I write to understand as much as to be understood.
I’ve been traveling in Eastern Europe for four days. I chose the quote by Elie Wiesel to begin this post because I, too, write to understand. I photograph with the same desire in my heart. So as a student of World War II history, I came to photograph and to contemplate, while in this very landscape, the conflagration that was World War II.
Oerbke, Becklingen, Bergen-Belsen. While the last place-name is probably familiar, the first two are far less likely to be recognized. They all represent unspeakable violence and waste ~ sadness so profound that many have found it inescapable.
Oerbke is a cemetery for the Soviet prisoners of war who died of starvation and disease. Becklingen is a cemetery for British, Polish, Soviet, and other soldiers of the Allied powers. Bergen-Belsen is yet another hell created by man to destroy fellow human beings for reasons of ethnicity, sexual preference, political ideology, and other equally inane characterizations.
Let me say this: I have no understanding of it. I don’t have the slightest idea of how to gain one bit of perspective on any of it. I have tried through reading, through serious meditation, and now by traveling to these places to walk the same earth. I have failed.
I was as moved at Oerbke as I was at Bergen-Belsen. Thinking of loved ones far from home, family members left wondering for months and years about the fate of their families, whether Soviet or Jew or Communist, I could only think about the grief that must still live in the hearts of so many. A grief this large, a pain this immense can only be resolved in acts of loving kindness. Are there enough of us to do this? To heal this earth, our hearts?
While at Becklingen, reading the grave markers of young men from age 18 to 30, I could only think “what an immoral, insupportable waste”. These graves were so few among the millions…..but each one dear, each one precious and mourned by their families.
Walking in Bergen-Belsen I was struck by the beauty of the landscape that visitors see now. Fall color, with blue skies and gentle winds nudging birch leaves into flight seemed an unholy slight-of-hand. Why wasn’t I seeing everything in black and white? Where were the clouds? Where was the rain? Where was the mud? I had only to close my eyes for it to come rushing up to me. And when I did close my eyes I was overwhelmed.
I put my camera back in my hand, (added a barrier) and went back to work. Tomorrow I travel further East, into the Czech Republic. I’ll be thinking of what’s ahead, Auschwitz perhaps, Theriesenstadt…..I have ideas for images now that I’ve walked in places of such suffering.
Back to the opening quote and to my reason for being here: I’ve not gained any understanding, but I am not giving up. I do know that this type of violence continues and is insidious. Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Croatia and Serbia begin a shameful litany that stretches through Cambodia, China, the Sudan. When will it end? Perhaps when we have come to know ourselves. We created these horrors and we will continue until we understand that what we do to others we do to ourselves.