Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

0112 Roma Sendyka, A Journey, the Pain of Others, and Historical Experience: Susan Silas (English version)

RIHA Journal 0112 | 31 December 2014 | Special Issue "Contemporary art and memory"

A Journey, the Pain of Others, and Historical Experience: Susan Silas

Roma Sendyka

Peer review and editing managed by:

Katarzyna Jagodzińska, Międzynarodowe Centrum Kultury, Kraków / International Cultural Centre, Krakow


Izabela Kowalczyk, Marta Leśniakowska

Polish version available at / Wersja polska dostępna pod adresem: (RIHA Journal 0111)


The author interprets Susan Silas' Helmbrechts walk (1998-2003), a unique series of forty-five photographs and supplementing visual and textual materials collected during the walk along the route of two hundred and twenty-five miles. The walk repeats the route which in 1945 had to undertake women prisoners from the concentration camp in Helmbrechts near Flossenbürg in their death march to Prachatice in Czech Republic. The pictures Silas takes, the people she meets, and finally the trees, the very materiality of the road become the factors of creating her own, individual memory of the event from the past. Silas selects an object from "the margins of the Holocaust" – a forgotten event that she re-presents by reacting to contemporary objects placed along the route of the event. Silas' work offers an opportunity to critically review the concept of memory landscapes (where is memory located in a landscape?) and the phenomenon of dark tourism (is following in the footsteps of the prisoners a kind of pilgrimage, tourism, or therapy?). Silas problematises the question of memory, as well as examines different kinds of non-memory. Her camera is directed at locations that can be termed "the non-sites of memory."


There is nothing here to see

  1. In Everything is Illuminated, a novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, the protagonists find a witness who can finally direct them to a Jewish town they had been searching for. The aged Augustine first refuses to help them, which the narrator notes in peculiar English he uses: "There is nothing to see. It is only a field. I could exhibit you any field and it would be the same as exhibiting you Trachimbrod."1 In the place from which first life was drained and then memory, all is left is an empty field, indistinguishable from others. "We have come to see Trachimbrod – Grandfather said – and you will take us to Trachimbrod"2 – the protagonists insist. When finally they reach the place that had seemed to avoid them like a living creature (that was impossible to locate on any map, and when they approached it, it immediately moved somewhere else, like a mysterious centre of a labyrinth), it turns out that what they see is "nothing." "When I utter 'nothing' I do not mean there was nothing, – the narrator of Foer's novel says – what I intend is that there was not any of these things, or any other things."3 The black abyss devouring all colours, where "there is nothing to see." "'Tell him it is because it is so dark,' Grandfather said to me, 'and that we could see more if it was not dark'. 'It is so dark', I told him. 'No', she said, 'this is all that you could see. It is always like this, always dark.'"4

  2. In Everything is Illuminated Foer constructed the plot around the search for the place that exemplifies an object on which I would like to put special emphasis in this text.5 Across the landscape of East-Central Europe, referred to recently as "bloodlands,"6 there are scattered very numerous places of potential memorialisation: places which have witnessed an important event of mass violence. Despite this fact these locations are now devoid of any memorial objects or are marked "insufficiently" (in a flawed or mistaken manner). They are sites of various acts of genocide that took place in the previous century (the time scope is set by both the twentieth century origin of the term "genocide", as well as by the scope of "living memory" of present witnesses). They are sites where Jews and Roma-Sinti were murdered, and where people died in ethnic cleansing (Bosnia, Volhynia) or other similar deportations (e.g. the Sudeten Germans). Nowadays, these places – sometimes vast, yet usually smaller and more like points on the map – are covered with natural regrowth of nature, sometimes with neglected ruins, sometimes with a newly constructed parking lot: they are rifts, omissions in the texture of the landscape. They are surrounded with a negative, performatively expressed memory: they are sites "where one doesn't go," about which one should "better not to talk," "places that haunt." The act of making these sites objects of taboo stems most certainly from their origin being linked with a sudden, unavanged, unaccounted death (and from the presence of badly- or non-buried corpses).7 I consider these sites symptomatic for the territory of our region and perhaps crucial for the understanding of the local forms of memory and alternative (for example to the ones that are well researched, positive, and describable with Pierre Nora's theory8) relations of place and memory. The research on their characteristics, and the search for examples of such objects, come together with a new, increasingly stronger trend in the studies on the Holocaust: namely, after many years of the focus on the figure of the "camp," working in the broader field as a concept that organises a complex set of discursive and non-discursive elements emerging around the issue of the twentieth-century genocide, there has developed an interest in the Holocaust as a "decentralised set of events" (I mean here the research of Christopher Browning on Skarżysko-Kamienna,9 Omer Bartov's on Buczacz,10 Yehuda Bauer's on Nowogrodek11 and, of course, Jan Tomasz Gross's on Jedwabne).12 When the "other Holocaust" is discussed, or the "Holocaust by bullets,"13 researchers become interested in places previously omitted14 – for they were too small or too indeterminate to compete with "the camp" or "the ghetto." The project of Susan Silas – an American artist of Hungarian background, is an example of a similar shift of attention, this time in the field of visual arts.15


Darkness, the everyday

This is all that you could see. It is always like this, always dark.

Jonathan Safran Foer

  1. The moment of the encounter with the site of the past suffering, an entrance into its area, is constructed in Foer's novel around the metaphor of nothingness. There is nothing to see, the protagonists face an impenetrable density, an all-devouring black abyss of darkness. The strategy of the description of the small towns they pass by makes the reader get used to the poetics of humorous realism, yet the centre of the novel hides a trap: imagination collapses in the face of the undeserved and unmourned death. There is nothing to see, only darkness. The makers of the film adaptation16 of Everything is Illuminated did not decide to take this radical step: the emptiness of the area left of Trachimbrod must have seemed unbearable and un-film-like – what the viewer sees in its stead is a scene composed around a green, neatly kept clearing, where someone put a small memorial plate. Foer's aggressive image, a reproach present in his novel (how could this place be so abandoned and so completely forgotten?) was effectively deprived of its expressive power.

  2. Susan Silas' project is a kind of journey, similarly relentless and marked by an equally traumatic event of the war as the act of murder (one of actions of Einsatzgruppe C) of the inhabitants of a small Ukrainian shtetl in Sofiówka, represented in Foer's novel by a phantom of Trachimbrod. Silas' project involved her walking over two hundred and twenty-five miles exactly along the route of the death march of female camp prisoners rushed in 1945 from the concentration camp in Helmbrechts (Germany) to Volary/ Prachatice (at present in Czech Republic). Walking along the road of over three hundred and sixty kilometres, Silas was looking for traces of the past: traces that could remind of past experience. Discovering, just like Foer's protagonists, only fields, roads, and towns, where chapels and roadside memorials said nothing about the suffering of five hundred and eighty Jewish prisoners, Silas confronted the same vast space of forgetting an event too insignificant, too similar to others to attract attention and become an object around which the identity of local communities is being constructed. Whereas Foer's gesture: radical, yet also very much like the repressed "turning a blind eye," was a clear act of emotional reaction to the lack of life and the memory of life at the site of the past crime, Silas takes a more critical stance on the road from Helmbrechts. She takes a close, cold and analytic look, recognising the banality and indifference of the surrounding landscape, searching for the reasons of this situation, and actively transforming it with her body moving along the route.

  3. Helmbrechts walk is a performance set in a particular location and time: the artist started her journey on April 13 1998, on the fifty-third anniversary of the march from 1945. For twenty-two days she walked along the route planned in reference to available maps and documents, keeping the pace and the stops made by the prisoners. At the same time, her work is a complex set of multimedia objects exhibited in galleries since 1999 (seven times until 201417). The work available now on-line – in its third version – consists of a series of fortyfive photographs accompanied by personal notes from the travel journal. It comes with notes from the current press, excerpts of documents, maps, an interview with one of the survivors of the march, documentation of preparatory studies, photographs of the cemetery where the victims of the march were buried, images from the museum erected to their memory in Prachatice, written meditations, and a series of twenty two two-channel video works illustrating each day of the journey. This entire set of objects creates a branching, spatial network of mutual links, hence the Internet is the perfect exhibition space for it.18

  4. The march from Helmbrechts is one of the many death marches from the first half of 1945. It is being recalled when an example of senseless bestiality of the Nazis is being addressed. Silas read about it in the famous work by Daniel Goldhagen (Hitler's Willing Executioners19), and this is where she found a map with the route of the march. She could have also learnt about the event in a different way – at the permanent exhibition at Yad Vashem the march of Helmbrechts is recalled as a paradigmatic example of death marches marking the side roads of Central Europe by the end of the war. According to the present knowledge, on April 13, 1945 a thousand and a hundred and seventy female prisoners were forced to leave the camp near Flossenbürg. The column moved towards Dachau, yet due to the changing lines of the front it was ultimately moved south, towards Czechoslovakia. In Zwodau five hundred and ninety non-Jews were selected, and five hundred eighty Jewish prisoners were forced to move on. The estimated amount of the deceased during the march is thirty per cent (supposedly, around two hundred seventy five women died).20 When the column was liberated, the local authorities forced the German community to bury the victims under the supervision of the military – the bodies were collected from the final sixty miles of the route; a small military cemetery in Volary memorises the deceased.

  5. Departing on a journey in the footsteps of the prisoners from Helmbrechts, Silas poses a similar question as the one posed by Frank Ankersmit, who in his 2005 book Sublime Historical Experience21 considered how the experience of the past can become the subject of research of a historian who attempts to represent the past (to tell a story) by means of a text. Silas' mediation concerns an identically formulated problem, with an artist as its subject: how to tell about the past experience – today? How authentic suffering of particular people from the past can be represented many years later by means available to visual arts? Why to make attempt at reclaiming the experience of the past – which is irreclaimable since its vast part concerned living presence and was impossible to express in words. How does the artist express this part of it that was impossible to tell by means of linguistic codes? How does the artist produce a second-degree, personal "memorial equivalent" of a historical event in a place that is devoid of anchoring elements or elements that evoke memory? Silas' response is complex and made up of many elements, and without any conclusions available at hand – to construct them out of the conversations with her work, one needs to take a closer look at Helmbrechts walk.


Elegy of Helmbrechts

  1. One of the first features of Silas' work discerned by the viewer is certainly the recurring gesture of duplication. Photographs taken on a given day always come in pairs. A picture placed on the right hand side is usually visually connected (e.g. the photographs from the day four) with the one on the left: we know that we are at a particular place, that both shots were taken nearby, perhaps from the same point in space and time (it is suggested by the same type of the scattered light and usually similar weather of a not very clear day of early spring). At times the images do not provide different views: on the eleventh day both of them show only the image of rail tracks, and on the first and fifth – a thick forest. At times the takes provide contrasting images – a view of a forest and shrubs and empty field next to them (day three). The visual field is usually filled with nature (forest, fields, shrubs), and rarely with the product of man (road-side structures, village houses). Photographs never show people, animals or passing cars. The rule for the choice of framing could be reconstructed as follows: we see what the walking artist sees, and the camera seems to register the natural act of looking at the road surroundings: it shows not more and no less, as if it was impossible to manipulate the length of the focus in the camera. Two shots placed next to each other – which is reminiscent of the poetics of stereoscopic images – suggest documenting the road while looking straight and to the side: the traveller is looking around. Hence, it is not so much about the goal, about the horizon where the road ends and where there is something behind it. The roadside is as important. The artist looks for something there.

  2. For what? – this needs to be figured out. Some of the pictures' recurring details might work as a hint here. On the second and fourteenth day the artist photographed hunting blinds, on the tenth and eighteenth – waste; on the eighth, thirteenth, twentieth and twenty-second – the side road graves, crosses, and chapels. The disquiet that fills the shots is very poignant: the viewer realises following the photographer's sight that we walk alone, that nobody is walking next to us, with only thick forest by our side. The shapes of hunting blinds [fig. 1] make us feel uncanny, too visible, too exposed and observed. The traces of those who were here before us are not pleasant: it is waste and scraps. The chapels and the crosses invest the route with a dolorous atmosphere. Despite nature and the green plants typical for early spring, the pictures produce an emotional aura that underlines the main topic – suffering.

1 Susan Silas, Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003, Day 2, Tuesday April 14, 1998, Schwarzenbach Saale to Neuhausen

  1. After placing the cursor over the image, we can access the text, or rather two texts that cover the shots. Up to that moment the artist had only proposed brief notes under pictures, identifying the day and the main points of a given stage of the journey. The upper part of the added note is an excerpt from the artist's personal remarks. It includes visual references (for example to Resnais's film on Marienbad she is passing, or to an exhibition by Josef Beuys), references to literature (Primo Levi's memories from Auschwitz), her own biography (the story of her stepfather, a refugee from Hungary after 1956), and culture (oaks as a symbol of Nazism). These essayistic fragments sometimes turn into journal entries, noting usually the state of threat – Silas describes the passing cars, solicitations, intimidations, sexual propositions, prohibitions (of entering or photographing), drunken carousals in hotels, heads of hunted animals in a guest house. Only once she describes a "positive" encounter – with the last Jew living in Knysperk, Karl Schubosky. He was mentioned by Klaus Rauh from Helmbrecht who gave her a map with the marked points where the prisoners died during the march.

  2. Below, yet still in the area distinguished from the white background by a doubled picture, Silas presents headlines copied from the "New York Times" issues parallel to the days of her journey. They are dominated with events connoting violence or death (the public execution of Rwandan genocide perpetrators, the death of Pol Pot, the news of the number of executions in Iraq, the exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, the death of Octavio Paz, the funeral of a black girl shot in South Africa, the trial in the case of murder of a new-born in Delaware, the illness of Václav Havel, the death of the murderer of Martin Luther King, or the protests of students in Indonesia). Supplementing the cycle with a text seems to realise the strategy predicted by Walter Benjamin ("Won't inscription become the most important part of the photograph?")22 and Susan Sontag (photographs "are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand")23, who stated that photographs, especially those that are supposed to inform us about suffering, require the support of narrative, a support of the text to speak for the victim's case. Silas shares this conviction and supplements the series of pictures with numerous documents, yet texts that she puts directly on the pictures do not have an explanatory nature. They are like echograms, like records of what had happened, of what reached the walking artist from the world – and in their fragmentary, selective and presentist nature they do not explain the past – we still do not know what the artist tries to find when she looks around. Yet, what is definitely clear is the broader ground: of war, the genocide, violence, threat, and suffering.

  3. One might say that the memorial testament, as the artist referred to her work,24 has a distinct elegiac tone.25 I suggest that this association is justified more than just on the basis on the particular atmosphere of the photograph constructed through the choice of objects, lights, and the length of exposure. The entire work is also elegiac in nature due to its structure, the recurring gestures of doubling of text and text, text and image, image and image26 are reminiscent of the elegiac distich: the incessant linking of the similarly sounding, long, epic phrases – hexameter and dactylic pentameter. This structural foundation, nowadays rather unreadable, remains nevertheless easily discernible as an echo of once popular tradition: felt when we are touched by the seriousness, sublimity, sadness, and melancholy of given work.27


Walk from Helmbrechts

  1. The additional materials from archive research, photographs, maps, and documents (like the transcript of testimonies given by Alois Dörr, who was responsible for the march from Helmbrechts), the author's introduction placed in the first plate before the viewer enters the virtual gallery reveal the most general reason behind the artist's journey. We know that we are supposed to refer what we see in the pictures to the event from almost seventy years before. The artist states openly that she "set out to retrace the path of these women." 28