Process: Return to Auschwitz (4 days)

I am sitting on decaying red leather seats on a train to Auschwitz.  My mind is full of unresolved thoughts and impressions and I get the sense that they will only intensify.  An idea has brought me back here, this remote town in middle of the Polish landscape, despite the many unvisited destinations still here in Europe which I will not see and possibly never return to. 

Six months ago, I visited the camps at Auschwitz, trying to absorb the immensity of the place in less than two days.  I had found a cord of inspiration in the visual textures on the existing structures at Birkenau, but it had come in my last moments there.  I desperately attempted to capture them with my camera in the fading twilight, scrambling around barracks until the photos were unreadable and distorted by noise. 

I am trying to make sense of my interest in what I saw there. So much of it is undetermined.  My pre-trip attempts to read about Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust have felt premature, as if they have nothing to offer to me and what I will ultimately discover there in what I am seeing.  I know of course that this is not true, and the unimaginable truths of the place will eventually weave with my own observations, but my sense is that I must get out on the land again and stay there.  Let the place speak to me.  Let my eye be guided in every passing moment. 

I have been interested in the curious passage of time, the fleeting and harsh reality of our existence as individuals.  How life clambers on like an impersonal, hulking machine, consuming all before it and pushing it behind without thought or recognition or trace of remorse. But existing in time are individuals and the mark of each person makes an impression on others during the course of his/her life, even if that life is tragically short. Something about that individual life leaves an indelible mark on it's surroundings, though its traces are almost certainly unknown to the masses.  That mark can be beautiful and valuable or it can be appalling. But the point is that a mark is left, however tiny in the grand scheme, and thus cataloged in this vast impersonal time.   Maybe this is why I'm back at Auschwitz; to explore the marks left there by individuals who made up this massive and incomprehensible  part of history.  


My hotel is on the outskirts of Oświęcim and I need to rent a bike to get to the camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 4.5 km away. It's cool and cloudy.  I ride over uneven and poorly maintained streets, past dark little shops with foreign neon letters painted on the windows.   A little flag meant to advertise my hotel is mounted near the seat of my bike and as I ride, I realize it has torn a hole in my jeans.  I attempt to tuck it under the frame, but it bounces back up defiantly.  Good thing the hotel has a sewing kit. 

My day at the camp is bit random, but I expected this.  I capture whatever my eye is drawn to, fighting the urge to take "typical" photos and focusing more on the details - textures, patterns, wear. There are more tourists here this time of year.  The wind gusts, but it's not cold. I stop and sit on the memorial steps and try to manufacture a profound emotional response.  It doesn't come.  I think I've become almost numb to the camp and the reality of what occurred here.  I'm not sure this is an entirely bad thing as it may allow me to see something I wasn't aware of.  It starts to rain.  I wonder into the woods outside the gates and discover a beautiful bank of birch trees.  Such beauty only meters from the barbed wire and concrete electrical fence.  The division is profound.

I have taken over 170 photos, but do not know how I will use them yet.

I wake up with a sense of discouragement about what I'm trying to do here.  I feel the experience should carry more weight.  My hotel is too extravagant, it's anesthetizing me to my surroundings.  I should feel more, right?  Have a grand creative plan?  What can I expect to bring to the story of Auschwitz?Bothered, I go have breakfast and open a devotional passage by Oswald Chambers.  "One of the worst traps a Christian worker can fall into is to become obsessed with his own exceptional moments of inspiration. When the Spirit of God gives you a time of inspiration and insight, you tend to say, “Now that I’ve experienced this moment, I will always be like this for God.” No, you will not, and God will make sure of that. Those times are entirely the gift of God. You cannot give them to yourself when you choose. If you say you will only be at your best for God, as during those exceptional times, you actually become an intolerable burden on Him. You will never do anything unless God keeps you consciously aware of His inspiration to you at all times. If you make a god out of your best moments, you will find that God will fade out of your life, never to return until you are obedient in the work He has placed closest to you, and until you have learned not to be obsessed with those exceptional moments He has given you."
With that, I mount the bike and ride to the camp to do my day's work.


It takes three days, but I've slowed down long enough to become aware.  This is a frustrating and reoccurring fact; a testament to our busy lives filled with activities that stunt our perception.  I spend two hours walking between the remaining wood barracks.  None of them are open, but it's not a concern; my interest is in the exterior patina.  I find them more interesting than before and without the pressure of time, I am able to see things in anew light.  There is no one around. I take many, many photos, not exactly sure how or if they will fit into a body of work, but find myself convinced that there is potential for a future installation based on what I am seeing here.  I shoot some short video clips.  Sitting in the grass with my back to a rusted, barbed fence once alive with 5500 volts of electric current, I take an apple out of my backpack and with the first bite, realize that I am enjoying a luxury not available to a single inmate during their time here.

I document chimneys, wood grain, rubble.  I'm seeing things in repetition and begin to find some glimmering thread for a printed series. I'm no longer rushing and have entered that elusive place of listening.  I finish my day to a setting sun shuffling over the remains of Block 31, the "Kindergarten." Nothing remains but two chimneys and a low-lying exterior foundation, but what I find here strikes me.  I get the sense that it's the reason I returned.

I think the temptation is to want to capture everything here, the enormity and pain and weight of it - to make sense of it all.  I believe it's impossible.  And so you are left with these monuments in different states of preservation all containing pieces of their own history, quiet and profound.  They present the marks left by what happened in them, by the individuals who occupied them.  Taken at a glance, they are impersonal skeletons.  But on patient inspection, they are terribly alive.