Sobering, enlightening, horrifying…

Sobering, yes, enlightening, horrifying. I could give you a thousand words,but none of them could adequately express all of the feelings I experienced when I saw the Auschwitz K I-II exhibit at Missouri Southern State University yesterday. I expected these things. What I did not expect were the feelings of hollowness, dissonance, and awe.

Swedish photographer Örjan Henriksson created this exhibit, showing common scenes from the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yes, common scenes, ordinary things that in and of themselves give little indication of the horrors to which they were witness. A stairwell. A wall. A doorway. A stairwell from a basement to rooms from which few returned…those who did were forever maimed and scarred. A wall in front of which many were turned to face away from those with the guns that would cut short their lives. A doorway to a gas chamber that would steal their very breath. Sobering is a gross understatement.

The photos are not large, maybe 14″ square, are all in black and white, and are matted and framed simply, in black and white. The walls on which they hang are black. They beckon you to draw near to see the details, to hear the whispers. And whisper they do. Of all of the fourteen images (plus two enlarged at either end of the display), one shouts. The others speak eloquently, but not loudly.

Simple captions, like this, are placed on the wall, far below the photos

The image at the very top, as you may have now guessed, is of the wall inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Can you see the vertical scratches on the walls? What unspeakable horror. This, to me, is the one that shouts…in my head, I can hear the cries of those trapped inside.

The photos are, quite simply, and even perversely, art. The hollowness and dissonance I felt, knowing what these well-composed, beautiful photos represented, were hard to grasp. How is it possible that one man can create such art from scenes that have been witness to the very worst of humanity? Should not the very stones cry out?

You can see the rest of the images from this exhibit, along with the works of several other artists, at Lens Culture. Be forewarned, the images are graphic and brutal in their truth.

This article tells a bit more about the artist, and this one tells more about the exhibit:

Henriksson remembers talking with an Auschwitz survivor at an exhibit in Nashville, after she carefully, quietly looked over his pictures…“She said, but there is nothing in your pictures.  And I was kind of depressed.  But then, she added, but they tell everything,” says Henriksson.

A chance to look over a different, unique perspective of where evil once thrived, and can still be felt.  Henriksson hopes this opportunity gives one more important reminder to never let this type of evil happen again.

As you know, I’ve spent much of the last year working on #The70273Project, through which we have, to date, created nearly 50 quilts, all of them comprising simple white blocks emblazoned with two red x’s. Each block represents one person murdered by the Nazis in 1939 and 1940 (prior to what is widely accepted to be the Holocaust). Those 70,273 people were mentally or physically disabled, or otherwise deemed unfit for life by doctors who “examined” them. Most of them were not killed at Auschwitz, but they were killed, just the same, under equally horrendous circumstances.

I have read many, many accounts of the time, accounts both both fictional and not. I remember the words. I remember the visits I made to Dachau years ago. And I remember the things I saw there.

I will never, ever forget.

  • cindy parry

    When I lived in Virginia, I visited the then new Holocaust Museum in DC several times. They have changed it over the ensuing years; I think it (as of last visit) didn’t have quite the same numbing effect it did in the first showings. The original setting was very, very somber and effective. The original so disconcerting; the crushing crowds serenely, respectfully quiet. It still was effective in the later changes BUT not quite the same. I suspect some complained about how sad and sobering it was; ie they did too good a job. IMHO I think they should have left it as originally done. If you ever get a chance, DO go visit this museum. It is SO worth the (2 hours?) you’ll need to do it justice. You will leave informed, depressed, shocked…

    • I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it is to see, Cindy. That said, it’s still on my list of places to go when I am next in the D.C. area. What a shame that they changed it. I am sure you’re probably right that it was maybe too real for people. In this case, real, though awfully hard, is a good thing. None of us wants to believe that such a thing could happen but it DID, so we have to remember.

      • cindy parry

        Agreed. Too real for too many people but not near as real as it was for those who went through it. It IS important to remember…

  • Pingback: Buildings and Breaking Walls | Destination Sunshine()