the book is loosely based upon Wilhelm Brasse’s own memories as incorporated in a previous book, there is a definite case to be made that the hideous nature of the death and concentration camps run by Germany should only be analysed academically, fully sourced, and descriptive. This sort of fictionalisation can make the subject relatively trivial and commonplace and moves the subject insidiously and inappropriately towards entertainment and a lighter form of engagement. Given the plethora of titles, it seems that the name Auschwitz is mostly used nowadays by publishers as a guaranteed subject to sell books.