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Rob Fitterman's 'Holocaust Museum,' Heimrad Backer's 'Transcript,' Christian Boltanski's 'To be a Jew in Paris in 1939,' and the documentary poetics of Raul Hilberg

coverRobert Fitterman's Holocaust Museum (Veer Books, 2011) is composed of sets of  captions from photographs in The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.  The absence of the images has a powerful effect, evoking the erasure of a people and a culture through the Systematic Extermination Process. Over the course of Fitterman's book, lists become litanies, with intricate and horrific repetitions rippling through what simultaneously seems like dryasdust clippings. Fitterman's work is exemplary in its apparently inexpressive, understated approach. Page after page of catalog entries without photographs, names without faces, deeds without doers creates a work  more chilling than the original installation, from which the captions are derived. Loss – erasure and absence – is made palpable by the marked suppression of the missing photographs.

The problems with representations "after Auschwitz" are well-rehearsed, hovering, like an angry hornet, around the crisis for representation posed by this particular series of catastrophic events and processes.  Images, no matter how disfigured, mask the unseen, unspoken, and inexplicable but always -- here's the hardest part -- imaginable, reality: imaginable in consequence of being real.  Imaginable yet ungraspable. Imaginable yet apparently out images' reach. Imaginable because we have no choice but to imagine, no matter how resistant our imaginations may be to the task. Imgined, in other words, through the not that Adorno called negative dialectics.

There is no medium more challenged by the taint and tain of  Khurbn's reification  than photography (Khurbn is Yiddish for destruction): Every scene depicted, including the documentary photos at the Holocaust Memorial Museum, strikes, like a blow to the mind, as fundamentally incommensurable, the surface of a surface.  You have heard it before: the familiar, in some ways comforting, lament that many Hollywood films – and many journalistic and novelistic works – have engaged in a voyeurism bordering on Nazi porn.  Comforting because, in a perverse way, such depictions humanize the Nazis, turning a cultural and ideological formation into caricatured sadists and so making it a matter of bad actors rather than "good" citizens. Inglorius BasterdsOne of the delights of Quentin Tarantino's 2009 movie Inglorious Basterds was that this problem was  exaggerated to such a great extent that it hilariously strikes its blows by refusing to transcend or sacralize the problem (let's say it histrionically tries to sublimate the resistance to the real into an artifice of fantasy).

Raul Hilberg's 1961 The Destruction of the European Jews stands as the monument against which any Shoah memorial needs be measured. While Hilberg's book is a magisterial work of historical scholarship, it is also one of the greatest 20th century works of documentary collage. The work's power is that, rather than offering a language  of denunciation,  or conjuring iconic images of terror, it painstakingly documents the bureaucratic and legal process that were the foundation of the Systematic Extermination Process. Hannah Arendt, partly relying on Hilberg's work, famously described this as the "banality of evil"; but what Hilberg reveals might better be called bloodlessness systematicity and bureaucratic/legalistic relentlessness. Hillberg tells rather than shows; this is the genius of his work. 

I have written before about how Raymond Federman's Take It or Leave It (1976) and Jerome Rothenberg's Khurbn (1989)  punch enough holes in the representations to breathe some life into their key works.

In Holocaust Museum, Rob Fitterman organizes the gleaned captions into 17  categories, listed in the table of contents. These categories are his own invention; they do not conform to the archive's categories:

Table of Contents
Family Photographs      
Burning of Books           
The Science of Race           
Concentration Camps           
Zyklon B Canisters           
Gas Chambers                       
Mass Graves                       
American Soldiers           

This brings to mind the 12 categories Charles Reznikoff uses in his Holocaust, poems that use legal documents from the Nuremberg trials (see Reznikoff's Voices, my related essay on Reznikoff's book):

Gas Chambers and Gas Trucks
Works Camps
Mass Graves

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's web  photo archive has a very different set of categories:

  • Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust
  • The rise to power of the Nazi movement in Germany and Austria
  • The flight of European refugees from Nazi Germany and refugee communities around the world
  • Nazi racial science and the propaganda campaign against Jews, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), and the mentally and physically handicapped
  • Nazi anti-Jewish policy in the 1930s, from the boycott through Kristallnacht
  • Nazi persecution of Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political dissidents, Poles, and Soviet prisoners of war
  • The invasion and occupation of eastern and western Europe
  • The roundup, deportation, and resettlement of European Jewry
  • The mass shootings conducted by mobile killing squads
  • Ghettos, concentration camps, and killing centers
  • Nazi collaborators and satellite states
  • Resistance, rescue, and life in hiding during the Holocaust
  • The liberation of Europe and the disclosure of Nazi concentration camps
  • The war crimes trials
  • The displaced persons camps
  • Legal and illegal immigration to Palestine
  • Postwar immigration to the Americas

The museum's photo archive has almost 18,000 images on the web, so Fitterman's selection for his 120-page book is very selective indeed.

Here is Fitterman's section called "Uniforms":


The striped skirt of a prison uniform worn at the Auschwitz concentration camp. [Photograph #N00077]

Studio portrait of Buchenwald survivor wearing a prisoner uniform. [Photograph #29049]

Prisoners' clothing and uniforms hang outside the crematorium in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. [Photograph #62251]

A child survivor in a uniform stands smiling amid the rubble of Nordhausen concentration camp. [Photograph #42050]

The striped overcoat of a prison uniform worn at the Buchenwald concentration camp bearing a purple triangle on the number patch. [Photograph #N00268]

 View of a huge pile of prisoner uniforms in front of a row of barracks in the newly liberated Dachau concentration camp. [Photograph #62246]

Joseph Schleifstein, wearing his old Buchenwald uniform, is interviewed by a journalist. [Photograph #07230]

View of the door to the gas chamber at Dachau next to a large pile of uniforms. [Photograph #31327]

Portrait of Albert Levy in his scout uniform. [Photograph #49490]

Display of concentration camp prisoner uniforms in the permanent exhibition of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. [Photograph #N02490]

Alexander Markon in French military uniform. [Photograph #40057]

Portrait of a Jewish boy dressed in his school uniform. [Photograph #23372]

A German soldier with an accordian performs together with a guitarist who is not in uniform. [Photograph #43110]

Portrait of Yaakov Shapira in his British uniform. [Photograph #97186]

Survivors from an unidentified concentration camp, most of whom are still in uniform, pose for a group photograph. [Photograph #24896]

Fitterman's "Uniforms" has 15 entries -- every caption has that key word. A search of the museum archive under the key word "uniforms" shows 562 items. Here is the first set:

"Uniforms (soldiers)" has 185 items in a search of this key word. The first set displays this, with Fitterman's first being the fourth:


and here is the entry for Fitterman's fourth entry:

Fitterman has three epigraphs for Holocaust Museum:

This space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences.
––Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography
A woman came with her little daughter
and S.S. men were there one morning
and took the child away:
a mother was forbidden to keep her child with her.
––Charles Reznikoff, Holocaust
auschwitz telephones
no. 18
no. 45
no. 17
no. 33
no. 21
 ––Heimrad Bäcker, Transcript

With these epigraphs, Fitterman specifically ackowledges two key precedents for this work, Reznikoff's Holocaust and Backer's Transcript.

Dalkey Archive published Bäcker's book in 2010, with an English translation by Vincent Kling, Patrick Greaney, and edited by Friedrich Achleitner. Heimrad Bäcker (1925-2003) was an Austrian poet associated with the Vienna Group and also concrete poetry (Heissenbuttel, Gombringer, Jandl, Mayrocker, and Priessnitz come to mind). Transcript, first published in 1986, is a work made up entirely of quotations or citations (collages of found texts, as Walter Benjamin envisioned), which are often visually arranged in a manner that resembles the grid lists of concrete poetry. These found linguistic shards confront, without summarizing or representing, the Systemic Extermination. In contrast to Reznikoff's elegiac event-moments in Holocaust, Bäcker's source texts (which overlap with those used by Reznikoff) are sampled, fragmented, constellated. Narrative is under erasure, but ineradicable. Trasnscript's sources are documented in notes that form an integral part of the text.  Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews is prominent among the works appropriated for the poem, which feels like a long cut-up of that work, or to put it a different way, a "diastic" reading of Hilberg (to use Jackson Mac Low's term for reading through a source text). But, in fact, there are many and various sources. Unlike Hilberg and Reznikoff, Bäcker was in the Hitler Youth, and this biographical fact, not explicit in the work, affects the reading in a way that is exemplary of how such external factors always frame meaning. Achleitner's and Greaney's commentaries are excellent; and Greaney has an informative essay on the work, "Aestheticization and the Shoah" in the Winter 2010 (37:1) issue of New German Critique. Let me quote one key passage, on "gibberish," from this article:

Most of the entries in nachschrift isolate their quotations on an otherwise blank page, and each quotation is documented in an endnote. Most of the entries quote between one and three sentences, such as this single sentence that can serve as an introductory example for Bäcker’s method: “ich muss, wenn ich die dinge rasch erledigen will, mehr transportzüge bekommen” (“i need more freight trains if i’m going to take care of things quickly”). The endnote reveals that the source is a 1943 letter from Heinrich Himmler. The sentence’s failure to mention the purpose of the required trains is put in relief by the terse, explicit vocabulary of the cropped quotation on the facing page:

(I) . . .
(II) . . .
(III)  an der verfolgung und ausrottung
1. ihre ermordung
2. ihre konzentration
3. . . 4

[(I) . . .
(II) . . .
(III)  in the persecution and eradication
1. their murder
2. their concentration
3. . . .4]

The note tells us that these lines are taken from an index of a book on the trials of camp administrators. Bäcker omits some of the items in the index, and he cites the superscript reference 4 without supplying the note to which it refers, thereby explicitly registering the relation of nachschrift to a larger, absent body of writing as well as the fact that this link is broken.

These few entries already allow for a summary of Bäcker’s method: quotation, documentation, isolation, abbreviation, and, in some cases, modification. Bäcker slightly modifies 43 entries, as in the quotation from the index, in which some terms from the original have been omitted; most of these alterations are indicated as such in the notes. The passages that he distorts the most are from Nazi leaders, as in this pastiche of Mein Kampf: “only when a nation in all its members to that high sentiment someday forged together unshakable any exuberant force by fate for the greatest revolutionary changes on this earth fanatical passion to the benefit of aryan humanity some day a race ripe for the last and greatest the crown burn into.” By putting together short quotations of only a few words, Bäcker turns Mein Kampf into what he would call Kauderwelsch (gibberish), a key term for understanding the method of nachschrift. In a short paragraph that he inserts as an introduction to the endnotes, Bäcker explains his method and describes his most extreme modification of sources as creating a “methodisches Kauderwelsch, das ein Leben kostendes Kauderwelsch reproduziert” (methodical gibberish that reproduces a deadly gibberish). The use of the term Kauderwelsch, here and in other Bäcker texts, reveals something essential about his method and about the relation between his texts and his source material.

 [– originally posted to my "Web Log"  5/5/10]

Christian Boltanski

Related to these works in/around/about Khurbn is Christian Boltanski's, "Les habitants de l'hôtel de Saint-Aignan en 1939" ("To be a Jew in Paris in 1939"), an installation on the walls of the small courtyard a visitor enters after buying a ticket and passing through the full-scale security check at the Musée d'art et d'histoire du Judaisme in Paris. Boltanski has posted the names, birthplace, professions, and sometimes deportation dates of the 80 French Jews who lived in the building that currently houses the museum – marking a ghostly presence of those exterminated during the war.  As you move through the museum and look out the window, you see these names pasted to the wall.



Here, finally,  are two more sections from Fitterman's exemplary Holocaust Museum:

Prof. Elster poses with his students at the Furstenberg Gymnasium in Bedzin. [Photograph #16586]

The Tichauer family poses for a family photo in the German countryside. [Photograph #57762]

A Saturday night party at the home of Dina Weidenberg. [Photograph #39262]
 A group of friends goes sledding in the shtetl. [Photograph #39090]
 Prewar photograph of an extended Jewish family in Krakow gathered around a table for a family celebration. [Photograph #74921]

Group portrait of the Ovici family, a family of Jewish dwarf entertainers who survived Auschwitz. [Photograph #59966]

A German-Jewish family poses outdoors for a family portrait with their dog. [Photograph #69297]
Members of five Jewish refugee families look out from the windows of their adjoining apartments. [Photograph #24721]
 A group of young people pose outdoors in the snow. [Photograph #39631]
Fourth grade class picture. [Photograph #40640]


 Two young Gypsy children embrace while a third looks on. [Photograph #66316]
A soldier stands behind two barefoot men. [Possibly a member of the Ustasha militia guarding two Serbs or Gypsies during a round-up. [Photograph #46458]
Close-up of a Gypsy couple sitting in an open area in the Belzec concentration camp. [Photograph #07078]
A group of Gypsy prisoners, awaiting instructions from their German captors, sit in an open area near the fence in the Belzec concentration camp. [Photograph #74705]
 View of the Roma (Gypsy) display featuring a dress from Czechoslovakia, on the fourth floor of the permanent exhibition in the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. [Photograph #N02389]
Detail of the Gypsy wagon and violin displayed on the fourth floor of the permanent exhibition at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. [Photograph #N02388]
Composite photograph of items of apparel used by female members of a German Sinti (Gypsy) tribe, including two skirts, a blouse, a purse and a pair of shoes. [Photograph #N00506]
 A Gypsy child in Rivesaltes. The photo's original caption reads "Don't touch me!" [Photograph #30081]
Civilians walk among the bodies that have been removed from the Iasi death train. [Photograph #91671]
 A German soldier stands guard in front of a castle. Pictured is Kurt Winterstein a member of the donor's family. He was one of Hitler's personal drivers. When the Nazis found out that his mother was Gypsy they took him out of the army and sterilized him. [Photograph #33333]
A Gypsy woman stands outside of a caravan with a group of children. [Photograph #33338]