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Staircase in prison Auschwitz
Simon Norfolk


‘Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide.’ The words of photographer Simon Norfolk, who four years ago embarked on a project of remembrance. The result is an exhibition, planned to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on Genocide, and a book. The title of both: ‘For Most Of It I Have No Words’.

Simon Norfolk describes his sequence of images (40 in the exhibition, 80 in the book) as ‘an essay in applied memory’. It’s divided into 8 chapters, each devoted to a location associated with one of this century’s worst massacres. They are chronologically reversed, for reasons that become clear as the journey is made.

RWANDA, 1994
Over three months an estimated 7000 Rwandans died each day in the conflict between Hutu and Tutsi peoples. One photograph is entitled simply ‘Classroom, Nyarubuye Parish School, Rwanda’. It was in Nyarubuye that government militia killed 2600 refugees. This is one of the schoolrooms journalist Fergal Keane saw as he wandered, appalled, through the village, two months later.

‘To witness genocide is to feel not only the chill of your own mortality, but the degradation of all humanity,’ he wrote. It’s his view that ‘even the most brilliant photography cannot capture the landscape of genocide’. Even if he’s right, one shouldn’t be spared the knowledge such images provide.

‘I do not know what else to say about the bodies because I have already seen so much.’ Here they are, the skulls, the heaps of rotting rags that clothed the decayed remains beneath them, now deployed, in the strange melting formations of waste matter, over the floor of an otherwise empty room. That’s what the photograph says: this room is empty, though it is full of people. It has been emptied thus, not by the misfortune of disease or disaster, but by the hatred of other people using guns and machetes and grenades.

Now the images change, to the empty, cleansed rooms of the former interrogation/torture centre at Phnom Penh. (A 42-page manual was issued to the interrogators. ‘We must hurt them so that they respond quickly. Another purpose is to break them and make them lose their will...’) These bare rooms are full of people, too: photographs of some of the million killed or starved by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge have been neatly grouped in large frames and arranged round the walls: another kind of photography exhibition. In an even larger frame a ‘map of Cambodia’ (and that’s the title of this photograph) has been created out of skulls with arm or leg bones used to indicate – what? Roads? KR enclaves?

VIETNAM 1964-75
Four million were killed here. Two young men stare out at us from a photograph. They occupy a rucked mat on a pavement outside a battered building, and seem both anxious and detached. To call their bodies emaciated doesn’t do justice to their unhappy smallness, or to the deformities which eccentrically bunch their almost-naked torsos. These are the sons of a man poisoned with America’s Agent Orange. Justice can’t be done, either, to the wounded lives these two have inherited; or to the grace with which, one perceives, they have attempted to arrange their meagre bodies for the camera. Here, the living are even more troubling than the dead.

In Ho Chi Minh City, where there is a Museum of the American War Atrocity, tourists can buy little model helicopters as souvenirs.

There is a Museum here, too. It contains the remains of more than a million people, including 7000 kilograms of women’s hair. Tufts, wisps, clumps, flowing tresses, curls, braids...

In May 1944 a British reconnaissance plane inadvertently recorded images of the two death-camps at Auschwitz. In August another aerial photograph recorded prisoners marching under guard from the railway to the crematoria. (Later still, aircraft cameras would capture attempts to dismantle the gas chambers, just before the Russians liberated the camps.) The films were taken to Britain; but, unchecked, they weren’t found until 1974, in US Defense archives. They had never been printed.

Auschwitz was liberated in January. On February 13 Dresden (where, nearly 600 years before, all the Jews in the city were burned) was attacked by Allied aircraft in a night raid: ‘the most destructive bombing raid in Europe’s history’. The exact number of those killed is not known: this was wartime; but the estimates exceed 100,000, almost all civilians. It is known that 582 died in the German bombing of Coventry in 1940, an event regarded as barbaric. In today’s rebuilt Dresden, two simple pillars in a large paved space backed by crowding tannenbäumen record the two cities’ names. There is nothing more that can be said.

UKRAINE 1932-3
As part of the collectivisation scheme, the Stalinist regime deliberately created a famine. The military requisitioned food by force, stopped supplies coming in. The Ukrainian people were left to die. When it was thought necessary, some were shot in large numbers. Here is the scene of one such mass shooting: a pleasant wood with a grassy floor and room for sunlight to reach it. Most of the trees (how old are they?) have memorial labels strung round them. The nearest has a kind of bandage wrapped round it at roughly head-height; a nose-sized knot in the wood emphasises the strong resemblance to a blindfold.

In war, monstrous opportunities are taken by inhumane regimes. Under cover of the First World War, Turkey deported one and three quarter million Christian Armenians to Syria. Nearly a million died on the forced marches: they were killed, or they died of hunger and thirst in the Syrian desert. Only this year, correspondence in the US press condemned the continuing Turkish denial – supported by UN nations simply by their silence – of this event. Hitler certainly knew about it. Planning the invasion of Poland, he gave the order ‘to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the lebensraum that we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?’

The Turks co-ordinated the genocide by means of telegraphic dispatches. A particularly beautiful photograph shows a single telegraph pole in a level, wintry waste of land and sky. There’s a railway track in the distance. The pole resembles a tall crucifix; the symbolism is neither laboured nor intrusive.

In the 1880s the Germans moved in, setting up protection treaties with tribal chiefs, and found the land to their liking. They built a railway into the interior and began to appropriate tribal lands for their own settlers. In 1904 the Herero and the Nam rebelled; 80% were killed. The general brought in to suppress the revolt, Lother von Trotha, said ‘I wipe out rebellious tribes with streams of blood and streams of money.’ The few hundreds who survived shooting and starvation in the desert were rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps, where they were, prophetically, used for medical experiments. Later, the children of raped women were also studied, as part of the evidence of mixed-race ‘inferiority’ argued by Hitler’s geneticists.

Here is a photograph of the desert. What might be the tracks of a vehicle have already been erased by the wind, only the little dunes of displaced sand remaining.

Margaret Melicharova


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