Day #5: The Photography of Terror

By Renee Gross

As I walked around the train tracks, where Berlin Jews were transferred to ghettos and concentration camps, I reached for my phone to take photographs. I wasn’t sure why. I worried that I just wanted something to occupy my hands and distract me from my feelings.

Appropriate etiquette for interacting with Holocaust memorials seems like it should be self-explanatory: a somber and meditative experience. But I’ve found myself increasingly anxious about the best way to interact with the memorials.

The Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe is composed of a few thousand blocks of concrete of different sizes laid out a few feet apart. When I walked into the center of the memorial, the ground kept going lower and the concrete blocks kept growing higher until the point when I felt overwhelmed and unsettled. How did I already get so deep into this?

There was something else catching my attention: the laughter of children. I heard them before I saw a few run past me. The kids were playing a game of hide and seek tag and treating the memorial as one big playground. But they were not the only ones.

A peer told me she saw a couple making out behind the blocks. I’ve also heard accounts of people performing parkour, an activity which includes running, jumping and swinging from place to place, at the memorial. According to the historian on the trip, there’s a long running controversy of people showing disrespect to the memorial. Some are deeply offended by their actions. Others think it’s OK, that the memorial should become part of the city and people should interact with it.

The artist Shahak Shapira has turned this into a project. He finds pictures of people doing inappropriate things at the memorial, takes the pictures they’ve posted online and superimposes images of concentration camp victims in the background. So, for instance, a woman doing a yoga pose on a concrete slab is now doing a yoga pose on top of dead Jews.

The artist, Shahak Shapira, transformed a woman’s social media post and imposed the background of the Holocaust behind her.

The artist, Shahak Shapira, transformed a woman’s social media post and imposed the background of the Holocaust behind her.

Shapira calls his website Yolocaust, a play on the word, Yolo, “you only live once” (a quote used as captions on social media posts) and the Holocaust. He wants to change how people treat the memorial and the memory of the Jews.

When I first heard about the project I was disgusted by how it shames people. What made him the protector of the murdered Jews? Did he think there was only one way to commemorate or grieve the past? Policing people’s behavior through humiliation, especially in the context of the Holocaust, felt troubling.

At the memorial, though, my mind changed as I desperately wanted the kids to be quiet and stand still. But should I be the one to judge? It’s not clear if I would be absolved of wrongdoing when it comes to interacting with the remnants of the past either.

My mother had asked me to take a picture of myself at Auschwitz. Would this one of the shame-deserving acts that Shapira targets? My relatives died at this camp and my mother wanted a picture of me there almost as an act of defiance, marking that our family was still here, that the attempts to wipe us out had failed.

Surely I wouldn’t smile for the photo. Yet the photo shouldn’t look awkward or staged. I decided I would think about the members of family who died. It’s just that I’ve never met them. I don’t know anything about them. My mother emailed me their names.

I’ve learned so many details of the Holocaust over this past week, yet I still feel I’m not able to fully comprehend or feel the horror that my relatives experienced. I’m worried about forcing myself to conjure up those feelings on cue. But even more so, I’m worried that I’ll never be truly be able to comprehend the horror even after the trip concludes.

No matter the picture, whether it is the right or the wrong way to pay respect to the past in that moment is only a small piece in how I choose to carry on the memory of my ancestors. The only conclusion I can make about my time at the camps — I recited a short prayer, I observed a moment of silence — is that the moment feels incomplete.

I posed for the picture, holding up all of my relative’s names who died at Auschwitz, at the last standing Synagogue near the camp.

The same argument, I believe, can made of the kids playing at the memorial: The past will not leave them either. Perhaps the kids will learn more about the Holocaust at school. Perhaps, their grandparents were Nazis or Jews and the kids will find ways to deepen their understanding through conversations with their family. Maybe they will look back on the days of playing in the memorial with their own feelings of humiliation. Or maybe, they will keep running around the past, circling it, hidden from it and never quite standing still long enough to make contact with it.

I’m not sure what to make of it. For me, the memorial’s most compelling message was that we can’t take any meaning from the murdering of millions of Jews.

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