In our over-mediatized, hyper-visual present, we understand that the past is written in two dimensions, its colors black, white and grey. Over time, it is hand-colored, and then over-saturated technicolored in a continuum, until it reaches the three-dimensioned, full-colored present, where it is replete with smells and temperatures. There, it is compressed again into pixels for global observation in an amorphous, dimensionless future.
From the movies and archived photographs, concrete monuments and graphic prints of barbed-wire silhouettes, we picture the first half of the twentieth century and its corresponding atrocities under a veil of gloom. The metaphor, and official term, for Nazi tactics of disappearance, dissimulation and evasion — Nacht und Nebel [night and fog] — add to the sensation of remove from the observer of actual, physical events in the palpable now.
But what really happened? Strategies for recalling, remembering and commemorating the Holocaust—the systematic murder of 11 million people between 1939-1945, among them 6 million Jews—often consist in exposing “reality” via the preservation of artifacts, the restoration of sites to be consistent with the original, or the exhibiting of hard evidence of barbarity in the form of film or photograph.
From these, we now know how so many of these people were killed—and are quite familiar with a series of tell-tale accessories, from the railroad tracks, the striped uniforms and the barracks, to the yellow stars and the Swastikas. Yet for a victim among millions of the Nazi death camp gas chambers at the time, a German-language sign for “shower” would inspire none of the horror that it does for us.
The thumping doom that we perceive in the rhythmic naming of the camps—Treblinka, Auschwitz, Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Sobibor—did not exist for the vast majority of those who lost their lives in those places. They knew not that those shower rooms would offer poisonous gas instead of water; that the trains they were boarding with round-trip tickets were one way; or that the letters they were encouraged to write to relatives would be their last.
Jegor Zaika’s project of photographs considering World War II forced labor and death camps, initiated in the year before the seventieth anniversary of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, register something of a “time correction” for memory of the Holocaust. Complicating mainstream notions of time, Zaika takes the philosophy of Eternalism as a touchstone for thinking through the concept of memorial. Loosely based on the Theory of Relativity, in the idea of Eternalism, past and future are directions rather than states of being; that is, for the subject, time is a matter of the perspective from which he or she considers it. Time does not objectively flow, it only feels so subjectively, and therefore all events—whether they occur in the past, present, or the future—are equally real.
Taken mostly in the towns and areas surrounding concentration camp sites, the photographs are in full color under the light of (a sunny) day. The idea is that, during wartime, human eyes perceived things no more monochrome than we might now. At that time, as now, the landscape bore no signs of what was to occur there. Then, as now, people worked, went to school, ate, walked around and simply ignored what was unremarkable.
On the way to the Treblinka extermination camp, for example, before being transported to the site where they would be immediately gassed, trains full of prisoners stopped for several hours at the Malkina Gorna train station, and then the station of Treblinka the town. Like visitors on their way to the memorial there today, they would have seen buildings, factories, train tracks, stores, cars, trees. But these banal things have rarely been considered fodder for memorial; if they were, then every inch of train track between Germany and Poland would be artefacts of horror, triggers for trauma.
Zaika’s photographs remind us, if the use of such a word is appropriate, that it is the lack of a specific reminder that should act as a sign for remembrance. As the Nazis were often in the habit of using dissimulated objects and situations to lure prisoners into a sense of complacency right before their murder—from music in the train station at Sobibor to a height measurement device at Sachsenhausen that positioned the victim to be shot in the head by Nazi “doctors” clothed in white coats—“normal life” and its attendant objects were infused with impending death, while their true purpose at the time was not apparent.
Evidence of atrocities was also dissimulated. Consider the flower gardens and cabbage patches that were planted over the sites of mass graves, or the “gas vans,” that appeared to be simple transportation, but were actually death traps. Banal diversions entertaining the SS officers did not contradict the horror but blended with it to frustrate any common correlation of sign and signified. In what other context would football matches in team uniforms (involving prisoners and even staff) play out next to smokestacks belching smoke from burnt human bodies, or would zoos for bears, falcons or foxes coexist next to cages for people?
At a 70-year remove, time serves as a protective wall, and it becomes thicker with every passing day; it isolates us from the terror of these events—shielding us at a safe distance and perhaps breeding complacency. Yet “Signs” asks us to consider knowledge of past events more holistically: by flattening time, it also closes the gap. In Zaika’s photographs, the two dimensions of the past complicate themselves. In the full-color world, signs are all around, and everything, potentially, becomes a trigger. Knowledge can have that effect. Is it not the case that when one walks out the door of the death camp museum—having understood more of what occurred there—that the formerly “innocent” landscape of the surroundings begin to scream?
—Text by Mara Goldwyn