As part of my continuing work on sites of the Holocaust, I have been investigating Belzec death camp which I will be visiting next month. Even with a place as large as Auschwitz-Birkenau, it’s hard to equate its size with the number of people killed there (1.1 million). Yet this appalling correlation of camp size to victims, is perhaps at its most disturbing in Belzec, where in a space of less than 300 metres by 300 metres, approximately 600,000 people perished. Death on this scale, on the open fields of battle is hard enough to imagine, yet it somehow seems all the more sickening in a place the size of Belzec (and one designed for the purpose). In order to ascertain just how big (or rather small) 300m x 300m is, I bought a pedometer and looked for somewhere in Oxford which might, more or less, equate with these dimensions. The closest I got to those dimensions was in Christ Church Meadow, which if anything was bigger. As I’ve already documented my continuing investigations on this subject I won’t add any more here, but I would like to explore further the idea of using the memory of a place to understand the wider past; something which I touched on in Postcards.
During my walks, I found myself recalling a raft of memories from my own past, triggered by the sites I saw as I travelled. Even a short walk around Christ Church Meadow (the length of which, in terms of time, was itself indicative of the horror and magnitude of the suffering at Belzec) opened the floodgates, not only for my own memories to pour through, but those of the city itself . Here I was, an individual with my own recollections, walking amongst the hundreds of thousands of memories of people long since dead from which the city is inevitably constructed – an interesting metaphor for the individual swallowed by the world stage; swallowed by the violence war.
As I have already written, but something it’s worth stating again, the Italian author Italo Calvino discusses memory and its relationship to a place in his book Invisible Cities. The city he says, consists of:
“…relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past; the height of a lamppost and the distance from the ground of a hanged usurper’s swaying feet; the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite and the festoons that decorate the course of the queen’s nuptial procession; the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat’s progress along it as he slips into the same window; the firing range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the guttering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time the story of the gunboat of the usurper, who some say was the queen’s illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there on the dock…”
Could it also be said, that there is a relationship between the measurement of spaces within the city and the events of the past elsewhere?