As Tom White stood before the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate that now serves as a symbol of the Nazi cruelty to the million-plus lives murdered throughout World War II, he found himself for the first time bothered by the people surrounding him.
“As I was thinking about that at the gate, I noticed a lot of young kids taking out their cell phones and taking selfies in front of the Arbeit Macht Frei gate — smiling. For the first time, I was deeply offended . . . Here, it was real and it was different,” White described.
“One can visit Auschwitz — one can never be in Auschwitz,” a suitable mantra White referenced several times throughout his presentation, “The Power of Place: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II” on Jan. 21, at Keene Public Library’s Heberton Hall.
White, the coordinator of educational outreach for Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, was given the opportunity to act as an observer for the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliations, Raphael Lemkins Seminar for Genocide Prevention in Poland this past winter break.
As a member of KSC’s department of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, White said he felt it necessary to bring what he experienced in Auschwitz back to America and to anyone who is willing to listen.
His emphasis on what he referred to as “the moral universe” of the Holocaust’s perpetrators became a core focus throughout the hour and a half.
“We approach it through the lens of human choices, and in this case, this presentation tries to get at a concept that’s very uncomfortable to all of us. The fact that most of the perpetrators were normal people who do extraordinarily evil things,” White explained.
In what turned into an interactive discussion between audience members and White, there was a resounding sense of agreement that the idea of real people committing these crimes and real people succumbing to them was a lost thought throughout the war.
One audience member, who explained she was familiar with the Holocaust, noted, “After the camp was liberated, they made all the citizens in that area go through the camp, because like you [White] said, I don’t think they really actually understood what was going on right in front of them . . . It’s an important story for the world to know.”
White’s presentation differentiated from the norm in the way he chose to incorporate his pictures.
He noted that the decision to include pictures in the presentation at all was a back and forth struggle, as he questioned, “How does one encounter this space?”
He explained, “For me, it was really — I mean, I took all these photographs, debating whether I should even photograph a murder site at all, and so I just numbly took them. I got home and I said what do I do with this? How do I share this experience?”
“I think an important way to look at this is to recognize that no, this isn’t your suffering and no, this isn’t your place. To recognize that this suffering belonged to somebody else. And if you can do that, you can have enough distance to recognize the story,” White continued, referring back to the story of the selfie from the beginning of his presentation.
White stated that he typically advises the Holocaust and Genocide Studies department not to use many of the photos taken from the camps, as they were usually taken by the Nazis — the viewers were essentially viewing exactly what the Nazis wanted them to view, he explained.
One woman in the audience questioned this stance, as she explained, “For some of us, those Nazi photographs are the only images people have of people they know. Even though we recognize how they were used, for people whose material history is gone, those images, as awful as they are, are really the only things that exist.”
White acknowledged her stance and went on to explain that his viewpoint was somewhat transformed after his time oversea.
“I realized a lot of my photographs mirror images I’ve seen that the Nazis took in 1944 in the camp itself. So I began to interplay their images off of mine and they now started to make sense to me in ways they never had before,” White explained.
Placing the pictures he took while he was there with pictures from the identical spot 50 years prior, White’s overlapping managed to create an eerie time capsule, allowing onlookers to acquire a greater feel of the “contested space,” as he put it, that is Auschwitz.
White concluded his presentation with a story from a survivor.
The survivors parents forced him out of the window of a cattle car when the reality of their situation became apparent.
“He says he remembers — he’s just a little kid [at the time of the story] — he says he wanted a moment of goodbye. ‘I had no idea what was going on and as they shoved me out the window, I looked at my dad and I wanted one moment of goodbye and my dad said, ‘Be a good person.’ And that was his life charge,” White recalled.
He continued, “So, the family goes and dies in the camps, the boy grows up with no family, could have been filled with hate, justified and justifiable vengeance and instead he did just the opposite. He lived his father’s charge — to be a good person.”
Alexa Ondreicka can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org