Two years ago, the Imperial War Museum approached me to make a miniature representational model of Auschwitz-Birkenau for their forthcoming Holocaust Exhibition. This model was to focus on the selection ramp where trains pulled up on a specially built spur line to discharge prisoners to virtually certain death. The purpose of the model was to be educational. It was not to be a memorial. The brief was to make it no longer than 12 metres and no wider than 2 metres and it was to be all in white. It was to show in a frozen moment, the processing of people. Prisoners disembarking from the wagons, queuing for selection and being separated, some to join a workforce and many, unknowingly, are walking a kilometre or so towards the gas chambers. This may sound a straightforward enough brief, but it was not. As an artist and designer, having often to come up with new concepts, I was now faced with a project that required me to look much further than my own creative resources. I was to examine some of the darkest hours of 20th century history and make them come alive again in order to tell a story. A different kind of art for me. I was humbled and challenged.
The first thing to do was practical. Put aside the horror and concentrate on the facts, of which the basics are well enough known. Trains arrived at Auschwitz in occupied Poland from as far away as Salonika in Greece. In them people, young and old, male and female were packed together in all weathers for as long as 10 days with little or no space, water, food or hygiene. They were mostly Jews, but there were also Poles, Soviet captives, Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents and every other variety of deviant from Nazi norms. Auschwitz was only one of many killing camps. Its distinction was to be conveniently situated at the heart of Hitler’s Europe and so the murder factory most easily fed with its raw material, human beings. Someone who arrived there faced only two prospects: an immediate death from Zyclon B pellets dropped into a gas chamber or a slower death from hard labour in atrocious conditions of overwork, starvation, beatings and torture. More than a million died at Auschwitz alone. Only a few escaped or survived, and I met some of them.
I started researching the project, beginning with the architecture and landscape of the camp so as to ensure complete accuracy. This was not easy. The Nazis had tried to destroy the evidence of their crimes. As the Soviet armies approached Auschwitz in 1945, barracks were torched; gas chambers and crematoria blown up and prisoners – those with enough energy to walk – were marched away. As well as evidence from aerial reconnaissance by allied planes, some plans and photographs survived in Nazi archives and these were made available to us from the museum. Most of the photographic evidence was unrevealing. Few showed Nazi troops and almost none any hint of brutality. A single blurry, almost indecipherable, shot taken by brave and ingenious prisoners showed a group of women stripped off and heading at a run towards the gas chambers. Two other pictures showed naked and burning bodies being handled by a wretched Sonderkommando of Jewish prisoners, who earned an extension of their own lives by burning the dead for their SS masters.
There was one vivid exception to this predominantly blank record: an album of photographs taken at Auschwitz by what is understood to be a couple of SS photographers on 22 May 1944. It shows the arrival and dispersal of a trainload of Jews from Berehovo in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. The circumstances of the album’s recovery are as mysterious as its making. Among those on the train that day was the 18-year-old Lili Jacob, the only one of her numerous families to survive. She finished the war in a subsidiary camp called Mittelbau-Dora, 500 miles away near Nordhausen in Germany.
By the time she was liberated by the Americans, Lili had contracted typhus. She sought refuge in the newly emptied SS barracks. Poking around for something warm to wear, she found a pyjama top in a cupboard. Wrapped inside was the album. She opened the book and to her amazement she came across photographs of herself and her community taken on the day they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She kept the book as the only memento of her family and after 11 years gave it to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. As part of my brief, I had to now make sense of it and recreate it. For the model was to show the events of the day recorded in the album.
I then decided to visit Auschwitz-Birkenau itself. I needed to make connections to the album, measure everything I could and study the terrain so that the model would be as physically accurate as possible. With help from Teresa Swiebocka, curator of the Auschwitz State Museum, I examined the two sites: the main camp of Auschwitz in a former Polish army barracks and Auschwitz-Birkenau, purpose built for the victims of the Third Reich. The odd thing about being in Auschwitz-Birkenau was that, while I expected to be overwhelmed with horror, I was simply numbed. There is little resonance of evil in what has been left behind. The place was not designed to express its purpose – like a church or a bank – but on the contrary, to conceal it. The scatter of shoddy buildings that survive does not make a setting for extreme evil. If you passed the place you probably wouldn’t notice it. Even the gatehouse, one of the icons of 20th century terror, is a rather small utilitarian brick building, hardly concealing the vast bleak fields with their clinical rows of freestanding chimneystacks and surrounding barbed wire.
I immersed myself in the Holocaust: speaking with survivors, listening to tape recordings and studying many books and testimonials. Most of them made very grim reading. But what really struck me were the histories and lives of people and their communities before they reached Auschwitz. To be removed from these lives was the start of a process repeated throughout Nazi Europe. People were singled out, snatched from their homes, robbed of their possessions, herded into ghettos and then forced into trains. The Nazis tried to strip them of their identity. They were rich and poor, young and old, men and women, sophisticated Berlin intellectuals and peasants from the countryside, criminals and those who had given pre-Hitler Germany proud service. Whoever they had been no longer mattered to the Nazis. But they now mattered to me. Each time I placed a tiny figure on the ramp or along the road towards the gas chamber, I felt as if I knew whom they were and what mattered about them was not where they were going but what they left behind. This project for me was more about life than about death.
Some of the prisoners had already died days before the train pulled in at Auschwitz-Birkenau with Lili and the Jews of her ghetto. The model represents only one part of the process. It shows as faithfully as possible the arrival of that train through the gatehouse and all the obscene rituals that followed: disembarkation, selection by sex, health and age and dispatch to slow or sudden death. Even the dumping of luggage for removal to the ‘Canada’ barracks – ‘the land of plenty’ – an ironic title given to the sheds in which prisoners’ luggage was stored so that they could be looted later. Halfway along the model, a column of women judged fit to work is being marched away from the arriving train. At the far end, another column is being marched to Crematorium 2 on their left, while to their right a column of old and unfit men and boys are being herded down the steps of Crematorium 3, expecting a shower but in reality to be gassed. When I placed the last figure on the ramp, I stood back and was astonished to discover how clinical and graphic everything looked. Rows and rows of barbed wire, ditches, barracks and thousands of people adding yet another texture to the overall bleakness. Here are people queuing, just as if for a bus or a football match.
But sheer numbers also have a vitality of their own and the process does not end. The scene frozen in the model was followed by many others and for the people in them, mostly of an unimaginable horror. Not all of them died. Some survived but none of us, I hope, will ever have to endure their terror. Like them, though we cannot know what lies ahead. Greater forces gather momentum and overwhelm us.
But the process of life continues, with all its accidents and chances. That process has included for me, the chance to study and express something of the horror of one particularly dark phase of the human story. It has been, against the odds perhaps, an enriching, even improving experience. In a profound way, it has stretched me greatly as an artist and touched me deeply as a human being.