At Auschwitz: A Remembrance
To the memory of relatives of my wife Suzanne Youngerman, who were murdered At Auschwitz:
David Mordechai Yungerman
Feiga Chaya Fridman Yungerman
Menachem Mendel Yungerman
Things separate from their stories have no meaning. … One could say that what endows any thing with significance is solely the history in which it has participated.
It is immoral to make pretty pictures about the Holocaust. It is also immoral not to remember the Holocaust in art, literature, and history as one of the foremost examples of man’s capacity for barbarism. One may wonder why we should concern ourselves with the Holocaust, an event now seven decades past, one long since irrevocable and unalterable, but one that has become the touchstone by which all atrocities are judged. Holocaust victims are long since dead, and we can do nothing now to help them. But our commemorating is for us and for future generations, not for them. We wish to reconstruct and reaffirm, in however minor a way, the moral order, which was so savagely ripped asunder by Nazi atrocities.
In this series of photographs I have tried to navigate between the two extremes of over-dramatizing and forgetting. I have deliberately made images that are bland, even boring. The evil of the Holocaust is so immense that we need not emphasize it; its enormity speaks for itself.
Any image of Auschwitz makes us aware of its reality; Auschwitz is not just an abstraction, a symbol for evil, but a real place where real people lived and real people died. But our knowledge of the meaning of Auschwitz is primarily verbal. Without the story there is little of interest or meaning for us at Auschwitz. Thus the emphasis on text in this work.
Yellow borders, symbolizing caution, mark the boundaries of the Auschwitz physical plant shown in the images. Text positioned within the area of the camp is in red, the color of danger, and the color of the blood of the victims who died there.
If exhibited in a gallery setting prints should be presented unframed and without mattes. Photographs are to be mounted with metal pushpins, symbolizing the industrial-like efficiency of the Nazi murder machine. The absence of mattes, borders, or frames also suggests the open-endedness of our reaction to Auschwitz; there can be no last word about Auschwitz. Prints should be hung with only a one-inch separation between them, a dense display to suggest visually the crowded conditions in the camp.
One of the themes of this work is the sharp, focal fact of extermination on a mass scale. Another is the commodification of Auschwitz and, more generally, the Holocaust as a whole — represented in these images by the many accommodations for contemporary tourists to the camp. The juxtaposition of the provisions made for tourists with the absence of amenities for inmates during the Holocaust serves only to accentuate the horrors and barbarities inflicted upon these innocents seventy years ago. The images of accommodations for tourists also alerts us to a tendency to treat the Holocaust as an entertainment – think of the many novels and films constructed around the event. Do we want to see sites such as Auschwitz transformed into Holocaust theme parks, thereby running the risk of trivializing this chapter in our history?
Finally, there is the idea of “the banality of evil,” originally applied by Hannah Arendt to the personality of Adolf Eichmann, but expanded here to include the apparent banality and utter ordinariness of much of what we see at Auschwitz. In and of itself a brick wall, a door hinge, or a pile of rubble has little relevant meaning. But because it is a brick wall where executions took place, a door hinge of a cell for prisoners, or the rubble of the crematorium at Auschwitz, the meaning of these apparently banal objects becomes overpowering. It is our collective memory of what these ordinary objects represent that makes them so important, and makes our remembering so crucial. This work, then, is a remembrance.