Category Archives: Blog

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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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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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 archeology of trees ~ Birkenau

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.

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constructing history I – Treblinka

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

Arad, Yitzhak (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p373

Kurlovich, Boguslav S. (2002) Lupins: geography, classification, genetic resources, and breeding. p154

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a Ballardian holiday – dark tourism

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

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