Author Archives: Roz Mortimer

The Deathless Woman

Eight years after I first stood at the side of the lake at Várpalota, this blog is being archived.

This has been an amazing journey which has taken me into the homes of witnesses and survivors in the UK, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. I started off thinking about memory, landscape and atrocity and years later the work has become about the here and now and about how history has failed the Roma.

There have been multiple films…some small films which I’ve posted here on this blog, and others that have been exhibited publicly, such as the video installation This is History (after all) and the Random Acts film made for Channel 4 Its Going to Rain. I’ve written thousands of words and spoken at conferences and given presentations about this work in the UK, Netherlands and the USA.

All this work finally leads to The Deathless Woman – a feature film which had it’s world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019.

In memory of the thousands of Roma who were murdered during WWII and the many more who continue to be subjected to violent and murderous prejudice in Europe today.

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Visible Evidence XXIII

I will be at Visible Evidence XXIII in Montana between 11th-14th August 2016 screening This is History (after all) and giving a presentation (Bringing a Ghost into Being) about my current research which focuses on the legacy of a Roma woman who was buried in a mass grave at Bielcza in 1942.

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Ecstatic Truths symposium

In May I gave a presentation at the Ecstatic Truths: defining the essence of animated documentary symposium at the Royal College of Art. Using my experiences while in Poland filming This is History (after all) as a case study, I talked about my research into traumatic histories and phenomenology as method…. focusing on the trees at Zabno.

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maybe I will feel relief because I have spoken ~ Zabno

After I had filmed the choreography of trees in the cemetery at Zabno and was packing my camera away, a woman approached me. I’d seen her hovering around during the Roma ceremony earlier, but she hung back, not participating. Now it was quiet and I was the only one there, she came and nervously stood by me. Magda translated – the woman knows the location of another mass grave, one she has never told anyone about. She can show it to us.

The next day we returned to interview her. I thought she’d be taking us out of town, but she leads us across the road. There, underneath a scrubby patch of wheat within sight of the the cemetery, is the grave. She was 12 years old and hid behind a barn watching as soldiers killed and buried a group of Roma including a mother and her baby in 1943. After she had finished telling me her story she was shaking. She took me by the shoulders and said:

‘And..and I have this sight before my eyes. I re-live this…yes. It is good that I have spoken,
that I met you and asked you, that you would hear me out. And thank you very much
for that, because…maybe it will be easier for me now…yes. I think so, I do not know.
Maybe I will feel relief somehow…because I have spoken…yes.’

She had kept the story to herself for 70 years. All that trauma and fear contained. Telling it felt like an exorcism of sorts. Yesterday, when the wind appeared out of nowhere in the cemetery and the trees were thrashing about, I could hear the wheat across the road too. Angry. Thrashing. Today it is calm.

For van Alphen “The trees are witnesses, but they don’t testify. Their refusal to testify, to serve as a trace of ‘the war,’ determines their guilt” (1). But I don’t think these trees have guilt. Here, in Zabno, they seem to have become material manifestations of the trauma and fear that has been contained for 70 years. Not guilty, but like her, traumatised. Secrets have to come out in the end.

8 minute preview clip ~ This is History (after all). 31′ 2014. ©Roz Mortimer

1). Ernst van Alphen (2000). Armando: Shaping Memory. NAi Publishers. pp 10-11. From Prism: Understanding Non-Sites of Memory, Roma Sendyka 2013.

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Sites of Collective Memory tours to Cube Gallery, Leicester

Sites of Collective Memory will be on show at the Cube Gallery, Phoenix, Leicester UK from 5th September to 3rd October 2014. Free entry. Roz’s film, This is History (after all) will be showing on a continuous loop.

On 24th September at 6.15pm Roz will be in conversation with exhibition curator and co-director of Animate Projects Abigail Addison and artists Delaine and Damian Le Bas. We’ll be presenting our work and discussing the rewards and challenges of representing culture from both an insider and outsider perspective. Free. Join us!

work and discuss the rewards and challenges of representing a culture from both an insider and outsider perspective. – See more at:
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Invitation ~ Sites of Collective Memory Artists’ Talk

Wednesday 16th July 2014
@ Agency gallery
66 Evelyn Street, London SE8 5DD
6.30 – 8pm
Please join us for this talk where I will be discussing my new film THIS IS HISTORY (after all) with Michaela Crimmin, co-director of Culture+Conflict.
The event coincides with the Sites of Collective Memory exhibition at nearby CGP gallery and all five artists from the show will be participating in the discussion.
The talk will be followed by summer drinks and music in the gallery’s garden until 10pm.

66 Evelyn Street London SE8 5DD
66 Evelyn Street London SE8 5DD
66 Evelyn Street London SE8 5DD
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This is History (after all) ~ new film premieres in London

My new film, THIS IS HISTORY (after all), made in response to three grave sites in Poland is showing in the Sites of Collective Memory exhibition at CGP gallery, London from 8th July to 10th August.
Do come!
Here’s an invitation




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re-constructing history I ~ the tombstone path at Plaszow

The former concentration camp at Plaszow in a suburb of Krakow is an interesting study in memorialisation. The camp itself has not been preserved, although there are two monuments (more of those in another post). Destroyed by the Nazis as they retreated, it has since been allowed to fall into ruin. Walking around the site, heavily overgrown and predominantly used by locals for dog walking, I realise that I am walking on top of the rubble of the barracks.

Clambering through a fence at the edge of the site, I find my way into the Liban quarry, a place where camp inmates were put to work.

In 1993 the Plaszow camp was re-created inside this quarry as a film set for Schindler’s List. A fairly realistic recreation, even down to casting replicas of the Jewish tombstones used as paths throughout the camp. Now overgrown itself, the quarry-set has an eerie feel to it. Much of Spielberg’s infrastructure has been left, and like the camp it replicates, has fallen into picturesque ruin. So, for visitors it is easy to conflate the two as there is no delineation between the ‘real’ and the ‘constructed’ ruins. In fact some visitors – perhaps those who are not even aware of the existence of the Spielberg set – mistake his replica tombstone path for the real thing (the original headstones were removed after the war and are now in the New Jewish Cemetery in Krakow). I wonder if anyone cares about what is real and what is not, if the necessary ‘eeriness’ is achieved? The Liban quarry has become a popular dark tourism site in its own right and is now a destination on some Schindler’s List themed tours. I am imagining a time in the not too distant future when fact and fiction have run together, when document and drama have converged and when we no longer have any living witnesses to say ‘no, this was not the place’. Then perhaps the unremarkable site of the actual camp will be usurped by Spielberg’s recreation in its far more appropriately dramatic and sublime setting.

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It’s a summer evening in Budapest and I am standing on the banks of the Danube.
Stretching before me is Pauer and Togay’s monument to the victims shot by the Arrow Cross in 1944-5 – the Shoes on the Danube Promenade Memorial. Sixty pairs of cast iron shoes are abandoned on the edge of the river, placed as if their owners had just stepped out of them.

There is an intimacy and immediacy to this memorial that is striking. The shoes are worn and it’s easy to imagine the people whose feet have shaped them and the moment of their death. Unusually this memorial allows us to contemplate both the individual victim and the wider idea of genocide.

But, there are lots of tourists in town, and as I stand watching I notice that none of them are reading the nearby plaque which states what this memorial is commemorating. Instead, they seem thrilled at finding a piece of public art they can interact with. They slip off their trainers and slide their feet into the shoes of the murdered to pose for photographs…their experience of the memorial providing a digitalised memory of their evening rather than a contemplation of the memory of the owners of the shoes.

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invitation ~ screening at Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month

On 25th June I will be screening a selection of filmed interviews with survivors and witnesses of Roma massacres in Southern Poland that I have collected during my research. The event is part of Hackney’s Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month. There will be a panel discussion and Roma speakers from Hackney, Newham and Harringay (who will also be providing Roma food and music).
Do come! Its free, but please book.


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the choreography of trees ~ Zabno

I’m standing at the edge of the cemetery at Zabno watching a Roma memorial service. Everyone is gathered around a marble tombstone that marks a mass grave, one of the few Roma memorials in Poland. It is unknown who is buried here, or how many…47, 49, 59, 61…there is even confusion about the date…June 20th, July 8th…all that is known for sure is that it was 1943.

Zabno 2012, pinhole photograph © Roz Mortimer

                                                                      Zabno, 2012. Pinhole Photograph. © Roz Mortimer

At first it seems like a beautiful day, but a tornado has been forecast, and after the service is over, the vodka has been poured on the ground and everyone has wandered off, I am standing alone by the tomb when the wind swells up as if out of nowhere. I stay filming the birch trees thrashing about in the gale.

Their branches are like tendrils, reaching out to the next tree as the air swirls around.
A choreography of trees.
It is beautiful, but it feels as if the world is angry.

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The atmosphere here is heavy. The visitors in their tourist uniforms, cameras in hand, zig zag down this street pausing to peer inside each building. A car dissolving into the ground. A wall clock with its workings rusted and exposed. Cooking pots, prams and sewing machines. The detritus of people’s lives slowly rotting where it stood. And in between, incongruously, mown verges and an uncanny neatness indicate the status of a museum.

A minimal amount of information is given, leaving us to construct our own imaginary tableaux of what happened here, inside each house, each shop, inside the church.

As far as memorials go, this one envelops you. It is overwhelming. Who was it that had the presence of mind to say ‘leave it as it is’? Not to move anything? It is not an interpretation of an event, a constructed object to stand in front of and contemplate, but rather the remains of the event itself. And by default we are all in it, in the streets, in this place…implicated.

Nearby is the new village, rebuilt after the war looking down on the untouched remains of what was here before. And I start to wonder what it would be like if every place where an atrocity had happened was abandoned, with life rebuilt alongside. How crowded the world would be…cities nestling together, sometimes in triplicate. Gleaming churches butted up against burnt out originals. Streets that no longer follow a linear pattern as replacement houses are jammed into available spaces. New forests planted alongside old. On and on, until in no time at all, we will have run out of space, crowded out by memories and the dead.




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Bielcza IV – history or memory

On July 16th 1942 in this place, German soldiers shot and killed 28 Roma, all members of the Kwiek family. They were buried in a shallow unmarked grave in this forest clearing on the edge of the village of Bielcza. Three years later, the villagers exhumed the bodies and buried them in a mass grave in the local cemetery.

I am thinking of Nora’s Lieux d’Mémoire, about what makes a place a site of memory rather than a site of history…this place is unmemorialised, but there seems to be a will to remember…firstly from the villagers, then more recently from Bartosz’s initiative the Roma Memory Caravan, and finally from Roma themselves.

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Bielcza III – driving in circles

In Adam Bartosz’s office earlier that day he had pulled out maps to show me the exact location of this place.
He said ‘it’s between the houses and the bushes, you will see an indentation in the earth’ and drew me a diagram on a post it note.
finding Bielcza

It took us 2 days to find. The forest was overgrown. We drove in circles around the village scrutinizing every indentation. Was this the place? Did it feel like the place? Could we feel anything?

On the morning of the second day he arranged for her to be waiting for us. She took me by the hand and led me into the forest. ‘This is the place’ she said. She remembered when it had happened in 1942 and she was distressed that the place had become so unkempt and overgrown.

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Bielcza I

I’m standing in a forest clearing on the edge of a remote village in Southern Poland. There is no marker here, no memorial. The clearing is overgrown and unkempt. It feels important that I am here.
A shaft of sunlight appears and lights the spot.
this is the place

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Bielcza II – sketching the uncanny

I stand for a long time looking this place. The sunlight flickers in and out. Later I began to re-work my footage to communicate something of the uncanny nature of this place.

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Varpalota II – Anna Lakatos

In 1945 there was no lake here, just a snow covered field and a freshly dug trench. Now it is a flooded gravel pit that has a strange luminous beauty.
Standing here listening to the distant traffic and the rushes moving in the wind I am reading the testimony of Anna Lakatos…

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Varpalota III – empty vitrines

There is no memorial here, no visible sign of what took place. Not at the lake, or in the town. I’m here for a few days. I scour the museum looking for a reference, any reference. Nothing.

I know the site used to be a mine, so I go to the mining museum hoping to find out when the lake was created, and the thing that I can hardly bear to ask…what happened to the bodies? But the mining museum is closed down.

I write to the Open Society Archive in Budapest, but they have no records either.

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Varpalota IV – a battle for life or death

I’m back at the lake. For now it is all I have. I am drawn back to it again and again. The small island visible in the 2004 picture has become bigger and now there is a house on it. Someone’s summer house. A wooden boat sways in the breeze, banging against the jetty.  The roar of cars from the road is constant, and backing on to the far side of the lake is a retail park. Tesco and Lidl. Life goes on. It seems peaceful and tranquil. Birds are singing and occasionally a fish plops, breaking the glass-like surface of the water. Jerry says ‘its a battle for life and death under the water’. He’s talking about the fish. I am thinking about the women and children.

What happened to them when they flooded the gravel pit? I know there was no lake here then, but Philomena Franz’s testimony from Auschwitz keeps coming into my head…’and we threw these human ashes into lorries with our bare hands, and the child helped us. It all looked like gravel and it still smelled of corpses. And I felt as if I was standing in water and had to hold back the river.’

The river…I am thinking of Lethe, the river of forgetting. Lethe translates from Classical Greek as oblivion, forgetfulness or concealment, but comes from the root aletheia meaning truth. In Greek mythology the dead were required to drink from the waters of the river Lethe to erase their memories of earthly life.

Here in Varpalota its all about forgetting.

Philomena Franz…Lethe…118 Roma women and children…an image keeps coming into my head of the women and children plunging down though the water of this lake. It’s a frenetic scene, totally at odds with the tranquil idyll above the surface.

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Its early in the morning and I am standing inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. This dark place has a visceral effect on me.

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