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.
my dear keron, scholars, humanitarians, and just regular jane’s have devoted their lives to understanding how it is that genocide happens. how bystanders exist. you are walking in the tombs, and it is impossible to take it in with each stride. be kind to yourself. know that the importance is to witness, write about it, and never forget.
as the holocaust museum mugs say, “think about what you saw.”
we are lucky that you will remind us to remember.
Thank you for the wise counsel, as always. : )
I’m thinking and thinking and feeling and feeling.
Keron – I’m here by way of Honey…and I have to tell you – as I read thru your post..my stomach turned itself into tight little knots. You are a brave soul to go back and stare these places of mass horror in the face..and to aim to capture them for what they are..and not what we imagine them to be. I – too – would have a hard time with seeing green grass and trees changing. I – too – see these places only in black and white..and mostly shades of dark and desperate grey (yes – I am the child of a survivor).
Thank-you for sharing your journey here. I look forward to following you as you delve deeper into those like Auschwitz and Thereisenstadt…and so much more.
Hauntingly beautiful..powerful words and images together.
Thank you for your kind words about the blog. I am DEEPLY gratified that you found value in my words and in the in photography.
Beautiful as always! So good to hear from you… Love what you are doing with the abstracts – the birch trees really do stand out. What an adventure you have ahead of you, so much to see, so much to try to understand, so much to explore! Why is it that old cemetaries have so much to teach us; they seem to call to Riley and I – we’re always have to stop and walk through, to read the stories, to, as you say, try to understand, the lives these people lived…. some of beauty, some of fear, all courageous in their own way… Stay safe dear friend!
Keron and Fellow Keron readers:
When I was nine, my father went to fight in Viet Nam. As a 20-some-year military officer, it was his occupation and duty. Unable to tolerate the evening news with the daily battle footage and body counts, my mother contacted a fellow military family and within weeks arranged for the three of us (mother, brother, and me) to go to live in West Germany for the year. We settled in a little neighborhood in Augsburg, in Bavaria, which was a cradle of Nazism.
Although I attended an American military school, all of my playmates were German girls who shared my love of all things Barbie. It became a cross-cultural fashionista conclave, as we traded spangled outfits and those little plastic high heels that hurt so much when you walk on them. We also played soccer in the street and shared beautiful Christmas traditions.
The year was 1965, and it did not take much adding and subtracting to realize that the fathers of all of my little friends had probably been in the German army during the war. Now I realize what a short period of time had passed since the destruction of the German war machine and the liberation of those who had somehow survived their killing machine. I was playing with the offspring of the enemy, yet they weren’t monsters. No, they were friendly and fun-loving, courteous and thoughtful. How could such a charming people be the authors of mass murder on a scale heretofore never imagined?
Growing up, even before being in Germany, my family discussed the Holocaust. My father’s World War II infantry unit, the 89th Infantry Division, liberated the first concentration camp freed by US forces. Initial reports sent shock waves across the US, as unbelievable stories that had come out of occupied Europe suddenly became fact.
For the last 50 years, we have kept a battered leather photograph album which we treat with the deepest respect. It contains page after page of official US Army photos of a recently liberated concentration camp before it had been ‘cleaned up’ for a visit by dignitaries and the international press. Yes, it is hard to believe, but the photos in most books are ‘second generation’ sanitized images of the unimaginable. I was shown its unthinkable black and white images from the earliest age that I could tolerate them.
Once when I was in college, I was perusing the stacks of the university library and came across a small, humble book that had been smuggled out of Poland in the late 1930s. In it, frantic people described what was happening to Jewish populations and they beseeched the West to send help. My mother remembers whispers of the killings, and bitterly recounts how even the most respected world leaders chose to ignore the pleas for help. Instead, they shelved away the uncomfortable images on a mental shelf, just like the little book was sandwiched between two others in the library. (I did not note the call number for the book, and was never able to find it again. It was as if the book had found me for a reason and then vanished.)So, I began to read the Diary of Anne Frank and stories about Treblinka, Auschwitz, etc.
Since that time, I, too, have read everything that I could about the Holocaust, beginning with the Diary of Anne Frank and stories about Treblinka and Auschwitz. I struggled to understand two things. First, I tried to understand the participation of some Europeans in Holocaust activities. The answers become even more difficult, as I was reading about the Europeans, the ancestors of many of us, who are a ‘civilized’ people with religious values and a tradition of the finest education. So, how is it that the Europeans had acted in such an ‘uncivilized manner,’ only with more efficiency and precision than ever before human history? The monsters were my cousins.
The second issue for me was even more difficult. What about the people who did not support the Holocaust? They must have been the majority of the population — one would hope. Understandably, the Nazis and their cohorts were brutal beyond imagination, but couldn’t the opponents have risen up to take back their countries? Are most people basically cowards? Or am I being unfair, not having lived the horror they faced? How would each of us reacted H
Are people really such cowards, and how would we react given the same circumstances? We all fancy ourselves fearless underground fighters, but the historical record paints a different picture time after time. And if we stand up against murderers, must it be by facing brutality with our own brutality, even if we are righteous in doing so?
For the first question, my answer comes from paraphrasing the anthropologist, Margaret Mead. She wrote that civilizations contain all the possible human charactistics or options to ensure survival of the group. What makes civilizations different is how they combine those various options and which ones they emphasize.
So, how about an Augsburg neighbor, Herr Yost? Tall and distinguished, he had become an industrial engineer after the war. My ten-year-old brain reasoned he couldn’t have participated in the genocide, and I never asked him about his military service or what he thought about the Jews. I didn’t need to. He had faced a cataclysm during his youth, and he had chosen the best path he could for survival, given his character at the time. And The character of our dear friend Herr Yost contained all the needed ingredients to be a mass murderer and all the needed ingredients to be a Mother Teresa, as do every one of us. Just like civlizations, what makes each of us unique, and a person of value or not, is which human characteristics we choose to emphasize and how we combine them.
Like Herr Yost and all humanity, I share the potential for unspeakable violence and for sublime good. I just work each day on my Margaret Mead combinations, trying to emphasize the good and maintaining an awareness of the existence of the cruelty. As societies, we need to do the same. That is why I think it is so important to keep these camps and cemetaries that Keron is visiting open to the public. This history must be taught in schools and touched by the hand, in order to keep the unthinkable real and as concrete as the bunkers and walls and watch towers.
Keron, if you get to Prague, do not miss going to the old synagogue, where you will enter an ancient building that whispers of years of pain and torment. The building is so old that the stones are worn following the path that centuries of worshipers took from one room to the next. Can you imagine how long it would have taken to wear them this way? The ‘nave’ (I don’t know the proper Jewish word), is a rectangular room surrounded by a bank of carved seats*** where rabbis and experts in the Talmud presided over decisions affecting the entire community.
Now the building is empty, as is the surrounding Jewish Quarter. They have become tourist attractions, a black theatre of the dead with hardly a single survivor to tell the story of the tens of generations who lived and worked there. The Nazis did not do it all; they finished a job begun centuries earlier when periodic expulsions and pogroms whittled away at a vibrant, erudite community.
Each time there is a genocide or a holocaust or whatever neat word you wish to use to describe the blind killing of fellow human beings, we open the door to doing a little more of the unspeakable. Once foes fought hand to hand, and you had to recognize the humanity of your opponent by looking him in the eye. Now, we have efficiencies of killing that are just a computer click away. And each time we advance forward in killing technology, we whittle away at the humanity in us all. Only by looking human history in the eye can we recognize the evil of which we all are capable and nurture the goodness that resides in us all.
***The Spanish have the word, ‘catedra’ for the seats where bishops sat — hence, cathedral. I am sure the Christian catedras are an adoptation of this Jewish arrangement. The word catedra is also used for the seats occupied by professors in Medieval universities. Again, this meeting of the most educated most probably comes from Jewish roots.
Keron and Keron readers:
I’m back, and I feel like James Michner; being paid by the word. I sent my posting above before I had done a final proof reading, and I apologize for the edits that I missed. All of a sudden, I got phone calls and a friend stopped by — a bit of life. I suppose I wanted to post my message before it was lost.
I don’t want to sound so hopeless re humanity; I don’t think that everyone is a potential mass murderer. Of course, there are chemical imbalances, insanity and sociopathology. But, I still think of all those who did not stand up to brutality. They weren’t all insane or sociopaths.
Humility and knowledge is the hope for humanity, and we all need to keep reminding ourselves of the wonderful things that people can do. And to try to do those things ourselves. And if the time comes in our lives to stand up to brutality, that we do it to the best of our abilities with a prayer in our hearts.
A very awesome, thought provoking blog. Hard to read thru the tears.