A series of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists were commissioned and organised to coincide with ideas and artefacts linked to an archaeological survey and dig of the “lost” village of Calgarth Estate that took place in the summer of 2019.
However, the initial idea for the exhibition programme, named the Above and Below the Holocaust Landscape initiative, emerged during a visit to the Nazi German Extermination camp of Treblinka in 2016, a visit I made with Rosemary Smith, both of us accompanied by artist Miroslaw Balka.
Treblinka is a location where the British archaeologist Professor Caroline Sturdy Colls and her team have carried out surveys and controlled archaeological excavations to determine what remains and evidence can be uncovered at that dreadful place. Rose and myself have worked with Caroline, and have also seen how much approaches in forensic archaeology have in common with contemporary art approaches. This may seem to strange to some people but the search for clues and meaning is an ever present in both activities.
I have to say that the fact that Rose and I knew that a number of the Jewish children who came to the Lake District in 1945 had lost their families at Treblinka added an extra layer of emotional reaction to the research. We also knew that many of these “Windermere Children” could not bear to visit Treblinka and so there was also a sense of bearing witness on behalf of so many others.
We had driven from Warsaw and a quite troubling scene emerged at Treblinka village, which is located just before you arrive at the former Treblinka camp location itself. We had arrived at the village and looked in vain for the small train station building that had once been the place where trains halted on arrival at the village.
But it was at this small Treblinka village station that we faced our first shock. This same station building at Treblinka village, often depicted in photographs, had disappeared and there remained just a pile of rubble and debris as evidence that it had been here. The sense of disappointment we all felt was also intermingled with astonishment, dismay and just a hint of anger. Who would do this? And how could they? It had stood for over seventy years as a silent witness to so much tragedy linked to the Treblinka camp that this must have been an act designed to ensure that its history and legacy was not intended to remain visible.
A brief history behind the significance of the village station in relation to Treblinka camp might be helpful here. When Treblinka camp was built here by Nazi Germany, the train carriages and trucks carrying those destined for the gas chambers would stop at the village station before then being uncoupled and taken by a smaller train along a short branch line that led into the heart of the nearby forest.
It was here, in the heat of the nearby forest, that another specially constructed train station stood waiting as an entrance to the Extermination camp itself. This camp station was an elaborate construct designed to create a false sense of security to the passengers disembarking there. In fact, when the passengers disembarked at this seemingly innocuous rail station they very quickly found themselves being processed, ushered along “Himmelweg”, and finally into the gas chambers. It was a terrible destiny for so many, many Jewish men, women and children.
After picking our way around the ruins of the village station we left the demolished buildings and drove a short distance to the car park for the Treblinka Memorial site itself. We then walked through an avenue of trees before entering into what was the former site of the extermination centre.
Now it is a partly wooded and partly open area dominated trees and by the large Treblinka Memorial structure, and the sea of standing memorial stones. Each memorial stone represents a Jewish community that had disappeared here. There is, of course, the single stone with a single person’s name on it, unique to that site. This stone represents a person and not a community.
I had been told to keep a look out for it and soon discovered its location. The stone bears the name of Janusz Korczac, the children’s author and carer who came to the gas chambers with children from his Warsaw orphanage who were under his care, and who he had refused to leave on their tragic journey to here. Even though Janusz Korczac was offered numerous occasions to stay behind in Warsaw and leave the children to travel alone (even Nazi officer offered him a way to freedom because of his fame as a children’s author), he refused, and so travelled with the children under his care from Warsaw to Treblinka, and was killed there along with his orphans.
The mind struggles to absorb the reality of went on in these kinds of places, and Treblinka is as troubling a site as any that I have visited. Similar senses had prevailed during visits to Chelmno, and Auschwitz, and the question of how to quantify and describe these visceral sensations looms large, and still does.
And yet it was the vanished Treblinka village station building that came back to haunt me again and again. It had been being considered to be kept as a memorial but someone, somewhere, at some moment, had determined that this was not going to happen. In the dead of night the demolition teams had moved in. The sight of these ruins brought the past very clearly into my present, and brought home to me just how delicately poised physical memorialisation is, and how physical destruction is an attempt to contribute to a process of forgetting.
It was here at the ruined Treblinka village station site that the first thoughts of a two year exhibition project came in. Above and Below the Holocaust Landscape could attempt to deal with the seen and the unseen, could begin to grapple with the visible and the invisible reminders, and remainders, linked to an archaeological process.
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