On the eve of great news for my project, I want to share with you a bit of what it took to envision and create Loss and Beauty.
Last month, while teaching at the Pacific Northwest Art School, I was asked a great question. After giving a successful presentation about the work and my path to bringing it to where it is now, I was asked, “what was the most difficult thing you had to overcome during this six year journey?” I quieted myself for a moment and then let loose the word that floated up – fear.
In 2010 I made my first trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. At that time there was not a plan to tour World War II sites…..it just unfolded that way. Even in the towns with no distinguishable WWII historic interest, there were small but poignant indicators of a tragedy that defies description.
In Celle, I discovered brass blocks that replaced paving stones in the sidewalks called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks). These brass markers, the project of an artist named Gunter Demnig, hold the name of a person that had lived on that street and was victimized by the Nazis during the war.
These stumbling blocks are just one example of how people have created remembrances. And they showed me that it was possible to engage the conversation of The Holocaust authentically.
The experience of visiting Bergen-Belsen was unsettling. There was a modern, stark, nearly sterile museum, information center, library and bookstore. In an exhibition in the visitors center I made a photograph of a painting, of railroad tracks. It was the image that spoke to me from all the paintings hanging. And then, upon leaving the museum, a clearing opened in a beautiful birch forest cloaked in autumnal glory. I was unprepared for this.
I walked through the meadows, saw traces of foundations being consumed by stands of slender birch trees, and came upon mounds of earth with markers telling how many bodies, approximately, were entombed in these small hills. Here and there were placed other markers, each covered with small stones, honoring a particular person or community. But the overall impression was of a gently rolling wide meadow. And except for the wind in the leaves of the birches, silence. No shouting, no sirens, no barking of dogs or pain-filled wailing.
Later, while editing photos from the day, in an effort to generate an understanding of how a place so beautiful could hold so much suffering, I layered a photo of the birch trees over the image of the painting of the railroad tracks. This gave me some peace, a small step toward reconciliation of what was with what is.
As I ventured deeper into Eastern Germany, and then into the Czech Republic I was sinking into quiet, unspeakably sad reflection.
Prague was a swirl of confusion for me. I could not appreciate its antiquity or artistic heritage. Prague had always been a center of intellectual, musical, literary, and artistic activity. All I could see was a tiny graveyard that held the remains and tombs of tens of thousands of people from 6 centuries. This graveyard is one of just a handful of Jewish cemeteries that survived desecration in World War II. Unable to photograph successfully, I decided to drive out to Terezin (known as Theresienstadt during World War II).
Once again, as in Bergen-Belsen, I was confronted by a different reality than I had imagined. But instead of lacking structures or edifices, the town of Terezin IS the concentration camp and it is still there. All of it. In fact, it is a town that sits, in my opinion, uneasily, on top a mountain of memory, of suffering and the inescapable intention of cruelty and destruction.
I was so disoriented by the living, breathing fact of this community that I had to leave the town and come back, looking again at the one small map of the town that gave the only indication of its former existence. And then I walked into the small museum and saw the artwork of the children that inhabited Terezin for that short time. Hundreds and hundreds of drawings, poems, little songs and paintings told a story of loss that no monument could conjure.
The memory of my time in Terezin grew stronger as the time away grew longer. As is my habit, I dove into reading, watching documentaries and movies, all in an effort to deepen my understanding of this place and time. The discovery of The Girls of Room 28, by Hannelore Brenner, was pivotal. Her stories about fourteen survivors, young girls, kindled the desire I had to return and make images that would speak to what was destroyed by hate. But the act of creating those images was also, for me, a way to honor their spirit and teaching. The Girls recall joy and happiness and laughter, often in the midst of the creative act; drawing, painting, making some poetry or acting in a play and attending recitals. These are memories that sustain them today as the creative acts did during their imprisonment and torture.
In November of 2011, I made my way back there, arriving on the day when exactly 70 years earlier, the first inhabitants were transported to Terezin. I thought ‘what a fitting beginning’.
Photographing that week, with intention, was nearly as difficult as my first visit there a year earlier. Ice and hoarfrost covered everything. The town was brooding and gray. The one warm spot was the hotel dining room, with my daily bowl of borscht and friendly but halting conversation with the young waiter.
At the end of the week I decided to drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was my thought that I should honor the victims that were transported from Terezin to their final destination by following the same route. Seven hundred kilometers later, in a fog and darkness that swallowed even the light of the street lamps, I arrived in Auschwitz.
The next morning I was alone in Auschwitz, the most visited Holocaust site in the world. For several hours I walked in the cold and silence. I marveled at the small size of a site that holds such huge connotations of evil in our history and memory. I was not afraid, but I was aware of the power of such cruel and shamelessly monstrous intent.
The following day I drove the short distance to Birkenau to encounter hatred on a completely different scale. The vastness that is Birkenau dwarfs the Auschwitz camp. This was more ‘familiar’ to me in my imagination. The size of the horror had some relation to the size of the camp.
Again, I walked and photographed, still completely alone. Perhaps it was the cold or time of year. As I was leaving, a group of high-school aged students arrived. Too boisterous, too loud, too plugged in to smart phones and ipods. I was angry at what I perceived was their disrespect. I still am. My ability to photograph meaningfully was over by that time and I drove the entire way back to Prague and boarded a plane.
Several weeks later, while editing my photos, the idea came to me, as it had a year earlier in Bergen Belsen, to layer my images together to illustrate the conversation that I perceived between Prague, Terezin and Auschwitz. I believe it is a conversation that continues to this day. It is one of searching, one of fear, and one of sadness, but ultimately one that illustrates the power of beauty/ love to overcome darkness and evil.
I found beauty among the loss and devastation. But the beauty arose from this suffering. It also arose from my own suffering and incomprehension. But in the moments when I was working, I was comforted and inhabited a different energy. Must we suffer to experience beauty? NO. But that does not mean that we can’t be aware that beauty can offer a light to dispel the darkness, if only for a brief time.
I returned six more times to the Czech Republic and Poland. Each time it grew more difficult to begin the journey. I knew the darkness that awaited. My final visit to photograph for the project coincided with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. A fitting bookend.
Without remembrance and the endeavor to create some sliver of understanding for each rising generation, we risk losing the ultimate victory….to ensure that it never happens again.
Back to last month on Whidbey Island:
The fear I spoke of that day in the classroom was fierce. Almost strong enough to prevent me from doing my work. My greatest fear was that I would offend someone, a survivor, or child or grandchild of a victim. That is why I spent a year immersing myself in the literature and biographies of the Holocaust. I was seeking a way in from a place that was as far removed as to be in another Universe. A childhood and most of a lifetime in rural West Virginia has its own struggles, but nothing, I thought, that enabled me to take up this subject. In the end I learned that the seeking heart that grew in that child’s body on her farm in West Virginia was all that was needed to create Loss and Beauty.
I was also afraid of the constant disapproval from family and friends. They didn’t want me to inhabit the darkness that they imagined I would encounter.
And I was afraid of failure. The process I went through is another story, but let me say that the fear of failure as well as the actual fact of failure time and again was always present. It never left me in the entire six years. I have beloved mentors who were never convinced the images were ‘right’ or ‘good enough’. They were certainly not convinced that the decision to composite the photographs was correct. But their resistance made the images better. It made me better. It made me stay with the project longer than I ever imagined I would and go deeper into learning and seeking to project myself into that time and place.
After the class where I said that fear was my greatest obstacle, I taught again the next week. I took my Photography of Intent class on a field trip across the Puget Sound. In a favorite writers shop and bookstore, I discovered a postcard to give to all of my students on our last day. It says, simply, ‘when we stop worrying, we can begin creating’. When I find these little messages, the synchronicity of affirmation, I know well they are meant for me as much as anyone else. But you see, that’s because we are each other’s mirrors. In fear, in trust, in beauty and ugliness, in the light and expansion of creativity and the darkness of shutting down into contraction. We each have the power to choose what we reflect.
The Girls of Room 28 were able to choose creativity and love and laughter, and mirror it for their friends, just often enough to sustain them. What would our world look like if we choose the light and expansion and energy of creating in the face of every bit of darkness we encounter?
And the great news for Loss and Beauty? It will be shown in The Jewish Museum of Maryland from March 5, 2017 until May 30, as part of an incredible exhibit titled Remembering Auschwitz. My images will hang with several other exhibits, including the original blueprints from Auschwitz, made available from Yad Vashem, and historical images from A Town Called Oswiecim. I am honored and thrilled that Loss and Beauty is making the long-awaited step up to a museum of this stature.
Thank you for joining me today. Please, share this blog if it has resonated with you…and then, stop worrying and go create!
For the latest information on Keron Psillas’ work, courses, mentoring program, photo tours in Europe, and the calendar for exhibits, and the award-winning book that accompanies Loss and Beauty, visit her websites: