In an attempt to find an image of the past to which I knew full well I had no access, in 1983 I traveled to Germany and Poland, to Dachau, where my parents had met in the DP camp, to Berlin, to Gdansk, to my parent’s streets and homes in Warsaw and Radom, and finally to Krakow and Auschwitz.
My intention in filming was not to recuperate images from my parents’ experience, but instead, to establish my own presence in the world, through the inscription of my own body into these spaces. Film would record that presence, and along with it, a disruption of the standard repertoire of interpretations attached to these images. I was attempting a radical subjectivity using the landscape, the memorial sites, and urban features, the most “objective” of images, as sources, since excepting images from archives, they were all I had to work with. All the other elements of the film, the texts, the sound, the musical fragments, were generated much later, after looking and thinking about the images for quite some time.
In 1989, when screening “Cooperation of Parts” at a conference on “Film, Memory, and the Holocaust,” a survivor stood up with amazing anger to ask me what gave me the right to make a film such as mine, so elliptical and unintelligible to him as a viewer. The question suggested that I had violated these images, and by extension, the places that I had visited.
My response, as automatic as his anger, was to ask whether he wanted to complete the work of the Nazis, to annihilate my own subjectivity and my own individual history, and to limit thought and language to only those associations that were permissible.
At a much calmer moment, I realized that his response was less about me than a fear that his experience would be lost to history. I believe he was quite sure that his experience had more authority, more importance, more urgency than mine, and that there was more at stake in its passage into the world.
My response, a reflection of my own anxiety, was to claim my own rights to this history. To be fair, this was at a time when film and video forms were even more determined by dominant genres and procedures than they are today. So chances were slim that he would have seen anything closely resembling an independent or experimental film that took traumatic history as its subject. Perhaps the challenge for him was a formal one.
In any case, he did raise an essential and inescapable question of daily life:
What possible experience of my own can measure up to the experience of my parents, one of whom spent two and a half years in the Soviet labor camp system, the other, who spent over two years in the slave labor and concentration camps of Radom, Ostrowitz, Geppertsdorf, Georgental, and Auschwitz.
What, if any, authority do I accrue by having lived so close to these sources, witnessing the effects of their traumas, yet having those histories available to me only through linguistic, documentary, or observable means, much as everyone else? Do I have any special or extraordinary understanding of these events? What can I communicate about my own experience that has any social or historical significance?
Very early on, I was aware that the affective, post-traumatic responses to the questions I raised, or the dramatic reactions to particular moments or events, were a screen between memory and its expression; that all their responses were expressed and read through this screen.
What was communicated to me: fragmented narratives, repeated details of certain stories, other stories with no details at all, the inability to express certain experiences, was duplicated on a much larger scale in the historical documentation that was available. The publication of the definitive studies of the Shoah and its organization were concurrent with my own awakening consciousness, and so historical consciousness developed in parallel to available texts.
Educated within a system whose historical narratives had clear shape and meaning, this particular condition – a past that was unavailable except through public documents and fragmented personal narratives – seemed exceptional. Later, all these assumptions about how the past was constructed would be scrutinized – the critical project of post-modernism was to assert that most of us live in this fragmented condition, whether acknowledged, or not. But this process of accretion, of building a sense of history through an accumulation of facts, personal details, and narratives from multiple sources, was essential. All of this naïve memory work, this trauerarbeit of a peculiar kind, had a secondary effect, which was an intellectual formation.
Because of the state of exception to which the Shoah has always been held, the ways it has been exemplified as a 20th century problematic, and being bound by Jewish culture and experience to seek out hermeneutic meaning, and to wring out interpretive possibilities, I extrapolated that most language and meanings are contingent, and that skepticism of all “conclusions” was a demand of these contingencies. These issues were not going away anytime soon. Again, contemporary theory only reinforced such a world-view.
I am reminded of the poetic image of Iss Clausner’s metal bowl, his “caravana” which held the daily soup, as described in Primo Levi’s “If This Is a Man.” Levi writes, “Where others have carved their numbers and Alberto and I our names, Clausner has written: “Ne pas chercher à comprendre.”
These then are the sentiments one would have to embrace... precisely because we heard it, always and everywhere, as children: “ you will never understand.”
And its meaning was actually quite simple: be conscious of the limits to the knowable. Those words kept us at a safe distance from our parents, our aunts and uncles, and their friends.
Images then, spoke a different language...they were not indexical replacements or simply documents but discreet objects... harboring meanings that were never intended, or bereft of those that were. One learned to dive into images, to analyze and deconstruct them for whatever evidence could be found within the frame. And although one developed early a keen sense of narrative, the relationship to narrative was tenuous and distrustful... one already learned the problem of contingency and context - even before knowing the words for them.
Primo Levi expressed the essential paradoxes of our condition:
“No one who survived knows the whole story, those who knew the system in its totality, couldn’t report back. Anyone who did survive was complicit in a system of hierarchical degradations and compromises, yet no one of them should ever be judged by the standards of normal life.” Most importantly, he says in so many ways: if one is to be trusted, speak only for yourself. In the ethical universe Levi describes, the past is built from many voices, many stories, many perspectives, corroborating, contradicting, and clarifying each other.
Any understanding of the world of the lager would require a respect for the entire range of those contradictions and corroborations.
As a filmmaker lacking images, the archive becomes an important site of memory, and the landscape, separate from the sites of acquired knowledge, a space where memory solidifies. What we bring to these places, to animate and give them significance, depends on our own experience and the ways in which our thoughts and associations are either given free play or blocked, directed, or “put in their place.”
Walter Benjamin wrote, “The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again” The elusive nature of this spontaneous “experience of history” is essential to its understanding. To lose that sensibility would be to either lose history altogether, or distort it into fixed positions and easy narratives that could never communicate its necessary complexity.
As most of you already know, nearly all the buildings of Birkenau were burnt down by the Germans as the Russians came near, and much of the usable brick removed in 1945 by the returning farmers to restore their buildings before winter. The entrance building remains along with some of the brick-built barracks in the southern part of the site, but of the 300 or so wooden barracks, just nineteen are still standing, eighteen in a row near the entrance building and one more, on its own, further away. Of most of the others just chimneys remain, two per barrack. The dynamited remains of the gas chambers are also open to the public.
The ashes of the victims were scattered between the huts, and the entire area is treated as a gravesite. As noted in the website of the State Museum:
“In view of the exceptional nature of the site of the Birkenau camp, which is above all a cemetery, no exhibitions have been situated there since the establishment of the Museum. An effort has been made to preserve the site in a state close to the original. The only large new element in this part of the site is the International Monument to the Victims of the Camp, unveiled at a 1967 ceremony.”
Claims that Birkenau is “above all” a cemetery notwithstanding, very few would come to Birkenau merely to reflect on the experience of great human loss, however personal. Aside from the many that seek singularly dramatic (and suspect) experience, many others come to consider other fundamental significations as well, which are political, ethical, historical, and most importantly, physical in nature. After all, there would be very little reason to come here, the site of industrial-scale death, without this physical dimension.
My first visit to Birkenau, in 1983, was during martial law. Poles were in a palpable state of deprivation, with extreme food shortages, and a robust black market economy at that time. The atmosphere, between the fear, the deprivation, and the sense of imminent events, seemed almost postwar.
Although there were a number of visitors at Auschwitz, the road to Birkenau remained empty, and signage to the site was almost non-existent. Only two or three other visitors were there that day. A Mr. Urbaniak, who claimed to sleep in the guardhouse, tended the site. We spoke in French, our only common language, and he mentioned that he was unpaid, but remained there out of a sense of duty. He lived by the generosity of visitors, who he guided through the site. As he took me around, he was respectful of my occasional need to be alone or wander to some less prominent place or another. It was an extremely hot, dry June day; the visit was intense and austere.
I returned to the site in 2001. After seeing the breathtaking changes to Krakow, while there for a presentation, I became curious about the changes to Auschwitz, if any.
Coming for pilgrimage or for dark tourism, the crowds at Auschwitz have doubled from 500,000 to 1 million visitors per year since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. The influx of additional visitors, as well as the native instability of the marshy site, made it imperative that Birkenau be preserved by vigorous means. The longevity and stability of the site was at risk.
The work is ongoing, and there are radically differing positions concerning the ways the site should be preserved... from a minimalist intervention to extreme positions as articulated by Jean-Claude Pressac, a French historian, who suggested rebuilding a crematorium as a "slap in the face" to revisionists.
As the State Museum maintains:
In its work over the last few years, the Museum has concentrated on explicating and commemorating the site and the buildings, and on illustrating important places and the most crucial events in the history of Auschwitz concentration camp. Birkenau is regarded as the most important part of the camp complex, and all conceptual and planning work has begun with that part of the Museum. The Museum placed new commemorative and informational tablets there in the mid-1990s.”
Many subtle and unsubtle shifts of meaning have occurred in the landscape where these conscious and unconscious changes have made way for museal or memorial functions.
For instance, as Primo Levi describes in “The Drowned and the Saved,” “The human ashes coming from the crematoria, tons daily, were easily recognized as such, because they often contained teeth or vertebrae. Nevertheless, they were employed for several purposes: as fill for swamp lands, as thermal insulation between the walls of wooden buildings, and as phosphate fertilizer; and especially notable, they were used instead of gravel to cover the paths of the SS village located near the camp, whether out of pure callousness or because, due to their origins, they were regarded as material to be trampled on, I couldn’t say. “
In 1983, paths leading from the crematoria, the Canada barracks, the Sauna, and the swampy pond where ashes were dumped were in fact still comprised of these bone fragments. It only took a few moments treading on these paths to grasp the full import of this feature, and the complex associations that Levi accounts. By 2001, these same paths were covered in asphalt, and the pond was framed by a series of black granite memorial stones in several languages.
The perimeter path, which snakes around the site, has also been stabilized with asphalt. People tend not to venture off it, since it strongly suggests the proper direction and order of the visit. Commemorative and informational tablets appear in several languages at numerous stations, describing what occurred at specific locations, some with photographs etched into the metal. The metal markers are standardized, with weighty black granite bases atop concrete plinths and above that, a minimalist rectangular scaffolding and frame for the tablet. At several other locations, black granite memorial markers, in several languages, punctuate the site.
Contrary to the website’s claim that no exhibition has been situated at the site since 1967, the most dramatic change at Birkenau has been the opening of a photographic exhibition space, with a glass floor, in the former Sauna. Although the authenticity of these photos brought to Auschwitz by victims is not in doubt, the Sauna is completely repurposed for this exhibition, using the prevailing esthetics of contemporary museum and memorial design, and borrowing strategies of display from such popular sites as the US Holocaust Museum and the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Here there is a direct effort to identify individual victims, and to encourage the visitor to experience an identification with these victims, families, and towns. Characters are created from these artifacts.
These disruptions, interventions, aids to experience, whatever you want to call them... stand between the site and its reception. They normalize, contemporize, narrativize, guide, and control experience and its associations. Perhaps contrary to intentions, they cumulatively create familiar spaces; comparisons with cemeteries, museums, and other public memorials become natural.
If the entire site is permeated with the remains of its victims, why mark individual moments within that site with memorial markers? Are some places more worthy of memorial reflection than others? Are we to conclude that a greater quantity of death, or human remains, is worthier of our attention; if not, how is experience being controlled or organized by these markers and paths?
These additions are neither subtle, nor neutral. Every intervention requires editorial agency, and makes present at every moment of its appearance a domain of authority outside the space. It’s become a space articulated through the expertise of others who have determined which narratives, what information, and whose domain of sovereignty remains present. For some this may provide a comfortable safety zone for prescribed reception, but for others, this produces an impediment to subjective experience.
And if the first casualty of spatial control is the subjective responses of the visitor, the second casualty is the natural curiosity to pursue unanswered questions that might arise in an otherwise open site.
One learns through specifics and details, not generalities, and often these specifics require explanation, research, or attention beyond the site. These new interventions make these moments of irresolution much more rare. So the continuous, active experience of comprehension that would occur off-site is precluded.
The information that is offered, and the esthetic effects, many of which are borrowed from popular media, encourages a pathetic identification with the victims, while at the same time, through the material strategies of exhibition, relegates that very identification to a past discontinuous from our own time. The tendency is to leave experience behind, to have catharsis on-site. I do not feel qualified or inclined to examine the psychological nuances of the tourist experience here, but if you’re interested, Paul Antick has written an article titled, “Journeys through the Holocaust,” which covers that ground quite well.
I understand the conditions and arguments that have formed these preservation and conservation strategies, and I am also aware that these solutions respond to physical conditions, visitor needs, as well as the more serious issue of revisionist histories. Still, the site is compromised by this normalization.
These physical interventions are symptoms of our own anxiety; of the inability to effect significant social and political change to adequately prevent genocide. And these interventions occur in the shadow of the genocides of Srebrenica and Rwanda.
I ask myself, what forms should this anxiety take? Why are these material gestures so acceptable, why are they enough, when there is so much structural resistance to such interruption and intervention in the political and social spheres, where they would do the most good?
I say these things, aware and critical of my own response, that in some measure romanticizes and essentializes the condition of the site on my first visit. The austerity and solitude that I experienced, along with the conditions of martial law in Poland, were of a unique moment that can’t ever be available again, under any circumstances.
In truth, at this moment of generational passage, not unlike that viewer in 1989, I am anxious at having to observe the inevitable transitions that memory and experience undergo as they form into history; and the ways media and the institutional procedures of history make compromises with the past, in the name of its preservation.
I will give the final word to Pierre Nora, who described this so well in “Les Lieux De Memoire”...
Our interest in lieux de memoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn – but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de memoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de memoire, real environments of memory.
Memory and history, far from being synonymous, appear now to be in fundamental opposition. Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. It remains in permanent evolution, open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived. History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond tying us to the eternal present; history is a representation of the past. Memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic – responsive to each avenue of conveyance or phenomenal screen, to every censorship or projection. History, because it is an intellectual and secular production, calls for analysis and criticism... Memory is by nature multiple and yet specific; collective, plural, and yet individual. History, on the other hand belongs to everyone and to no one, whence its claims to universal authority. Memory takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects; history binds itself strictly to temporal continuities, to progressions and so relations between things. Memory is absolute, while history can only conceive the relative. History is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it...
History’s goal and ambition is not to exalt but to annihilate what has in reality taken place.