Moments of what we call history and moments of what we call memory

Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp
Marian Stefanowski, Tower “A” – Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 14 November 2019

Moments of what we call history and moments of what we call memory

 

There is a profusion of empty, tidy, well tended areas. Without people. Sure, an anonymous person or a group of visitors sometimes pops up, captured when they are inspecting part of the exhibition, which was expertly put together and which- as all the guide books will tell you - provides extensive information. But all of this constitutes a vague backdrop. They are guests from another world, strangers. There are no silhouettes or ghostly shadows of the main perpetrators of the terrible drama. This absence is perplexing and disturbing at the same time. The more I go from image to image, the more I am convinced that this absence is no coincidence. It must be the photographer’s intention in some way. At the very least, it represents a trail which entices the observer to follow it.

I have never been in Sachsenhausen and have never visited a concentration camp. I have not felt any need to visit there, but not because the existence of the camps and their history is inconsequential. Quite the opposite. Since my school days, and I belong to the generation that was fed books and knowledge about the Second World War in abundance, the experiences in the camps have raised a number of questions for me: questions about the people, about their culture and history, about their self-image, about the moral and social order which the people creates, and which they create in an uncompromising, concentrated and even brutal way. These were not historical questions; they were purely anthropological questions. The camp experiences constitute an unprecedented borderline experience, not the first and not the only one, but extreme and close enough in terms of time that they are not just repressed as an historical fossil that troubles one's peace of mind. I was aware of all that when I read books and when I watched films. So what would the visits have been able to add, apart from an emotional downpour on the paths of the crime, on the places of torture? This is all the more true because the encounters with the past at such places are not direct: the camp that we visit is not a real camp, our situation does not reflect in any way the situation faced by the victims. It does not reflect the executioners’ situation either. You can save yourself the trouble.

Was that a typical attempt on my part to rationalise my fear? Most definitely, yes. I have looked at Marian Stefanowski’s photographs of the Sachsenhausen camp with increasing interest. Possibly for the very reason that in this case we are dealing with a realisation that is conveyed gradually: we perceive the traces of the empirically inaccessible past through the vision, the perspective and the selection of someone else. As well as the question of the subject matter, the question of the medium is also raised, which in this case takes on the role of an emotional buffer. I found Stefanowski to be a discrete and transparent medium. Hidden behind his subject, he has created a cycle of completely neutral, detached and cool photos in which he dispenses with the need for artificial expressions and commentaries which could entice the observer into doing something. His photographic documentation subjugates itself completely to the place in question, is proficient and systematic. It shows memorials, general outlines, individual exhibits, commemorative plaques, sporadic groups of visitors and...a great deal of open space. Ordered, clean, well maintained space, which despite everything and despite the quiet is still enclosed by barbed wire and watchtowers as it was in the past. A cleared stage awaiting the next act of a drama? For me personally, this is not a metaphor, it is a deliberate moment of remembrance in which we find ourselves in the here and now. The last witnesses are dying out, the generational emotional and cognitive remoteness is growing. Ultimately, the memory of their experience is giving way before our very eyes to just our constructed memory. It is up to us to decide with whom, with what and in what way we fill this place that is devoid of people. It is up to us, the mysterious visitors who, depending on how great our own curiosity and how strong our moral principles, lend this memory a definitive form when we are confronted with this flood of dramatic information whilst being torn out of our daily routine. In confronting the problem, Marian Stefanowski leaves the final decision to the observer.

 

Mediathek
  • Tower “A” – Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp

    Tower “A” – Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp

    Marian Stefanowski, Tower “A” – Entrance to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, 14 November 2019
  • Panorama of the concentration camp

    Panorama of the concentration camp

    Marian Stefanowski, Panorama of the concentration camp, View from the entrance, Tower “A”. Left: Muster ground I, Right: Muster ground II, 12 August 2018.
  • Muster ground I

    Muster ground I

    Marian Stefanowski, Muster ground I, 12 August 2018
  • Area with outlines of barracks

    Area with outlines of barracks

    Marian Stefanowski, Area with outlines of barracks, 14 November 2019
  • Area with outlines of barracks

    Area with outlines of barracks

    Marian Stefanowski, Area with outlines of barracks, 14 November 2019
  • Barracks 39 and 38 – Concentration Camp Museum

    Barracks 39 and 38 – Concentration Camp Museum

    Marian Stefanowski, Barracks 39 and 38 – Concentration Camp Museum, 14 November 2019
  • Barrack 38 – Dormitory for 250 prisoners

    Barrack 38 – Dormitory for 250 prisoners

    Marian Stefanowski, Barrack 38 – Dormitory for 250 prisoners, 14 November 2019
  • Barrack 38 – Washroom

    Barrack 38 – Washroom

    Marian Stefanowski, Barrack 38 – Washroom, 12 August 2018
  • Barrack 38 – “Toilets”

    Barrack 38 – “Toilets”

    Marian Stefanowski, Barrack 38 – “Toilets”, 12 August 2018
  • Electric fence

    Electric fence

    Marin Stefanowski, Electric fence, 14 November 2019
  • Execution trenches

    Execution trenches

    Marian Stefanowski, Execution trenches – commemorative plaque – to the first mass murder of 33 Poles on 9 November 1940, 14 November 2019
  • Execution trenches

    Execution trenches

    Marian Stefanowski, Execution trenches – looking towards the crematorium, 12 August 2018
  • Crematorium – bronze sculpture by Waldemar Grzimek

    Crematorium – bronze sculpture by Waldemar Grzimek

    Marin Stefanowski, Crematorium – bronze sculpture by Waldemar Grzimek, 14 November 2019
  • Remains of the crematorium

    Remains of the crematorium

    Marian Stefanowski, Remains of the crematorium after the explosions 1952 and 1953, 12 August 2018
  • Concentration camp grounds looking towards the infirmaries

    Concentration camp grounds looking towards the infirmaries

    Marian Stefanowski, Concentration camp grounds looking towards the infirmaries, 12 August 2018
  • Medicine and crime

    Medicine and crime

    Marian Stefanowski, Medicine and crime. The sick bay at Sachsenhausen concentration camp 1936-1945, 12 August 2018
  • Medicine and crime

    Medicine and crime

    Marian Stefanowski, Medicine and crime. The sick bay at Sachsenhausen concentration camp 1936-1945 – pathology, 12 August 2018
  • Cell construction

    Cell construction

    Marian Stefanowski, Cell construction – a mysterious place of gruesome abuse and murder, 4 November 2019
  • Cell construction

    Cell construction

    Marian Stefanowski, Cell construction – a mysterious place of gruesome abuse and murder, 14 November 2019
  • Marian Stefanowski, Memorial to the memory of the Polish General Stefan Rowecki “GROT”, murdered 1944, 14 November 2019

    Memorial to the memory of the Polish General Stefan Rowecki “GROT”

    Marian Stefanowski, Memorial to the memory of the Polish General Stefan Rowecki “GROT”, murdered 1944, 14 November 2019
  • One of the places housing the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp

    One of the places housing the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp

    Marian Stefanowski, One of the places housing the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp, 14 November 2019
  • Burial ground with the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp

    Burial ground with the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp

    Marian Stefanowski, Burial ground with the ashes of those murdered in the concentration camp; commemorative plaques for the 183 Polish professors arrested in Kraków on 6 November 1939 and dragged to t...
  • Commemorative plaques

    Commemorative plaques

    Marian Stefanowski, Commemorative plaques for the 183 Polish professors arrested in Kraków on 6 November 1939 and dragged to the concentration camp, 12/08/2018
  • Watch tower "E"

    Watch tower "E"

    Marian Stefanowski, Watch tower "E", next to which is the entrance to the special camp / Zone II, 14 November 2019
  • Concentration camp special camp/Zone II

    Concentration camp special camp/Zone II

    Marian Stefanowski, Concentration camp special camp/Zone II, 1945-1950 Soviet special camp No. 7, 14 November 2019
  • Central memorial to the murdered prisoners

    Central memorial to the murdered prisoners

    Marin Stefanowski, Central memorial to the murdered prisoners, 14 November 2019
  • Mass grave for the concentration camp victims

    Mass grave for the concentration camp victims

    Marian Stefanowski, Mass grave for the concentration camp victims, 12 August 2018