The picture is absence

Content warning. This post references the Holocaust.

“A photograph of a boy in the rain, a boy unknown to you or me … the image conjures up the vivid presence of the unknown boy. To his father it would define the boy’s absence”. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man, Pelican Books, 1975.

This is a binary: the stranger and the family member look on the same portrait image differently: one sees a person, the other feels their absence.

Genocide creates another dynamic altogether.

In these pictures, drawn of the exhibits at the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, I have drawn samples of the huge collection of things taken from people, mostly Jews, before they were murdered, remnants of very personal and intimate plunder.

These are examples of what is exhibited at the Memorial under the heading “Evidence of Crimes”.

In Block 4 of the Auschwitz I camp is displayed a huge quantity of human hair cut from the inmates, before or after death. Some has been woven into cloth. Photographs are not permitted and I did not draw these human remains. These can be seen on the link above.

My drawings do not bring to us the “vivid presence” of unknown people. To whom did these many spectacles, this plethora of orthopaedic aids, belong? Who was each child who wore each pair of shoes? Who were the men who wore the Tallit, the prayer shawls?

This is what genocide is. It is not just killing. It is eradication. These images, these many objects, do not make their owners present to us, strangers in a future time. Their family, who even generations later might have felt their absence, they too were wiped out in this conflagration.

A small sample of many thousands of spectacles taken from murdered people
A Jewish prayer shawl: the Talit
These were at the front of a huge pile of shoes taken from murdered children
Back braces and prosthetic limbs

On the study tour earlier that day, I was disconnected from the reality of this camp of slaughter, even standing at the wall where families were shot, or looking down into the unroofed chamber where people undressed before being crammed into the gas chamber. However, I wept while drawing these images, and do so again posting them here.

Follow @AuschwitzMuseum on Twitter. Daily, the museum posts photographs of Auschwitz inmates with what little we know of them and their fate. These photographs of individuals bring their presence to us who are strangers.

4 responses to “The picture is absence

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