Work in Progress: Carbon

This project is being put together hopefully as part of Holocaust Memorial Day 2012. It is based on a trip I made to Bełżec in 2007 and my subsequent research on the Death Camp.

Below is a map of the camp as drawn by an SS man, Robert Jührs in 1961.

As I wrote during my research:

... its sketchiness makes this map all the more chilling, on the one hand because its lines are so arbitrary, so uncertain (much like the numbers of those who died there) and also because one can imagine what he saw in his mind as he made the quick strokes of the pen on the paper, particularly when he drew the detail below.

How long did it take him to draw this square, and to write the words 'Gaskammer' inside? It is without doubt, a very small token for such a colossal tragedy.

It is a map of Jührs' mind. What is missing from it of course are the people who perished, who remain within the minds of men like Jührs, the perpetrators of the atrocity. In fact on the website of the Holocaust Research Project, one can find the following statement he made:

'I had to carry out the shooting of Jews once. In that transport the cars were overloaded, some of the Jews were unable to walk. Maybe in that confusion, some of the Jews had been pushed down and had been crushed underfoot.

Therefore, there were Jews that, by no means, could cover the way to the undressing barrack. Gottlieb Hering gave me an order to shoot these Jews. He told me verbally, “Jührs take these Jews to Camp II immediately and shoot them there.”

These Jews were taken to the gate of Camp ll by a Jewish working group, and from there they were taken to the pits by other working Jews. As I remember there were seven Jews, men and women, who were taken inside the pit. It is hard to describe the condition these people were in, after their long journey in the unimaginably packed freight cars.

I regarded the killing of these people in this way as a mercy and redemption, I shot these Jews with a machine gun, as they stood on the edge of the pit, I aimed directly at their heads so that everyone died instantly. I am absolutely sure that nobody felt any torment.'

The last paragraph is that of a man trying to come to terms with the enormity of his crime, trying to pass it off as an act of compassion, where the misery inflicted upon the Jews standing in the pit was, by his action, about to come to an end. His crime, he might have thought paled against the wider crime of what today we call the Holocaust; comprising as it does hundreds of thousands of crimes like those committed by Jührs.

His last sentence is especially galling. The Jews he shot might not have felt any 'torment' as the bullets passed through their heads, but the torment at every stage of their journey over the course of the preceding years would have been unimaginable.

Just as Jührs' words can be viewed as a denial of his guilt (at least to himself) so the map might be regarded in much the same way. It's a denial of what really happened within the lines marked on the paper; it's a map not so much of the camp per se, but Jührs' mind, or rather his memory - one which since his death has also perished.

Marking the map on a piece of land and asking people to walk amongst it, one can begin to imagine what lay behind the lines. Again, I have to stress, no-one who wasn't there can possibly imagine what it was like and that is not the point of this or any other works I produce; rather it is to remind ourselves that what happened at camps such as Bełżec happened in what was then the present - not the past.

By walking in the present day, following the lines of Jührs' map on the grass, visitors would articulate this point. They would follow a trail round an everyday place. As I've written previously:

To find the individuals who suffered in the camps and ghettoes, we have to understand what it means to be human and live within the present; in that small space between the past and the future; space wherein lies the mundane. Our ordinary, everyday existence. Fear as well as hope.

Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish author, himself imprisoned in Auschwitz, wrote that hope:

" …makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyses them into numb inactivity… It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for a life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers."

This map drawn by Jührs in a moment and witnessed in a moment by visitors on the ground, becomes a map of a moment, one which lies between the past and the future.

To see more about this project, please visit my old website.