In 2016, I drove from Berlin, Germany through Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia. I had lived in the former East Berlin for four years during the 90’s and traveled extensively, including a few weeks in what turned out to be the final year of the Soviet Union. My initial stay in the 90’s was informed by the loss of my father as a teenager. Despite keeping up _appearances after his death, I felt hollowed out by loss, alienated, and deeply alone. When I first crossed the East German checkpoint in 1988, I felt emotionally at home for the first time since his death. It was to me as though loss was in the air in East Berlin. What I had been internally experiencing was now reflected back at me in the buildings and in the people, all without the superficial trappings of western consumer culture. It seemed the grief people carry came naturally to the surface in a way that reverberated, creating for me an internal echo. During my years photographing in the 90’s, I purposefully eschewed western historical analysis in favor of raw, first-hand experience.
Decades later, I began reading new historical perspectives on the synergy between Hitler and Stalin’s terror as inflicted upon the people of the region between 1932-1945. Perhaps the single most important idea for my understanding of the countries I visited is the way Hitler and Stalin’s combined efforts at destroying government states led to a moral vacuum that subsequently afforded the Germans and their accomplices the opportunity to shift the moral ledger and conduct the mass killings that ensued. Historian Timothy Snyder refers to the region east of Berlin and west of Moscow as _“the Bloodlands”, an area where purposeful policies of mass murder implemented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union killed 14 million non-combatants, including 5.6 million Jews: Central to Eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Western Russia, and the Baltics.
As my scope of the loss of lives widened beyond my American, Cold War educated perspective, I found myself compelled to visit some of the places off the beaten path that were the locus of Hitler and Stalin’s murderous activities. I wanted to experience how these places felt now, what their historical residues evoked for me emotionally were I in those spaces. I sought to understand this particular history through a phenomenological experience beyond text and I also chose to _document photographically what I saw and felt as a means of participating in the stream of understanding.
I decided to photograph in and around four cities in Poland (Lodz, Warsaw, Lublin, and Bialystok), as well as Minsk, _Belarus; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Riga, Latvia. I had previously visited Lviv, Ukraine in 2013 and I intended to also visit Kiev on this trip, however I was turned away at the border. In particular, I sought to visit the Majdanek camp in Lublin, the Ponary woods outside of Vilnius, and the Bikernieku woods outside Riga –all places of mass murder which have subsequently been re-incorporated into daily life, to one degree or another –be it through commemoration or otherwise.
Being fluent in German and driving from Berlin directly to each of these killing sites in a unique land where I was neither familiar with the culture nor the language gave me the eerie feeling of what it might have been like as a Wehrmacht _soldier in 1941 deployed from Germany during Hitler’s push East. This definitely came to me as both a surprise and left me aghast, as I was certainly not looking to develop empathy for the perpetrators so much as I was trying to understand the gravity of the loss they inflicted. I contextualized this experience by reflecting on Synder’s reasoned approach in his book Bloodlands, “It is tempting to say a Nazi murderer is beyond the pale of our understanding. To yield to this _temptation, to find other people to be inhuman, is to take a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position. To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding, and thus to abandon history.”
Further ideas that helped un-lodge my unspoken, American, WWII victor-perspective include Adam Hochschild’s article, American Devilry, including analysis of James Q. Whitman’s book Hitler’s American Model. Hochschild writes, “when the leading Nazi jurists assembled in early 1934 to debate how to institutionalize racism in the new Third Reich, they began by asking how the Americans did it”. In 1935, a delegation of forty-five Nazi lawyers visited the US to study our legal models for race law, which led directly to Nazi legislation of the Nuremburg Laws, codifying Nazi German race law.
In another essay discussing Theodore Porter’s book Genetics in the Madhouse, David Oshinsky writes that in the early part of the twentieth century, “tens of thousands of prisoners and asylum inmates would be sterilized in the United States, with the full approval of the nation’s highest court. What began in America as statistical cover for elitist bigotry, would wind up providing the bedrock for Nazi science, “moving beyond incarceration and sterilization to mass murder”.”
That some of the Third Reich’s policies were inspired by American example is furthered in Timothy Synder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder unpacks Hitler’s term lebensraum (living space), which contained both a social and biological meaning, eg. one’s living room at home and also the larger land available for habitation. In regards to the social aspect, Hitler wrote, “Through modern technology and the communication it enables… Europeans take the circumstances of American life as the benchmark for their own lives”. And more cryptically, one of the civilian heads of the German East Africa colonial office (circa 1900) wrote, “The history of colonization of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavor the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” Hitler, believing that racism was an asserted hierarchy of rights to the planet, applied the biological notion of lebensraum to Europeans who lived east of Germany in order to satisfy the social notion of rising material standards at home in Germany. Snyder writes, “Tens of millions of people died in Hitler’s war not so that Germans could live, but so that Germans could pursue the _American dream in a globalized world”.
“Our conversation with history… is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our _brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.” –W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
“Our forgetfulness convinces us that we are different from Nazis by shrouding the ways that we are the same”.
–Timothy Snyder, Black Earth