The traces of the sun
What do we mean when we say, “Never Forget, Never Again?” For many people what they remember is not a collective action, but a place: the colonized ground of Auschwitz-Birkenau. What we mean when we say “Auschwitz-Birkenau” is also not really the place, but rather an image of that place, an image imbued with an aura that developed around the name “Auschwitz” – an aura that altogether transcends the physical objects and land as it sat, and sits.
There is a certain passivity when we say: “I know what the Holocaust is: it is a room full of stolen shoes in Auschwitz, and the faces of doomed children who were catalogued like objects there.” It is a passivity born of a knowing distance: yes, it happened there, in that place, and to those people with whom we may or may not feel some vague connection to in our shared humanity. It is a passivity that has been sold to us over and over again, as one of the best-preserved examples of the medium that transformed a collective, irrational hatred into a specific, calculated genocide. Yet this passivity of naming “Auschwitz” alone also erases that specificity. We forget the multitude of other people and places that stained and were stained, the many peoples condemned by National Socialism – enshrined as little more than prints and in – and even the specificity of antisemitism, with all the other forms of hatred they derived from it.
Traces of the Sun calls direct attention to this flattening effect when we as tourists perform the ritual of saying, “I remember visiting, and I will never allow this again.” We all pretend to know what this exactly is, and together we nod our heads at “Auschwitz.” When we confront the traces of these events, we, as a conscientious audience, should do better: we should confront not only the place Auschwitz-Birkenau, but the “Auschwitz” which has been used to flatten our experience of all things Holocaust, and the many other places and events of which Auschwitz was merely one. We must confront that human genocide has never been the product of one person, nor directed at one person; and we must recognize both the universal human experience, while accepting the particular suffering of specific people, and peoples.
By drawing attention to the media that is “Auschwitz,” Traces asks us to look less carefully at Auschwitz in itself, and far more carefully at “Auschwitz” as itself, how we have reconstructed it from afar. The traces of physical forms that framed this most famous murder-camp, the impermanence of a pretended Thousand-Year project, the curated images of Jewish loss, and the permanence of the land itself – these are all items left rotting in the sun, long since become mere ideas to many of its visitors.
If we are shocked by the idea of over-exposing catalogued photos of Jewish children, or of an incoherent mass of victims’ faces, then we should be all the more shocked at our collective willingness to do the same as tourists. When we say, “I have been there – I have seen it – I shall always remember,” we must confront what we consider the sum of it, and what exactly we expect to remember forever. If we want to see Auschwitz clearly for what it is then we must pull out what lies beneath its scenery. We must drag the traces of Auschwitz through its own mud of obscurity, if we ever hope to bring the truth of its existence back into the sun.
- Oren Vinogradov, Musicologist (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill / Universität Potsdam)