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.
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.
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.
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.
(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)
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.
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).
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 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”.
(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.
The twitter hashtag #WOMENSART brought to my attention the poem Dangerous Coats by Sharon Owens linked to a surveillance photograph of suffragette Olive Beamish from 1914. In this linocut I don’t capture her facial likeness but I have explored textures of the coat with large pockets.
Here are a range of sketches I undertook.
From Wikipedia I learned of the Cat and Mouse Act passed by the Liberal government, legislation designed to thwart the suffragettes on hunger strike in prison.
In her poem Sharon Owens equates “sedition”, at that time, with commonsense, fairness, kindness, equality. Faced with a law-breaking, lying, callous, killing government, we may all need pockets to promote these values.
In this linocut, based on a still from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, the heroine Maria is bringing children to witness the gardens of the rich. Maria is adored by the oppressed workers. The hero, in pursuit of love for Maria, descends into the hell inhabited by the workers and, though love, becomes the mediator between the propertied and the proletariat.
Fritz Lang’s film was criticised at the time for its naivety. Cutting the block, I listened to the audio version of China Mielville’s October, a fast paced narrative of the two revolutions, a decade before the film, that first forced the abdication of Tsar Nikolai Alexandrovich Romonav, the “bovine” Emperor of All Russia, and then replaced the provisional government with that of the Bolsheviks. Through this, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, “Lenin”, having returned to Petrograd to acclaim, is now in hiding in Finland while the counter-revolutionary plot by General Kornilov is foiled by the city’s workers and soldiers. Lenin guides the revolution, demanding rule by the soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ committees), an end to economic injustice and purity of purpose. He rails that the Bolsheviks must support a bourgeoise revolution as a pre-condition to a proletarian one, but not collaborate with that bourgeoise government. He tacks and shifts his ground, fine tuning his writings in response to events, ever sensitive to the subtle twists in political mood, seeking the precise historical moment when to act decisively for a workers’ state. But in exile, he receives news late, writes always behind the times and his tardy essays are used selectively by others to justify their contrary actions. I am minded of that other spiritual guide to a revolution that eventually acquired an empire, Paul, on the road and in exile, working on hearsay and old news, writing letters to admonish his first century adherents and converts.
Along with many others, I oppose the destruction of infrastructure and targeted killing of civilians in Gaza and want political action towards a free Palestine by the UK. Britain is a nation with influence, and both historical and current responsibility.
One argument, lost in the others, is that the highly visible selective murder of a trapped people is a shop window, watched with great interest by other governments. What one democracy does with impunity, so might others. Not just solidarity should motivate us, but self-interest.
My son’s theme for his final GCSE art exam was “light and dark”. From there one can extrapolate from tone and colour to moral rectitude and corruption, no doubt as the teacher had intended. He used as a source the master of light, JMW Turner: including this depiction of the 1781 massacre on the slave ship Zong that came to light when the owners tried to claim insurance on their cargo. One spiritual and practical outcome of the centuries-long struggles for self-emancipation by enslaved and colonised peoples is that these helped shape labour movements and democracy in the colonising countries (see for example Priyamvada Gopal: Insurgent Empire). We who now call ourselves free have a debt to those who struggled against oppression before us. Art does not pay that debt, but perhaps shapes our thoughts so we act in other ways.
My son took his theme from the 1927 dystopian silent film Metropolis, for its gloriously grainy black and white images. After he has finished and handed his work in, I have started to use this as source for planned lino prints. In Fritz Lang’s film, there is a strange plot twist in which the workers’ spiritual leader is captured and made the template for a robot that leads the downtrodden in revolutionary destruction. Here is the lino ready for cutting, with the initial charcoal sketch and tracing. Drawing, tracing and refining onto the lino reshapes my thoughts.
As an aside, here are the sketches and traces for the prints posted last week.
I sketch from a little wooden bridge across a brook running through a wood. I am using H and 2B charcoal pencils, dabbing the paper with water to intensify tone and allow the image to emerge from rapid light lines. Three years ago, in the spring of 2017, I drew this same scene in conte crayons on tinted paper. Interestingly, that blog post linked back in succession to two further posts each with my random political reflections at the time of drawing. This sequence of drawings mark for me a pathway of descent.
Tonight, on the brink of a lockdown that marks the utter failure of government public health policies, we are invited to doublethink, to hold its lies as truth, its greed as charity, its self-interest as science, its disregard for law as high principle, constrained as we are by newspeak, their simplified language that binds the media and opposition in chains, closing down thought and dissent.
I am stunned by the utter chaos and shambles of the current Tory government in the UK. It goes beyond partisan politics, beyond incompetence, beyond corruption.
Elected to “get Brexit done”, this Tory government passed a Withdrawal Bill in January bypassing Parliamentary scrutiny and now say this is not the Brexit they intended, but it’s become an international treaty which is law so they announce in Parliament that they will knowingly break the law to rewrite it unilaterally, so the most senior lawyers in the civil service have resigned as they are duty-bound to do, meanwhile this Tory government champions Britannia ruling the waves by threatening small inflatables carrying handfuls of frightened asylum-seekers with the might of the Royal Navy, meanwhile this Tory government voted overwhelmingly against putting into law measures to prevent another horrific Grenfell Tower fire, meanwhile this Tory government plans to criminalise peaceful activists trying to place climate change central to public policy, meanwhile this Tory government, building on ten years of deliberate unpreparedness for a predictable pandemic thus killing more than forty thousand people, now, after six months and in the face of an obvious and predictable rise in SARS-CoV-2 infections as we enter autumn, this Tory government still cannot offer a effective Track and Trace system despite spending billions, cannot source protective gear in the UK and have made no preparations for schools to reopen other than mantras and wishful thinking so in a few weeks and with more deaths those same schools will shut with no plans for how to educate children except spitting out recriminations and instead this Tory government shouts at young people, whom they had previously hectored that it was their patriotic duty to go out to eat and drink and go to work in offices not work at home and buy sandwiches and repopulate trains, now they tell those young people, “don’t kill yer gran”…
A couple of weeks ago I joined a zoom meeting of Scientists for Labour a group affiliated to the Labour Party. The speaker was physicist and veteran science policy adviser Sir David King. He served Labour and Conservative governments. Under the Blair government he ran a large foresight programme for major events such as a pandemic. He now chairs the Independent SAGE, which appears to comprise the experts one might have expected a government to have consulted in managing a pandemic. The meeting is publicly available. While he talked I tried to sketch (not very well) and made a few notes.
Here he talks about the fact that the UK had been a world leader in preparedness for such a pandemic, setting out how to manage such an event in 2006.
“the biggest foresight program I ran was on the infectious diseases … our report … said that it was highly likely that a pandemic of the kind that has just occurred would occur … it might emerge from a wild animal … it would spread around the world very rapidly … within 3 months … it would have a genetic make up that we would have no defences against … we set out what should be done, the WHO was represented on the group … and it is kind of surprising and amazingly annoying that the country that produced this report … and the WHO responded very well … that we are the country that sits behind every country in terms of our operation. Sixty five thousand excess deaths to date …”
“it is difficult to believe a word of what the government is saying”.
“complete mishandling of this pandemic of appalling proportions”.
“… this looks like criminal behaviour …”
“A vast number of people have died unnecessarily …”