On a cold day in Berlin I end up thinking about memorials and how we experience them. The frost provides a canvas for people to make their thoughts public.
Author Archives: Roz Mortimer
I can’t stop thinking about the trees.
I am in my room in Oswiecim reviewing the footage I filmed today at Birkenau. I spent a long time at the pond where ashes from Crematorium 4 were dumped. I have a picture of this place pasted in my notebook. Its a video still from Miroslaw Balka’s 2003 Pond. His camera peers through the trees at the frozen surface of the pond.
Pond (2003), Miroslaw Balka, video still.
Looking at it again today I am struck by how thin the trunks of the trees are in Balka’s image. They look like fairly young trees. I am wondering when he filmed. The piece is dated 2003, but I suppose he could have filmed it years before.
But still, I can’t stop wondering about the trees.
I keep coming back to it, thinking that those trees must have been planted after the camp was abandoned in 1945.
By who? Is someone landscaping this place?
The next morning I am at Auschwitz I, and notice new saplings have been planted between the huts. An effort to preserve the site as it was? The image on the right is from 1945 with recently planted trees…so the camp was landscaped even then.
When the Nazis abandoned Treblinka in 1943 they destroyed the buildings and leveled the ground. The bricks from the gas chambers were used to build a farmhouse where one of the guards was installed as a farmer with his family. A facsimile of agrarian life. Pine trees were planted and lupins were sown1
A lot of effort went in to constructing a landscape to conceal the history of this place.
In Lanzmann’s Shoah (filmed between 1974 and 80) Henrik Gawkowski takes us back to the camp along a dark track through the forest. Through the trees planted 30 years earlier.
This newly constructed landscape effectively concealed any evidence of mass graves and so, despite witness testimony, controversy has raged for nearly 70 years as to whether Treblinka was a death camp or a transit camp.
That is until a recent study by forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls. Her team have used geophysical surveys to reveal traces of the burial pits and gas chambers beneath the featureless landscape at Treblinka. I am thinking about them crossing and re-crossing the neatly trimmed grass as they painstakingly map what lies beneath the surface of the ground. Its like divining. With the aid of science the landscape reveals its past.
Footnote: Of course I’m also thinking about the lupins. They seem like such an incongruous thing to plant. In England they are synonymous with cottage gardens, but by the 1940s scientists in Germany were secretly breeding a new strain of lupin as an animal feed crop2
1 Arad, Yitzhak (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p373
2 Kurlovich, Boguslav S. (2002) Lupins: geography, classification, genetic resources, and breeding. p154
Last September I was preparing to travel to Hungary and Poland to visit the mass graves and camps.
It was the end of the summer, the weather was good, and it made sense to combine the research trip with
a holiday. A strange postmodern Ballardian holiday…
I’ve been reading an article by Jason Webster about a package holiday that tours sites of Nazi memory in Germany. It takes in Wannsee Villa, Sachsenhausen, Eagles Nest, Nuremberg Court Room, Dachau. Needless to say it has attracted controversy, but I was surprised to read that at Eagles Nest there are already coaches to take tourists up to the site where they can buy Eagles Nest branded baseball caps and t-shirts.
‘How the Nazi period should be remembered is an over-arching theme that develops as we travel around the country. When I lived in Germany as a child, in the late 1970s, any mention of the war was taboo. Today, however, many venues have recently-opened excellent museums [...] suggesting that Germans themselves are coming to terms with their past and are more at ease with the idea of others coming to learn about it [...].
In earlier centuries it was fashionable to take the Grand Tour, to complete one’s education by travelling to Italy and Greece to learn about Classical civilisation. Today’s equivalent may turn out to be this – to witness the relics of one of the greatest horrors of man: a grandeur not to be emulated but to grapple with, to question, to struggle to comprehend.‘ Jason Webster
Its a beautiful September day and I am standing at the edge of a lake. It is unmarked. There is no memorial. No record of one small moment that is part of the ‘Pharrajimos’…The Roma Holocaust.
Pharrajimos: n. Romani, meaning the devouring or destruction.
My journey here started last year in London. I knew something had happened at a lake near Varpalota and finally after weeks searching through texts at the British Library I had found a picture taken in 2004. The text is Hungarian and the heading is ‘Jeltelen sírok’. Boldi, my researcher tells me it translates literally as ‘Unmarked weep’. Later I type it into Google which gives me ‘Unmarked graves’. I like Boldi’s translation better.
Here on the outskirts of Varpalota, on a snowy day in February 1945, 118 Roma women and children were lined up in front of a ditch and shot.