My first photo exhibitions about the Jewish heritage in Eastern Europe consisted of black and white images. To me black and white is connected to memory and commemoration – maybe because the photos of my childhood are in black and white, but also because most of the historical material preserved is in black and white. My interest in colour photography rose when I understood that heritage sites not only have a past, but also have a present. Synagogues are part of present urban space, a trace of a mezuzah is still visible, farmers let their animals graze in old cemeteries. But also absence is part of the present: cemeteries became markets, whole towns vanished. Having a good part of work already done, it’s a good moment to reflect some of the topics of the new exhibition, which will be shown by the end of January next year for the first time.
The invisible. To my experience all photographers who deal with a similar subject come unavoidable to the same point: how to photograph the invisible?
We naturally tend to reach out for places where traces of the past are present – synagogues, cemeteries, murals. But this covers only a small section of what once was. How to deal with the absence of people or with places that were entirely destroyed? Trochenbrod – also known as Trachimbrod or Sophiovka – is such a place. Nothing is left of this all-Jewish town and its 6,500 inhabitants. Just two monuments indicate here was once a town. A path – only passable for horse-drawn carriages – echos the former main road. Everything else continues to exist just in people’s mind and memories. How to catch this with a camera?
The Holocaust and its representation in images. If you want to tell how Jews in Eastern Europe lived, what traces remained, and why these traces are in the state they are, you necessarily have to tell how Jews were murdered.
It is an abyss in which nobody likes to look, and which is already imprinted into our collective memory by iconic images – like the gate of Auschwitz. Images which rather obscure than explain, as the past is vanishing in the fog of history and is reduced to cliches.
One possible answer to this are the unknown sites of mass murder, the execution pits and the dense network of camps and sub-camps all over Europe, which didn’t make it into collective memory. One example is Mkhailivka concentration camp in Podolia, Ukraine.
From summer 1941 on, the Germans built “Durchgangsstraße IV” (transit road IV), a more than 2,000 kilometers long road from Vinnytsia in Ukraine to the Caucasus. Soldiers, weapons and amunition should roll from west to east, while Ukrainian grain should be brought from east to west into the Reich. The road was mainly built by forced labourers – Soviet prisoners of war and Jews. Most of them did not survive. They were shot when works were finished, died of typhus or maltreatment. Along “Durchgangsstraße IV” was a chain of concentration camps for the forced labourers. One of these camp was in the village of Mykhailivka.
Mykhailivka camp buildings still exist. They were part of a collective farm before the war and were used by the same farm after the war again. Now they are empty and abandoned. There is no marker for a mass grave or anything else that would commemorate the history of the place. But the mass grave(s) must be somewhere in the territory of the former camp site – unmarked and anonymous.
Another example can be found in the Galician town of Busk, Ukraine. Hollows are visible in the ground between the hill, on which the Jewish cemetery is located, and a nearby creek. They indicate mass graves. Yahad In Unum, a foundation for locating mass graves of Holocaust victims, investigated the site in 2006 and found traces of 15 execution pits. Mass shootings belong to the widely ignored history of the Holocaust.
Post-war destruction. Another lesson of my wanderings is post-war destruction of Jewish heritage. Brodno Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, is a striking example. Thousands of headstones were extracted and piled in the centre of the cemetery in order to transform the cemetery into a public park. Some were given away as construction material – since some years these fragments are removed and returned. Returned to what? It is impossible to put this puzzle together.
Use and misuse. Lutsk synagogue in Volhynia, Ukraine, serves as a gym today, while the sign at a former synagogue in Câmpulung Moldovenesc in Southern Bukovina, Romania, reads “Club Restaurant”. To both buildings modern structures have been added – both not in the best shape. In many Communist states it was a common practice to transform places of worship into secular facilities like movie theatres, shops, work-shops or archives – not only synagogues but also churches suffered the same fate. When Communism collapsed and religious communities were able to claim their former property, in many places there was no Jewish community left to do so – or the community would not have the ressources to renovate and maintain the building. The use/misuse of the former synagogues continues until the present day.
Ukraine alone has roughly calculated about 2,000 former synagogues and prayer houses – if not more. How to make appropriate and dignified use of these buildings? Until there is no answer to it, they should remain movie theatres, shops, work-shops or archives. At least this helps to preserve the buildings until a better purpose has been found. At some places the consequences are visible when a building is abandoned – it is dilapidated within a few years and is lost forever.
Sites of pilgrimage. Neither is Eastern Europe “judenrein”, nor is there a lack of Jewish visitors. Some come to explore their family roots, others to pray at the burial sites of famous rabbis. The tomb of the Baal Shem Tov – the founder of Hasidism – in Medzhybizh, an improvised prayer room in a former beer brewery in Bratslav, where rabbi Nachman – one of the most outstanding personalities of Hasidism – is supposed to have worshiped, and the Golden Rose synagogue in Lviv will represent this aspect.
My interest in colour photography does not mean I will give up the black and whites. I’m still waiting for the films from the recent trip to be developed and hope they will contribute to the other string of my work.