The Portraitist

Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous…More dangerous are the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions” (Primo Levi)

In 2005 the United Nations passed a resolution designating January 27th as Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date was chosen as the anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, in occupied Poland, by Red Army troops in January,1945. This resolution was passed to honor the memory of many millions of victims and also to promote development of educational programs dedicated to protection of human rights and prevention of genocide. The term Holocaust comes from the Greek holos (whole) and kaustos (burnt) or holokauston meaning burnt sacrifice. Jews who are uncomfortable with these pagan associations prefer the Hebrew term Shoah (calamity ). Just recently I received an email from Misako Miyagawa, a journalist who had read my chapter about the Polish Massacre at the forest of Katyn in April of 1940 in Trauma: Time, Space and Fractals. As a result, she thought that I might be interested in viewing a Polish film that she was involved in promoting here in the USA.

This award winning film, The Portraitist (Portrecisty ) was written, directed and edited by Irek Dobrowolski , produced by Anna Dobrowolska, and first aired on Polish TV in 2006. Their subject is Wilhelm Brasse, the photographer responsible for some of the now iconic images of the Holocaust. A Polish national and political prisoner, Mr. Brasse was transported to the newly opened facility at Auschwitz in 1940 as inmate number 3334. Prior to his arrest and incarceration, he had been a professional portrait photographer. Camp administrators were looking for someone to photo document the camp regime. He got the job because of his professional skills and also because he spoke German. In February of 1941. Wilhelm Brasse was assigned by the Gestapo to their SS Identification Service where he estimates that he took about fifty thousand pictures, and at least forty thousand of those images survive to this day.

This film is a stunning achievement whereby 14 hours of interviews were condensed into a 52 minute documentary with only the photographer as witness, his camera and a carefully chosen selection of images. The collective insanity of the Third Reich was obsessed with meticulously documenting the arrogant brutality of their sadistic agenda. Like serial killers who record and collect macabre “souvenirs” of their depravity, these state sponsored murderers were fascinated by atrocity. At one point, Mr. Brasse was assigned to photograph a series of hideous medical procedures as well as bizarre experiments performed by the notoriously cruel Dr. Josef Mengele , on human “specimens of interest”. As he reflects back upon those horrific years he describes his harrowing experience as “being burnt alive” while visually recording the darkest sides of our human condition. His photo documentation at the Nazi death camp is a graphic testimony of “man’s inhumanity to man”. This horrific evidence remains, not only of millions of murdered Jews, but also ethnic Poles, religious and political dissenters, Gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, homosexuals, the mentally and physically disabled as well as the genetically “different”.

As the Russians advanced and panicked Nazis were fleeing Auschwitz , orders were given to destroy all photo documentation. As soon as the officers left the atelier, Brasse and others took the risk of securing their stash in a place later retrieved by post-war authorities. After the war, he found that he could no longer practice his profession as a portrait photographer, as ongoing images of doomed men, women and children continued to haunt his lenses. While attempting to leave this tragic past behind, he started over with a small business but could not escape recurring nightmares of hearing his prisoner number 3334 called out while he was desperately attempting to hide . After his testimony given for this film Wilhelm Brasse reported that he could finally sleep in peace. He died at the age of 95 at his home in rural Poland. Copies of this film are available through the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum website. 

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