“The sand will remember the waves / But the foam — will not be remembered, Besides by those who passed with the late night wind. / From their memory it will never be erased.” — Natan Yonatan, The Sand Will Remember
”Ever since Ⅰ was a child, death and grief have been my companions.” This statement is almost word for word the first thing Olaf Schlote told me during our initial conversation right after we had exchanged perfunctory pleasantries. He was referring to his memories of the epileptic seizures he suffered in his childhood and to the tragic events of the past that have shaped his life and work. His intimate familiarity with the “twilight zone” of death, which he experienced in every epileptic seizure, has enabled him to stare straight into the eyes of death through the camera’s lens. Just to be clear, there is no gore in these photographs, no pornography of death. His work is a reflection of tragedy, pre- sented through an aesthetic, lyrical and thought-provoking prism.
A window frame lying on the floor, the glass pane shattered into a thousand pieces (Prora 2011, p. 68). One can almost hear the crash. The chaos is contained; nearly nothing has escaped beyond the frame of the window. The meticulous cleanliness of this disaster resonates when one becomes aware of the title of the photograph: Prora — the vacation resort on the island of Rügen on the Baltic Sea, built by the Nazis as part of a project known as KdF (Kraft durch Freude), or Strength through Joy.
There is no joy in the window from Prora. The photograph’s power is that it serves as an echo of that horrific time. Reverberating in the window frame, which appears as if it is struggling to keep all the shards from scattering, is the shattering of human morality, the smashed windows of the Jewish- owned houses and stores on Kristallnacht, and the meticulousness of the Nazi death machine. The horrors did not take place in Prora. Yet, as Roland Barthes sets out in his authoritative essay on photography Camera Lucinda, the photograph “possesses an evidential force, and … its testimony bears not on the object but on time”. Following the heuristic principle, we — the spectators — form a link between the image, the title and time (the sign and the linguistic message). We fill in the story and visualize not just the shattered window, but also the image of a coffin with the smashed remains of millions of lives. For Schlote, “especially the shattered souls of the children”.
Olaf Schlote was born in Germany. His work dealing with the memory of the Holocaust is, for him, an act of assuming responsibility for the deeds of his “ancestors”. It is an obligation he takes upon himself as a member of the German nation guilty of the atrocities committed during World War Ⅱ. The series of photographs taken in the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, Majdanek (1997, pp. 9 — 23) and Auschwitz (2019, pp. 37— 65), is the evidence of what transpired there. While Schlote endorses the notion of “silent testimony”, the term agitates him precisely because those very buildings, wire fences and trees are present “witnesses”.
Barthes denotes three distinct acts or objectives in relation to a photograph: “to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves … And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which Ⅰ should like to call the ‘Spectrum’ of the Photograph.” We will return later to the photographer — Olaf Schlote — but first, we refer to the spectator and the experience of looking at these photographs. These works do not fit within Barthes’ neat tripartite division. The viewing experience is more complex than to do, to undergo, to look. We, in the role of the Barthesian Spectator, comprise those who were there and those who were not. Those who exper- ienced the atrocities of the camps and those who learned about the horrors second hand. Those who survived to tell about it and those who listen to the accounts of the survivors. Those who carry the memories and those trying to preserve them. It is important, in dealing with the Holocaust, to distinguish between the preservation of memory and memories; between the collective and the individual act.
Being Israeli, Ⅰ was exposed from an early age to an array of photographs from WWII, particularly those related to the Holocaust. The low-slung barracks and looming watchtowers in Schlote’s photograph Majdanek 1997 (p. 10) recalls Barthes’ observation about the immobilization of time in the photograph. He writes, “[the photograph] does not keep it from having an enigmatic point in actuality, a strange stasis, the stasis of an arrest … not only is the Photograph never, in essence, a memory (whose grammatical expression would be the perfect tense, whereas the ense of the Photograph is the aorist), but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes a counter-memory”. Over- exposure to photographs of this kind has left us — the spectators who have listened to the memories of the survivors, able to “conceive but not perceive,” to quote Barthes. Yet, for the spectator who was once a prisoner in the camps, these photographs unleash a flood of personal, intimate memories: smells of bodies crowded inside barracks, the feeling of bone-chilling cold, the taste of moldy bread they were given to eat. They remember their loved ones who did not survive and their own liberation. Most survivors do not possess any photographs of their families, so while these photographs are not portraits, their powerful imagery constitutes, paradoxically, a kind of “family album” in which the dead are absent-present. The photographs prompt the survivors to remember their loved ones who perished. Looking at the “album” elicits the sharing of memories about a father, mother or sister who was taken away, and others who vanished without a trace.
Memories No. 9 (p. 70) is an especially poignant and disturbing example of the phenomenon of the absent-present. A crumpled coat lies discarded on the ground next to a milestone inscribed with the number 9. A section of steel railroad track and wooden planks slices across the foreground along a sharp diagonal. There is no doubt about the meaning of the railway tracks in the context of the Holocaust. The railway track is one of the attributes of the Holocaust for its role in transporting human cargo to the death camps. The photograph prompts the spectator to think that just a short while ago someone was here, wearing that coat as protection from the rain and the cold. Was he a passenger on the train? Were his clothes taken from him? Was he murdered? There is not a living soul anywhere, just the railway, a discarded coat, a milestone, a number. The associations conjured by absence, anonymity, the number as a substitute for identity, suddenly evoke the numbers tattooed on the arms of the survivors. Or did this number on the milestone bring to Schlote’s mind the date: 9 November 1938 — Kristallnacht?
It is precisely these evocative pictures — showing a fleeting moment, part of a building’s interior, an ambiguous or abstract image — that allow the spectator (the survivors and those who have been educated about what happened in the Shoah) to construct a story from the imagery, to give them a context- based interpretation, so long as Auschwitz and Majdanek are on their mind. In Majdanek 1997 (p. 15), the rays of light filtering through the wooden slats heighten the dark, gloomy atmosphere redolent of suffocation and despondency. Or do the rays evoke a fleeting feeling of hope? The peeling, moldy wall, resembling a stain in an abstract painting in Auschwitz 2019 (p. 49), summons to mind the ravages of the passing of time, but also a dawning realization of the actual horrors the wall was witness to. This type of imagery is an exception in the visual formula of photographs of the Holocaust. Notably, the photographer Simcha Shirman, a son of Holocaust survivors, whose work also deals with the subject, uses a similar approach in his photographs of brick-wall-as-witness in Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to Shirman, this open-ended image is intended for individual interpretation, since “a single image can serve a multitude of purposes … and mean diverse things to different people.” The disintegrating road in the photograph Untitled, Auschwitz 2019 (p. 55) evokes the idea of the march of weary feet, especially children’s, on that very path to their death. A not-so-silent testimony to the lives that were trampled, it screams: “This happened!” to those who dare deny the Holocaust or its monstrous dimensions.
In an article examining the essence of time and the photographic picture, Israeli art historian Efrat Biberman looked closely at Gerhard Richter’s painting series October 1977 and one painting in particular, Tot (Dead). It is a painting of the head of Ulrike Meinhof after she was removed from the noose on which she was found hanging in her prison cell while awaiting trial. Richter apparently based his painting on a photograph of the deceased. Biberman writes: “When we deal with the photograph of the hanged body after it was taken down we see ‘too much’ in terms of visual information of the horror, and this visual excess creates a pornographic effect of a sight we theoretically should not have seen. The excess of the image focuses our attention on the pornography and eliminates the fact that the image is an impossible one.” In his photographs, Schlote describes the horrendous without resorting to invasive or sensationalist imagery that would result in a “pornographic effect.” He prefers imagery that appears innocuous at first, as for example the photograph Majdanek 1997 (p. 16). The spectator’s attention is drawn initially to the composition’s formal aspects: the play of light and shadow, the strong vertical and diagonal lines, the various rectangular and square shapes at different angles and planes. Pondering this seemingly innocent compositional study slowly gives rise to the shocking realization that the form cutting diagonally across the center is actually a stone slab that had been used for performing atrocious medical experiments on the camp’s inmates.
In Reflection Ⅰ (pp. 80 — 81), Schlote again refrains from the straightforward presentation of the familiar Holocaust image — the railway tracks. Here, tracks, light and speed merge into an abstract tempest. Schlote’s blurring technique evokes a feeling of distress. With the viewpoint left ambiguous, the spectator wonders whether this might be the memory of a person who was on a fast-moving train, being sent to the camps, a view from inside the train looking out of the window at the tracks speeding past? Or are we looking down at this scene from above, from some indefinable place? This image reflects Biberman’s thinking that, “The effect of photographs is in the presence of an impossible moment, a moment torn from the sequence of time or a moment which was never recorded.”
Pondering the essence of photography, what separates it from other types of images, Barthes writes: “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photo- graph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” What Barthes means is that the photograph captures a fleeting moment, one that can never be repeated in time. Olaf Schlote does not attempt to capture the fleeting moment; he reaches for the eternity of memory. For him, it is the survivors’ personal memories that must be preserved and retold — the story and its moral — so that another genocide will never happen. Thus, the exhibition Memories has a double purpose: to save the individual memories of the survivors by conserving them within their personal story, which, in turn, will allow others to safeguard the memory.
The colourful portraits of the eleven survivors form a bridge between the past, present and future, between yesterday and tomorrow. Their cheerful smiles do not reveal anything about the nightmares and agony each of them has experienced in their lifetime. They are the victims, the witnesses, and the conquerors. They are the memory-carriers, and through their personal memories — which will be told over and again — the memory of the atrocities will be preserved: “Today, after having lived in Israel for the past seventy years, [I realize] the import-ance of telling about the past. In one hundred years from now, no one will believe that the Holocaust happened. How can you believe that a one-year-old baby is burned to death?! It is important to me that this should be written in history and recorded, so that this suffering is never repeated. No one should ever go through these horrors again,” says Gitta Beeri.
During our conversations, Schlote explained his preoccupation with the Holocaust: “Well, it has to do with my roots! [Germany is] … where Ⅰ was born and taking care of our history with responsibility. ‘Never again’. In a way, Ⅰ try to transform the deeds of my ancestors into art.” For Schlote, trees are also carriers of memory; metaphorically, they are bridges between the past and the future. The fact that the trees, which still stand in the camps, were witnesses to the barbarism and slaughter, distresses him greatly. He therefore decided to photograph them in all their barrenness and nakedness (p. 62). In the series Reflection Ⅰ, he opted for total abstraction, using the technique of the close-up to achieve it (pp. 82 — 83). In another photograph from this series (p. 84), the watchful “eye” of the tree stares back at us, reminiscent of that defiant eye hovering above the carnage in Picasso’s Guernica, which asks of the spectator: How did such an abomination ever happen in our world?
In the epilogue, the colour photographs in the series Reflection Ⅱ, Schlote tells the story of life after. This is the story of the survivors, of the ones who succeeded in sprouting strong, sturdy branches and new roots, of people who were able carry on and live rich lives — despite the darkness that obscured their past. The abundance of water, exposed roots, are proof that resurrection, renewal is possible. Here too, he uses the technique of blurring to create a powerful, temporal image of a bridge connecting the past and the present, sky and earth, physical and metaphysical (pp. 176 —181, 188- -189).
Schlote transforms the connection between the photo- graph and what it represents — the sign and its significance. In one photograph, two red parasols are planted in the sand next to two empty, white plastic chairs on a beach (pp. 201). What might signify to the spectator a pleasant summer vacation instead shows the loneliness and the emptiness that remains despite a life well-lived after the war. The same applies for the images of peeling walls (pp. 192, 195), which stridently echo the photographs of the walls in Auschwitz (pp. 49), as a metaphor for the disintegration of a life lived to its natural end as opposed to a life cut short, crushed and dissolved on purpose!
“There is light that burns the time that lives it, and there is light that erases the time that has not yet lived it; and there is black light that freezes time to a standstill.” — Simcha Shirman, “The Light Remembers”Ariella Amar