Blackpaint 21

Last word on Balka for now

I think he was right not to specify how people should behave when visiting his big black box.  I saw on my second visit that a notice had gone up, asking visitors not to take photos or brandish mobile phones when inside the box, but I have an idea that it was the Tate people responding to complaints, rather than the artist – maybe I’m wrong.  

A couple of years ago, I visited Auschwitz – Birkenau with a group of college students.  It was a freezing day in November, we’d flown in overnight and sleet was being driven against us by a biting wind.  The visit was gruelling emotionally, of course,  and physically; there was a short service with readings and candles were lit and left on the railway tracks within the camp.

Like anyone who has had charge of a group of teenagers in such circumstances, I had been a little worried in case they should forget themselves and behave in an “inappropriate way”, during the long day; the site was full of young people from all over the world and some of them were pretty rowdy.  As it happened, my lot were fine.

As we walked back in the dusk, over the cinders  along the railway line, towards that square tower with the arch, I heard the kids chatting together and now and then laughing at some remark  and it struck me that I wasn’t scandalised at all (nor were any of the other adults); it seemed OK, even though we were where we were, between the barbed wire and the observation towers.  If it were being filmed, I suppose it would have been shocking to see youngsters chatting and laughing in the context but I don’t think they were being disrespectful; It’s very hard at that age to stay solemn for hours on end.  In any case, solemnity and reverence were not the objects of the visit.

The “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign, which was stolen, has been recovered in three bits and arrests made:  I understand why its theft was desecration, but it seems ironic that this sign, itself a mockery and form of desecration, has become so important as a symbol of the Holocaust.  I didn’t know that the same sign was used over the entrance at other concentration camps; the explanation I read was that it was part of the illusion the Nazis tried to create, that these were work camps, not extermination camps.  Maybe so, but I suspect many Nazis thought it was true in some perverted way; and I remember reading in Anne Applebaum’s book on the Gulag that Soviet camps had something similar over the entrance (must look it up).  The difference is that, for the most part,  the Soviet ones were labour camps, even though millions of prisoners died in them over 70 years or so.

Back to normal trivialities tomorrow.



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