By Keron Psillas
Last summer, while teaching at the Pacific Northwest Art School, I was asked a great question. After giving a presentation about my project, Loss and Beauty, 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, a white anglo-saxon Protestant from West Virginia, 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.
To read the complete column, please see the magazine.