The Landscape of our Memory
The Landscape of our Memory is a long-term artistic project that addresses the “dispersed Holocaust” or “Holocaust by Bullets” by commemorating the more than 2 million individuals who were killed in or near their hometowns rather than in concentration camps. Inspired by the work of academics studying the Environmental History of the Holocaust (a relatively new sub-field of Holocaust studies), the artists use multiple strategies, all of which draw directly on the landscape and physical spaces of the dispersed Holocaust. This new work, created under the auspices of two Fulbright Scholar grants in Poland (2022-2023), is presented here.
Commemoration of Individuals Lost in the "Dispersed Holocaust"
The centerpiece of the project consists of commemorative portraits of individuals murdered during the dispersed Holocaust. To create these images, the artists used the antique “anthotype” technique, discovered in the 1840s, in which photographs are created from plant material. Leaves and flowers found at mass killing sites are blended to create an emulsion that is then painted onto art paper. A positive image, identified through painstaking archival research, is printed on acetate (plastic), placed on top of the emulsion, and exposed in the sun. Depending on the specific plant, exposures are completed in minutes, days, or even weeks or months.
Because the plant material is gathered from the mass grave sites where the bodies of the murdered individuals lie, the final photograph likely contains, at the molecular level, something of his or her remains. The physical trace of these individuals restores their humanity and avoids consigning them to the status of faceless statistics. The prints, which do not contain sharp detail like contemporary photographs, exist in a liminal space, somewhere between being and non-being. If exposed to continued UV light, they will begin to fade away, much like human memory.
Anthotype printing is a 100 percent sustainable photographic practice that doesn't use any harmful chemicals.
Witness and Living Memorial Trees
In order to ensure proper memorialization of those for whom a photograph does not exist, the artists also worked with the concept of “witness trees” or “trees as living memorials” to Holocaust atrocities. As has been noted by scholars, some trees existed at these sites at the time of the Shoah, and even those that grew later are drawing on the soil at the mass grave and now contain human remains. The artists used a World War II-era camera to create complex, collaged portraits of these trees from single frames of analog film. The resulting images are stark, black and white silhouettes, rising from the darkness into light, as if searching for truth, justice, and ultimately, reconciliation.
In addition, the artists used a contact microphone to make recordings of the interior sounds of “witness” or “living memorial” trees. It is increasingly recognized that trees have a rich internal life that includes sounds that are not normally heard by humans. According to scientists, these sounds may represent the transfer of water and other nutrients, but they may also signal stress or danger. This project gives witness and living memorial trees a voice for the first time. Because scientists and academics agree that these trees contain human remains, the recordings of their internal sounds represent the closest we can come to receiving “testimony” from them.
The ashes of many Holocaust victims were disposed of in rivers. Near Auschwitz, large quantities of ashes were dumped into both the Soła River and the Wisła River. In the Czech Republic, the ashes of more than 22,000 people who died at the Terezin transit camp were dumped into the Ohře River. In other instances, the local waterways witnessed the atrocities that occurred in ghettos and work camps. For example, in Białystok, the Biała River ran directly through the middle of the ghetto.
Just as trees and plants growing at mass grave sites contain the remains of victims, these rivers also permanently contain traces of Holocaust victims. The artists collected water from affected rivers and used it to create “watergrams,” a process of capturing water in motion as it is spilled onto analog photo-sensitive paper in a darkroom. Since the water may contain traces of the victims at the molecular level, the final image also bears witness to the atrocities that occured at these sites.
The artists also experimented with another manner of commemorating individuals lost in the dispersed Holocaust. They used an antique process known as "lumen printing" to create abstract images that memorialize those for whom no name or photograph exists. In order to fully respect Jewish law and avoid disturbing the soil at killing sites, a small amount of soil was gathered from nearby the mass graves. It was then placed on analog photographic paper and exposed in the sun. The soil often bonded to an extent with the paper in a manner that may symbolically or literally contain molecular remains. The resulting images, which vary widely in terms of color, shape, and texture, suggest the diversity and uniqueness of every individual lost in the Holocaust.
Exhibition at the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw
An exhibition titled The Landscape of Our Memory is on view in Warsaw, Poland at the Academy of Fine Art's Czapski Palace from January 18 - Feb 4, 2024. The exhibition introduces new elements to the project, including recordings of the internal sounds of witness and living memorial trees. These sounds may be thought of as a sort of testimony by trees that witnessed the actual events or grew in the space where bodies still lie. In addition, a sound and video installation calls attention to the huge number of sites affected by the dispersed Holocaust and the everyday nature of the activities that often happen in or around them. You can learn more about the exhibition here.
Photo credits: Gabriela Bulišová, Mark Isaac
Exhibition at Fort III Pomiechowek
Another exhibition of anthotypes created specifically to commemorate Jews and Poles who were murdered at Fort III Pomiechowek, north of Warsaw, opened in October 2023 and is on permanent view during the Fort's opening hours. Please contact the Fort III Pomiechowek Foundation if interested.
As the project progresses, it will likely expand to include other nations where the dispersed Holocaust was prominent, including Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovakia. It will increase its attention to the links between genocide and ecocide and the environmental crises we currently face, including climate change. While it is important not to suggest an equivalence between human suffering and environmental trauma, the artists believe that the common elements that scholars are identifying will better prepare us to avoid future genocides and ecocides, including the possible extinction of the human race as a result of the climate crisis.
Podcast Hosted by Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre
The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre invited us to participate in a series of podcasts titled "Standing Up to the Assault on Democracy." You can access the podcast here. We would like to thank the four academic leaders who interviewed us, including Andrea Pető, Tali Nates, Steven Carr, and Bjorn Krondorfer. We admire their work and look forward to an ongoing dialogue.
With Deep Gratitude
The artists would like to thank the following organizations and individuals for their invaluable help in bringing the project to fruition:
- The Polish-American Fulbright Commission / Justyna Janiszewski, Paulina Kubylis and many others
- Fulbright Ukraine / Jessica Zychowicz and many others
- The Zapomniane Foundation / Agnieszka Nieradko
- Brzesko-Briegel Stowarzyszenie Pamięć i Dialog / Dr. Anna Brzyska
- People Not Numbers Foundation / Dariusz Popiela
- The Matzevah Foundation / Dr. Steven Reece
- Sztetl Mszana Dolna / Urszula Antosz-Rekucka, Marek Rekucki and Rachela Antosz-Rekucka
- Ethnographic Museum, Tarnów / Adam Bartosz
- Mayn Shtetele Mielec / Izabela Sekulska, Ania Stąpor and Stanislaw Wanatowicz
- Beit Sanok / Arkadiusz Komski
- Fort III Pomiechówek Foundation / Piotr Jeżółkowski and Dorota Grzechocińska
- Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw / Prof. Sławomir Ratajski, Prof. Ewa Bobrowska, Prof. Prot Jarnuszkiewicz, Barbara Orłowska, Paweł Bettman, Adrianna Molka, and Zofia Kawecka
- University of Warsaw, Institute of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology / Dr. Malgorzata Owczarska and Magdalena Kozhevnikova
- University of Warsaw, International Relations Office / Karolina Trybowska-Greń
- Yahad in Unum / Kateryna Duzenko
- The Jewish Historical Institute / Michał Czajka
- Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center
- Terezín Initiative Institute
- Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Faculty of History / Prof. Ewa Domańska
- University of Wroclaw / Jacek Małczyński
- Jagiellonian University, Kraków / Dr. hab Roma Sendyka
- The German Historical Institute / Dr. Magdalena Saryusz-Wolska
- Fulbright Scholar in Poland (2022-23) / Dr. Betül Czerkawski
- Fulbright Teaching Assistant in Poland (2022-23) / Dan Breslow
- Dr. Teresa Klimowicz, Lublin
- Dr. Zofia Karczewska, Białystok
- Countless other individuals without whose help the project would not have been realized