This writing exists primarily as a response to a site of Holocaust memory but is infused by the ideas and musings of previous critical and literary scholars whose investigations have trodden my path many times before and whose perceptions cannot help but to inform my own (Kristeva) and this is a good thing. Memory and post-memory now must serve to further contemplate these events and re-evaluate their meanings and to make salient to us now, living nearly seventy years since the liberation, their philosophical dimensions and relevance. Two timbres of my written voice, one critical, philosophical and investigative and the other creative and contemplative will characterize my writing. And in this conjunction of theory and imagination, new interpretations may be realised and made possible? And I might further understand something of myself, bridging the gap that is the lacuna in our ‘understanding of’ and ‘being with’ the phenomenological world (Merleau-Ponty, Figal)
1 The Memoried Ground
Somewhere in the rolling hills, somewhere in the heat, somewhere in the dry sharp heat are kept the memories of those who were once here. Those that lived and died here and left untoward in haste, emptied as they were into the space that now is filled ‘filled up to the brim, and even above the brim’ by their words and their presence. Stilled as it is by their watchful eyes.
And one is always being watched here, one is never alone even if no one else from the lived world can be seen.
Conscious of this I am walking, wandering / wondering, my feet being pricked by the sharp grass, through the gaps in my sandals. Embodied, I am present. The grass made brittle by the scorching summer sun and so long in places that it nearly reaches my waist. What were beaten tracks here are now indistinct, the memoried ground is obscured and overwritten by footpaths made by those living now, who crisscross to get home, or shop or get to school. This space is like any other, but of course it is not. ‘Dear visitors! You are entering the site of the former concentration camp “Plaszow”. Please respect the grievous history of the site’.
I ask again in contemplating this space, why such things still me and whether if through this meditation I am in my way piercing the ‘the Cloud(s) of Unknowing’ and lining my soul with that of something that might be called “God’? And in some ‘mystic haziness’ I am at one with a celestial entity to which in my normal life I do not subscribe. Like the feeling one gets when awed in a space of worship and are inclined towards silence and whispers, be unobtrusive, be less than. And I “came to believe that there existed a power greater than myself and sought through meditation to improve my conscious contact with God, as I understood Him” . As we understand Him here is the key. No Apollonian deity for me , it not being necessary to characterise or to personify that which covers like a mist or a vapour my knowing, my thoughts and intention. This ‘idea’ propels me into a deeper and richer realm that enables my writing and facilitates the dimension of my thinking.
In the time-crevasse,
There waits, as a breath-crystal,
So in imagining this space I am not fixed but can drift to write and draw and to draw upon that which now fills the void before me. In Voicing the Void Sara R Horowitz discusses the voracity of Holocaust fiction, of the role of the imagination to voice and speak, elucidating the void and those events with a different clarity, one distinct from witness primacy or historical formality. She cites Barrett Mandel and notes “Language creates illusions that tell the truth” (Horowitz 1997:05) And this is made possible because it is rooted in our “human being and culture” (Ibid) And that human ‘being’ is distinct, and contributes a chorus of responses tied to individual memory and histories.
So what do I bring to this imagining? Born 14 years after the liberation into a time when no real scholarly activity existed that questioned, theorized or investigated the meaning of the Jewish genocide. And the concept of Holocaust Studies was decades away. Writer Ava Hoffman posits a reason as to why, “Stand to close to horror, and you get fixation, paralysis, engulfment; stand to far, and you get voyeurism or forgetting. Distance matters”. (Hoffman 2005:177) Hoffman believes that our need to ‘reckon’ with the Holocaust should not be underestimated or diminished and that “the question and the challenge at this moment (seventy years after the liberation) is how to find the right tone of response, and measure of expression” (Ibid) She suggests that the indirect ‘view’ of these events – as being mediated by art, literature, film and also the filter of our own ideas and memories – is problematic. And that locating the “adequate valence of reaction” (Ibid:178) through the corruption of the ‘spectacle’ of suffering (Sontag) further distances us from it.
And from where I stand, the mists have cleared and the fog lifted and I see sharply and in such clarity the spaces of such fragile memory overlapping with the projections of my imagined past. The past that took place here, was no flickering spectacle and was lived and breathed. I can see it and I can walk through it, the barracks, the latrines, the horses and carts, chicken run and the grey house. And the hills are full and bloated, rolling as they now do gently, undulating, now feminised, reclaimed, returned to nature and part of what lives and breathes and changes. But what had once sated these mounds does not bear thinking about. Bodies hastily exhumed from mass graves, cremated on the site, the ashes spirited away. And “we will destroy the evidence together with you…and people will say that the events you describe are to monstrous to be believed…” (Levi 1998:1) And a landscape that is carved and defined by such events and then carpeted and concealed but now is calmed, needs to be read and understood before it can yield its secrets. And it is possible to do so.
In archaeology, it is possible to identify interventions that leave visible traces in the landscape revealing what is (or was) buried and because Jewish Halacha law forbids actual excavation, it becomes necessary to read and interpret the landscape in this way, where ‘placeness’ has been obscured and can only be located (intuited) through trace, their archaeology becoming a meta-narrative for the excavation of personal meaning and identity. Interventions in the landscape leave visible traces and burial, particularly mass sites of burial cause interactions with the natural environment that impact directly on flora and fauna growing in the area. The process of bioturbation in forensic taphonomy.
And here nettles abound, colonising the fertile ground that from the air point to the place where the ‘Prick’ SS Unterscharfuher Albert Hujar orchestrated the burial, subsequent exhumation and incineration of over 10.000 prisoners. Hujowa Gorka , the site of this ‘Aktion’ is named after him. And now, I sit and paint here. A warm breeze lifts the images that I have laid out to dry on the small public bench in front of the crucifix that commemorates the events that happened here, events that have come to define the Gorka. These images now litter the ground and continue to scatter, each a wash of colour attempting to gesture the mood that oozes from the imagination when one is ‘connected’ to this lieux de memoire.
2 Mourning, melancholic mourning
“By dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element” (Nora 1996: XVII). So says Pierre Nora when contemplating sites of French memory. But Plaszow is also a lieux de trauma (site of trauma) and a lieux de deuil (site of mourning) and as described by Dominic De Capra, this mourning takes many forms, as a collective or a smaller more intimate experience. Nora citing artificiality and deliberate fabrication, claims such sites replace or sublimate ‘real’ memory. I prefer the Freudian concept, of working-through and view the sites as “necessary in order to make living in the modern world meaningful” (Marquard 1986). This is ‘place’ as monument in which “the work of forgetting” is blocked And where as explained by Marianne Hirsch “The spatiality of memory (maps) onto its temporality” (Hirsch 1997:22) where the visual conflates with the verbal and the written, yielding as suggested by W.J.T. Mitchell a sort of “imagetext, a double coded system of mental storage and retrieval” (Ibid:22) And this is complicated even further by post-memorialists like myself whose connection to such spaces “is not mediated through recollection but by imaginative investment and creation” (Ibid:22)
Mourning, melancholic mourning, this place ‘stops time’ blocking as it does ‘the work of forgetting’ (Nora) which now ebbs and flows across this terrain. And like on Adler’s stage I dance and pierce the space, reaching and stretching into the past to reveal that which is broken, mute and has fallen silent. And in stretching, a space that moves beyond the pale of writing and the “limits of memory” (Horowitz 1997:22) the words shedding just enough light to limn the outlines of forms now rendered in drawing, marking and gesturing, in and across the surface. Seamlessly transmogrified.
In his novel Blood from the Sky Piotr Rawicz talks of describing such scenes and foregrounds the limits of language. “One day I shall try to capture this scene. If I do, a niggardly demon will do its best to rob me of every destitute word that might serve to describe the objects and human beings surrounding me here and now, so close and so tangible-human beings with whom I don’t know what to do, except love them. I shall have obstinately to snatch from this jealous demon every word that is even slightly appropriate, and it will be a harder battle than the one through which I have just gained victory. More shameful, too, like everything that serves to describe, to debase reality” (Rawicz: 276)
3 The Searching Heart
In The Journey by HG Adler, the significance of the stage as a metaphor chimes with my own feelings of spectatorship, of being an observer, an outsider, of somehow being beyond or outside of the performance but still on the stage, still in the time. Adler, ‘on times stage’ who in spite of believing he has been removed, is concerned that he has been effaced but then realises he is just in fact on a different part of a journey. The metaphor is further extended to include the idea of flight, representing the motif of another stage and how “the entity (thing or person) that experiences it, is born in (and a constituent element of) memory itself”, here depicted as a constant wanderer (allusions of the wandering Jew) on a journey that represents our own creation” “and ourselves. We will ultimately be answerable to ourselves “amid the destruction of our only meaningful and yet impalpable achievement”. Adler describes as a ‘theatre of horrors’ the world at large, as it is full of contrast and counterpoint, peace and terror and at its very centre is “known only to the searching heart.” (Ibid p5) And this is where the journey ends. It is your first and your last memory, so compelling that it is neither near nor far but it is inevitable and it will follow its path in spite of our intensions to denote or dictate its path. We are for Adler set on our own stage. “There as elsewhere, we are not forsaken, we are never forsaken”. (Levinas).
And this place is a stage isn’t it? Where memory is slowly poured like concrete into a mold, filling the gaps that form to reach the edge of my thinking and my knowing. And in the distance, closer to The Memorial of Torn- Out Hearts, is where I am being led. It has a deep jagged fault that rips and tears across the chests of five figures that are bent almost double under the weight of stone from which they are hewn. One for each of the five countries from where the victims who were last seen here began their journey. The fault symbolises how they were torn not once but twice and also signifies the rupture in time and space that the Holocaust itself has now come to represent. And confronted, paused and stilled, like them, I am forced up, up into the sky way above the bristled hem of the birch trees that also serve to memorialize the martyrs and I am beyond, out and away, far, far from here.
4 The Blue and the Grey
Blue protects white from innocence
Blue drags black with it
Blue is darkness made visible
And my path has led me here to this hazy blue place and I, answerable only to myself now wander and determine its meaning and the extent of my belonging. “Blue transcended the solemn geography of human limits” (Jarman) and offered something ‘other’ to those that were here. ‘Other’ and beyond reach ‘the Eden beyond (their) grasp’. (Minnis 2015:220) and if it is to believed that whatever goes beyond nature, we grasp through faith alone (Aquinas) and everything that was Plaszow and everything that was the Holocaust was beyond nature, then all that was left was the authority that lay beyond.
And in the blue, there appeared, hovering above the ruffled hills scattered with buttercups and cornflowers, a darkness, barely visible to the naked eye. ‘A place for the scrutiny of memories and for the discovery of a sign through which we can discern ‘the very notion of the sacred’ (Leiris:1938 in Taussig, “What Colour is the Sacred” 2009) with Leiris concluding that ‘the most sacred of aims is to acquire as exact and intense an understanding of (ourselves ) as possible’.
A ribbon of blue spans the frame and forms a barrier through which the sky cannot penetrate. The grass wrapped, eider filled and smitten with fauna and tucked so tight that your feet cannot move. Lied like whales, which slowly worm and lump through the cold, still, deep blue. And lost here are the words, muffled somewhere amongst the fossilled cries of the saved. For those that drowned here escaped early the rabid claws of the wolves that scented, cornered and finally consumed them.
In Blue Territory, Robin Lippincott’s meditation on the much less known Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell, the leitmotif of distance recurs. “I paint from a distance. I decide what I am going to do from a distance.” (Lippincott 2015:81) Surveying the canvas from as far away as possible. Made estranged from the visceral body, made distinct from its derivation and its cause. She explains that although abstract her work has content and requires for its motivation her to be thinking about something. My drawings and writing from Plaszow represent evidence of the ‘working through’ process of meditation and contemplation that drives to depict not only the places in which I stand or drift across, like this one, but to excavate something of my own contingency and self. The self not residing in the visible world of the body but in the formless faculty of the unseen and the unwritten, to be found instead located in the abstraction of the heart and which represents the first tentative steps to self-knowledge.
Blue was critical to Mitchell’s painting “whether the blue that makes darkness visible, (or) the blue of morning glories and delphiniums” (Kertess:1997:29). And like Monet to which her urgency and intensity are partly owed, she shared an exigent and wondrous engagement with landscape and made gesture fit to burst, and in Monet, through the fixation of his stare. Here, for Joan Mitchell was the belief that true fidelity lay not in exacting verisimilitude but in the emotive realm of the surveyor, in the confluence of the seen and imagined.
I am stood before the Grey House at the Southern most edge of the place, once a funerary home for those Jews who were buried here when it was a cemetery before the war. And that was here on Abraham Street, now obscured and cauterized, where the stones that marked the emptied graves were recycled and used for making footpaths in the camp. Some of which still mark out where tracks and roads dissected the camp. I walk over and not around them in a peculiar but conscious act of reverence.
The Grey House, grey against blue. And a grey that;
“Makes no statement whatever; it evokes neither feelings nor associations: it is really neither visible nor invisible. Its inconspicuousness gives it the capacity to mediate, to make visible, in a positively illusionistic way, like a photograph. It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make ‘nothing’ visible”. (Richter 1975:92) So I am grey. I am inconspicuous, I have the capacity to mediate and I have the capacity to make nothing visible and I can do it in such a way as to be illusory. And this is the rub; I can be the enchanter, or magus, making the invisible visible to evoke a past that can no longer be seen or ‘touched’? In part psychically automatic, [in my work the drawing ‘appears’, it is unplanned] yet also somatic, deriving as it does, as much from my body. I encounter this place in many ways, physical and temporal, from within, from beyond, micro and macro (Steinbeck and Zola)
5 The Right Measure of Expression
To encounter is to be turned, “whether for a moment or for life; to encounter is always in part not to know” (Benson, Connors 2014:5) And this encounter can be read as “being with” (Ibid) what is there, what is still there, what is missing, what has replaced what is missing and how, as a practitioner and an observer, I respond to this lacuna, this gap in our facility to witness (or to re-witness) (Agamben). Merleau-Ponty suggests that as artists we recreate the specific phenomena of the world, and not a reproduction of how it is presumed to appear. And that this is achieved through the mediation of the body”. (Harty) So that thoughts and ideas, words and lines that touch are overlapped and imbricated to form patterns of knowing. A constellation. (Benjamin)
And this landscape is as much a landscape of thought. It is malleable and like thought can be shaped, alluded to, elided and eclipsed by new contexts and new dimensions, by an unexpected intervention, that’s pricks and wounds us.
And here perhaps to Ava Hoffman can be offered the possibility that in this intersection or what Merleau-Ponty might call “a vortex” or disturbance might be one way of locating “the right measure of expression” (Hoffman 2005:177) to which she refers in response to the Holocaust and its subsequent meanings.