Souvenir Photograph

In 1994/95 as I was working on an exhibition at the memorial site of Auschwitz it came to my attention that the majority of the visitors to this former concentration camp got their friends or relatives to photograph them under the gate with the words “Arbeit macht frei”. Whether they were from Poland, America, CIS, Germany, Austria, Italy or Israel; whether they were orthodox Jews, Christians, Buddists or member of any other religion or culture, the pattern remained almost always the same: On entering the former main camp Auschwitz 1 the first thing that the visitors would do was to take the afore-mentioned photograph. I asked myself why this should be, which led me to think about the behaviour of visitors to memorial sites and how we deal with remembrance
In connection with the Shoah the shortcomings, contradictions and difficulties in our attitude to remembrance, and our behaviour patterns when faced with the place and symbol of that remembrance, most strickingly come to light. In the end it boils down to taking a photo to keep th memory ”fresh”. The claims, those of facing up to history and those of dissolving into helplessness in the face of its monstrosity, collide in these pictorial recordings, these “proofs of remembering”. Wellknown behaviour patterns are fallen back on – in this case the photo used as a piece of evidence, as proof of a person being at a specific place.It becomes essential for the holidaymaker to be photographed under the palms on a caribbean beach, in front of the Colloseum in Rome, on the Empire State Building and other such tourist sights. In Auschwitz this takes on absurd dimensions. It breaks down on the “backdrop- Auschwitz”. The piece of evidence “I was at Auschwitz”, a declaration which is more than ambivalent, freezes to an unforfillable pose and leaves behind a feeling of uneasiness.
Is it thoughtlessness, heplessness in the face of a place stigmatized by so much terror that makes us revert to this well-known behaviour pattern, repeated thousands of times a year, as one would an “emegency break”? Are we dealing with strategies to prevent us from remembering, or is it that wider, more deep-seated motives play a role?
Is it the need, in face of the collective extermination, which annihilates the individual and only thinks in terms of numbers, to help the individual regain his meaning? Or is it the attempt to bring the living evidence that there is a will to stop Auschwitz ever happening again as Adorno (in “Education after Auschwitz”) demanded; or is it the autonomy of the individual to demonstrate “the only true power against the principle of Auschwitz”? This implys, of course, also “the power to reflect, to self-determine, to not-to-go along-with” with all the implied consequences for today.
The “power to reflect” is important in our relation to memory and how we deal with remembrance – especially today, when the last eye-witnesses are dying and in the future remembering must take on a new form.

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