Is Sending Postcards from Concentration Camps Always Tasteless?
#photography & visual arts
small, Is Sending Postcards from Concentration Camps Always Tasteless?, Entrance gate at Auschwitz-Birkenau as shown on a postcard from the collection of Paweł Szypulski, photo: ‘Greetings from Auschwitz’ by Paweł Szypulsk, full_pozdrowienia_z_auschwitz_7_770.jpg
One often hears about tourists taking inappropriate photos in former Nazi German extermination camps, but it’s difficult to imagine sending a postcard featuring the infamous gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Shockingly, it was a widespread practice in the 1950s and ’60s.
Auschwitz-Birkenau is definitely the scariest and most dreadful reminder of what man is capable of – a symbol of one of the most incomprehensible events in the history of Europe. But, as such, it also happens to be one of the most widely visited places on the map of Poland, targeted by tourists, pilgrims as well as kids on school trips with their smartphone cameras ready at all times. Whether one likes it or not, visual representations (appropriate or not) of places like Auschwitz-Birkenau are part of our contemporary visual culture today.
But even before the era of compulsive selfies and Instagram shots, images of Auschwitz circulated in the public space. One of the most peculiar and surprising ways in which these images were presented and circulated was as postcards. Sold at the museum's kiosks (but not only there) almost since the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum was established in 1947, they served the need of capturing the experience or simply as a souvenir to take back home with you. As such, the Auschwitz postcards were purchased by visitors of the museum and sent to their friends and families almost throughout the post-war period in Poland under the communist regime.
Preserving Memory: The Conservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau
The photobook Greetings from Auschwitz puts together a selection of such postcards – and poses questions as to the limits of our (in)sensitivity and memory of Holocaust (or lack thereof) in the age of spectacle.
Warmest greetings from Auschwitz
The book is comprised of a series of reproductions of original postcards from the larger collection of the book's author, Paweł Szypulski. Most of these were bought by Szypulski, a Holocaust scholar and visual artist, on internet auctions over the last decade. Very likely, they make up only a small selection of the overall number and variety of such postcards purchased and sent from different former concentration camps.
The design of the book, with the image laid on one page and the reverse side (with greetings or text) on the other, mimics the way one would experience the postcard, if held in one's hand. It also contributes to the prevalent feeling of incompatibility between the photographed object (the images of the camp barracks, barbed wire, rails and crematoria) and the text on the other side.
The Photographer from Auschwitz
These, most of the time, feature the most banal and conventional set of stock phrases, like: ‘Kisses and greetings from Auschwitz’ or, in a more personal manner, ‘I'm in Auschwitz. It's a bit cold’. Another one, showing the interior of a gas chamber, says on the flip side: ‘Best Greetings from Auschwitz, Neighbours’. No sense of dread or irony – just pure, unreflective postcard communication, exactly what one would expect to read on a postcard from any casual trip. Except that it's not a casual trip.‘Why would one want to write such a postcard from Auschwitz?’ is a question that keeps coming back to our mind as we go through these images and texts.
The history of postcards from Auschwitz
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The text in Polish says 'Best greetings from Auschwitz. Neighbours'; source: 'Greetings from Auschwitz' by Paweł Szypulski
The first postcard in the collection of Paweł Szypulski appears to date from the 1950s, but the former concentration camp attracted visitors in the years immediately following the war. As Iwona Kurz explains in the text accompanying the book, these visitors were referred to as pilgrims, 'emphasizing the sacred dimension of places of mass death'. But this quickly gave way to other more secular – and spectacular – modes of experiencing the death camp, now turned into museum. Kurz explains:
Camp Orchestra in Auschwitz-Birkenau
[The place] turned into a mass tourism site, and the camp, in a constant process of significance being overwritten, morphed into its own image. The visitors became part and performers of the play.
And so, too, did Auschwitz postcards come into being. They seem to have appeared almost immediately after the war. 'As if nothing had happened,' as Szypulski observes in one of the interviews.
This is, in fact, the predominant feeling for readers of the book: the greetings appear as if they were written either in the utmost oblivion of the very existence of the death camp and what had happened there, or precisely in order to forget it, to wipe it from consciousness. In either case, the dreadful reality behind the objects photographed is hardly ever commented on or even alluded to. Instead, we get a glimpse of the common joys and concerns of ordinary people: bits of someone's everyday life in all its tediousness and meaninglessness.
Irka sends her warm greetings. P.S. Darlings, if it's no trouble, Krystyna and I will get in on the 23rd. Come get us at the station. For sure. Irka.
The banality of modernity
They write on the reverse of the reproductions of barracks, barbed wire, and crematoria as if they did not see them – or were unable to see them, if they had to capture what they saw in words.
Iwona Kurz in 'Greetings from Auschwitz' by Paweł Szypulski, trans. MG
The incongruity between the visual content of the images (the architecture which stands behind the most dreadful singular event in the history of mankind) and the banality of the everyday materialising in stock phrases and accounts of the weather may strike one as surreal and shocking. A partial explanation of this is that these postcards themselves were part of a wider postcard culture which was vital to the greater part of the 20th century – rooted in the early tradition of postcard photography, when sights of the gory and atrocious were to a large extent normal content (like postcards showing state executions, scenes of lynching, or the atrocities of WWI).
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This naturally doesn't diminish the controversial and shocking aspect these postcards bring along with them. In fact, the way some of these objects approach their subject is so strange one starts wondering if these people really understood where they were, if they really saw what was in front of their eyes. As a result, as Iwona Kurz observes, 'the more postcards from Auschwitz resemble real postcards, the odder they seem'.
But, rather than criticizing these individual acts as tasteless, barbaric or downright stupid, Kurz also explains that this very inability of the senders of these postcards to see the place and reality behind the image – and to recognize its true, horrifying nature – may be, after all, part of the same culture of insensitivity in which we participate today. In a way, this is the same banal modernity, which, claims Kurz, also produced the Holocaust.
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What strikes us in the postcards from Auschwitz is not the misalliance of the 'sleek' postcard form and the 'difficult' contents tied to the memory of the camps. These pictures, serving as postcards, confirm that we remain in the same structure of banal modernity upon which the camp and mass extermination were based. The gesture of photographing oneself beneath the gate that reads 'Arbeit Mach Frei' (with the B placed upside down) is a striking show of belonging to this structure, and at the same time, it provides a safe distance from the guard stations and the threat of being killed [,]
concludes the Polish scholar.
Being in Auschwitz without being in Auschwitz
Paweł Szypulski is also far from taking on an accusative tone. In one of the interviews, the author of the book spoke of a 'more general recklessness' that underlines all of our interactions with the legacy of the Holocaust. This recklessness can be understood as the most simple inability to embrace the various processes around us, which in turn becomes 'a wonderful ground for developing the darkest elements of the system':
These postcards are very successful in pinpointing the limitations of our potential to comprehend what's happening and what already happened. All in all, we have no access to what genocide is – this goes so far as to enable us to send postcard with greetings from Auschwitz.
Paweł Szypulski in 'Greetings from Auschwitz', trans. MG
In this sense, sending postcards from Auschwitz – or for that sake, taking selfies or putting a picture of yourself and friends on social media with tags like #Auschwitz #Holocaust #sun – is rather a sign of our structural inability to comprehend the nature of the Holocaust. 'Were we able to emotionally understand the Holocaust, we would not be capable of living a normal life. People would go mad on a large scale. This is a wall, but it's also something that allows us to go on functioning'. And he concludes:
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[As Holocaust scholars] we may devote a lot of attention to this because that's what we do, but we are not much further advanced than the people who are actually sending these postcards. Because we also don't know. The only difference is that we may feel that we live in a world after Auschwitz, whereas many people live in a world without Auschwitz, as if it had never happened. These postcards tell us that you can be very close, lie there in the grass and still not see it.
www.dwutygodnik.com, trans. MG
As such, these postcards are proof that many of us can go to Auschwitz without really going to Auschwitz, only to continue living in a world without Auschwitz.
Greetings from Auschwitz
Edition Patrick Frey, 2015
Hardcover, 88 pages, 75 color images, 21.5 × 22.5 cm,
greetings from Auschwitz
holocaust in photography
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, 11 Jan 2015