Our first association with gypsy girls is often those mediocre paintings of a woman with voluminous raven hair, flashing eyes and a bosom yearning for freedom. But in the photo of four young gypsy girls that Wilhelm Brasse made in Auschwitz at the end of 1944, there is no trace of such pseudo romance.
This is not a portrait of how we would like to see ourselves or other people; more beautiful than in reality, it’s a harsh and chilling image of two twins, abused in the medical experiments by Joseph Mengele and his team. As a photographer, Brasse documented prisoners of the concentration camp on an industrial scale. He remembers the moment of the four children: “They were so ashamed.” To prevent scaring the girls even more, he remained at a distance, says Brasse in Irek Dobrowolski’s documentary Portrecista (Portrait Photographer), which was shown on Polish television earlier this year. After taking the photo, he gave the four girls a piece of bread. “I cursed God. And my mother for giving birth to me.” Secret photo Brasse was 22 years old when he and 400 Polish Jewish political prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in August 1940. He was captured in Hungary when he tried to flee to France, like tens of thousands of Poles. He was given the choice between fighting in the Wehrmacht or imprisonment. After two weeks of quarantine and six months of hard manual labour, Brasse was deployed as a photographer at the Erkennungsdienst (Identification Service) that the Gestapo had set up in Auschwitz.
The service initially made passport photos of the newly arrived prisoners. In the course of 1941, the situation in Auschwitz quickly deteriorated. In 1942, the transportation of Jews started, and physicians such as Joseph Mengele and Eduard Wirths started medical experiments on prisoners. The photo service had to record everything: Hassidic Jews, triplets and twins, the ill and disabled, remarkable tattoos, colour photos of the effects of gynaecological experiments on young women. But also floral motifs for postcards that the camp guards could send to their families. In The Guardian Brasse said that he made only one photo in secret: “A photo of a woman, a fellow- prisoner, who looked very beautiful.”
The beauty in those cruel surroundings compelled him to this act. Taking huge risks, he smuggled the photo out of the camp, to his mother. After the war he found the woman and gave her the photo. She thought she did not look nice in it and destroyed the print.
Wilhelm Brasse (89) now lives in Zywiec, Poland. He has grown crooked as a result of camp abuse. After the war, he tried to photograph, but each time the horrible images of Auschwitz appeared before his eyes. Sometimes photography can make you cynical. It offers a merciless view on the dark side of the human soul. Sadists can use photography as a means of humiliating people and getting them in their power. One would think that anyone who has seen such images would forever be aware that this should never happen again. This would mean that the crimes against humanity would be limited to the first half of the twentieth century. However, in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sudan and other places, people have fallen victim to systematic and large-scale butchering. During Pol Pot’s regime, who was in power in Cambodia in the nineteen seventies and eighties, the same happened as in Auschwitz: all prisoners were portrayed before they were murdered.
When early 2005 the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was commemorated all over the world, we saw beautiful photos in the newspapers: a thick layer of snow, a lonely figure walking by the buildings, in places interrupted by black barbed wire. Images selected by the editors to put their readers at ease. The French paper Libération, which has a much more creative approach to its tabloid- sized pages than the Dutch newspapers, decided to make a real statement: The photo of the four gypsy girls featured large on the front page, with below in bold print ‘Le devoir de l’histoire.’ An appeal to the reader to realise that our knowledge of history implies an obligation: to think about a better future.