Tag Archives: Holocaust


On a cold day in Berlin I end up thinking about memorials and how we experience them. The frost provides a canvas for people to make their thoughts public.

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constructing history I – Treblinka

When the Nazis abandoned Treblinka in 1943 they destroyed the buildings and leveled the ground. The bricks from the gas chambers were used to build a farmhouse where one of the guards was installed as a farmer with his family. A facsimile of agrarian life. Pine trees were planted and lupins were sown1

A lot of effort went in to constructing a landscape to conceal the history of this place.

In Lanzmann’s Shoah (filmed between 1974 and 80) Henrik Gawkowski takes us back to the camp along a dark track through the forest. Through the trees planted 30 years earlier.

This newly constructed landscape effectively concealed any evidence of mass graves and so, despite witness testimony, controversy has raged for nearly 70 years as to whether Treblinka was a death camp or a transit camp.

That is until a recent study by forensic archaeologist Caroline Sturdy Colls. Her team have used geophysical surveys to reveal traces of the burial pits and gas chambers beneath the featureless landscape at Treblinka. I am thinking about them crossing and re-crossing the neatly trimmed grass as they painstakingly map what lies beneath the surface of the ground. Its like divining. With the aid of science the landscape reveals its past.

Footnote: Of course I’m also thinking about the lupins. They seem like such an incongruous thing to plant. In England they are synonymous with cottage gardens, but by the 1940s scientists in Germany were secretly breeding a new strain of lupin as an animal feed crop2

Arad, Yitzhak (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p373

Kurlovich, Boguslav S. (2002) Lupins: geography, classification, genetic resources, and breeding. p154

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a Ballardian holiday – dark tourism

Last September I was preparing to travel to Hungary and Poland to visit the mass graves and camps.
It was the end of the summer, the weather was good, and it made sense to combine the research trip with
a holiday.  A strange postmodern Ballardian holiday…

I’ve been reading an article by Jason Webster about a package holiday that tours sites of Nazi memory in Germany. It takes in Wannsee Villa, Sachsenhausen, Eagles Nest, Nuremberg Court Room, Dachau. Needless to say it has attracted controversy, but I was surprised to read that at Eagles Nest there are already coaches to take tourists up to the site where they can buy Eagles Nest branded baseball caps and t-shirts.

‘How the Nazi period should be remembered is an over-arching theme that develops as we travel around the country. When I lived in Germany as a child, in the late 1970s, any mention of the war was taboo. Today, however, many venues have recently-opened excellent museums [...] suggesting that Germans themselves are coming to terms with their past and are more at ease with the idea of others coming to learn about it [...].
In earlier centuries it was fashionable to take the Grand Tour, to complete one’s education by travelling to Italy and Greece to learn about Classical civilisation. Today’s equivalent may turn out to be this – to witness the relics of one of the greatest horrors of man: a grandeur not to be emulated but to grapple with, to question, to struggle to comprehend.‘ Jason Webster

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Its early in the morning and I am standing inside the gas chamber at Auschwitz I. The crowds haven’t arrived yet. This dark place has a visceral effect on me.


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On a cold day in Berlin I end up thinking about memorials and how we experience them. The frost provides a canvas for people to make their thoughts public.

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I am in central Hungary looking across the water of a man-made lake. It took me ages to find this place, poring over books in the library trying to piece together references and clues. In 1944 there was no lake here, just a snow covered field and a freshly dug trench. Now it is a flooded gravel pit that has a strange luminous beauty.

This anonymous lake lies on the site of the genocide of 118 Roma women and children. It is unmarked. There is no memorial. No record of this one small moment that is part of the ‘Pharrajimos’…The Roma Holocaust.

Pharrajimos: n. Romani, meaning the devouring or destruction.

After weeks in the British Library I had found a picture of the lake taken in 2004. The text is Hungarian and the heading is ‘Jeltelen sírok’. Boldi, my researcher tells me it translates literally as ‘Unmarked weep’. Later I type it into Google which gives me ‘Unmarked graves’. I like Boldi’s translation better.

Two women survived the massacre. This is the account of Angela Lakatos…

There is no memorial here, no visible sign of what took place. Not at the lake, or in the town. I scour the museum looking for a reference, any reference. Nothing.

I know the site used to be a mine, so I go to the mining museum hoping to find out when the lake was created, and the thing that I can hardly bear to ask…what happened to the bodies? But the mining museum is closed down.

I write to the Open Society Archive in Budapest, but they have no records either.

I’m back at the lake. For now it is all I have. I am drawn back to it again and again. The small island visible in the 2004 picture has become bigger and now there is a house on it. Someone’s summer house. A wooden boat sways in the breeze, banging against the jetty.  The roar of cars from the road is constant, and backing on to the far side of the lake is a retail park. Tesco and Lidl. Life goes on. It seems peaceful and tranquil. Birds are singing and occasionally a fish plops, breaking the glass-like surface of the water. Jerry says ‘its a battle for life and death under the water’. He’s talking about the fish. I am thinking about the women and children.

What happened to them when they flooded the gravel pit? I know there was no lake here then, but Philomena Franz’s testimony from Auschwitz keeps coming into my head…’and we threw these human ashes into lorries with our bare hands, and the child helped us. It all looked like gravel and it still smelled of corpses. And I felt as if I was standing in water and had to hold back the river.’

The river…I am thinking of Lethe, the river of forgetting. Lethe translates from Classical Greek as oblivion, forgetfulness or concealment, but comes from the root aletheia meaning truth. In Greek mythology the dead were required to drink from the waters of the river Lethe to erase their memories of earthly life.

Here in Varpalota its all about forgetting.

Philomena Franz, Lethe, 118 Roma women and children…an image keeps coming into my head of the women and children plunging down though the water of this lake. Its a frenetic scene, totally at odds with the tranquil idyl above the surface.

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On July 16th 1942 in Bielcza, Poland, German soldiers shot and killed 28 Roma, all members of the Kwiek family. They were buried in an unmarked grave in a forest clearing in the centre of the village. Three years later, the villagers exhumed the bodies and buried them in a mass grave in the local cemetery.
this is the place
There is no marker here, no memorial. The clearing is overgrown and unkempt. It feels important that I am here. A shaft of sunlight appears and lights the spot.
In Adam Bartosz’s office earlier that day he had pulled out maps to show me the exact location of this place.
He said ‘it’s between the houses and the bushes, you will see an indentation in the earth’ and drew me a diagram on a post it note.
finding Bielcza

It took us 2 days to find. The forest was overgrown. We drove in circles around the village scrutinizing every indentation. Was this the place? Did it feel like the place? Could we feel anything?

On the morning of the second day he arranged for her to be waiting for us. She took me by the hand and led me into the forest. ‘This is the place’ she said. She remembered when it had happened in 1942 and she was distressed that the place had become so unkempt and overgrown.

I am thinking of Nora’s Lieux d’Mémoire, about what makes a place a site of memory rather than a site of history…this place is unmemorialised, but there seems to be a will to remember…firstly from the villagers, then more recently from Bartosz’s initiative the Roma Memory Caravan, and finally from Roma themselves.


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