“Look, trees exist.
The houses we live in continue to stand. Only we
pass away like air traded for air and everything
conspires to maintain silence about us, perhaps
half out of shame, half out of unspeakable hope.”
For over 10 years, my work has, in part, examined the theme of empathy ; in particular our ability to empathise with those in the distant – and not so distant – past. My interest in this theme developed following visits I made to sites of the Holocaust as well as the battlefields of World War I.
One of the things I noticed at these sites and later when researching their history, were the trees. The trees at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Belzec. Those at High Wood on the Western Front and on the writhing battlefields of Verdun.
I’ve written extensively about trees and sites of trauma, entries for which can be found here. What this project aims to do is use trees as a means of empathising with those who lived and died often many years before we were born. One of the difficulties we have in imagining people lost to the past, is the fact that so often they are little more than names, or numbers in a count of victims. We might encounter people in old, black and white photographs, but often it’s hard to imagine them as people with a past – with memories. People who saw colour and moved through life exactly as we do today.
In his book, Trees – Woodlands and Western Civilization, archaeologist Richard Hayman writes: “…the forest provides the setting for chance encounters that take the protagonists away from their everyday lives. The woodland is the gateway to a parallel reality of the underworld, but it is also a refuge where the real world is held in limbo.”
“Woods,” he says, “are poised between reality and imagination…” They have “roots in the ground and reach up to the sky linking earth with heaven.” They “span many lifetimes” and in this sense can be seen to link the past and present too.
This brings me onto Adam Czerniakow, a figure I have discussed extensively in relation to my work. (See: The Woods, Breathing)
As I wrote in that blog: For almost three years, Adam Czerniakow was ‘mayor’ of the Warsaw Ghetto. One of the inspirations for this work is a line taken from his diary, which he kept whilst living in Warsaw in occupied Poland from 1939 to his death in 1942. On September 14th 1941 he wrote:
In Otwock. The air, the woods, breathing.
On occasion, Czerniakow was allowed to leave the ghetto to visit the Jewish Sanatorium at Otwock just outside Warsaw. It was one place he could find some respite from the horror and torment he endured in the ghetto.
The woods then were a place in which he could ‘escape’ the horrors of life under Nazi occupation. He would also seek escape in books, and one night, on January 19th 1940, he wrote in his dairy:
…During the night I read a novel, ‘Pilgrims of the Wild’ – Grey Owl… The forest, little wild animals – a veritable Eden.
A quote I’ve often used from Paul Fussell is worth repeating here:
…if the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of pastoral.
Which brings me back to the question I’ve been considering for so many years; how is it possible for me, in, as Fussell suggests, ‘proposing moments of pastoral’ to make work about the experience of war, especially when that experience is far beyond the limits of my own experience?
This opposition between war and pastoral is there in the line about Otwock. It’s there too in Czerniakow’s reading of Grey Owl’s book set in the wilds of Canada. The question is, how can proposing moments of pastoral, enable us to bridge the divide between now and then, between those who suffered the horrors of Wold War I and the Holocaust and those of us who read about them now?
In the videos for this project, we see the shadows of trees moving. The trees which cast them, along with the woods, are missing, lost with the day on which they were filmed to the past. The sun too which made the shadows is absent. Yet as we watch the shadows move, we can easily imagine the trees; the colours of the leaves, the sound they made in the wind. We can feel the sun and perhaps hear the birds in the branches. How? Because it’s something we have each experienced many times before, just like those who lived long before us -just like Adam Czerniakow in the woods at Otwock.
And, in these imagined woods, poised between imagination and reality, we can meet with reality; the reality of the fact that along with six million other jews, Adam Czerniakow lived.