Liquidation at 75
On March 11, 2018, thousands of people gathered in Kraków’s Plac Bohaterów Getta to commemorate the destruction of the city’s Jewish community during the Holocaust. The date marked the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto on March 13-14, 1943. During that liquidation, the SS transferred some 6,000-8,000 Jews to the Płaszów camp––those deemed fit for work––and murdered 1,000-2,000 Jews in the ghetto itself. A further 3,000 Jews were transported from Kraków to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where approximately 2,500 of them were immediately murdered.
Almost 70,000 Jews lived in Kraków in 1939, some 55,000 of whom were expelled in the first year and a half of the German occupation. For those remaining, the Germans created a walled ghetto, which was closed in March 1941. The ghetto's wall, shown in the photograph below, was topped by scalloped arches imitating the shape of traditional Jewish tombstones, a cynical foreshadowing of the fate of the ghetto's captives. Located in the Podgórze district of the city, the ghetto held some 15,000 people crammed into 325 residential buildings, in an area that previously housed 3,000 people. Displaced Poles were allotted vacated Jewish apartments in other parts of the city. The walled area in Podgórze was one of the five major ghettos in occupied Poland, in addition to the more than 1,000 smaller Polish localities where the Nazis created ghettos for Jews. Large or small, the purpose of all of them was the same: persecution, terror, theft, exploitation, the culling of “able” Jewish workers for the Nazi war effort, and a ready way to concentrate the Jewish population for collective military action against them.
Plac Bohaterów Getta, before the war called Plac Zgody—Harmony Square in English—was the Kraków ghetto’s hub. As the center of commerce in the ghetto’s internal economy, it was the place to sell and buy smuggled food, to hawk clothing, furniture, jewelry, heirlooms and all manner of possessions carried in during deportations. It was also the place to trade news, rumor, gossip, insight. Most notoriously, the square served as the Umschlagplatz, the gathering point for Jews rounded up for deportation to Bełżec, Auschwitz and Płaszów. The square and its surrounding courtyards were the places where the very old and very young—those deemed unworthy even of deportation—were summarily murdered. We have eyewitness testimony about the liquidation as it unfoled on the square, from the Polish Righteous Gentile Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the single non-Jew allowed to reside in the ghetto as owner of Apteka pod Orłem (“Pharmacy under the Eagle”), located at the southern end of Plac Zgody:
"Plac Zgody resembled a battlefield with thousands of bundles and items of baggage scattered around. Here and there, a small child played on the asphalt surface soaked with blood. SS soldiers went about taking the children. Sometimes a soldier would be leading a few children holding one another’s hands, taking them to killing yard. Others were pushing baby carriages where a baby was sleeping. The children would disappear and then a volley of guns would be heard. In order to save ammunition, often a group of children were shot with one bullet. They were put in rows and a single bullet would be used. Several babies would be placed into a carriage, all of them killed with one bullet."
The word “liquidation” is of course a sinister metaphor, borrowed from the language of capital. The primary use of the word in English to mean the conversion of assets to cash in order to pay debts dates at least to the mid-sixteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, it had come also to mean "cancel, nullify, abolish" more broadly, not only with regard to financial obligations. Along an etymological path I cannot quite trace, it seems to have emerged as a distinctly political term by the early twentieth century, where it appears, for example, in the Russian newspaper Novoye Vremya in May 1907: "She [the bomber] was probably acting at the request of some revolutionary committee or combat group of another city, because in Moscow the revolutionary organizations have long been defeated and liquidated."
In the early Soviet state, the word seems to have entered regular use to mean the weakening or removal of political opponents––kulaks, "class enemies", ideological rivals. In the interwar West, this usage meant roughly the same, only those enemies were communists and striking workers. With the Nazis, the word seems to have assumed its most overtly violent meaning, "the massacre of political opponents by shooting." One could say that in Nazi jargon, to speak of a ghetto’s “liquidation” was to make a euphemism from a euphemism, referring not only to direct shooting, but the whole process of converting citizens to deportees, deportees to corpses, and corpses to ash and smoke.
The crowd that gathered at Płac Bohaterów Getta did not come just to hear speeches of commemoration, but to walk the same path that the deported were forced to walk––to the site of the former Płaszów camp. In my reading, the conceptual reach of this walk extended to several levels. On a plain level, it was a walk to remember, a kind of mobilized declaration of the past’s presence in memory. On a second level, it was a reclaiming of the precise places that have now mostly returned to ordinary life––the neighborhood square, the Wielicka Street thoroughfare, the Płaszów camp which is functionally now an urban park (also a major subject of my own work in Kraków).
On a third level, the walk was an exercise in temporal comparison, a re-enactment of the experience of the condemned, in which free people returned to imitate what the doomed were forced to do. In this connection, the fact that the numbers in 2018 approximately matched the numbers in 1943 itself formed a powerful statement: the scale of the deportation became tangible in the bodies of the participants, individually and en masse.
On a fourth level, admittedly pushing against the esoteric, the walk performed a ritual of what I would call imperfect transformation, a not-completed chiasmus in which the living set out to reclaim the path of death in order to reverse its direction––to extend it to points beyond nothingness, meaninglessness, oblivion––and then to fail on purpose. In Christian terms, this not-quite-successful redirecting of the path might be understood as a symbolic rebirth of the dead themselves. In practice one could say that this christologic symbolism was "Judaized" during the walk itself as the slow recognition that such a resurrection was not taking place. In Jewish terms, I would call the attempted redirecting of the path a rhetorically skilled commentary on fate, which summoned the will to bend the force of evil toward the force of life, but only enough to lock them in an unfinished argument.
For me, maybe because I am a photographer, the historic pictures of the liquidation and of the Płaszów camp were constantly in my mind––I have committed a great many of them to memory, a process I think of as a loose visual equivalent of memorizing poems. Trying to understand these pictures likewise leads into chiasmic states of awareness. The pictures were made by Germans from the perspective of the perpetrators, not those in the line of deportees but beside it as its enforcers. These pictures were not propaganda pictures––which the Germans also made in other locations during pogroms and anti-Jewish military actions––but very likely unauthorized snapshots meant for soldiers' personal use, pictures to fill scrapbooks after the war. To look into these images as evidence of genocide is to read them against the prerogatives and power relationships that generated them, and so to decouple picture and purpose––but incompletely, in an imperfect way. In order to look into them with the critical and compassionate eyes that their makers did not have, we must continue to register their original sanction.
In just this spirit of imperfect transformation, I made the color photograph immediately above. At center left is Tadeusz Jakubowicz, currently and for many decades the president of Kraków's official Jewish religious community, and a child survivor of the Kraków ghetto and the Płaszów camp. I anticipated the chance to photograph Jakubowicz at the very spot where the historic picture immediately below was made––on Jerozolimska Street, at the main gate of Płaszów. The prisoners in the picture below are entering the camp on a work detail, while Jakubowicz and the marchers above are entering the camp as mourners and rememberers.
Yes: it can sometimes happen that older and newer photographs in combination bring us to the brink of time's reversal––without quite accomplishing it. Photographs, after all, are severances and distillations, or on second thought maybe half-severance and half-distillation, or maybe severances that bleed and distillations that dilate, or maybe scabbed-over severances with the most volatile elements extracted, leaving what seem the essential things. (Lines of Whitman come to mind: "Beautiful dripping fragments—the negligent list of one after another, as I happen to call / them to me, or think of them / The real poems, (what we call poems being merely pictures,)"). But experience itself is neither as severed nor as distilled as the world given to us in photographs. This is to say that the walk managed to accomplish something strange, namely the shifting of actual experience into the condition of photography, just a little.
Yes: it was like that. As I experienced it––I, a photographer, an untrustworthy reporter––to rewalk the path of liquidation was to move both the past and present into states of mild suspension. It was to move the presentness of us, now into an unfixed, unpredictable, poetic relation to the absenting of them, then. And this was the point: to create a sense that the places where the liquidation occured are prone to melt into the places were it can recur, where a slight dissolution of the distinction between epochs becomes possible––a liquification of the liquidation, as it were. The effect was to imbue the everyday with a sense of estrangement, enough to disconnect the given exercise of memory from confidence about what was actually happening. As something deliberate was taking place, something precisely unknown was also taking place, a disclosure that history is unfinalizeable. Or more precisely: an awareness that if history and memory each represent states of knowledge, a face-to-face encounter between them produces a type of knowledge more ephemeral than either by itself––an ephemeral knowledge strangely prolonged in the act of walking.
It almost goes without saying that most of the participants in the walk were not Jews––there may not be as many Jews in all of Poland as people who turned out for the anniversary of the Kraków ghetto liquidation. No: the participants were Poles, whose motivations were multiple. They were there to speak in solidarity with Jews past and present, and also other Poles who did and do not define themselves in opposition to Jews––Poles carrying their own and Jewish voices in a polyphonic denial that truth belongs to one mouth only. And they were there as citizens, responding to the current political climate in Poland, in which the government has recently moved to criminalize historical speech according to a narrow ethno-nationalist agenda which forbids assigning "responsibility or co-responsibility" to Poles for German crimes against humanity. For Poles to walk the path of condemned Jews was, implicitly and using the body as the primary mode of expression, precisely to claim responsibility and co-responsibility for the Holocaust. Responsibility and co-responsibility are not guilt and co-guilt, and the latter were not the things being accepted, and should not be. For Poles as Poles to walk the path of the Jewish damned was at once to make a strong political statement on the ongoing struggle for a free society in Poland, and also to make a strong cultural statement that the long process of healing specifically Polish trauma about the Holocaust goes through and not against the long process of healing Jewish trauma.
And when at the short ceremony at the small Jewish monument at Cipowy Dołek at Płaszów a high-ranking priest stood with a line of rabbis reciting the Kaddish, and then himself recited from the Psalms, I could not help but imagine another ceremony not taking place... This invisible ceremony was happening perhaps at the cross erected at the bottom of Ul. Grodzka in central Kraków to remember the Katyń massacres, or maybe it was outside a church, or in a church, and there was a line of rabbis with a group of priests, but the roles were reversed, and the occasion was the remembrance of Polish loss. In my vision, the recitation of the Kaddish in a Christian setting meant not "our loss is our loss" but "your loss is also our loss," or in the words of the nineteenth-century Polish revolutionary slogan, "Za naszą i waszą wolność," "For our freedom and yours."
After a laying of wreaths, the crowd lingered and regathered, sometimes for further readings and recitations. The dispersion was slow. What remained were the fugitive images of the past and the no less fugitive consciousness of the present, both hovering expectantly in the empty space of old torture ground.
Kraków, March 2018