“A deserted living room, a half-empty cafeteria, a bedroom with an unmade bed, a billboard stuck in a wasteland: your images are imbued with Unheimlichkeit, a disturbing strangeness, the irreducible anguish identified by Freud that takes hold of anyone who experiences the fantastic flipside of reality, when the familiar suddenly turns into its opposite”.
From a symposium discussion with Richard Kolker at 27th Hyeres International Fashion and Photography Festival.
The Lake District Holocaust Project began in 2005 in what were extraordinary circumstances. Initiatives such as LDHP are not born of single moments but are a combination of many threads that run through life. However, it is fair to say that Richard Kolker’s photographic exhibition, and book “Surviving Auschwitz”, played a key role in the emergence of the LDHP initiative in 2005.
The following essay is a personal attempt to capture the circumstances of an extraordinary moment when a chance conversation with a visitor to an exhibition led to the establishment of the Lake District Holocaust Project.
Richard’s photographs of Auschwitz played a part in what was to become a remarkable chain of events, for sure. His exhibition was another moment in a quietly powerful undertow of events that have been present throughout most of my life, events that have shaped my work with the Lake District Holocaust Project.
To even begin to address the issues raised by the horrific events of the Holocaust we are all required to go beyond the immediate. Revisiting Richard’s exhibition is the first of a series of interventions at LDHP that come under the umbrella of the “Above and Below the Holocaust Landscape” initiative supported by Arts Council England.
As the title of the series suggests, if we are ever to make sense of what occurred during its awful enactment, we are all duty bound to look for meaning both above and below the landscape of the Holocaust.
Lake District Holocaust Project 2019
“Of course, you know, this is where the children from Auschwitz came…..”
Visitor to “Forties Fortnight”, Kendal 2005.
‘I first came across Richard Kolker when I arranged for his photographic exhibition of images from Auschwitz to be part of a “Forties Fortnight” commemorative event in 2005. The event, held in Cumbria to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, had nostalgia permeating through it like the message in a proverbial stick of Blackpool rock and an exhibition of images from Auschwitz seemed set apart from all the other activities and exhibitions.
That made my decision to show Richard’s work all the more important.
There needed to be some acknowledgment that the end of the war brought with it many outcomes, not least the liberation of the camps, and it seemed obvious to me that the Holocaust had to be referenced somewhere. Richard’s hauntingly evocative images of Auschwitz seemed to me to be a studied reflection on what that place meant to him, and to us all, as time and natural forces impacted on its physical remains.
Little did I know what significance the presence of this exhibition would have for me in what would be a deeply personal turning point in my life. I will come to that later.
For those who have visited Auschwitz, it is an unforgettable moment. Two complete strangers in a room who discover they have a shared experienced of a visit to Auschwitz will suddenly exchange intense and deeply personal reflections that would not otherwise happen in other topics of conversation.
It goes without saying that visitors to Auschwitz today have a very different experience from those who actually suffered its horrors, but Auschwitz remains an emotionally testing location to visit. To describe a visit is to stretch the limits of vocabulary when the visceral nature of an experience is almost beyond the means to describe it.
It is a complex site that has a role and meaning that changes and adapts according to the passage of time. To visit the camp with a survivor as a guide is a profoundly different experience from being on the guided tours on offer today. To see the site through the eyes, and in the presence, of someone who has lived through its horrors is increasingly rare.
The number of visitors to Auschwitz Birkenau is bringing enormous challenges, and one of those challenges is how does a site such as this retain its sense of place in the face of so high a footfall?
To walk alone around a site of mass murder without the company of large numbers of visitors is definitely a vastly different experience from a walk around present-day Auschwitz in the mid-summer season.
The images in Richard’s studies of Auschwitz are without human figures and noticeably without the cordons and barriers that you will experience in much of the site now. This dates them to a previous era of not long ago. These are photographs that depict the passage of time, but they are, in themselves, not frozen in time. The images are, but the historical and cultural processes surrounding them are not.
Words are still hard to find to describe what you are encountering, whether alone or in a large group, but to be alone and without the crowds is to have a markedly different experience than being either part of a group or negotiating with the presence of large numbers of fellow visitors.
When I meet survivors of Auschwitz, and survivors of so many other camps, I find that they inevitably struggle to describe their incarceration in meaningful ways. Harrowing details are often followed by a profound questioning, which could be about how they managed to survive, how they turned this way and not that, how they watched others give up when they themselves did not.
An Auschwitz survivor I spent a lot of time with once had a reflection on this that I think is worth sharing:
”You cannot truly imagine how it was to be in Auschwitz. If you could imagine it then you would have to be insane because it was insane. If you were not insane when you began to imagine it, and if you really, really did manage to imagine it, even just for one moment, then it would soon have you insane”.
The survivor’s name was Mayer Hersh, a man who had spent eighteen months in Auschwitz Birkenau at a time when the gas chambers at Birkenau was working at its maximum killing capacity. The methods, and numbers, are horrific to contemplate.
Mayer lived in a Block that was sited at the heart of the camp. The Block had a location where Mayer could see both the Birkenau Ramp (where the new arrivals disembarked from the arriving train transports and where the initial Selections took place), and also where he could see, and hear, the gas chambers and crematoria working non-stop all day and all night.
He lived for over a year and half in the shadow of the chimney and crematoria of Krema III.
“Did you ever see the Kommandant?” I once asked him, meaning Rudolph Hoess.
“Very, very few occasions. He left it to the others to just do their job. He once came in his car from Auschwitz to Birkenau in a furious panic because the crematoria chimney had cracked with the heat. It could not bear the weight of the numbers that were being cremated. He could not care less about the victims. He was charging around to get the chimney repaired quickly because they were falling behind schedule; that was all that mattered to him. You risked your life to look at him but sometimes it was too irresistible to take even a glance, your curiosity got the better of you. But it was so very dangerous to look at him, especially if he caught you looking at him”.
“In this particular moment you could see the anger in him. Their system was breaking down and he could not bear it. He could not stand his system breaking down and falling behind schedule. That was all he was bothered about. It was nothing to do with his victims”.
Mayer was one of the child survivors who came to the Lake District in 1945 and was affectionately known as “The Professor” by those who knew him. There were those amongst his newly found friends who were concerned for him because of what he had been through and, crucially, what he had seen over a considerable period of time. He admitted to me on a number of occasions that it had affected him “psychologically” but was never able to go further, and I never wanted to pry anyway for fear of what it may have done to him.
I say these things only to emphasise that what we see and experience at Auschwitz today is a contemporary impression of how it was. To live through it was on a different level of experience.
The lack of a human figure in the photographs did not preclude the sense that human interventions are seen in the man-made structures that cover this enormous site.
I suspect my attraction to these photographs in 2005 reflected both my interest in the subject matter but also my sense of distance from it. There was, to my mind, a dislocation between the place and the photographer, much as there was in my own experience. But things were about to change for me……
A strange story links Richard’s exhibition in 2005 to my life afterwards. The “Auschwitz” exhibition during “Forties Fortnight” was showing in an arts complex that saw various art forms under one roof competing for attention. The exhibition was some distance away from another exhibition display in the same building. This other exhibition was called “In Defiance of Gravity”, which told a very different story local story and one that had deep resonance in Windermere and the area.
The story being told in this “other” gallery was about the enormous Short Sunderland “Flying Boat” factory that was built on the shores of Windermere during World War Two, and the nearby associated housing scheme that was constructed for the workers at the factory. The estate was called Calgarth Estate and it housed two hundred families and three hundred unattached workers (those who came to work at the factory without their families). It had shops, a school, canteen, entertainment hall, in fact all facilities needed for a thriving community.
Many of the workers at the factory and many more former residents of the estate came to visit the exhibition and fascinating stories were told, and captured, that evoked what was clearly a remarkable time for all those who lived, and worked, at one of the largest single span buildings in Europe at the time, namely the flying boat factory at White Cross Bay.
It was during one of these conversations that my life stood on its head, although it was not clear just how much change lay ahead of me.
It all began with a conversation with two gentlemen who came to see “the flying boat exhibition”. I happened to be in the gallery at the time and meandered over to them to catch what I could of what was clearly an enthusiastic conversation.
They were pointing at a plan of Calgarth Estate that was on display and naming many of the people who lived there, and identifying the houses they lived in.
I introduced myself and a very convivial conversation was struck up. Fond memories of Calgarth Estate were very much at the forefront as the topic of conversation, and chatter led from house to house on the architect’s plan of the estate.
However, there came a point where time seemed to stand still;
“Of course, you know, this was where the children from Auschwitz came.”
Those hushed words came from the elder of the two men in front of me and struck me in a way that was way beyond incredulity.
I half smiled at the comment and, coming around from my stunned moment, I replied with “Well you don’t hear that every day”.
“Aye, I remember them well” the older of the two gentlemen went on. “What a state they were in when they first arrived. It was their eyes that got me, sad eyes. They just came into your house, no knocking on the door or anything. The doors on Calgarth opened outwards and they would just give it a tug and in they came. They wanted to talk, wanted to learn English”.
My life from then on took a turn I could not have imagined even moments before. Auschwitz? Children? Lake District?
I set about learning the story of these children and to see how they fitted in with the Lake District of the time. Very strangely, the idea of an exhibition came to mind very quickly and a title for the exhibition came to me completely out of the blue:
“From Auschwitz to Ambleside”.
There can rarely have been so incongruous a coming together of two place names to form such an irresistible collision. Shortly afterwards, Professor Tony Kushner of Southampton University provided something of an answer as to what may be so compelling about this combination.
He suggested that it was the coming together of two epic narratives. The epic tragedy of the Holocaust combining with the epic sweep of Romanticism, rooted as it is in the Lake District of Wordsworth, provoked a visceral reaction on some profound level. There are also other collisions at work, but they must be left for another time.
It is a question that has constantly been a preoccupation of mine. Just what is it that makes the story of the child Holocaust survivors coming to the Lake District just so captivating?
It was either a remarkable coincidence, or something equally remarkable but unidentified, that prompted the older man to make his passing comment about the “children from Auschwitz”. Either he had seen Richard’s exhibition, or some other intervention took hold. None of the previous visitors, and there had been many, had mentioned the children even though many of them had lived on the estate and/or worked at the factory.
From then on I focused on trying to discover whatever I could about those children and the community who welcomed them to the Lake District.
In the intervening years between showing Richard’s “Auschwitz” exhibition in 2005 and now, I no longer see a lack of human figures in his photographs. Although they are the same images, I see them occupied by my memories and experiences with many of those children who came to the Lake District in 1945, and the sense of distance set up by the photographs is now profoundly different, to me, from what it was when I first saw them.
My life has changed enormously since then, and that change is present in what I bring to the photographs and what the photographs, in turn, bring back to me.’
Trevor Avery, 2022
A selection of images from Richard Kolker’s exhibition at Windermere Library