Paweł Szypulski’s book contains reproductions of postcards sent from the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, including the messages written on the back. The oldest of these postcards dates from 1946, a year after the camp was liberated.
Cards from the camp have long been tourist booty – sent in accordance with their original purpose, as souvenirs. Although it may seem difficult today to imagine sending a picture of the camp gates with a nice message on the back, it was a popular practice in the 1950s and 1960s.
Szypulski bought cards for his collection on an online auction site. He was interested in those marked 'formerly in circulation', i.e. cards which had been sent in the past, complete with stamps and text. Each told their own little private story. By laying postcards out in a book, they tell another, separate story. As we turn the pages, we move on through the gates, past barracks and barbed wire, to the gas chamber and crematorium of the Auschwitz I camp, then follow the same route through Birkenau.
Silence is one of the dominant features of art concerning Auschwitz, and the suitability of what is presented is a recurring issue. The tourist postcards compiled in Szypulski’s book offer pop-remembrance that is far removed from the content of high art and academic publications.
Tourists have begun treating sites connected to the Holocaust light-heartedly. The memory of the Shoah is being commercialised. Sending postcards may be a trivial gesture, but presumably for some it must be as inappropriate as taking selfies on a railway line. Regarding such issues of remembrance, in one interview, Szypulski mentioned the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw, from where people were deported to the camps. A petrol station stood on that site for years, and nowadays a large part of it is occupied by luxury apartment blocks.
Postcards from Auschwitz are still on sale today – you can buy cards depicting a gas-chamber interior, barbed wire, or a railway platform. Extermination sites are a part of modern visual culture. Szypulski’s book raises questions about our boundaries of sensitivity, as well as our attitudes towards Holocaust remembrance and banal gestures which may be a form of self-defence from past events we find difficult to imagine.
Originally written in Polish, translated by MB, Nov 2018
This text is part of the project Metaphors of Independence: Poland In 100 Photos.
To coincide with the centenary of Poland regaining its independence, we have created a selection of photographs that allow us to understand both yesterday and today. A hundred photographs but so much more. Find out more.