Archives for posts with tag: Holocaust

by Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment and actuality sites of a traumatic past

I am standing in the Podgórze district of Kraków, Poland. In 1941, this region, which was designed to house 3,000 residents, was transformed into a Jewish Ghetto which imprisoned 15,000 Polish Jews. Two segments of the Ghetto wall remind today’s visitors of this district’s traumatic past. One of these segments overlooks a children’s playground. How do I relate to the tragic past of this site as I stand here?

Phenomenologists from Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Vivian Sobchack to Jenny Chamarette, all consider subjectivity to arise from the space in-between the different bodies of experience. The space in-between suggests that meaning arises from the intertwining of the different bodies, rather than belonging to one particular subject. Usually phenomenology focuses on the embodied (sometimes human) subject and their relationship with objects or other people. However, at this particular site, I feel like an intruder -a tourist- observing an interaction between two inanimate objects which seem to be communicating with each other. Here, I begin to realise the significance of the space in-between. In front of me stands a grey wall, its three-foot panels designed to represent Jewish gravestones. These are fragments of the remaining Ghetto wall. I reach out to touch this wall, but I feel uncomfortable doing so. It’s darkness, size and shape seems to cast a shadow over the space where I stand. I am saddened by the past that once inhabited the other side of this wall.

However, in front of this wall I see children’s play equipment. It is brightly coloured and on springs – there is a vibrancy and vitality to its presence. The equipment reminds me of being young and the joy and freedom of the imagination of play. 

 

What is most striking for me, though, is the space in-between these two objects. Both the wall and the equipment conjure strong, but contrasting emotions. The space between them expresses an absence and a distance. It is here that I fix my gaze – are people that come here to enjoy the present use of this site aware of its tragic past? Could the inhabitants once trapped behind this wall ever have imagined a time when vitality and freedom might return to this site? This space in-between signifies the distance between then and now, and the absence of those who were once imprisoned here and yet who, in the majority, never returned.

My attention, or my intentionality, is drawn to the absence- the space in-between the two objects and I feel an uncanny relationship to the different temporal dimensions I encounter here – it is neither the past nor the present which becomes the subject of my attention. Rather, it is the space in-between these different eras – for a moment, I feel as if I am embodied in an ahistoric moment – one where my intentionality is drawn to the relationality between temporal dimensions, rather than directed towards any one time. Is it possible to consider experiences as moments outside history? I am now historicising my experience at the site by recording it for the future in this blog.  It is now part of my history. Perhaps, it is not that the experience is ahistoric, but rather that this site has drawn my attention to the fact meaning can arises from spatial and temporal relationships. It is here, that I realise turning to the embodied moment allows me to identify embodiment not only as an experience of the now, but as a relationship with different temporal dimensions.

 

Victoria Grace Walden

Embodiment, digital technology and site visits

New twentieth century technologies of representation and narration… have increasingly collapsed the temporal distance between present, past, and future that structured our previously conceived notion of the temporal dimensions of what we call history (as the latter is differentiated from experience). That is, event and its representation, immediacy and its mediation, have moved increasingly towards simultaneity.

(Sobchack, 1996:4-5)

Having had the pleasure of being involved in one of the Holocaust Education Trust’s recent Lessons from Auschwitz projects, this quote made me think about how the project’s young participants engage with memory and history during their visit to the Nazi concentration-death camp.

The project involves 16-18 year old students from the UK attending an orientation seminar in London, a day trip to Oświęcim and Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a second reflective seminar in London. The students then return to their school and translate their experience into some form of educational or commemorative outcome.

As part of the orientation seminar, students are encouraged to discuss a quote from Janina Struk’s Photographing the Holocaust (2003). Struck suggests that “a camera puts a distance between the person taking the photographs and an otherwise distressing experience.”

In On Photography, Susan Sontag states, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture” (quotes take from the Holocaust Education Trust handout).

Both of these stances are critical of taking photographs and suggest they diminish our experience of place, offering instead a safe barrier between us and the traumatic aura of the site we encounter. Previously I have agreed with this position. When I first started taking photographs of atrocity sites for my research, I felt awkward -as if I was intruding on someone else’s history; as if I was being disrespectful.

However, the students I spoke to were rather vehement about the importance of taking photographs. One said “it proves you were there”, another “they are memories”. Does taking photographs or video footage augment or diminish our embodied experience?

Auschwitz gates

To return to the Sobchack quote, modern technology has the capability to collapse the temporal dimensions of history. It can diminish the sense of a narrative where the past is behind us, the present is what is being experienced and the future something yet to come. The individual frames of photograph or film can bring to our attention the significance of the experienced event and raise questions about the notion of history as ‘story’. Each click of the camera or press of the record button signifies an embodied moment or event detached from a wider narrative – a moment of action dictated by the body and one where choices are made by the photographer. What is it from this moment that they wish to capture? What, in the perceptual horizon in front of them, is their intentionality drawn to? What are they specifically conscious of at this moment? How does their choice of framing and positioning emphasise their corporeal experience of the site? Sobchack reminds us that consciousness is always consciousness of something and the camera can often be a tool that augments our experience of a place by allowing us to capture the specific objects of our intentionality at any given moment and return to it repeatedly. Sometimes, upon re-viewing the image we can see shapes or objects we didn’t notice with the naked eye.

The action of the click collapses the temporal dimensions of time because it highlights its subjective nature. Time is not necessarily experienced as a mythical, objective narrative that joins individual moments together. Instead, here the photographer has a relationship with the past, present and future simultaneously. This is not to say they live the time we refer to as the past, the now and a futuristic moment at once, but rather that in the moment when they click the button on their camera they instantly collapse their embodied relationship with these three temporal dimensions. That is to say, their pressing of the button identifies that they are making a conscious choice not only to look at the traces of the past in front of them, but to reflect on this past in the present moment, by taking an image that will continue to commemorate both this present and the past being reflected on, in the future.

The representation and remembering of history thus becomes an event which will eventually be sutured into the participant’s story of the Holocaust (for it is in our nature as human beings to make stories of everything even if we do not experience life as such). In the embodied action of the click of the camera they say: “Here I was, looking at the traces of what happened here. I ask you to also see. Look and remember.”

But there is always the problem of iconoclasm. At an site such as Auschwitz, which has come to stand as a symbol of the Holocaust and a symbol of evil in the public consciousness, do we take photographs of things which affect us personally or take photographs of those objects which we recognise as iconic?  Are we in danger of repeating the same images and reducing the Holocaust to a set of trope photographs which could be misinterpreted as the sum of the entire event?

References

Sobchack, Vivian (1996) The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television and the Modern Event, London, UK: Routledge.

Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography, London, UK & New York, USA: Penguin.

Struck, Janina (2004) Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence, London, UK & New York, USA: I.B. Tauris.

By Victoria Grace Walden

An exploration of our sense of embodiment in memorial spaces and how this relates to remembering the past.

In my MA thesis I outlined seven modes of Holocaust commemoration. One of these modes I called the “affective mode” which I defined as: “memorials designed to engage the spectator with a sensuous response to the Holocaust; memorials that provoke affect” (Walden, 2011).

One of the memorials I explored was the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europäs, Berlin (The Memorial for the Murdered Jews in Europe).

Denkel

I have visited this memorial on several occasions and every time it strikes me that it is impossible to make sense of this space cognitively. If one tries to analyse the geometric pattern of the memorial or the uneven shapes of the large blocks one is left perplexed than before attempting analysis. Walking through the confusing arena is a reflective but chaotic and uncomfortable experience.  The memorial’s designer Peter Eisenman says:

I watched people walk into it for the first time and it is amazing how these heads disappear… like going under water. Primo Levi talks about a similar idea in his book about Auschwitz. He writes that the prisoners were no longer alive but they weren’t dead either. Rather seemed to descend into a personal hell. … I wanted people to have a feeling of being in the present and an experience that they have never had before. And one that was different and slightly unsettling. The world is too full of information and here is a place without information.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   (http://www.spiegel.de/international/0,1518,355252,00.html)

Eisenman’s memorial is a truly haptic experience as we walk in between the blocks there is no set path, we can zigzag, we can turn back on ourselves or we can attempt to walk in a straight line – whatever logic we try to bring to our route it is disturbed by the unevenness of the space. We become consciously aware of our bodies’ placement in space and begin to adapt to the confusing nature of the memorial by turning corners and back on ourselves sporadically creating a maze-like experience by the choices our body makes. In one moment we can see clearly over the top of a block, the next a block towers over us with a looming shadow. This is a space without logic and order. A space that provokes us to remember –through the body- that the Holocaust was a chaotic, nonsensical experience; one that we can never attempt to apply reason and rationale too and one we can certainly never recreate in museum spaces or memorial. But yet, memorials can embody a sense of remembrance – a sense of the space our bodies occupy in the present (in this chaotic memorial surrounded by the busy city streets of modern Berlin) and the striking difference between this present and the bodies of the past (those absent from the memorial – victims are not pictured – and also absent from our world).

Cognitive theorists in film studies, Carl Plantinga for example, tend to focus on narrative, characters and genre in order to understand how audiences emotionally engage with texts. But what about when there are no bodies? Or bodies are abstracted? Many museums and memorials follow historical narratives or represent victims through text (name and date of death) or photos. These re-presentations petrify the victims much like the popular Victorian book of the dead. They have an element of stillness about them – as if time has stopped. Affective Holocaust memorials recognise that time has not stopped, that society has progressed and thus we must remember in order for such atrocities to never happen again. They do this by taking their spectators / participants / visitors out of their comfortable surroundings and momentarily embodying them in the space in-between – the space between past and present. Phenomenologists believe it is from inbetween (spectator and text) that meaning emerges. I would argue that the text of affective Holocaust memorials is the past – the Holocaust – and the space created becomes a portal not into the past but into the inbetweenness.

denkel 3

denkel 4

Denkel 2

(Photos copyright Victoria Grace Walden, 2005, 2011, 2011 and 2005)