The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum holds a collection of 38,916 registration photographs that were taken between February 1941 and January 1945 in the laboratory of Erkennungsdienst in Auschwitz I. The preserved photos, 31,969 of men and 6,947 of women, constitute only a fraction of a vast Nazi photo archive destroyed during the camp evacuation in January 1945. While we do not know the total number of registration photographs taken during the operation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we do know that only prisoners who survived the initial selection and incorporation into the Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner population had their photos taken. Those condemned to extermination at the onset were not photographed.
Initially, the Nazis planned to photograph each of approximately 400,000 prisoners registered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, half of whom were Jewish. The motivation was to create a visual aid to identify runaway prisoners or those whose identity had to be confirmed during their stay in the camp. However, the system proved to be ineffective. The cruel and inhuman conditions of the camp life made prisoners’ emaciated physique and facial features unrecognizable shortly after they arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Each photographed prisoner posed for three distinct shots standard in prison photography: a profile shot, an en face shot, and a head-covering shot with a headscarf (women) or a cap (men). Prisoner faces and heads were shaven and their uniforms embroidered with camp numbers, triangles corresponding to different prisoner categories, and letters identifying prisoners’ countries of origin. While most of the photographed prisoners wore camp uniforms, few of the registration photographs feature prisoners wearing civilian clothes.
Prisoners were photographed soon after their arrival in Auschwitz-Birkenau by fellow-prisoners who were forced to work in the camp photo laboratory in Block 26. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum identifies names of some of these camp photographers: Wilhelm Brasse (No. 3444), Alfred Woycicki (no. 39247), Tadeusz Myszkowski (no. 593), Józef Pysz (no. 1420) Józef Światłoch (no. 3529), Eugeniusz Dembek (no. 63764), Bronisław Jureczek (no. 26672), Tadeusz Krzysica (no. 120557), Stanisław Trałka (no. 660), and Zdzisław Pazio (no. 3078).
In January 1945, Nazis ordered prisoners Wilhelm Brasse and Bronisław Jureczek to burn the remains of the Auschwitz-Birkenau photo archive. In an attempt to preserve photographic evidence of the camp registration system, Wilhelm and Bronisław retrieved undestroyed photographs from the furnace and boarded the lab door to prevent unauthorized access after the evacuation of the camp. The two saved 38,916 photographs, 38,916 of which constitute the current archival collection of the Museum.
LEARN MORE: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum on the history of prisoners’ photos
The system of marking and identifying prisoners by a combination of colored inverted triangles and lettering originated before World War II in concentration camps in Germany. From 1938, Jews in the camps were identified by a yellow star sewn onto their prison uniforms. In Auschwitz-Birkenau, the system was implemented with certain modifications. However, it was not used for all prisoner groups.
Red triangles marked “political prisoners (Schutzhäftlinge – Sch.), in other words, those who were imprisoned on the basis of a “protective custody order” (Schutzhaftbefehl) issued by a state police post. The political prisoners in Auschwitz were, above all, Poles. Green triangles marked “criminal” prisoners (Berufsverbrecher – BV), imprisoned as a direct consequence of committing a forbidden act, or after release from prison in cases where the criminal police regarded the sentence imposed by the court as too lenient. Prisoners in this category were mostly Germans.
Black triangles marked “asocial” prisoners (Asoziale – Aso), imprisoned in theory for vagrancy or prostitution, but in fact for a wide range of other deeds or behaviors, loosely and arbitrarily interpreted by the police. The Roma in the Birkenau “Gypsy camp” were classified as asocial. Purple triangles marked prisoners imprisoned for belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Internationale Bibelforscher-Vereinigung – IBV), regarded as enemies of the state because of their pacifistic beliefs.
Pink triangles marked homosexual prisoners, in practice exclusively German, who were imprisoned on the basis of §175 of the German criminal code. Source