The Auschwitz Photographer shows a new and poignant angle to the horrors of the Holocaust

Young Polish political prisoner Rozalia Kowalczyk was registered under the
number 39845. Picture: Supplied
Young Polish political prisoner Rozalia Kowalczyk was registered under the number 39845. Picture: Supplied
  • The Auschwitz Photographer, by Luca Crippa and Maurizio Onnis. Doubleday, $35

Outside the most elegant store in Berlin stands a U-Bahn destination board, exactly the same colour and size as any other on the city's subway. This one, though, lists the names of concentration camps, appended by a note insisting that "these are the names of stations we must never forget".

Auschwitz is first in the list, not just for alphabetical reasons but because the scale and form of the atrocities committed there serve as a metaphor for the entire Holocaust. If there were ever an emblem marking the uttermost depths of human depravity, that would be Auschwitz concentration camp.

Luca Crippa and Maurizio Onnis have exhumed the story of one camp inmate to give a modern reader a realistic, human-sized angle of view on the Holocaust. One author (Crippa) is an expert in ideology and philosophy, while the other (Onnis) has written historical novels and screenplays. Their narrative draws heavily on two records kept by the protagonist of the story, in a book and a Polish television documentary.

Their central character is Wilhelm Brasse, born in 1917 to Austrian and Polish parents. Trained in photography and fluent in German, Brasse was eventually put to work in Auschwitz's "Identification Service", registering by three photographs (profile, with and without headgear) new inmates. Only 27 years old when he was freed, Brasse never again took a photograph.

From 1940 to liberation in 1945, Brasse processed between 40,000 and 50,000 photographs. As the authors remark of one prisoner, each of them captured "the eyes of someone who is watching the doors of Hell open in front of them". Some are re-produced in the book, the subjects having been ordered not to blink, smile, grimace or talk. They were photographed before selections, cold, hunger, beatings, "medical" experiments, the crematorium, a firing squad, crippling work and the gas chambers annihilated them.

The first challenge for Crippa and Onnis is how to narrate Brasse's life in the camp. An Irish novelist, Colum McCann, once defined his job as going out into the world, finding a story which broke his heart, then finding a way to tell it which would break a reader's heart too.

With Auschwitz, any reader's heart is surely already broken. The challenge in finding a new - but still dramatic and poignant - way to re-tell the Auschwitz story therefore becomes acute.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn ironically picked a good day in a prisoner's routine to explain the Soviet Union's gulag (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Elie Wiesel chose laconic understatement (in Night) to decipher a Nazi system where "there is no 'why'". Tom Keneally's Schindler's List focused on a decent, affluent outsider and the inmates he managed to save from the Nazis.

For their part, Crippa and Onnis have chosen to tell Brasse's story in the present tense. That technique permits some surprise, allows drama to build, gives the reader a chance to learn progressively more about Brasse and gradually reveals the horrors the Nazis were capable of inflicting.

Like Denisovich, Brasse was fortunate. His tale is another lesson in how radically we underestimate the place of luck in the course of our lives. Within his photographic studio, Brasse enjoyed a relatively privileged existence. His studio was even adorned with a cuckoo clock. Brasse worked indoors, he was warm, he had just enough to eat, he performed an essential service.

The house photographer became "not the least important or most defenceless cog" in the camp machine - although he lived in peril of sudden death every day.

When he wandered outside, Brasse took care not to raise his eyes, on the basis that, the less he saw, the less he would remember. That comment is a reminder of how important it is to the narrative that Brasse was not a full-blown hero, but rather an ordinary person "just trying to scrape along and get by somehow".

One structural difficulty with Holocaust stories is the numbing weight of stories of abominable cruelty and atrocious suffering. You can be dismayed, but also overwhelmed, by the huge piles of discarded shoes at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Here, little is discarded. At one stage Brasse ruminates for two-and-a-half pages about photographs of a selection for the gas chamber. That brief interlude is almost unbearably moving.

After establishing himself as the registration photographer, Brasse was advised not to bother photographing Jews (who had minimal chance of survival) and instead to record with his camera Dr Mengele's hideous experiments on human beings, especially with twins and on sterilisation.

Brasse maintained that one survival tactic was "never stop forgetting". He failed to do so. Our obligation is the opposite, never to forget what humans are capable of and what obligations to others entail.

This story The images that can't be forgotten first appeared on The Canberra Times.