Exposing Violence, Amnesia, and the Fascist Forest through Susan Silas and Collier Schorr’s Holocaust Art

by Brett Ashley Kaplan

The past is irrecoverable and the past is not past; the past is a resource for the future and the future is the redemption of the past; loss must be marked and it cannot be represented.
—Judith Butler

In a Holocaust context, landscape photographs take on entirely different meanings: what may have seemed an innocent cluster of trees can quickly turn into a signifier of lost witnessing, an agent of amnesia covering crimes, or a sinister cluster of branches obfuscating evidence of genocide. Indeed, the relationship between landscape and memory is always unstable: how much do we know about the history of certain places? How will natural growth change the topography of traumatic sites? In the absence of memorials, what traces of the past remain? How can we read spaces, decades after a traumatic event? This article examines the tensions between space and violence, amnesia and memorialization, and the uses of the forest by examining the work of two Jewish artists, Susan Silas and Collier Schorr whose photographs contribute to the work of geographers, historians, landscape architects, literary critics and others concerned with the connection between space and memory. In discussing the arresting, abstracted photographs Alan Cohen took of Dachau, Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall and other traumatic spaces, Jonathan Bordo notes, “these photographs offer themselves as the vicarious bearers of these traumatic traces; and as viewers, merely by looking at them, we might consider ourselves to be memory-bearers.” While Silas and Schorr’s photographs relate very differently to the space of traumatic events, both engage with a habitation of such spaces and both turn viewers into memory-bearers.

The first series I examine, Susan Silas’s Helmbrechts walk, captures a melancholy landscape: fog, grey, dismal towns, sorry forests, empty roads, rust-caked train tracks leading nowhere. These photographs record the path of a death march taken in the spring of 1945 by 580 Jewish women from many places in occupied Europe. Fifty-three years after the event, Silas, with a camera, retraced the women’s steps. Helmbrechts walk tells the story of this march but juxtaposes that story with gripping, violent news accounts from the same period in 1998 to create a multi-layered analysis of the wreckage of twentieth century history. By entering the landscape where hundreds of women walked, Silas inserts a living Jewess into the woods where historically Jews were seen, in their urban, wandering, stereotypical guises, as anathema. Silas’s art exposes violence, fights amnesia, insists on the presence of the past, demands memorialization; she teaches us about this death march while grappling with the marchers’ traumatic experiences.

The second series I analyze, by Collier Schorr, combines landscape with portraiture in fascinating ways. As if to excavate some of the buried relics of World War II and the Holocaust, Schorr posed young German men in Nazi uniforms and photographed them framed by the memory-drenched landscape of contemporary Germany. Her Forests and Fields (2001) series produces curious results and forces the viewer to confront his or her own position vis-à-vis the enduring presence of the past within the present; for the images appear as though, in Schorr’s words, a “soldier rose up [from the landscape] with that helmet,” as though the past were still visibly with us. Schorr describes the thickly embedded palimpsest of the current German topography as “filled with relics and memories. So many things are buried in the landscape in Germany” that for Schorr, “the landscape feels so loaded.” Schorr’s images, which are much more problematic and provocative than Silas’s, nonetheless also expose violence, resist amnesia and explore the fascist appropriation of the forest.

In an influential article about post-Holocaust photography, Ulrich Baer claims that precisely because the photographs that interest him do not contain “documentary information” they nonetheless “tell the truth.” Baer argues that truth is achieved through the aesthetic, which highlights the “unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, philosophical efforts of understanding and historicist attempts at explanation and, on the other hand, the actual event of extermination.” Thus Baer posits that the aesthetic, through its effects on the representation of traumatic landscapes, approaches a reckoning between history and experience. Baer further argues that the landscape tradition, by which he means the tradition defined by European Romanticism in which “the environment that had once been ground to build on, plow, defend, or conquer came to be seen as an aesthetic entity to be contemplated by an enraptured subject in a process of introspection and increasing self-awareness” is “particularly well-suited to addressing the Holocaust as the historical event that calls into question that entire tradition.” In other words, in linking the Romantic sensibility of the subject’s relation to place with the disruption of the very concept of subjectivity that the Holocaust enacted, Baer opens up an analysis of how landscape and memory are working for and against each other through representations of landscapes that are inflected with Holocaust history.

A long, well-documented, and close connection binds the wooded landscape to German fascism. As one commentator on an exhibit of Silas’s work succinctly put it, “For German culture—from Tacitus’s Germania to Heidegger’s descriptions of the Black Forest, from the landscapes of Caspar David Freidrich to the paintings of Anslem Kiefer—the landscape has been a significant leitmotif for German nationalism. For Jews, the landscape (and trees in particular) is a symbol of life and renewal.” By placing Jews in the woods—both the dead Jews whose history Silas wants to air and her own Jewish, second-generation survivor’s body—Silas refuses not only amnesia about the death march but also the claim made by National Socialism on the wooded landscapes of Europe. According to Gunnar Brands, “the untouched landscape [functioned as] a symbol of the rebirth of the German nation.” Or as Malcolm Andrews phrases it, “the spiritual purity of a nation is…imagined in its landscapes.” Thus a close connection binds the image of the wooded landscape to the fascist glorification of the fatherland.

As Simon Schama notes, German glory was heralded through the woods from which Jews were excluded until they were murdered among the trees. In detailing how crucial the forests were to German folk myth, Schama also describes the banishment of the figure of the Jew from this sacred forest: “the rootless Jew was the purveyor of this corrupted, citified society, the forester was his antithesis—the embodiment of ethnic authenticity, rooted like his trees in the ancient earth of the fatherland.” After the war, the woods were re-appropriated by Israel as a symbol of the masculinization of the stereotype of the pale, wan, Jewish man and a rewriting of the Palestinian landscape—a literal overwriting of Palestinian history through re-making Palestinian topography into Jewish topography. These trees had practical purposes of creating both fruit and timber but they were also overlaid with symbolic significance. Diaspora Jews were encouraged by Israel to sponsor the planting of trees in Israel and therefore to take over the fascist appropriation of the forest at the same time as co-opting the Palestinian landscape and creating necessary materials for settlement. In framing a wooded landscape [see Figure 7] so that it simultaneously invites and repels, Silas engages with the traumatic history of the death march as well as with larger questions about the history and iconography of the forest. While the beauty of Silas and Schorr’s images draws us in and opens up a dialogue between history and experience, these images also uncover the literal and metaphorical violence of these landscapes, resist the impulse toward erasure that the landscape always threatens, and refuse the pollution of the landscape tradition by fascist ideology.

I. Susan Silas, Helmbrechts walk

We are accustomed to think of the Holocaust as having no landscape—or at least one emptied of features and color, shrouded by night and fog, blanketed by perpetual winter, collapsed into shades of dun and gray. —Simon Schama

Susan Silas was born in the US in 1953 to Jewish-Hungarian Holocaust survivors; she now lives and works in New York, and continues to be deeply interested in the Holocaust, producing, among many other works, photographs of former concentration camps, response pieces to the German artist Anselm Kiefer, and a series entitled Re unifications that juxtaposes photographs from the Olympic Stadium in former West Berlin with images of the Jewish Cemetery Weißensee in former East Berlin. Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003 is a limited edition linen covered clamshell box of 48 13” X 19” archival color plates that consists of right hand images framed by commentary on her re-tracing of the death march paired with telling news clips from the same day in 1998, and left hand uncaptioned photographs; the unbound book of photographs, including a map of the death march and a brief epilogue, was exhibited at the Koffler Centre for the Arts in Toronto in the fall of 2005. The photographs are also available online in a different format; as one scrolls over the right-hand image the text that appears as captions in the original emerges over the photograph leaving the image as a ghostly presence under the text. Helmbrechts walk can be considered in the context of other innovative art works, most prominently those of Richard Long (who Silas cites as an influence) that pose the question “how does a walk function as an art work at all?” Or one might note with Paul Moorhouse, in reference to Long, “the walk itself may have no lasting physical attributes but the work could not exist if the walk had not happened.” The analysis of Silas’s walk that follows considers not only the photographic “evidence” of the walk but the ephemeral act of walking through this loaded topography as a crucial aspect of her project.

From April 13 to May 4, 1998, on the 53rd anniversary of the Helmbrechts death march, Silas walked 225 miles in 22 days in order to retrace the steps that a group of predominantly Eastern European Jewish women had been commanded to take in 1945; a student assistant/driver accompanied Silas via car from a distance. The death march route/Silas’s route began in Helmbrechts, Germany (near Hof and North-East of Nürnberg) and ended in Volary, Czech Republic (near the Austrian/German/Czech meeting point and just South-West of Ceske Budejovice) [see map, Figure 1]. Because they were offered neither adequate food nor shelter, and because they were beaten en route, many women did not survive the march. Silas reconstructed the route of the march from the trial transcript of Alois Dörr (Helmbrechts camp commandant), from maps at the New York Public Library, from details offered by Klaus Rauh (a student who completed a project about the death march), and from the historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s research on Helmbrechts.

Silas first encountered the Helmbrechts death march through Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners; while the “Goldhagen controversy” has at last subsided, when the book first appeared in 1997 an enormous amount of debate ensued over the defensibility of Goldhagen’s central argument that German anti-Semitism was ubiquitous and laid claim to an exceedingly long historical reach. But the debate notwithstanding, Goldhagen nonetheless supplies a detailed account, mostly drawn from Dörr’s trial transcripts, of the Helmbrechts march. As Goldhagen describes it, Helmbrechts, a small satellite unit of the Flossenbürg camp, housed primarily non-Jewish women prisoners who worked in a nearby armaments firm. The camp opened on July 19, 1944 and had an initial population of approximately 700 non-Jewish inmates and 54 SS guards; according to Rauh, on 6 March, 1945, 621 Jewish prisoners (many of whom had been transported there from Aushwitz) arrived by foot from Gruneberg. Thus many of the women who were to set out from Helmbrechts had already undergone a traumatic transport, march, and concentration camp imprisonment. In order to evacuate before American troops appeared, on April 13, 1945 (four days before US forces arrived at the deserted camp) the Helmbrechts death march began; 580 Jewish women prisoners and 590 non-Jewish prisoners set out with 47 German guards. The non-Jewish prisoners were either deposited at other camps or were forced to assist the guards to ensure that the Jewish inmates did not try to escape. Between the end of the march on May 4, 1945, and the American army’s gaining control of the area on May 6, some of the survivors were shot, some died of starvation, some went over the border into Czechoslovakia, and others were liberated at Volary.

The Helmbrechts death march particularly interests Goldhagen because it epitomizes his claims about the eliminationist anti-Semitism of ordinary Germans. Goldhagen finds that there was absolutely no political or military sense in the death marches and that, often despite orders from Himmler or other high-ranking Nazis to treat the Jewish prisoners humanely at the end of the war and thus reduce sentencing at future trials, the guards continued to use excessively cruel treatment towards and sometimes to murder the Jewish women. Martin Gilbert claims that the death marches were a necessary preservation of slave labor at a bitter point in the war when the German army desperately needed road, railway, and bridge repairs whereas Goldhagen argues that the Nazis only used, by this time, non-Jews for slave labor, and that the brutal treatment of the Jews made them unfit for work. Due to chaos at the end of the war, destruction of documents, and the diminishing pool of survivors and perpetrators, a reliable picture of the logic behind the Helmbrechts death march may never emerge; but certainly the German guards in this death march were sadistically cruel to the Jewish women who were their prisoners and the march had little purpose other than murdering more prisoners and escaping the Allies for a few more days.

The sense that this march epitomized the illogical, chaotic nature of the Holocaust made Silas want to re-trace these Jewish women’s steps in order to visualize in a new way this turbulent close of the war. Silas feels that these marches are particularly compelling because the Nazis’ “impulse to take the prisoners along once the war was clearly lost defies logic for me and it makes the innocent protests of those who claimed not to know anything of such things seem especially ludicrous.” Indeed, the march went directly through many small villages where townspeople often tried to help the starving marchers only to be threatened with death by the Nazi guards. Silas’s project thus engages deep historical questions that some sixty years of scholarship has not completely answered: why the death marches? How much and when did the surrounding populace know about the death camps in their midst?

For Silas, the impulse to undertake the route of a punishing death march also stemmed from a life long investment in what the Holocaust means, how its memory continues in the face of the decreasing numbers of the living who remember it, and more personally, how it affected her family. Silas’ father, who passed away in 1963, had been in the Hungarian army and was then forced into slave labor; he walked from the Soviet Union back to Hungary from whence he was sent to another labor camp in Yugoslavia. Silas’s mother survived the war in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest. After emigrating to the U.S., her parents’ circle of friends consisted almost entirely of Hungarian Jews, many of them survivors, who discussed the Holocaust only when the children were not supposed to be listening—Silas learned a lot about their experiences by eavesdropping from the stairs. As a child she had fantasies about how she would have behaved, “would I be brave” she wondered, “what would I have done?” No longer content to read about or view films about the Holocaust, Silas decided to embark on this retracing of lost steps.

Silas described her presence in Germany and Czechoslovakia in terms of witnessing: “the art work was my physical presence there—what was important with respect to the marchers and my feelings about them was putting my body in that physical space—the images are a tertiary witness to that act. My occupying space and time I wouldn’t have occupied had they not been there before me—that was most significant.” Silas was profoundly connected with this walk because all the marchers—those who had been there before her—were women; thus a sense of gendered connection colored Silas’s project. As she walked, Silas felt what Cathy Caruth terms an “uncanny return of the dead,” for she imagined that one of the victims of the death march—a teenager who initially survived, but shortly afterwards nonetheless died of starvation—was acting as a kind of guardian angel to her. This connection speaks to how second generation survivors or indeed many people invested in the Holocaust often experience a sort of identification with its victims. These identifications are sometimes institutionally supported as is the case at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington where visitors are greeted with ID cards of victims or survivors and invited to identify with one of these people. In Silas’s case, despite this curious connection with a victim, Silas experienced a “monumental failure of the imagination,” and felt that even being in the space where these women suffered did not make it possible to grasp the nature of what they went through. This failure of the imagination even in the space of trauma calls into question the effect that space can have on memory. On the one hand, retracing the steps of these victims allowed Silas to feel an identification that she might not have otherwise felt; on the other hand, that identification was limited by the understanding that even there, where this painful march happened, an unbridgeable gap remained between experience and interpretation.

The written diary (in the upper captions) of Silas’s retracing the steps of the death march eloquently describes this failure of the imagination; that these upper captions contain quotes from Holocaust survivors such as Primo Levi and Jorge Semprun along with mention of modern artists such as Joseph Beuys speaks to Silas’s combination of testimonial and historical Holocaust knowledge with a sensitive artistic sensibility. In these captions we find the “long dead busts of various antlered beats, eyes glazed over” or a “sad sack paranoia;” the melancholy memory of the Hungarian marchers and their buried past touches everything Silas sees. But the short news reports that form the captions beneath the image bring the present into our consciousness. Through news of Pol Pot’s death, murder among beloveds, racial violence in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, the rise of the far right in postwar Germany, clashes in Albania, Indonesian student movements, concentration camp guards on trial, Iraqi deaths under Hussein, and other bleak tales, we see that violence continues unabated and we begin to think about our own status as the silent witnesses to violence around us; in our “global village” are we turning a blind eye to suffering? Like the villagers, are we complicit?

In choosing to embark on such a physically and emotionally trying project Silas wanted to see in order to empathize, to approach the Holocaust from beyond the comfort of her chair; she was fascinated by what traces of this traumatic past she might find and what absences of the past might be equally invisible. The landscape photographs she has produced perform absence in powerful ways. “At first the landscape was pretty devoid of life,” Silas reports, “but after a time I was conscious of creating an empty frame to achieve a certain stillness in the images.” The stillness of these images of empty train tracks, empty villages, empty forests, empty roads, and gnarled trees enshrouded in fog ask us to reflect on what the “shapeless” and “dismal” German topography conceals. Silas conceived of the “landscape…in a weird way as a witness.” In other words, rather than amnesia, the landscape could also be read in terms of memorialization. But, as Halina Kleiner, a survivor of the Helmbrechts death march describes in the epilogue to Helmbrechts walk [Figure 2], witnesses do not necessarily remember the spaces through which they moved: Kleiner could not conjure up “a visual memory of the landscape or her immediate surroundings. Perhaps under such conditions it is not possible to look too far.” By walking through these traumatic places, by recording the route of this march photographically, Silas brings out the violence hidden in the landscape, refuses to allow the space to become a scene of erasure, and insists that the landscape tradition, the interaction between space and subject, be salvaged from its pollution by fascist ideology.

As illustration of Silas’s treatment of the landscape tradition, consider an image of train tracks from Helmbrechts walk entitled “Day 11, Thursday 23 April, 1998, Nova Hospoda to Straz (Neustadtl)” [Figure 3]. In this melancholy photograph, tracks curve away to the right, melting into the distance and becoming increasingly overgrown as they recede from view. Towards the thick right rear of the photograph the tracks almost appear to merge with the roots of the trees, thus heightening the metaphorical merging of the Holocaust with the surrounds. For one can not see train tracks in this context without thinking of the deportations that may well have occurred along these same pieces of iron. One recalls Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah in which the camera traces the path of deportation train tracks; indeed, no one who has witnessed the ten plus hour-long film can forget the endless repetition of the sound and image of moving across desolate landscapes on a bleak train. Sander Gilman notes that Lanzmann “eschew[s] the visual archive of the Shoah and the pitfall of easy identification. [He] insist[s] that we struggle to remember precisely from the ground on which we stand.” Silas’s image of train tracks does include evidence of industry (power lines and newly paved road) and the overall tone paints a desolate space.

Silas’s photograph can be compared with a startling image of train tracks in the late German writer W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (1992); this novel recounts the stories of four emigrants, each bearing the scars of trying tales of exile and transformation. Three of the emigrants are Jewish (or partly Jewish), and while The Emigrants is by no means a straightforward Holocaust novel, the catastrophe affects the lives of two of the Jewish emigrants directly and haunts the story of another as well. The second tale, about Paul Bereyter, begins with a striking image of a train track [Figure 4]. The photograph is shot from a claustrophobically close angle and the impression of closeness is highlighted through this blurring of the left side of the track. Toward the center and back of the image the tracks recede and turn to the right, away from the blurred intensity of the close up that dominates the left side of the image. Even before we know that Bereyter’s life was profoundly changed by the Holocaust, this image of the empty landscape of the train tracks recalls mass deportations. We learn in the opening paragraph of the section on Bereyter that it was on a train track such as this one that the hero decided to end his life: “In January 1984 the news reached me from S that on the evening of the 30th of December, a week after his seventy-fourth birthday, Paul Bereyter, who had been my teacher at primary school, had put an end to his life. A short distance from S, where the railway track curves out of a willow copse into the open fields, he had lain himself down in front of a train.” In the context of The Emigrants, then, the opening shot of the landscape filled with train tracks refers both to Paul’s suicide and to deaths resulting from deportations along train tracks during the Holocaust. By opening this chapter with this image, Sebald suggests that, beyond the specificity of his character’s story, the Holocaust takes over, disrupts and possibly even blurs our image of the future as represented by the horizon at the back of the image of the train tracks receding into the distance. At first we might assume that the narrator has photographed the very spot where Paul took his life; however, the location cited above (“where the railway track curves out of a willow copse into the open fields”) does not match the image. Possibly, at the location of the photograph, the track had come out of a willow copse, yet the track continues through forest on the left rather than going into open fields. The photograph in Sebald’s novel thus does not depict the site of Bereyter’s death; by including a location that differs from the description Sebald encourages us to read the significance of the railroad track beyond Bereyter’s story as an allegory at once of the Holocaust and of traumatic suffering that can lead to suicide.

Silas’s imagery echoes the photographs that illustrate Sebald’s novels for these texts share a melancholy emptiness that often pervades the image, and they reflect on the intersection of landscape and memory. In contrast to the very close framing of the train track photograph in Sebald’s The Emigrants, however Silas framed “Day 11” [see Figure 3] from a distance to include more of the landscape. The railroad tracks that criss-cross this part of the landscape in Germany/Czechoslovakia are silent memorials to the deportations that moved Jews and others across vast distances during the genocide. The captions accompanying this image reinforce the sensation of lingering memory and its sinister implications because Silas here remembers of her stepfather, a “disenfranchised Catholic aristocrat” that “a piece of shrapnel lodged that day [in 1956] in his innards was believed to have prompted the cancer that killed him over two decades later.” The festering shrapnel left as a residue of the Soviet take over of Budapest would take twenty years to kill him; the train tracks below the image are implicitly compared with the festering, lingering wounds, the tracks cutting across the landscape like a scar.

But the scars that Silas uncovers are created through her memorialization project, not symbols apparent on the actual landscape; along the death march route Silas found no memorials to the women who died there, only at the end of the march did she encounter a tiny museum in Volary that served as a memorial. Of course, if all death marches were marked, many European roads would bear signs. However, as revealed in “Day 16, Tuesday 28 April, Deplowice to Jeseni” [Figure 5] other markers and memorials graced the side of the road yet with only scant explanation. As Silas notes in the caption, she found that some gravestones were “quite beautiful and contain[ed] painted or engraved imagery—others more simple. Isolated from the town cemetery, I wonder how it is that they came to be buried by the side of the road.” On first glance at the photograph, “Day 16,” it would be easy to miss the gravestone thickly embedded in overgrown weeds and surrounded by a dense forest. Silas framed the gravestone in the lower right of the image so that the dirt road stretches away from it, carrying the viewer’s eye toward the left background of the photograph. But the buried tombstone reminds us again of the missing markers to the marchers; and, as do the captions of violent news clips from 1998, remind us that other tragedies befall us—both in the space where these women suffered in the past and globally in the present. In contrast to the many Holocaust memorials that pepper the early twenty first century European landscape (and are legion in the U.S.) the almost complete lack of memorialization of the Helmbrechts death march is striking and highlights the recovery project Silas was intent on achieving. In Volary, Silas finally encountered one burial area, created at the Allies’ insistence, for the death march victims; the town planted a row of trees along the edge of the area so it now appears that the 95 women buried there are interred in a separate space than the local dead. Silas discusses this cemetery at the end of Helmbrechts walk but the accompanying photo is not of the graves. As if peering through the screen erected by these trees, Silas’s beautiful photographs resist this separation and forgetting.

While these were the only graves for the women who underwent the march, the detritus of war could still be found in the topography through which Silas moved. The bunker captured in “Day 6, Sunday 18 April 1998, Zwodau” [Figure 6] rises out of bedraggled sparse trees as a testament to the war. Descending into the bunker, Silas feels the darkness and dankness almost as if walking into a grave; the news clip from 1998 heightens this sensation by beginning: “18 April 1998—Pol Pot’s body is cremated.” The upper caption includes the following: “Behind the camp barracks—still there—a small cement bunker that at a distance resembles a discarded party hat….Descending a set of stairs off to the side I find myself inside a small dank space. I am paralyzed in there.” Thus, close to the former camp barracks, a bunker designed to protect Nazis against the Allies, and where prisoners were possibly tortured, remains as an open crypt; meanwhile, a genocidal dictator’s body becomes ash. This powerful juxtaposition of World War II era traumas with then (1998) contemporary violence forces us to recognize, precisely through landscape photography, the eruption of violence both in the past and the present. While the landscape might grope toward amnesia, Silas’s photographs and her performative project of retracing the steps of these women insist on memorialization and contribute to salvaging the landscape tradition from the taint of fascist ideology.

Another illustration of Silas’ conversation with the landscape tradition and also with the supreme importance of the woods for fascist ideology can be seen in the uncaptioned image “Day 12” [Figure 7]. This image evokes the panoramic but subverts it by cropping trees on top and thus confounding completion, resolution and also the grandeur of the panoramic shot. This photograph resonates forcefully with some post-Holocaust photographs of former concentration camp sites taken by Dirk Reinartz and Mikael Levin; like those images, Silas’s forest, in Ulrich Baer’s words, “uncannily stage[s]—without resolving—the tension between the sense of being drawn into this site…and the sense of being excluded from it.” In capturing the woods as Silas does in “Day 12,” she represents them paradoxically as at once forbidding and inviting; they are forbidding as a dark mass in the background of the photograph but also enticing as the trees’ spindly girth allows one to imagine wandering among them.

The penultimate image of Helmbrechts walk, a self-portrait followed only by the epilogue describing Halina Kleiner’s memories of the death march that I referred to above, is the only self-portrait in the work. The photograph features a decaying house, a darkening sky, and, in the centre, a traffic mirror reflecting a tiny image of Silas, donning a yellow rain slicker and distorted by the fun-house effect of the mirror [Figure 8]. The lines of the drab building against which Silas is framed are also distorted and made wavy by the mirror. The desolate house and cracked fence behind the mirror offer testimony to the forgotten quality of the topography of the march. Because she represents herself in this way, so that her tiny figure almost corresponds with the exact center of the image yet the rain coat and camera hide her from view and the mirror distorts her, Silas indicates at once how marginal and how central she is to the performance of retracing these women’s steps. The self-portrait thus reflects on how the artist relates to history as conflictingly crucial and sidelined.

In a file cabinet in Brooklyn Silas keeps 22 stones (which were not exhibited with the book) one collected on each day of her walk. These stones are pieces of the landscape of the old world transported to the new world; they echo Jewish memorial stones yet they cannot find graves on which to repose; they offer mute witness to historical atrocity and indelible marks of continuity. The carefully framed, bleak images that Silas has created tell stories all on their own; inserted into the context of a World War II death march and combined with the captions offering a contemporary catalogue of catastrophes from the news of 1998, they tell a rich, complex story about memory, forgetting, witnessing, and trauma that offers a unique contribution to Holocaust art; her images expose the violence of the landscape, resist the erasure of memory, and re-appropriate a landscape tradition made suspect by fascist use of it.

II. Collier Schorr, Forests and Fields

The wilderness is thus a deliberate sign for human absence, and it aspires, however paradoxically, to be a landscape without a witness.
—Jonathan Bordo

Collier Schorr was born in New York City in 1963 and currently splits her time between her home town and Germany. Her art consistently revolves around gender and its malleability. Her other works include a series of photographs of male wrestlers captured in poses of defeat, frustration, victory, or erotic charge (“Wrestlers Love America,” 2004) and reproductions of some of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings using a male model posed in the garb and posture of the painter’s female muse (“Jens F./Helga,” 2002; book published 2006). As a testament to her growing status as a photographer, her arresting images of cowboys were recently featured in the New York Times Magazine. The results of her projects are that, through questioning gender, Schorr also examines the viewers’ investments in certain ways of knowing and ways of seeing. The Forests and Fields series that I focus on here, insofar as it explores masculinity, shares a reflection on gender with Schorr’s other work, but is specifically about the intersections of landscape and memory in Germany today. Schorr would thus agree with Dianne Harris’s argument that “Landscapes and the artifacts related to them shape history; they are active agents in the formation of culture,” for Schorr expects the landscapes that frame her portraits to become active agents.

The Forests and Fields series includes photographs of young German men posing in Nazi and Wehrmacht uniforms framed against beautiful German landscapes. From this series the first volume entitled Neighbors/Nachbarn was published in November 2006. The very title of the text, offered in both English and German reminds us of what happened between German neighbors during the war (both succor and betrayal) and also what may have happened between East German neighbors during the Stasi era when citizens were forced to look over their shoulders. The first frame in the collection, of a picket fence, announces the precarious nature of the relations among neighbors by presenting a close-up of an unpainted, unstable fence [Figure 9]. This fence notwithstanding, almost all the images in Neighbors are portraits, some of them in landscapes. Schorr spent a great deal of time in the company of the families whose young men and women became the models in various uniforms and guises; one of them, Herbert Molner, is her German girlfriend’s nephew. Some photographs feature young men in United States G.I. uniforms (occassionaly holding an over-sized U.S. flag) that were popularly sold for a song at flea markets across Germany—the victorious soldiers often unloaded their uniforms to locals before shipping home. It is quite a different project, of course, to imagine early twenty-first century German youth in American uniforms than it is to see them bearing the all-too familiar Swastikas and other insignia of Nazi uniforms (which are still illegal in Germany, causing her models some degree of anxiety when being photographed). According to Schorr, the images of young men in Nazi uniforms emerged out of her interactions with the German family rather than arising from a concrete decision to capture them in Nazi garb. Whereas most of her portraits are framed against the landscape, “Relic 2003” [Figure 10], features a young man in Nazi uniform in a spare garage. His shadow stands out crisply behind him and his expression is unfocused. The presence of a stack of tires and some paint cans make it clear that the image was not taken during the war. While the portraits framed against the natural surrounds have a timeless quality this portrait highlights its status as a construction. Despite his well-polished boots and crisp uniform the “Nazi” is lost, alone, out of place and out of time, fortunately an irrecoverable relic.

According to Schorr, the process of capturing these men dressed as Nazis had to do with her wanting to see from the other, non-Jewish side of the German landscape: “Germany has such a hold when you’re a Jew and you walk around in Germany.…I always saw it from the side of the Jew who felt victimized, or the Jew who felt oppressed. And I was very comfortable in that role for many years. But being in Germany for a longer amount of time, my experience changed and my relationship changed to the country. And my curiosity about what it was like from the other side opened me up.” In another context she noted that Forest and Fields was a way for her to “separate being Jewish from the Holocaust”; she also claimed that it was “healing” to reflect on the Holocaust through a German point of view. In response to comments such as these, Rhonda Lieberman quipped, “we don’t want to be victim-identified here, but must we go the extra mile and embrace our inner Nazi?” Leslie Camhi echoes this sentiment when she wonders whether it was “worth breaching this particular taboo [against Nazi imagery] for what seemed a private fantasy?” These remarks rightly address the problematic nature of Schorr’s project. By breaking the taboos against Nazis, by posing, as I show below, beautiful young men against gorgeous German landscapes is she fetishizing fascist ideals? Or is she rather deconstructing them?

Precisely because the figures are often framed against the natural landscape, and heightened by the fact that many of them were shot in black and white, they exhibit a timeless quality that makes it hard to determine whether these are current or wartime images, whether they embrace or critique the beautiful Nazi soldier. Maiken Umbach has argued that “the postmodern preoccupation with memory inspired a new approach to the problem of the passage of time itself…[in which time itself became] the medium of subjective experience.” Similarly, in her blurring of time zones, Schorr achieves both the unnerving sense that the Nazis are still embedded in the contemporary German landscape and the realization that Nazi soldiers were, to use Christopher Browning’s phrase, “ordinary men.” Indeed, Schorr maintains that the “soldier” appears as “just a guy who fought, just a guy who died. Just a guy who killed someone;” she also claims that she does not want to turn the series into a “gigantic mourning session.” The aggressive masculinity we might associate with many photographs of soldiers (whether real or posed) is absent from the Forests and Fields series. Indeed, the boys have, as did the model in “Relic,” a somewhat bewildered expression. In these images “soldiers” stand or recline in clearings in the woods wearing distant, lost, expressions, as though unsure of what brings them to this tainted, memory-drenched forest.
In the photograph above [Figure 11], the reclining “soldier” casually cuddles a rifle, as if more concerned with a point in the dreamy distance than with the technology of war. Behind him ripe fruit trees represent the landscape as a fertile space far from war. In another, similar, photo (not shown here) the sun emerging over the trees lends the image an eerie religiosity. The sense of distanciation in these pictures results no doubt quite simply from the fact that the boys are not Wehrmacht soldiers and that even their fathers were born after the war; their grandfathers may have served in the Third Reich’s army but the models would be keenly aware of the Nazi genocide not as victims or culprits but as products of the contemporary German pedagogical system that rigorously teaches the Holocaust. When Schorr poses these models in the woods she self-consciously comments on German fascism’s fascination with the forest; as she notes, “I was interested in the tradition of photographing the landscape, and finding a way to insert more tension into it….If the tree, if the forest is the pride of Germany….I wanted to bring to the surface a lot of what made it so important. What made it so important was the violence.” By inserting her models into a German landscape riddled with traumatic memory, Schorr recoups the fascist tainting of the landscape tradition and appropriates it for a Jewish, anti-fascist sensibility.

Schorr implicity explores this violence from both the American and German “sides” of the war by posing her models in both American and German uniforms. In “Apples and Gun” (2004) [Figure 12] the same model who had donned Wehrmacht garb sits peacefully under a tree, dappled in the shadow of its leaves, the words “US” visible on his shoulder strap over his bare chest. As an accent to his at oneness with the natural surrounds, some of the apples from the tree are gathered in his helmet. But neither the gun nor the apples hold the “soldier’s” interest. Aloof from war as much as from the effort of collecting apples, the soldier stares fixedly away from these objects, away from the photographer and into a point in the distance. The focal point of the image does not, as in so many other Schorr portraits, pay his viewer any mind. As with the figure in Nazi uniform beneath another tree, the gun, the symbolic representative of the violence of war, appears almost incidental to the peace of being in the landscape.

In “Helmet Kindling and Deer Feed (Winter) Durlangen” (2000) [Figure 13] Schorr combined still life with landscape and posed another helmet, this time overflowing with pinecones; but in this image a sparse tree stands sentinel behind the helmet. On the one hand this photograph highlights the violence of landscape because where in this curious still life/landscape mélange we might expect a peaceful image, the military presence of the helmet disrupts the calm; on the other hand, the helmet’s use as an innocuous carrier of apples renders it non-violent and peaceful. Thus while the reminder of literal and metaphorical military memories in this piece puncture the screening of violence that the landscape might allow, the simultaneous mitigation of that recovered violence complicates this rupture. Whereas the trees in the previous two images, of a “Nazi” and a US “soldier” are lush and ripe with fruit, the tree in “Helmet Kindling” does not seem capable of producing the lavish spread of apples that lie below it.

III. Conclusion

Surfaces of the present collapse into the horrors of the past without any attempt at reconstruction.
—Sander Gilman

Fascinating as they are, the projects Silas and Schorr embarked on nonetheless raise a number of questions. One might consider, for example, Silas’s re-tracing of these women’s steps in the context of other re-enactments such as the seemingly zany re-enactors (although that word is anathema in those circles) of the Civil War that Tony Horowitz so scrupulously studied in his widely read account, Confederates in the Attic. Yet huge differences separate the two kinds of engagement with the past: the modern Civil Warriors are engaged in sport and they seek respite from lives dulled by computer or other labors through supposedly getting back to “simpler times.” Consider the following description from Horowitz: “They [the re-enactors] sought absolute fidelity to the 1860s: its homespun clothing, antique speech patterns, sparse diet and simple utensils. Adhered to properly, this fundamentalism produced a time-travel high, or what hardcores called a ‘period rush.’” But Silas’s experience could only be described, in contrast to Horowitz’s Civil War heroes, as a ‘period low,’ for it must have been very disturbing to replicate this immensely painful journey. As Edward Linenthal puts it, “reenactors seek imaginative entry into the heroic past, re-creating the total environment of the time of the battle.” Silas made no attempt to re-create the “total environment” of the past; on the contrary she was at every step acutely aware of the abyss between past and present. Silas wanted to get a better sense of the terrain, wanted to see in order to empathize, and wanted to engage with the topography in a more intimate manner. As the daughter of survivors, the Holocaust has been indelibly woven into Silas’s life and this retracing is more exploratory, more open, than the approach to the past of Civil War and other battle re-enactors.

It might also be possible to see Silas’s retracing of a death march and Schorr’s posing of German men in Nazi uniform through the lens of what Gary Weissman calls “Fantasies of Witnessing.” Weissman argues compellingly about empathic desires to understand the place of the victim. Weissman’s text ends by turning to Benjamin Wilkomirski, the Swiss writer who published Fragments under the guise of a Holocaust testimony which ultimately was discovered to have been entirely fictional; Weissman uses Wilkomirski as an exemplar of a fantasy of witnessing (or, in this case, experiencing) the genocide. While Silas’s performance would not fit into Weissman’s model of a fantasy of witnessing, Schorr’s project might well adhere to that rubric; through conjuring up contemporary mock Nazis from the landscape, Schorr imagines a repressed portion of history walking and breathing. While Silas’s retracing, performed after years of intense commitment to studying the Holocaust, is much less problematic than Schorr’s posing, both artists nonetheless raise compelling questions about how we negotiate our relationship to the past.

I have demonstrated that Silas and Schorr’s photographs represent landscapes potentially lost to trauma and fascist pollution; they thus become abstract position pieces on the possibility of recovering and re-using these lost topographies. But there are important differences between the two projects; Schorr can be seen as participating in a new, irreverent approach to the Holocaust. Chronologically if not emotionally distant from the Holocaust, a new generation of artists, writers, architects, and others explore the perpetrators with less trepidation and with less of a sense of taboo than earlier generations of artists; this irreverence was visible in the New York Jewish Museum’s bold and controversial exhibit Mirroring Evil (2002) in which artists imagined being Eva Braun (and being intimate with Hitler), filled rooms with famous actors playing Nazis, and added Hitler-mustaches to toys. This irreverent approach is also visible in Maurizio Cattelan’s “Him” (2001), in which a boy-sized wax figure appears to be praying; as the gallery-goer enters the room from behind, there is a shock as she/he realizes that the face of the seeming-boy is that of a man-aged Hitler. These examples represent a mere smattering of the many more legion irreverent post-Holocaust art works being produced now. A radically dissimilar perspective colors Silas and Schorr’s projects: Silas focuses on the victims’ experiences and Schorr explores, in a performative, irreverent way, not the experience of the perpetrators but rather our twenty-first century relationship to the perpetrators. Yet despite these clear differences both Silas and Schorr use the landscape in productive ways as a means to explore traumatic history.