Auschwitz: Photographs from Hell



This week, the world paused briefly to remember 27th January 1945 when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz.  The press release from the White House, now improbably occupied by a man who has surrounded himself with anti-Semites, did not even mention the Jewish victims of the said concentration camp.

Yet this has alarming parallels dating back to 1945. While 1.1 million (90 percent of whom were Jewish) died at Auschwitz — 1 in 6 Jews killed in the Holocaust perished in its gas chambers — its significance was downplayed immediately by the Red Army which saw the atrocities first hand. In a new narrative that Soviet Union was writing, the Jewish suffering was to be downplayed, even as Soviet sacrifices were hailed.

As Richard Levy wrote in Antisemitism, as “many Soviet citizens …. benefited from the Nazi extermination of Jews — taking over abandoned Jewish houses, stolen property, and vacated jobs”, they feared the return of Jewish refuges. In such a climate, the Soviet control of Eastern Europe depended on hiding the true extent of the Nazi horrors. Pravda’s short initial report on Auschwitz on February 2nd 1945 did not mention Jews; a detailed coverage wasn’t made until Ogonyok’s March 20th article, which did mention Jewish deaths.

Not liberated alongside Auschwitz was Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish inmate who was forced to take photographs of Auschwitz during the war. Along with thousands of other Auschwitz prisoners, Brasse was moved to Mauthausen concentration camp by the Nazis as the Red Army approached Auschwitz.

While at Auschwitz, Brasse was ordered by the SS to photograph “prisoners’ work, criminal medical experiments, [and] portraits of the prisoners for the files.” He took “identity” portraits of the prisoners “in three poses: from the front and from each side, taking about 40,000 to 50,000 of them from 1940 until 1945.

These images, of which only a few survives, form a powerful visual legacy, enlivening the victims of the Holocaust into people who lived and loved, rather than as numbers and statistics. Among the most haunting was the portrait of Czesława Kwoka, a 15-year old girl, whom Brasse recalled:

She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo [a prisoner overseer] took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything. 

Kwoka would perish in the camps just a few months later. It is depressing to commemorate Auschwitz, even as tolerance dims in the United States with each stroke of the presidential pen. We have largely shied away from discussing modern politics on this blog, but this is no time for decent men, of any political stripe and especially of the president’s party, to remain silent.

Cruel. Inhumane. Lacking in Empathy. Enacted without due process and deference to legality. These are some words that come to mind when we reflect on the Executive Orders of last few days. We must not confuse religious, political, or ideological differences with disloyalty. There is a fine line between national security and infringement of civil rights, and between protecting and persecution citizens — and the president has stepped over it a week into his term.

We worry about the remaining 207 weeks of his administration. That’s we are going to put a link to American Civil Liberties Union’s donation page here.

19 thoughts on “Auschwitz: Photographs from Hell

  1. It would add more weight if you were to list end explain the executive orders. We, not being in the US, are not aware of the extent of the orders you mention.

  2. Right, trump is so antisemetic that his son in law is Jewish, his daughter converted to Judaism, his grandchildren are being raised Jewish, and he put both his SiL and daughter in prime influential positions. What a nazi!

    You’ve demeaned your own site with this ridiculous propaganda. At one time you educated people on propaganda. Now you author and spread it.

    • He is surrounding himself with anti semites, one of his top advisors Bannon for one. He’s running an authoritarian regime, obsessed with nationalism and isolationism, wants to limit the press and free speech. He neglected to mention jews or anti semitism from his holocaust statement. It all starts somewhere. History has shown us very clearly how and what happens, and Trump is so far following a very recognizable path.

      • RIGHT! Because Jared Kushner has NO IDEA who Steve Bannon really is, but YOU do. He works with him daily, and has this “anti semite” as his biggest ally.

        Because, you know, Trump’s working to get his own grandchildren in a camp.

        Open your eyes. This is the stupidest theory since Obama was Born in Kenya. (For the same reasons.)

  3. Thank you. I was concerned at the lack of political coverage regarding Trump’s democratic victory at the President of the US but finding that commentary on a site titled Iconic Photos has helped to alleviate those fears. Could Iconic Photos please put up a photo of the now extinct Dodo bird and then work a political diatribe against Trump or the any other right leaning party just to really position Iconic Photos as a political commentary force. Bollocks. If I want biased political news then I would subscribe to CNN or Fox News. I subscribe to Iconic Photos for, I don’t know, perhaps for photos that are Iconic?

  4. To not use the term Muslim undermines the whole piece. As painful as you may find it, that is where the parallel is. You chastise Trump and the soviets for not mentioning the victims and yet you do the very same thing. I guess there are multiple parallels in this piece.

  5. This liberal balderdash is inserted into every instance where an anti-Trump rant can be broadcast. Your views are sophomoric to the point of lunacy.
    Get over it. Donald Trump is President and, believe it or not, he has been(in the short two weeks he is in office) and will be great for the American people.
    G-d bless America! And G-d bless Donald Trump for his patriotism.

    • This is really becoming beyond a joke. Every blogger on the wen now wants to make their political views known and strangly enough, they are all anti trump. Alex, where was your political comment when Clinton was complicit in the deaths of 4 americans in Benghazi or when Obama dropped 12600 bombs in 2016, many on innocent people? Where are your comments on why Obama, Clinton, Sanders, Allbright, Pelosi etc have not once made comments about the violence the Left now instigate against anything Trump or of the right. Where are your comments as to why none of your beloved leaders are coming out and trying to stop these violent acts. Where were your comments when the Women’s march was such a resounding success in America but no one was prepared to march in a Muslim country where women really are not treated like equals. Tell me your political thoughts on those Alex or like the Left sheep you are, you will block abuse or run and hide to your safe place.

      I come to this site to see your wonderful iconic photos, not to hear your views how only Clinton and her cohorts can fix the World.

      Enough is enough.

      • They’re never going to mention the AnCom violence. You know why? They like fighting imaginary nazis, but when real brownshirts show up, they are too afraid to call them brownshirts.

  6. You belittle the Holocaust with this political crap comparing Trump to Hitler? Disgusting social and cultural appropriation for political commentary!?? How sickening that you would use the Holocaust…the literally God-Damned Holocaust…as a backdrop for this kind of tripe. Truly–whether readers are left, right, or center, all should be appalled. You demean the deaths of millions.

  7. Lord knows President Trump may no doubt be faulted in a variety of areas, but antisemitism is not one of them. As others have stated his son-in-law is Jewish and his daughter has converted to Judaism.

    The ironic thing is that based on his treatment of Israel, there is a lot better case to be made that Obama is in fact an anti-semite.

  8. My father knew Wilhelm Brasse, we are living in the same city, Żywiec, as he did before he passed a few years ago. Brasse was an ordinary photographer, before WW2. It was the cause he was used by camp administration to take photos.
    Once during their conversation at cafeteria, Brasse said, he do not want take any single photo after the war. He said he cannot take even single look at photo camera without thinking about this all people he photographed before.

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