Questions for Podgórze

in recent days, i've been walking the streets of kraków's podgórze district, a place i've come to know over many visits to the city in the last years.  i'm looking at the place again, and looking into it, in the spirit of looking through it––by which i mean looking by-means-of-it into something else, call it a vision of the past and the future.  perhaps it would make sense to name my way of looking, in its negative form, "dissatisfied seeing," or "subjunctive seeing" in its positive form––a way of seeing conjecturally as well as indicatively, as if with each step the place were talking back to me through my own eyes, saying "i'd look again if i were you, and again, and again." 

the path through podgórze––my particular path––crisscrosses itself and digresses constantly.  probably this is also just my way in the world, and probably goes without saying, except that there's no good word i know in english for pointed meandering, in which the path is both made in the act of walking it and experienced as if it had been prepared in advance of walking.  probably there is a word for this in japanese.  i recall a zen story:

        the student asked his teacher, "what is the path?"

        the teacher replied,  "everyday life is the path."

        the student then asked,  "but can it be studied?

        the teacher replied,  "if you study it, you will wander from it."

        the student continued, "and without study, how should i know the path from no path at all?  how should i know what to doubt and what not to doubt?"

        the teacher replied, "the path doesn't belong to whatever you perceive or don't perceive.  thinking about the path will delude you, but not thinking is senseless.  if you need to get beyond doubt, follow the path as you would follow the freedom of the sky.  you can name it good or not-good as you wish."

        with these words, the student found insight.

for those who know something about kraków, the podgórze district ineluctably recalls the war, specifically the wartime ghetto that the occupying germans created there for the city's jews in late 1940 and early 1941.  after forcibly relocating 55,000 kraków jews to surrounding towns, the nazis crammed some 15,000 people into 325 residential buildings in the podgórze district, an area that previously housed 3,000 people.  displaced poles were allotted vacated jewish apartments in other parts of the city.  in a particularly macabre gesture, the germans capped the enclosing brick walls with arches in the classical shape of jewish tombstones.

in kraków, as in regional towns, and all of occupied poland’s major cities—warsaw, łódź, białystok, lwów, lublin, wilno, kovno, częstochowa—the ghetto’s purpose was brutally straightforward:  persecution, terror, theft, exploitation, the culling of "able" jewish workers for the nazi war effort, and slow death by means of hunger, overcrowding, and rampant disease.  i venture that imagining the ghetto means putting the term "grinding decimation" in brackets beside all the words denoting daily life––the mundane, the quotidian, the everyday, the commonplace, the ordinary, the routine, the familiar.

the ghetto's hub was plac bohaterów getta, before the war called plac zgody—harmony square in english.  on its northern end stood one of the ghetto’s main gates, through which a tram ran—without stops in the ghetto—and through which columns of jewish workers would pass during the ghetto’s early period.  the square became the center of commerce in the ghetto’s internal economy, particularly around smuggled food, as well as clothing, furniture and all manner of possessions carried in during deportations.  most notoriously, the square served as the gathering point for jews rounded up for deportation.  the ghetto saw three major such deportations:  first a shipment of 7000 people to the death camp at bełżec on may 30, 1942, followed by a second transport of 4000 people to bełżec on june 5, 1942, and finally the liquidation of march 13-14, 1943, in which 8000 people were sent to płaszów and auschwitz, and some 2000 shot in the streets and the courtyards of the ghetto itself––mostly the very old and very young, i.e. those deemed unworthy even of deportation.

a single non-jew was allowed to reside in the ghetto, the pharmacist tadeusz pankiewicz, owner of apteka pod orłem, located at the southern end of plac zgody.  despite continuous nazi surveillance and the ever-present threat of death, pankiewicz and his staff shrewdly resisted the ghetto’s regime of death.  he gave great quantities of free medicine to condemned jews, issued false documents, circulated information about hiding places, smuggled food and information, offered shelter for jews facing deportation, and created a vault under his shop to store torah scrolls and other religious objects.  the ghetto’s intelligentsia gathered in his drugstore, which became a refuge, an underground salon, a free space in an urban prison.

from pankiewicz we have eyewitness testimony about the deportations:  “plac zgody resembled a battlefield with thousands of bundles and items of baggage scattered around..." he writes concerning the events of march 1943.  "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."

a similar scene likely occurred at the building above, no. 22 józefińska street, where a day care center existed for children aged 6-14 between 1941 and 1943.  all its children were murdered here in march 1943.  likewise, on the corner pictured below, the intersection of janowa wola and dąbrówki streets, the germans murdered a group of elderly people, including the famous painter abraham neumann and the great folk poet mordechai gebirtig.

standing in these places, i'm looking and reminding myself:  for the nazis, to murder was not enough:  it was necessary to obliterate, to eradicate everything about the victims––their being and their having-been in the world, their remains, and also the tools of the obliteration and the memory of it.  the fascist program was not only to physically annihilate, but to exile that annihilation to the condition of the unshown, the invisible and indeed the unimaginable.  i'm asking myself:  is this to say remembering the crime requires mobilizing the imagination, and directing it toward the visible as i stand to encounter it now?  is looking over and in the aftermath of the crime an act that also resists the program of obliteration? 

georges didi-huberman usefully speaks of three kinds of laziness concerning the ethical status of the testimonial image.  his concern specifically is historical imagery made during the genocide itself, but it seems to me that his framework also presents a way of thinking about post-facto pictures that test a place like podgórze.  there is, first of all, the laziness of the aesthete, who reifies and champions invisibility as a transcendent commemorative state, and indeed imposes invisibility even upon that which is not invisible.  then there is the laziness of the believer, who reifies and champions visibility, making icons of the horrible to whatever extent the horrible is present in images, or convenes around them by implication.  finally there is the laziness of the learned, for whom images are information-bearing or not information-bearing, and the act of looking reducible to the act of reading a document, or else deemed useless. 

combatting lazinesses, it seems to me, demands the legs as well as the mind.  you have to show up and pace your seeking to actual footsteps.  so i walk the former ghetto, asking myself:  am i motivated to make pictures as a way of recognizing––honoring––the apartness of the past from whatever self-certainties attend the imperative to remember?  is it that new pictures stand, for me, as mediating illusions between the intactness of the world before my eyes and the genocide-ruptured past in this place?  am i wrong to say that the ruptured past is not an anterior intactness, but the reverse––precisely the unending conflict of the victims' facts and the perpetrators' anti-facts, the victims' (irretrievable) testimony and the perpetrators' ruthless campaign of dis-imagination, engineered precisely to yield a tracelessness different from the simple recession-from-view that the passage of time naturally entails? 

and as mediating illusions, is it the case that post-facto photographs––aftermath images––dwell in a distinctly lacunary domain of the real, somewhere between bringing the truth of the crimes nearer and pushing them further away?  do they work like this:  on the one hand elaborating the complications of an existing historic space in which narrative continuity is broken, and on the other hand marking out something like a new historic space in which to approach the past, in which "imagination" is what follows from the sentiment that "seeing is doubting," the reverse of the truism that "seeing is believing"––?

or to ask differently and not in the form of questions, rather statements:  it seems to me that walking and making pictures is, if nothing else, a way of remaining appropriately speculative, an attitude meant to be fair to the place, fair to the apartness of the past, and fair to myself––which is to say the situation of the listener, the one who would endow his own ignorance with a certain venturing receptivity.  so i venture:  it could be that to make new pictures of podgórze is in some meaningful sense to make pictures from podgórze, i.e. to remake podgórze in the mind and the heart in the duly cautionary (but audacious) shape of potent emptiness.  it could be that new images in fact seed new terms for the imagination, if the images are well-made of refusals, so that they are neither illustrations nor inventions, neither pronouncements nor withdrawals from pronouncing.  and it could even be that perhaps such images duly imply that the past is more atrocious than can be imagined.  perhaps they likewise resolve that the truth of the atrocity does not float free from the folds of the world to be encountered now.  but i don't know how to make such images.

(somehow i recall at this instant an inscription to me from my friend, the photographer richard gordon, who died a year and a half ago.  he wrote, "to jason––overthinker, underachiever, a good friend, a good photographer, and good for the jews."  richard:  what would you have done with podgórze?)

i'm walking the streets of the former ghetto, having walked them before, photographing and questioning all over again what it means to know time through acts of imagination––time that is a disjunction-from rather than a conjunction-of episodes, events and patterned recognitions, and imagination that would twist itself loose continuously from claims to its own adequacy.  i'm walking and making pictures and looking into the workings of an elusive type of historical imagination.  it seems to me that i'm still not where i should be.  somewhere still out ahead of me is the space between the urge to solve the visible in terms of knowledge, and the worry of dissolving it into claims of the unknowable.  the image i see and do not know how to make exists there:  between the immediate field incomprehension and the remote clarity of the world still to be comprehended.

kraków, february 4, 2014