One of the last living Auschwitz guards is to go on trial soon so we spoke to Paweł Szypulski, curator of a harrowing book about concentration camp postcards.
This article originally appeared on VICE Poland
Now that you can call or email anyone, at any time, the effort of sending holiday postcards—buying and writing a note to your loved ones—feels somehow beautiful to me.
Not too long ago, after my interest in postcards piqued, I learned about the ones from Auschwitz, first sent in 1946—a year after the Jewish prisoners were rescued. I'd visited the Nazi extermination camp once, but never noticed any gift shops there. Even if there were postcards to buy, I wouldn't have known how to communicate from a genocidal death camp—what do you write? "All things considered, I'm doing fine"? Would you send a postcard from a place built to literally wipe out an entire generation? Well, there are even more questionable things you could send from a concentration camp, I suppose.
How long it takes to turn a concentration camp into a tourist attraction was the first thing on my mind when I read Paweł Szypulski's book Greetings from Auschwitz. Szypulski, a Polish artist and curator, pulled together a collection of postcards that were sent by tourists who visited the horrifying site. On the postcards, readers find messages ranging from mundane reports on the weather to politically-incorrect jokes: a "shipment of warm greetings from Auschwitz" accompanies an image of a death block, for example.
I sat down with Szypulski, to talk about human nature in the face of death and trauma, as well as his fascinating text.
VICE: How did you manage to find the postcards and how long did it take to collect them?
Paweł Szypulski: I started this project eight years ago. When I first found out about the existence of these postcards, I was looking for a way to get to them—intuitively I started with antique shops and flea markets. Pretty quickly, that turned out to be an extremely time-consuming, or even barely possible, method. I ended up buying all the postcards on an auction site. Basically every two weeks I set myself the task of typing "Oświęcim"—Polish for Auschwitz—into the postcards section of that auction site, searching through and only buying the postcards marked as "circulated"—those that had been written on, postmarked and sent. I was interested in the ones with greetings, because they had a story to them.
How did you choose what went into the book? What was your pattern you use any type of pattern in making a selection for the book?
I mostly wanted it to be a showcase of my collection's variety, of everything I managed to find. After creating an archive of postcards, I then had to figure out how to order them. The sequence of the postcards in the book is a story itself; when readers are going through Greetings from Auschwitz's pages, they are taking part in a "journey" through the Auschwitz death camp; from the gates, through the barracks and barbed wires to the gas chambers and crematorium. The same journey we repeat in Birkenau.
Are these postcards from all over Poland?
Indeed, what's interesting they were also sent from different places. Some cards were bought in the town of Oświęcim, but a few were from some museum's branch. It seems those postcards were available in other places besides the death camp. I remember as child I was on a holiday in the Polish Kashubian region in some sort of open-air museum, and I noticed they were selling postcards—with an image of sun setting through a barbed wire—from Stutthof concentration camp.
Have you ever contacted any of the senders and addressees from the death camp postcards?
I haven't and I never intended to. I wasn't looking for them because this project is not about specific senders or addressees—it is about all of us, people who live in a post-Auschwitz Holocaust world. The first thing I did when I started this project was cover up the names of the addressees. Not because it's illegal to breach their privacy, but because I didn't want to associate Greetings from Auschwitz with specific people. This project is not judgmental. It's not about pointing fingers with moral superiority over people who send the postcards from Auschwitz, or some kind of reproach.
Don't you think that the fact that the death camp postcards exist is somewhat offensive to the survivors, who lost their loved ones in the Holocaust, possibly whole families?
It was the first thing that hit me—the enormous impropriety of the postcards. I could not understand them. How can you not only send one, but to even produce it? That was what got me into this project. Nowadays though, I have more complex attitude toward it. I'm finding more questions with time.
The first postcard from Auschwitz was made in the actual death camp in 1943, when people were being murdered on a mass scale. What was the story there?
Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish man with Austrian roots, made the first one. He was sent to Auschwitz for refusing to join the Wermacht armed forces, and got lucky, as they needed someone to take photographs and he'd been a professional photographer—this saved his life. He was appointed to what they called the "museum," an artistic "kommando" or unit that used prisoners for taking photographs, reproducing pictures and forging money—all of which required artistic skills.
Brasse took a huge number of photographic portraits of the prisoners—the double front and profile pictures that we all associate with Auschwitz. He also documented some of the medical experiments that took place in the death camp. With all the horrifying images he had to take, he also took one that was completely different from the rest: a picture of a flower in a vase or glass. He picked the flower in front of one of the death blocks, where his friend Eugeniusz Dembek—also from artistic unit—planted it. In all horror, this flower was something pretty, and something they needed to not lose their minds.
One of the German supervisors found this photo by Brasse, and decided to make copies of it and sell it in the camp's canteen. The picture turned out to be so successful that Brasse was asked to do a version in color, that sold out in hundreds of copies. So, the very first postcard from Auschwitz was of a vase with a flower in it. Unfortunately no copies were preserved, and we only know the story and a description.
I know that in 1943, prisoners of the camp were made to send postcards to their families. Can you elaborate on that?
This was an act of propaganda, organized to show that people at Auschwitz were doing fine, and had proper living conditions. We have to stress though, that these postcards had blank backs. They were called "uncovers": undivided back postcards with more room for writing than an average postcard. Uncovers were censored before they were posted to the families of Auschwitz prisoners, and often people who received them didn't believe what was written on them.
How would you explain this commercialization of death?
The question is: could it be any different? We, as people who've lived "after" the genocide, don't really how to properly commemorate it. Auschwitz quickly turned into a museum, which was also down to the effort of the survivors, but it took other death camps like Bełżec or Chełmno years to be commemorated in a similar way. A good example of our memory failure is the Umschlagplatz in Warsaw. People were transported from it to the extermination camps—today most of it's a luxury flat complex, and there was a petrol station on it for years, too. It turns out that the only alternative for a lot of our empty gestures is no action at all, but I can't tell if that's a good thing.
The oldest postcard in the book was sent in 1946, when Auschwitz wasn't yet a museum. When you go through the messages on the postcards in the book it's hard to tell if there was any sense of place within notes about the weather, or awkwardly worded attempts at humor. Is this an expression of ignorance? Or is trivializing the Holocaust a way to deal with the trauma?
I think partially all of it. You said that the postcards were sent right after the war; today we take selfies in concentration camps. Sometimes it's just plain ignorance, but I think it's a self-defense mechanism, to transform a place of trauma into something that resembles a ski resort. It helps with turning a blind eye to a place where horrifying things beyond most people's imaginations happened. Have you ever been to Auschwitz?
Yes, once, to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II.
Do you remember what you thought of it?
At first, I felt like my body was being crushed. Then I remember two emotions: incredible sorrow when I saw the pile of hair that had been cut; and anger, when in one of the barracks I noticed that some tourists had carved something into the wall—a juvenile, primary school-style confession like "Katie loves Johnny."
That's unbelievable that someone did that. I guess it's a sign that, even after such a calamity, life goes on. I think that the postcards and selfies are telling the same story about this place, where death happened, and where grass finally grows. New people come to visit it, and they are sightseeing it, like it's a holiday resort—like nothing ever happened. This confounds the idea that learning about Auschwitz should teach us something.
Exactly. American philosopher George Santayana said: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it," and not so long ago in Wrocław a group of people burned a dummy of a Jew. A similar thing happened when it was announced that Poland was going to accept refugees, and those against the decision were posting images of Auschwitz captioned "welcome" on social media. Does this prove we've come full circle?
The last few decades since WWII show that humanity can't break away from such atrocities that quickly. The only certain "never again" is that Germans won't be ever again killing Jews in Warsaw in 1942 like they did. Since the Holocaust, there has been genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica, not far from Poland.
Do you consider yourself an artist or a researcher?
I don't consider myself an artist. If I had to describe myself somehow, I feel more I'm an author of the project, and this book is, to me, a form of visual essay, an intellectual statement.
How would you describe your goal for creating this project?
The goal is definitely not a criticism because I did not want to make people stop sending or making these postcards. I made this book because I'm interested in people who are "alongside" the traumatic historical events. In English there is a perfect word for it: "bystander." I want to know, what people do when they are close to something so horrible. We all are—not literally—bystanders, because we live with the knowledge of the Holocaust, that it happened here, in Poland. We can become the bystanders in a literal way any moment, while other wrong things are happening. We know that there is no "right" way to react in the face of terror, which I actually find out myself...
What do you mean by that?
I was in Paris during the recent terrorist attacks, having dinner with my Swiss publishers at their flat about 300 meters from one of the attacks. I knew that somewhere near us something utterly horrific was happening, and I was sitting at the table with coffee and biscuits, awash in pleasantries. In moments like those you realise that you have no idea how to act or what to do with yourself, to be fair to the victims.
Your book ends with an unaddressed postcard that was never sent. When I saw it, I was speechless and in shock: it depicts a pile of dead bodies, waiting to be burned. Could you explain this postcard?
This image from the Holocaust is one of the most commented-on. Some reports say it was made from the inside of the gas chamber. This image was taken by Sonderkommando, a unit of prisoners responsible for burning the bodies, and is one of four pictures that they secretly took.
I remember when I found out about the existence of this postcard. Even though I'd been collecting Auschwitz postcards for a couple of years, I was still shocked. There were 32,000 copies made of it—and I own a few of them—but I never stumbled on one that had been sent. I want to believe that not every postcard can be sent. But, on the other hand, I am aware that in the US, people used to send each other lynching postcards, so maybe I'm slightly naïve.
Can you still buy postcards at Auschwitz?
Of course you can. If you are going to visit it these days, there will be no problem in finding postcards there. I don't know about the prices, but they are cheap—like in any other tourist attraction.
Thanks for your time, Paweł.