In the barracks at Birkenau my mother showed me the platform where she had slept, crammed together with a half-dozen others. The place was suddenly full of ghosts rushing in. Alone in there with my mother, we stood between the shadows and something much darker. In that decrepit barn, designed to hold fifty-two horses but instead housing eight hundred humans, I touched the wood of the twisted bunks lining the walls and caught my breath. I couldn’t focus the camera, couldn’t adjust to the fist in my stomach or the smell of the memory of urine and death. Yet I continued to photograph this simple person, this still-beautiful shadow of the child of three who had almost stopped looking toward the future.
As we walked slowly toward the train terminal, the air warmed and humidity followed us across the trampled grounds. My mother’s breathing was labored and rough as if she had been running away from a nightmare. When we arrived, the building was empty save for the distant echo of the boots worn by the SS as they moved up and down the stairs. We climbed toward the top of the guard tower that sits above the track, the whole of Birkenau spread at our feet. I hung back as we climbed, watching through a window as a police car pulled up in advance of the arrival of the queen of Denmark. I turned to see that my mother had moved ahead, as if poised to take flight.
Instinct took over and I pushed the shutter. The camera was my companion, an alter ego at the ready, seeking truth. The instances when that truth would reveal itself were impossible to predict, but I needed to be there, ready, as those random moments appeared. Maybe here in the tower was such an infinitesimal slice of clarity, rooted in my mother’s unwavering search for meaning. When I look at the picture of her in the guard tower I see her climbing to heaven. I see someone who is both alive and already dead, moving toward the light.
She began to speak, and as she described her aunts on their hands and knees, scrubbing the now-rotting steps leading to the second floor, it seemed that her persona altered, transformed by the kind of fleeting memory that leaves before it fully arrives. Suddenly she was grasping for words. With no vegetation in sight and just a few cracked tiles covered by the sooty evidence of where the coal was stored, the courtyard felt like a haunted place. Above us the sky had turned a milky white, suffusing the space with a silent glow.
As she stood bravely in that battered and crumbling enclosure my mother removed her glasses, her emotions welling up inside. We were alone in her reverie, me with my camera as a shield and she with her half-buried past pushing itself out, trying to break through. It seemed no one would find us here; no one could disturb the stillness.
When I look at these photos of her, visibly shaken in that dismal place, I imagine her as a girl of three, naïvely unaware of the cataclysmic events stretching out before her, playing and whispering and secure in her tiny universe. Undoubtedly that world had spun in a slower way, filled with promise and sweet noise.