The Almost Black Book of Auschwitz Monowitz
What most people remember today as Auschwitz––a Germanization of the Polish city of Oświęcim––is not the whole of what was Auschwitz. Auschwitz: the Holocaust’s most remembered site, its name sometimes used as a metonym for the Holocaust itself.
Auschwitz centered around the former camps known as Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II (Birkenau), which today are protected by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. These are the sites that upwards of two million people visit every year, according to recent data. During the war, Auschwitz also included 44 subcamps in an approximately 25 mile radius around Oświęcim––an integrated system of industrial death and actual industry. Auschwitz was not just a camp, but a complex.
The largest subcamp was known as Auschwitz III, also as Buna and Monowitz-Buna, and formed a key component of the Auschwitz complex. Auschwitz III was appended to the massive industrial site that the chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate IG Farben constructed on the east side of Oświęcim. Before and during the war, Farben was the largest company in the world, and the new industrial site was a major investment. The site came to be known colloquially as Buna, after the synthetic rubber it produced. Farben was also the largest producer of explosives for the German war effort, and one of its subsidiaries produced the chemical agent Zykon B, used to asphyxiate Jews in the gas chambers at Auschwitz I and II. The Allies considered the Buna plant an important enough war target to bomb it four times between August and December 1944.
The Auschwitz III camp was made operational in October 1942, originally for some two thousand Jewish slave laborers, eventually holding 12,000 prisoners by the summer of 1944––approximately 15% of the total workforce of 80,000 at the Buna plant. Deaths at Auschwitz III in the camp itself occurred primarily at the camp hospital, where thousands were murdered by lethal injection. Others were killed at the Buna plant, and still others were “re-selected “ to die in the gas chambers at Birkenau. Altogether, approximately 10,000 Jews died as a result of their work for Farben. The camp’s most famous survivors were Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, both of whom write about it in detail.
Auschwitz III was liberated by the Soviets on 18 January 1945. In the postwar years, the Buna plant continued industrial operation, and is operational even today––it still produces metal building parts, synthetic rubbers, latexes, and other chemical products. The Auschwitz III camp, however, was completely dismantled, including all of its 75 buildings, and the electrified barbed wiring that enclosed it. The site is not protected by the Auschwitz Museum.
I have gone looking for Auschwitz III a couple of times in the last decade, unsystematically. If you kick through the fields on the other side of Ulica Fabryczna from the factory complex, you sometimes find wartime remnants, strange cement capsules meant to hold single German soldiers, and in one spot a thick-walled structure that is eerily lightless and cool in mid-summer. In the spring of 2018, with my friend, the photographer and curator Tomek Strug, I set out to find Auschwitz III in earnest. Its precise location was not so hard to find, using archival information and Google satellite pictures.
A housing development occupies almost the whole of the former camp, with a main street that exactly follows the former camp’s main street. There is not a single sign or marker or indication of any kind that this group of houses and gardens and small plots occupies a genocidal site. Auschwitz III has effectively disappeared as a site of collective memory, much less living history. To the extent that we can speak of a traumatic nothing existing at the site of Auschwitz III, this nothing appears as the mystery of the Holocaust having been abducted by the banality of the everyday world.
This project is a response to questions that have been alive in me for many years. Can photographs reveal what they cannot actually show? Do photographs––which, after all, depend on light reflected from the surfaces of things––have any special purchase on historical imagination, which precisely involves what cannot be seen? I have tried to answer these questions in various ways, often relying on text, on data, on the idiosyncrasies of antique lenses, on carefully constructed image sequences, sometimes on combinations of photographs with drawing and video and installation. In this case, I begin from further questions. Can images actually perform the problem of absence, and can they compel us to perform it on ourselves?
My answer to these questions is an experimental process leading to an experimental encounter with the word “yes.”
1. I begin by walking the site of the former camp and making photographs of what exists there now. I carry with me a map, and I note precisely where I make these pictures.
2. I measure the precise dimensions of the former camp: 400 x 226 meters, a rectangle whose aspect ratio is 1:1.77.
3. Through precise scaling, I create a small black rectangle of precisely these dimensions. In effect, I shrink the site of the former camp to something small enough to hold in my own hands.
4. I print the photographs I made in the former camp in the same aspect ratio as the site of the camp itself, 1:1.77.
5. For each photograph, I mark the 1:1.77 black rectangle with a dot corresponding to the place where I made the picture. I add a white border to the outer edge of the black rectangle.
6. I join the photograph and the marked black rectangle to make a diptych, two images forming one semantic statement.
And this is the first form of the work. Each diptych consists of the marked location––appearing as a white dot in a black field––plus a photograph made at that spot in the life-sized rectangle of the former camp. The white dot in the field of blackness performs a radical retraction of sense, just as the visual surfaces of the world shown in the pictures are a radically senseless account of what happened in this genocidal place.
And I take the experiment further.
7. I scale the two images down to the size of a card 9 x 12 cm, and I put this card into a stereoscopic viewer. The viewer segregates what each eye sees, so that one eye sees the black rectangle with the white dot, while the other eye sees the photograph. Normally this viewer is used to create an experience of pictures that is something like binocular vision, using two photographs of a scene made at slightly different vantage points, about the distance of two eyes. In the traditional use, the brain synthesizes the two photographs to create artificial stereopsis, the sensation of seeing in 3D. But the perceptual mechanism that creates stereopsis can also be given unlike images, inducing what scientists call “binocular rivalry.” This binocular rivalry can be severe, if the brain is forced to cope with drastically distinct—irreconcilable––visual inputs. Or it can be mild, so that the brain manages to join the differing images, if not to synthesize them, and not for the sake of imitating binocular vision.
These Monowitz diptychs, seen in a stereo viewer, induce the latter kind of mild binocular rivalry. The perceptual experience in the stereo viewer is strange and unusual. You see the photograph, and you see the white dot floating above or in the photograph. You likewise see the white frame around the black rectangle, floating and hovering and dwelling-in the photograph. This visual experience is overtly unstable, and differs somewhat from person to person. A great deal is contained in its deceptively small and compressed size.
On one hand, the optical phenomenon shares something with the ordinary experience of looking at a photograph. You feel you are looking out at a photograph, with the sense that it is something over which you exercise control, something you turn your attention to or not, as you wish. On the other hand, you are aware that your own brain is generating the image you behold. What you are experiencing is a mental image residing nowhere but in your own mind. It is an inner vision you are being forced to make, and at the same time, it is an outer vision of what stands to be seen in the world if you were to choose to go there. And this precarious inner-plus-outer, voluntary-plus-involuntary vision begins to suggest a meta-picture about what historical imagination can and cannot picture.
Or to put it differently: the missing body of the camp begins to emerge as your own body, your own brain generating in you a mind for the camp’s absence––and maybe, too, for the noplace where vanished camps now dwell.
Technical notes: I made the pictures for this project on Kodak Tri-X 35mm film, using a 1952 Zeiss Ikon Contax IIa fitted with a Voigtlander 25mm f/4 Color Skopar lens. I processed the film in Kodak HC110 diluted 1:31 from the syrup. After scanning the negatives, I made the stereo cards digitally on Hahnemühle Baryta FB inkjet paper, which I like for the way it recalls gelatin silver prints. The stereo cards are designed to fit two stereo viewers that I own, made in the Soviet Union by Krasnogorski Mekhanicheskii Zavod (Красногорский механический завод) in 1956 and 1958. It seems somehow fitting that the image of the disappeared camp should sit in the space between a legendary German camera and a vintage Soviet viewer, a classic American emulsion and contemporary German imaging technology.