When I first saw The Minimalists Maze at the Megastructure sim, it struck me how much it reminded me of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. I don’t know if that was the intention of the creator, Syn’s Ghost, or merely coincidence, but either way I decided to make an image of it to mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), which starts at sunset on Sunday 7th April here in the UK.
I grew up very aware of the Holocaust; modern history was my favourite subject at school so I was naturally curious about the events of WWII. Later, as I found out more about my grandfather, who was a prisoner of war, I was surprised to discover that he was held very close to Auschwitz and that the forced labour inflicted on many POWs was closely linked to that at Auschwitz as well as the many satellite camps surrounding it.
It made sense – the factories that formed part of that well-oiled Nazi machine needed power, and coal provided that power! My grandfather was a miner before he joined the army in 1938 – he knew that once war was declared he would not be allowed to join up (mining being a reserved occupation). I don’t know what made him decide he would be of more use in the army, but I do know that he was very politically aware. I’m not sure that as an 18 year old I would have done the same thing, but I am very proud that he did. He served with the Royal Engineers and was captured close to Dunkirk, one of many never to make it onto the ‘little ships’ waiting to evacuate them. He spent the rest of the war working as forced labour in the coal mines of Silesia, Poland. He survived that, as well as the forced march inflicted on many prisoners by the Nazis as the Soviet Army advanced. He was lucky – had the Nazis known that his own grandfather had been a Roma gypsy, he may well have found himself moved to the Roma and Sinti camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. This was a place that no one survived, as on the evening of 2nd August 1944 the SS loaded all remaining Roma and Sinti onto trucks and sent them to the gas chambers.
Despite all I had read, and the knowledge of my grandfather’s indirect involvement, the Holocaust remained an abstract concept to me, the numbers and scale just too big to comprehend. Then 3 years ago I had the opportunity to work on a photography project in collaboration with a writer – we spent 10 days travelling through Holland, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic visiting sites related to the Holocaust. As the days passed, my camera stayed in my bag more and more often – it was hard enough to process the enormity of what happened, let alone photograph the sites. The writer I was working with felt much the same way and our project remains unwritten, the photographs left untouched on my hard drive. As the CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow said in his coverage of the liberation of Buchenwald, “For most of it, I have no words.”
I found it difficult to comprehend how the Holocaust could have happened in 20th century Europe; until I visited the Wannsee Museum in Berlin, the site of the Wannsee Conference (held on 20 January 1942) where the fate of Europe’s Jews and other ‘Untermenschen’ was sealed by way of ‘The Final Solution’.
After spending a few hours in the museum, it became clearer to me how an entire population could be made to comply – the psychology used by the Nazis was very clever and very simple. As Hermann Goering said at the Nuremberg Trials, “… But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship… Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”
It scares me to think just how easily a government can manipulate the general population, especially in times of economic hardship or war, and just how easily it could happen again – indeed did happen again, albeit on a smaller scale in Bosnia, as the rest of Europe once again stood by and watched.
In 2013, many European countries are suffering similar economic hardship to that of Germany in the 1930s. Throughout Europe, rhetoric against immigrants is commonplace from both sides of the political spectrum, the debate on equal marriage has highlighted just how much homophobia there still is in the supposedly liberal west, and far-right neo-fascist groups are once again on the rise.
For that reason, on a day when we remember those who died – the estimated 14 million Jews, Roma, Sinti, Soviet POWs, Ethnic Poles, Slavs, disabled people, political prisoners, homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who didn’t fit the Nazi ideal – we should also think carefully about just how easily governments today can manipulate us, how their rhetoric and that of the media can so easily cloud our judgment, and turn us against our neighbours. When we start to fear those who are different from us it makes the job of the manipulators so much easier.
© Alyx Aerallo 2013. All Rights Reserved.