Friday, August 10, 2012

Grave Masses at Auschwitz

by Drew Martin
I went to the southern Polish town Oświęcim last week, more commonly referred to as Auschwitz. The original Polish name actually means enlightenment. The German approximation has no meaning but references three places: a quaint town with a beautiful historic center, and the two Nazi-run death camps; Auschwitz I and II. Auschwitz I is across a river from the town and not so close from the center. It was originally built for Polish political dissidents and Russian prisoners of war. It is an organized complex of sturdy brick buildings, a gas chamber and a crematorium surrounded by not-so-high guard towers and barb-wire fences that were once electrified. Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, is a huge place and even farther from the town. The are many brick buildings left standing but the original wood barracks have disintegrated. A few were recreated to show what the structures would have looked like. What remains of this area are endless rows of the brick fireplaces and chimneys that would have (poorly) heated the barracks. It was hard to make the connection at the site to all the stories, documentaries and movies I have seen about the Holocaust. I was there on a warm summer day with a strong, refreshing breeze. The brick buildings were cool inside. Most of their interiors were converted into museum spaces with bare interiors and a lot of oversized photographs. The tours are given by whispering guides to flocks of visitors who listen via amplified headsets. Sometimes two or three groups merge, but the dedicated channel per group makes sense of their respective tour guides. The impression of both camps are quite different. Central to Birkenau is the train track that leads into the site and the ground platform where the deportees were deboarded. The shock is that there is nothing really left. Most of the structures are gone so you have to conceptualize the events that took place. The shock of Auschwitz I is the display of piles of hair, shoes, pots, prosthetic legs, glasses and suitcases from the people who were sent to the camp. The displays are overwhelming, especially the room flanked with mounds of hair, but all of the items are behind glass so you do not smell the hair or leather. The hair is so old and matted that it does not read as human hair any more. If you do not know the history of the camp, the displays have a purely sculptural presence, like you might find in the installations of artists such as Ann Hamilton or Tara Donovan. There is nothing saddening about a pile of old spectacles but as a proof of genocide that same mass is horrific.