Auschwitz: An Afternoon at the Identification Service
Wilhelm Brasse switched on the enlarger, and a bright beam of white light fell onto the sheet of photographic paper. The negative had been developed that morning by Franek Myszkowski, one of his colleagues, and Brasse hadn't even glanced at it. Myszkowski was a skilled lab technician, so Brasse was sure the negative would have the correct contrast and exposure. Brasse also knew his way around the enlarger, having worked with it for so long, and he was sure that with this medium-density negative, a dozen or so seconds of exposure would be enough to create the print. After exactly twelve seconds, he switched off the white light, and the room returned to semidarkness, illuminated only by the red safety lamp.
His boss, SS Oberscharführer Bernhard Walter, had asked him to produce large prints, so Brasse had placed a thirty-by-forty-centimeter sheet of photographic paper on the base of the enlarger. Now he took the sheet—which already contained the secret of the image projected from the negative but was still invisible, still immaterial—and immersed it in the developing tank. He waited impatiently, as he always did at this stage of the operation, and the image slowly began to take form. It was a face; there could be no doubt about it.
First to emerge were the outlines of the eyes and a few darker strands of hair, then the features and the neck. A woman with a dark complexion. She was young and wore a scarf tied around her head.
When the pupils had become fully black, Brasse took the sheet out of the developer, rinsed it quickly, and submerged it in the tank of fixer: half a minute would be enough. He didn't even look at the timer sitting on the shelf next to him. This process had become second nature to him, and for a while now, he had no longer needed instruments to measure it. Finally, he extracted the sheet from the fixer, washed it carefully once more so the print wouldn't turn yellow, and hung it on a line to dry. He had asked Walter for a print dryer, but his superior was having trouble getting new equipment sent from Berlin. As for looking for one in Warsaw, there was no point: the Germans had already taken anything that could possibly be useful. Only after he'd hung up the print did Brasse switch the darkroom light back on. Standing there, in front of the line, he studied the image. He felt a surge of satisfaction: the print was perfectly developed and the contrast was just right. But that feeling quickly gave way to one of unease. The woman's eyes fixed him with a terrible gaze.
Disturbed, he took a step back to take a better look.
He wouldn't have been able to say from what distant country she came: the portrait was too close up for him to deduce anything from her clothes or other details. It was a face similar to the thousands of others he himself had immortalized here in the Erkennungsdienst—the camp's Identification Service. The woman could be French or Slovak, a Jew of any nationality—Romani even, although her features weren't like those of the nomads seen in Auschwitz. She could be German, punished for something the Nazis didn't like.
He didn't know.
The photograph had been taken by Walter, who didn't waste time explaining things. Brasse himself never went outside to take photographs. He had the authorization to do so but didn't want to. Unless they ordered him to do otherwise, he preferred to stay here, shut away in the warm studio, working alongside the other men in his kommando, as the SS called the various teams assigned to different tasks in the camp. Walter, on the other hand, liked taking photographs and producing short films out in the sunlight. He would then take everything back to the studio to be developed and printed.
The Oberscharführer appreciated and respected his chief portraitist, but he never failed to remind Brasse that he himself was an SS man and Brasse was a prisoner, worth less than zero. Brasse's abilities were too useful to him, though, and with time, he had even developed a fondness for this Polish deportee. They chatted with each other, and Walter would ask Brasse's opinion on technical problems and entrust him with the most difficult jobs.
That morning, Walter had come into the studio early—before the queue of prisoners to identify and register had even formed—and when he appeared, everyone sprang to attention. The German had a roll of film in his hand, and judging by the care with which he was carrying it, it must have been something precious, and there was a lot of it—several meters.