Resistance

This sketch in gouache (ultramarine, burnt sienna and white) is based on this tweet from @AuschwitzMuseum.
Ala Gartner was a member of the active resistance against the Nazis and stole explosives to enable the Sonderkommando (who operated the crematoria) to sabotage the Auschwitz killing machine. Before being transported to Auschwitz in 1943, while enslaved as a worker and living in the Sosnowiec Ghetto in Upper Silesia, Poland, Ala married Bernhard Holtz. That too seems like an act of resistance.
She was murdered two weeks before the camp was liberated.

A survivor’s story

Content warning: this post references the Holocaust.

The Galicia Jewish Museum` is sited in Kazimierz, part of the city of Krakow with a strong, centuries-long association with the Jewish population. The history of the Jews of Krakow, some 56000 at time of the Nazi invasion, is documented in the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Briefly, most Jews were expelled from Kracow, except, by 1941, around 15000 providing forced labour in a walled off ghetto in the neighbouring district of Podgorze. The ghetto was forcibly emptied, “liquidated” in March 1943, by shooting, transport of survivors to Auschwitz-Birkenau and transfer of workers to the Plaszow forced-labour camp further out from the city. There, further systematic mass-murders took place and survivors were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The museum currently hosts an exhibition built round extensive photographs and testimony from three generations starting with Richard Ores. I drew him in wash and pen while watching a video of him describing his experience in the ghetto.

Ores had been a teenager when the ghetto was established. He was thrown a white coat by a doctor who then called to him and thus he obtained the Kennkarten, the documentation allowing him to remain in the ghetto working in the clinic. He was separated from his sister and mother who did not survive.

In his testimony, he described twice meeting Amon Göth, the brutal, sadistic and murderous commandant 1943 to 1944. One of these events I jotted down. He was sent to bring Göth medication for a cough. Göth asked how long before this would relieve the cough and told him to wait in the kitchen. If the cough was no better in half an hour, he would shoot Ores. The cook told Ores to make himself scarce and not wait: Göth would shoot him anyway, cough or no cough. He also described how a survivor of a mass-shooting of a wedding party was treated in the clinic for a bullet wound in the leg. The SS came and shot him. Ores remembers him asking “Sirs, how can you shoot me without trial?” In another video, Ores walks the building that housed the clinic, pointing out each room where a doctor was gunned down. I guess this must have been in 1943 when the ghetto was liquidated. Ores himself was moved to Plaszow and thence to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he witnessed the explosive destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria by the retreating SS. Ores trained in medicine in Switzerland and settled in Manhattan where he died in 2011. He and his family frequently returned to Poland.

Ores loved Poland, but would tell his children, do not laugh or smile here, this whole place is a memorial. A separate exhibition in the museum reminds us that 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. A succession of contemporary photographs was displayed: “synagogues open to the sky … with bushes growing out from the floor … propped up with scaffolding or with only the central pillars still standing … vanished completely or deteriorated into nothingness …”. The sketch below is of the town of Biecz 100 miles south of Krakow. This square “would have been full of Yiddish speaking Jewish traders. Today the sound of Yiddish is gone”.

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.

Oświęcim

(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)

exterior of the Auschwitz I concentration camp from the bank of the Sota river

The remnants of the former Nazi concentration and death camp at Oświęcim, Poland are now preserved as a museum. The history, layout and functioning are described on this link. Last week, I joined a six hour study tour of the Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau) sites. There was no time to draw as we walked (the hurried sketch below was the only one during that tour). I returned without a guide at the end of that day and the next to get a few drawings.

Auschwitz I concentration camp – tourists walking the spaces between the blocks that housed horrors

I had thought it would be hard to walk this site without tears, but the reality was a surreal dissociation. The sheer scale of the camp defies emotional connection. We were not seeing the people here, but the remnants of the infrastructure designed and built on the orders of the Nazis (though on reflection, here are the remnants of the work of the inmates).

Foundations of multiple barracks at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration and death camp

As for the site itself, these were my impressions. The scale is immense, as large as a town, Birkenau itself divided in to long strips of semi-autonomous camps . Its functioning was complex, with different categories of prisoners. None the less, the overall purpose was death. Slow death for slave workers over weeks or months in the concentration camp, deprived of the essentials for survival, above all nutrition and protection from the cold. Immediate death for those selected as unfit for work: the unknowing walk from the train to the purpose built units comprising a room to undress, gas chamber and crematorium. The rate limiting step was the disposal of the bodies. Death as punishment including at the infamous Block 11.

The end of the railway in the Birkenau concentration and death camp. On the left is the memorial built by the Polish government. On the right is the rubble from the gas chamber and crematorium destroyed by the retreating SS at the liquidation of the camp.

The other purpose was the ruthless expropriation of value from prisoners: belongings, gold teeth, hair, labour. A huge warehouse complex at one end of Birkenau, called Kanada, housed plundered goods to be sorted and sent to the Reich. This was already on fire when the camp was liberated. Each year archaeological work turns up more remnants of the items taken from prisoners. The Auschwitz complex supplied slave labour to the I.G. Farbenindustrie chemical industrial plants. Four Jewish women were murdered by hanging for stealing explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory where they worked. We were told they carried the material bit by bit under their finger nails. The Sonderkommando, who operated the crematoria, mutinied on October 7 1944, destroying one crematorium, breaking out, killing three SS men. Around 250 Jews were killed in a knowingly futile fight without weapons, their hoped for reward, we were told, “three lines in the history books”.

into this

(content warning: this post relates to the Holocaust)

“It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.” Jacob Bronowski 1973

Jacob Bronowski was a mathematician, poet and philosopher who fronted a television series called The Ascent of Man documenting the development of scientific thought. I watched this when I was 12 and it profoundly influenced what became my identity as a clinician-scientist. Episode 11 included the sequence filmed by the gas chambers and crematoria at the far end of the huge Birkenau concentration and death camp complex. In my late teens, I wrote out his words and drew his face over them.

His voice saying these words have played and replayed in my mind for 48 years. As he speaks, he walks out, in his best shoes and suit, into the water, stoops and takes a handful of the mud. “We have to touch people” he says.

My journey last week to the Polish town of Oświęcim (German version, Auschwitz) was, I suppose, a kind of pilgrimage. I stood and drew, with my evening shadow stretched out across those waters that had been made the final resting place for a murdered population. I had come to honour the dead.

Personal reflection, Holocaust Memorial, Berlin

At school we learned nothing about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany.  In the collective psyche, World War II was still current story, not yet history. At school, we used “Jewish” casually, like “Scottish”, to mean parsimonious or tightfisted.  My own first insight into anti-Semitism came watching the television series, The Ascent of Man.  Jacob Bronowski made a pointed aside “Men like me were not around at that time”, referring to some aspect of life in wartime Germany: I had to ask what he had meant.

Later, I learned of my paternal lineage: my great grandfather coming to Britain as a teenage refugee, leaving his Polish village, fleeing successive pogroms for a better life.  Across four generations, in East London and then industrial Glasgow, sons rebelled against and replicated patriarchial violence, disowned their fathers, married out.  My father was the last to grow up with some sense of Jewish heritage.  In the army, permanently estranged from his father, sharing the same, obviously Jewish, handle with the then Minister of War, sick of ribbing and worse, he abandoned his patrimony and took his mother’s name, which I have today.

Without inheriting a mythology, it was in Narnia that I first found a sense of belonging, of struggle, of sacrifice and redemption, of course in ignorance of the author’s propagandist intentions.  However, the core of my spirituality was shaped by the words of Jacob Bronowski.  I wrote his words out, over a drawing of his face, and stuck this on my bedroom wall at home and later at University.

Standing in the ruins of the extermination camp at Auschwitz, this is what he had to say about science:

“Science is a very human form of knowledge.  We are always at the brink of the known.  We feel forward for what is to be hoped.  Every judgement in science stands on the edge of error and is personal.  Science is a tribute to what we can know, although we are fallible.

Bronowski first opened up to me that our reality is beautiful and amazing, to be approached with boundless curiosity, with honesty and clear sight, without dogma, conscious of the influence of our prior beliefs and with our convictions open to challenge. This is the heart of science, and when incorporated into society and personal relationships, it is revolutionary.

Earlier in that same episode, the camera panned across barbed wire fences, lights  and towers.  Here is what Bronowski said of the Holocaust:

“It’s said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers.  That’s false, tragically false.  Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz.  This is where people were turned into numbers.  Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people.  That was not done by gas – it was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance.

“When people believe that they have absolute knowledge with no test in reality, this is how they behave.  This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”

Taking a handful of mud from the water he said:

“we have to touch people”.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

– These, here at  the edge, are like graves.  Not coffins, they are the size and shape of graves,  Each one at our feet a grave for an individual.

Look, the whole structure rises to the middle like a hill.  The separate blocks build a landscape.

– Then, as you move in, the blocks get higher.  They are not one person. Person on person on person, stacked …

It’s like a hill, but then there is an umbrella, and then a head, then shoulders, and one person and another and another emerges from inside.  And at the same time, people walking and disappearing into the hill.

– Toward the centre, the blocks tower over you.  All those people, all those people … piled …

Have you noticed also, the ground is uneven, it rolls and drops as the stelae get taller?

– Out here, at the edge, there are blocks missing.  They are not placed regularly.  There are wide spaces in between.

At first the blocks seem to be regular, uniform, identical, grey, anonymous …

– As you go further in, they crowd you, stand over you, overpower you.  It becomes oppressive.

…then, look, not one is the same, standing at different heights, erected at varying angles.  Even different patterns of rain on the concrete.  Every one an individual.

– Also, have you noticed, it’s …

Walking into the hill, from the sunshine, the stones standing higher and higher around you, and it’s …

– cold.

cold.

– …

It makes me think of descending into a barrow beneath standing stones. The rock cistern beneath the Senate where captive kings were strangled. The final walk, down, knowing

– All those people