This is a story of a place, a town named Oświęcim, but also a project about the nature of history and our personal relation with it.
History is always, and first of all, a story. “Geschichte ist geschichte”, “History is a story”.
“Every true history is contemporary history” Benedetto Croce
Germans first moved to the area around Oświęcim in the late thirteenth century. They began a settlement project whose ‘completion’ almost 700 years later became the impulse for and goal of the Nazis’ brutal ‘Gemanization’ policy’. Oświęcim, first mentioned in writing in 1178, lay on the dividing line between Slavs and Germans. Its name, derived from the old Polish święty, meaning ‘saint’, points towards the town’s early adoption of Christianity.
Medieval colonization of the east arose out of the desire on the part of Poland’s rulers to expand, to enhance Slavic culture through social, legal and economic systems, and thus bolster their power. The acceptance of German law – ‘German’ being less a national than a legal term – was a peaceful assimilation process that maintained, respected and promoted Slavic traditions. The settlers introduced German municipal law, because by medieval tradition legal systems were tied to people rather than territories; they established the laws where they happened to live, and they did just that in Oświęcim around 1260.
The town at the confluence of the Vistula and the Soła soon became a small trade centre; it was the seat of the court and the capital of the duchy that bore its name. Oświęcim switched political allegiances many times over the centuries: in 1348 it was incorporated into the Holy Roman Empire, and German became its official language. But with the first medieval agrarian crisis, the German settler movement came to a stop in the middle of the fourteenth century, the Hussite wars brought the colonization of the east to a halt, and under Bohemian rule Czech became Oświęcim’s official language. In 1457 the duchy – sold for 50.000 silver marks – came under the rule of the Polish crown, but temporarily maintained Silesian law before finally becoming a feudal possession of the Polish kings in 1565. When Prussia, Russia and Austria broke up the Polish state in 1772 and Austria annexed the areas between the Biała in the west and the Zbrucz in the east, including the great trading and cultural centers of Cracow and Lwów, the competing powers deployed their troops across the region, and in the same year Oświęcim passed into Austrian possession. German became the official language once more, the town bore the name Auschwitz, and it was in the new kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, within the Habsburg Empire. In the wake of a new revision of the boundaries – the second division of Poland in 1793 and the third in 1795 did not affect the town – Oświęcim entered the German Federation after the Vienna Congress in 1815, and remained part of it until the Federation broke up in 1866. The town supported the Habsburg until the collapse of the monarchy in 1918, and the Emperor bore the title ‘Duke of Auschwitz’ until the very end.
Attracted by the trade routes leading towards Lwów (Lemberg), Cracow, Wrocław (Breslau) and Zgorzelec (Görlitz), Jews first settled in Upper Silesia in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It may also have been at this time that they moved to Oświęcim, which lay at the crossroads of the main routes, but their presence is first recorded in 1457. Unlike the surrounding towns, Oświęcim had no law forbidding Jews to live and trade there. The Catholics did not unleash pogroms or carry out mass executions; they did not force the Jews to live in a ghetto, or drive them out of the city walls. During the first bloody wave of persecution in the modern era, the Chmielnitsky pogrom launched by the Cossacks in 1648-9, Jews were banished from the neighboring towns, but in Oświęcim, perhaps because they were relatively few in number, they were left unmolested.
Unlike Prussia, which in the nineteenth century subjected the Polish inhabitants of the eastern provinces to unadulterated Prussian rule, Austria – under the pressure of political defeats abroad, and striving for reconciliation with Hungary – gave relatively free rein to the Galicians in their efforts to become Polish again and to achieve independent statehood. The Cisleithan crown territory of Galicia was awarded extensive rights of self-administration by the 1866 statute of autonomy. Poles took over the jobs of the Austrian officials, and the Polish language found its way back into the region’s schools and administration. Oświęcim reacquired its original Polish name, and the street names became Polish as well.
With the economic revolutions that were taking place at the same time , the ‘good Austrian era’ began for Oświęcim’s Jews. A number of decades followed in which the previously rather insignificant and poor Jewish community developed strongly in demographic and economic terms. The feudal and agrarian social order faded away, and with it went the old intermediary function of the east European Jews. Standing, as small shopkeepers, craftsmen, travelling salesmen, pub landlords and leaseholders, between the landed gentry, the peasantry and the state, they had been exposed to the corresponding social conflicts. This relationship, which had unfairly governed how Jews made a living and had for centuries denied them any economic advancement, disappeared. Jews were able to abandon their uncertain legal position, achieve complete equality as citizens, and exert considerable influence on culture and politics. A flourishing Jewish community emerged, and Auschwitz soon became an intellectual centre of orthodox Jews and also a site of significant Zionist associations. Even contemporaries spoke proudly of their own ’ Oświęcim Jerusalem’.
While Galicia remained an agrarian country at the end of the nineteenth century, with almost 80 per cent of its inhabitants making their living through agriculture, and with a great deal of unemployment and poverty, Oświęcim developed into a prosperous town because of its proximity to the newly developed industrial belt of Upper Silesia and north-west Bohemia. The industrialization process gained pace when the town acquired a railway station in 1856. Thanks to its location between the coal-mining area around Katowice (Kattowitz) – Dombrowa and the industrial area of Bielsko (Bielitz), Oświęcim became a railway junction in 1900: three lines of the Emperor Ferdinand Northern Railway led directly to Cracow, Katowice and Vienna.
While Oświęcim’s Catholics remained stuck in their agricultural jobs and rejected industrialization, only a small proportion of Jews continued working in their traditional trades. Most of them worked in the professions, particularly in the industrial sector. Many became big businessmen and opened banks and factories in Oświęcim and the surrounding area. Others even founded chemical factories and processing plants in the new industries. The oldest Jewish business was Jakob Haberfeld’s distillery, founded in 1804, which made the town famous for many miles around with its trademark ‘Schnapps from Oświęcim’.
Waves of immigration brought more Jews to Oświęcim than anyone else. By 1867 a total of 4.000 Jews had moved to the town, more than half the total of new incomers. Subsequently, the number of Jews came to exceed that of Catholic inhabitants. For a long time cooperation defined communal politics – although the Jews were expected to impose certain restrictions upon themselves. Only the post of deputy mayor was reserved for a Jew; the mayor was always a Catholic.
Before the Second World War the number of Germans and people of German descent in Oświęcim was insignificant. In the multi-ethnic Austrian state, and in the non-homogeneous Polish national state, the subjective sense of belonging to an ethnic group was defined by the language one spoke. In the censuses held during the Habsburg period the inhabitants basically spoke only Polish. In 1880 only one resident gave German as his spoken language, in 1900 there were ten, and by the time of the 1921 census three inhabitants gave their ethnic identity as German. No real German minority group existed in Oświęcim, even though, in the census of December 1931, 3 per cent of the population declared German ethnicity. Nor did the town have German schools, German organizations, German churches, German associations or German newspapers. But three editorial offices in the town published Polish newspapers; there were also Jewish papers, some of them in Yiddish, including the journals of several Zionist groups.
- from “Auschwitz, A history” by Sybille Steinbacher
CONCEPT / IDEA
READINGS TEXTS & BOOKS
WATCHING MOVIES and DOCUMENTARIES
LISTS (of things to photograph, of places, of categories, etc)
LIST of potential TITLES for the project
PHOTOGRAPHIC REFERENCES (other projects, books, authors)
COLLECTING VARIOUS DOCUMENTS
These are the KEY ELEMENTS I followed to produce the project, the STEPS that framed my practice through which I developed the initial concept/ idea of working on the issue of the heritage of evil and violence in our current society, looking back at our recent history and choosing to work on the symbolic place of Auschwitz as the starting point for my reflection. After a personal discussion on the relation between the two terms AUSCHWITZ and OŚWIĘCIM, as CONTENTS and CONTAINER, and the fact that in this specific case the contents was known everywhere in the world while the CONTAINER was completely unknown to the most, and that this contents was more important than its container, I decided to investigate on how an element, like Auschwitz, in a territory could influence the place who hosted it and its inhabitants, creating in this case all of a series of prejudices that I wanted to dismantle, showing the truth on the real aspect of the town of Oświęcim as it is now in its state of things, in its “status quo”. Being here in the case when Big History meets and cross with the local history of a little place, influencing it and changing its further history and identity, I used this situation as a metaphor for reflecting on our current society and our personal relation with evil and violence. All of us live with them in our life, maybe as inhabitants of Oświęcim have learnt to live with the presence of the ex-camps – a constant heavy trace of evil – in their homeland. But living, in relation to all this rising violence, “blindly”, we ended up not to seeing it anymore, accepting it as something completely ordinary and common.
“It exist a documentary style; […] it’s NEVER A REAL DOCUMENT, but it can adopt its style.” – walker evans
“Western societies are the ‘third world’ of HUMAN RELATIONS” – marco d’avenia
“Often of a RIVER, that takes all, is said that is violent, but never anything is said of the VIOLENCE of the BANKS which enclose it.” – bertold brecht
This project arises from the word-symbol “Auschwitz” and its meaning, collectively recognized and associated with an iconoclastic representation of one of the darkest moments in our recent history. In addition to this, Auschwitz becomes the symbolic place, not only of the extermination of the Jews, but of the maximum representation of a nationalist ideology, in this case that of the Nazis. This universally recognized and now “historicized” dimension of the word “Auschwitz” brought the people to relegate, what it represents, in an area seemingly distant from our conscience, facilitated by a temporary dimension that is no longer ours. However, never before, the word Auschwitz, for what it embodies, is more contemporary than ever. And it is duty of the world community to continue to consider its living “value” representative, not only for ethical and moral question of the historical memory, of tribute to the Jews and Shoah, or other similar reasons, but rather for the fact of representing a kind of “mirror”, unfortunately contemporary, of racial hatred, violence, intolerance and annihilation of any humanity. All these phenomena, that we see daily and habitually, from the continuous wars that have bloodied the world for the same reasons, the various genocides that have been perpetrated during the distant and recent history (as that of the Armenians or the one in Rwanda, to name a few), to all the acts of violence that occur every day incessantly, make Auschwitz a present-day concept of extreme “modernity” and now spread like wildfire everywhere.
The requirement of knowledge of this symbolic “mirror” that is Auschwitz, is necessary and essential for the development of a civil and collective human conscience. It can, through awareness, allow future generations to avoid the same mistakes of the past.
Behind the word Auschwitz, however, another aspect is concealed, that of the place and its current physical identity, represented by the figure of the concentration and extermination ex-camps, now national museum and legacy of a tangible reminder for the entire humankind. The symbol par excellence, also representative for all the hundreds of other camps built and active during World War II. But the name Auschwitz was, even before the Nazis, nothing but the german name of a small town located since ever in a border land, along the connecting line between the Slavs and the Germans, on the confluence of the rivers Vistula and Soła, in the South of current Poland, near the border with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, called Oświęcim (the Polish name derived from the ancient “Święty” which means “holy” and refers to early Christianity).
Starting then from the semantic relationship between the two names of this town, the project is developed according to a series of dialectical pairs, in an apparent virtual dichotomy between the two extremes that is in every possible reading each time passed, bringing back any value judgment ‘beyond good and evil’ :
Evil – Good
Negative – Positive
House – Home
Town – Community
Passive Conscience – Active Conscience
Monument – Instrument
Past – Present
The place that once hosted the largest and most famous Nazi extermination camp, now is the depository of a Memory that affects all the humankind, for the benefit of future generations, and has the duty to protect and preserve what remains of the fundamental traces of this dark episode of our history, turning and transforming itself from a passive monument of death to an active instrument of life.
This place is the Polish town of Oświęcim.
What’s following is the current portrait of this place.
Portraying this present place, metaphor of the apparently harmless and underestimated current condition of our society through the meaning of the word “Auschwitz” is, at the same time, giving back to the city of Oświęcim its real cultural identity and its historical dignity finally detaching it from being only considered the town, almost unknown, which hosted inside, the most notorious Nazi concentration camp in history.
“Auschwitz” is both past and present.
“Oświęcim ”, is both past and present.
Auschwitz is past, when it refers to the physical location of which represents the name, but it is also present, and future, when it becomes concept that is freed from its historical roots and turns into a word-symbol representative not only of an event of the past, but also of a “mirror”, meta-historical contemporary reference for all humanity.
Similarly Oświęcim is past, meant as the historic town tied to its medieval roots, and is present and future when, in addition to representing its identity today, also becomes another name-symbol, which makes normal and more real the modern concept itself of “Auschwitz”, contextualizing it in a real historical and geographical dimension that time and history have tried instead to push away from our sphere of interest and consideration.
This is a personal diagram representing all the contents and materials, I collected for the project during the research.
MEMORIA DEI CAMPI – Contrasto
OŚWIĘCIM / AUSCHWITZ - Kazimierz Smoleń
AUSCHWITZ-BIRKENAU – Andreas Magdanz
7/7 (chapter 3/7 – Oswiecim) – Guillaume Herbaut
LAND OF OS – Danny Ghitis
THE SOUND OF TWO SONGS – Mark Power
BERLIN - Mitch Epstein
NIAGARA – Alec Soth
EMPTY LAND, PROMISED LAND, FORBIDDEN LAND – Rob Hornstra
LA LINEA INESISTENTE – Davide Monteleone
THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF - Dana Lixenberg
THE MAZE – Donowan Wylie
STEEL WORKS. CONSETT, FROM STEEL TO TORTILLA CHIPS - Julian Germain
RAISED BY WOLVES – Jim Goldberg
IN FLAGRANTE - Chris Killip
THE BOOK N°9 – Hans-Peter Feldman
WAFFENRUHE - Michael Schmidt
ATLAS – Gerhard Richter
LIST OF MOVIES AND DOCUMENTARIES
SHOAH, Claude Lanzmann
THE SON OF SAUL, László Nemes
LES MISERABLES, Claude Lelouch
LA TREGUA, Francesco Rosi
LA VITA E’ BELLA, Roberto Benigni
TRAIN OF LIFE, Radu Mihaileanu
KORKORO, Tony Gatlif
JAKOB THE LIAR, Peter Kassovitz
SCHINDLER’S LIST, Steven Spielberg
THE GREY ZONE, Tim Blake Nelson
THE PIANIST, Roman Polanski
EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, Liev Schreiber
NUIT ET BROUILLARD, Alain Resnais
THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, Jack Kaufman
GENOCIDE, Arnold Schwartzman
LA STRADA DI LEVI, Davide Ferrario
THE LAST DAYS, James Moll
THE MIRROR, Andrej Tarkovskij
FITZCARRALDO, Werner Herzog
AUSCHWITZ, Sybille Steinbacher
VISITARE AUSCHWITZ, Carlo Saletti, Frediano Sessi
THE MAN WHO BROKE INTO AUSCHWITZ, Denis Avey
THE KINGDOM OF AUSCHWITZ 1940-1945, Otto Friedrich
LA STRADA PER AUSCHWITZ, Giovanni Gozzini
EICHMANN IN JERUSALEM, Hannah Arendt
L’UMANITA’ IN TEMPI BUI, Hannah Arendt
SULLA VIOLENZA, Hannah Arendt
I ESCAPED FROM AUSCHWITZ, Rudolf Vrba
THE DIARY, Anne Frank
SHOAH, Claude Lanzmann
IMMAGINI DEL DISASTRO PRIMA E DOPO AUSCHWITZ, Franco M. Fontana
LE PAROLE DEL LAGER, Leoncarlo Settimelli
L’INFERNO DI TREBLINKA, Vasilij Grossman
AUSCHWITZ E’ DI TUTTI, Marta Ascoli
LA VIOLENZA DEL MONDO, Jean Baudrillard – Edgar Morin
POURQUOI TOUT N’A-T-IL PAS DEJA DISPARU, jean Baudrillard
UTOPIA AND ETEROTOPIA, Michel Foucault,
THE BIRTH OF THE TRAGEDY, Friedrich Nietzsche
BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, Friedrich Nietzsche
LO SPECCHIO DELLA MEMORIA, Ando Gilardi
ATLAS DE LA SHOAH, Georges Bensoussan
LA NUIT, Elie Wiesel
AUSCHWITZ EXPLIQUE’ A’ MA FILLE, Annette Wieviorka
ECORCES, Georges Didi-Huberman
IMMAGINI MALGRADO TUTTO, Georges Didi-Huberman
IL TRENO DELLA MEMORIA, Antonio Rinaldis
IL N’Y A PAS D’ENFANTS ICI, Thomas Geve
SONDERKOMMANDO AUSCHWITZ, Shlomo Venezia
THE AUSCHWITZ PHOTOGRAPHER, Anna Dobrowolska
WILHELM BRASSE: PHOTOGRAPHER 3444, AUSCHWITZ ‘40-’45
RAPPORTE, Peter Weiss
QUEL CHE RESTA DI AUSCHWITZ, Giorgio Agamben
MEIN KAMPT, Adolf Hitler
KONTAMINIERTE LANDSCHAFTEN, Martin Pollack
AUSCHWITZ – OSWIECIM, Hans Citroen – Barbara Starzynska
DOCUMENTARY, Julian Stallabrass
OUR TOWN, Thornton Wilder
TRE SAGGI SULL’IMMAGINE – Jean-Luc Nancy
SE QUESTO E’ UN UOMO, Primo Levi
I SOMMERSI E I SALVATI, Primo Levi
COSI’ FU AUSCHWITZ, Primo Levi
LA RICERCA DELLE RADICI, Primo Levi
MATTATOIO N°5, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
IL RICORDO DEL PRESENTE, Paolo Virno
MODERNITA’ E OLOCAUSTO, Zygmunt Bauman
MEMORIA DEL MALE, TENTAZIONE DEL BENE, Todorov Tzvetan
All these readings and watching allowed me to deepen the knowledge of the place and the historical event I wanted to talk about, as a support for my research, and creating a sub-structure on which reflecting and developing my strategies and considerations upon the issue. In addition, it’s been a sort of constant reference on which walking on, while I was experiencing on my skin the reality of the place, living there completely immersed into the community.
It’s been fundamental both having this knowledge and living the experience, looking at the reality with my own eyes, and then through the viewfinder of the camera, in order to have the “right” to talks about something I don’t belong to, in a land that is not of my own, with a community I’m not part of, but who made me feel completely involved and concerned.