This is Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14 year old a Polish girl. She died in the Auschwitz elimination camp on February 18, 1943 with a syringe of phenol in her heart. Shortly before the execution, she was photographed by the prisoner Whenm Brasse. I can look at her photo for hours. The face of a terrified child, a child filled with sorrow, a child who did not even speak her capturers language and who had lost her mother a few days earlier. The sorrow I feel is almost unbearable, a sadness fills me and a question keeps coming up, what is wrong with the human race?
The photo, originally black and white, has been painted by several artists. So no one ever forgets.
Czesława Kwoka (15 August 1928 – 12 March 1943) was a Polish girl who died at the age of 14 in Auschwitz. She was born in Wólka Złojecka, a small village in Poland. Along with her mother. Katarzyna Kwoka (prisoner number 26946), Czesława Kwoka (prisoner number 26947) was deported and transported from Zamość, General Government, to Auschwitz, on 13 December 1942. On 12 March 1943, less than a month after her mother died (18 February 1943), Czesława Kwoka died at the age of 14.
She was one of thousands of child victims of German World War II crimes against Poles in German-occupied Poland, she is among those memorialized in an Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum exhibit, “Block no. 6: Exhibition: The Life of the Prisoners”.
Photographs of Kwoka and others, taken by the “famous photographer of Auschwitz”, Wilhelm Brasse, between 1940 and 1945, are displayed in the Museum’s photographic memorial. Brasse discusses several of the photographs in The Portraitist, a 2005 documentary about him. They became a focus of interviews with him that have been cited in various articles and books.
General historical contexts of child victims of Auschwitz
Czesława Kwoka was one of the “approximately 230,000 children and young people aged less than eighteen” among the 1,300,000 people who were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1940 to 1945.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s Centre for Education About the Holocaust and Auschwitz documents the wartime circumstances that brought young adults and children like Kwoka to the concentration camps in its 2004 publication of an album of photographs compiled by its historian Helena Kubica; these photographs were first published in the Polish/German version of Kubica’s book in 2002. According to the Museum, of the approximately 230,000 children and young people deported to Auschwitz, more than 216,000 children, the majority, were of Jewish descent; more than 11,000 children came from Romani families; the other children had Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian, Russian, or other ethnic backgrounds.
Most of these children “arrived in the camp along with their families as part of the various operations that the Nazis carried out against whole ethnic or social groups”; these operations targeted “the Jews as part of the drive for the total extermination of the Jewish people, the Gypsies as part of the effort to isolate and destroy the Gypsy population, the Poles in connection with the expulsion and deportation to the camp of whole families from the Zamość region and from Warsaw during the Uprising there in August 1944”, as well as Belarusians and other citizens of the Soviet Union “in reprisal for partisan resistance” in places occupied by Germany.
Of all these children and young people, “Only slightly more than 20,000 … including 11,000 Gypsies, were entered in the camp records. No more than 650 of them survived until liberation [in 1945].”
Czesława Kwoka was one of those thousands of children who did not survive Auschwitz and among those whose “identity photographs”, along with captions constructed from the so-called Death Books, are featured in a memorial display on a wall in Block no. 6: Exhibition: Life of the Prisoners.
Particular historical contexts of photographs of Czesława Kwoka
After her arrival at Auschwitz, Czesława Kwoka was photographed for the Reich’s concentration camp records, and she has been identified as one of the approximately 40,000 to 50,000 subjects of such “identity pictures” taken under duress at Auschwitz-Birkenau by Wilhelm Brasse, a young Polish inmate in his twenties (known as Auschwitz prisoner number 3444). Trained as a portrait photographer at his aunt’s studio prior to the 1939 German invasion of Poland beginning World War II, Brasse and others had been ordered to photograph inmates by their Nazi captors, under dreadful camp conditions and likely imminent death if the photographers refused to comply.
These photographs that he and others were ordered to take capture each inmate “in three poses: from the front and from each side.”Though ordered to destroy all photographs and their negatives, Brasse became famous after the war for having helped to rescue some of them from oblivion.
Auschwitz “Identification photographs” in memorial exhibits and photo archives
While most of these photographs of Auschwitz inmates (both victims and survivors) are not extant, some photographs do populate memorial displays at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, where the photographs of Kwoka reside, and at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Shoah.
Captions attached to the photographs in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum photo archives and memorial indoor exhibits have been constructed by the Museum Exhibition Department from camp registries and other records confiscated when the camps were liberated in 1945 and archived subsequently. These Museum photo archive captions attached to photographs assembled and/or developed from photographs and negatives rescued by Brasse and fellow inmate darkroom worker Bronislaw Jureczek during 1940 to 1945 identify the inmate by name, concentration-camp prisoner number, date and place of birth, date of death and age at death (if applicable), national or ethnic identity, religious affiliation, and date of arrival in the camp. Some photographs credited to Brasse, including the “identity picture” with 3 poses of Kwoka, are in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s memorial to prisoners, part of a permanent indoor exhibit called Block no. 6: Exhibition: The Life of the Prisoners, first mounted in 1955. Kwoka’s likeness is also featured by the museum’s Exhibition Department on its official Website, in some of the Museum’s published albums and catalogues, and in the 2005 Polish television documentary film about Brasse, The Portraitist, shown on TVP1 and in numerous film festivals.
The photo mural including Kwoka’s “identity pictures” (“identification photographs” or “mug shots”) displayed on a wall in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum’s permanent indoor exhibition The Life of the Prisoners in Block no. 6 is captured in Ryszard Domasik’s photograph cropped (without the photographs of Kwoka) featured on its official Website.
Brasse’s memories of photographing Kwoka
Brasse recalls his experience photographing Kwoka specifically in The Portraitist, an account corroborated by BBC correspondent Fergal Keane who interviewed Brasse about his memories of taking them, in a Live Magfeature article “Returning to Auschwitz: Photographs from Hell”, occasioned by the film’s London premiere (22 April 2007), published in the Mail Online on 7 April, which does not include illustrations of these photographs of Kwoka.
As a visitor to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum memorial exhibit in Block no. 6, Keane also describes his own impressions of the photographs of Kwoka in some detail.
”For days after viewing the photographs, I could not shake the girl’s expression from my mind. She is around 14 years of age and looking directly into the camera.
The girl has only recently arrived at the camp. On her lower lip there is a cut. Her eyes stare directly into the lens and the fear transmits itself across the decades.
But until Wilhelm Brasse told me his extraordinary story I had no idea how the photograph came to be taken. His voice trembles as he recounts what happened.
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.”