Independent reporting on human rights, environmental and conflict issues

Land of Oś

By Danny Ghitis

This series focuses on the complex nature of life in the Polish town, Oświęcim, better known for its German name, Auschwitz. As a grandson of a Holocaust survivor, this is a personal reflection on the town and represents my ongoing studies of human identity. While countless images from the concentration camp flood the media, this is the first long-term photographic study of the town of Oświęcim and its people.

Auschwitz is recognized as the epicenter of the Nazi genocide campaign and a universal symbol of human suffering. Every year more than a million tourists visit the concentration camp museums to pay respect to the same number of innocent men, women and children who were murdered there. Most travelers are unaware that Auschwitz is located in the old Polish town of Oświęcim. Those who notice the nearby shopping mall, the high-school sweethearts holding hands, and the nicely-dressed families headed to church, are faced with the impossible question: how can life exist in the aftermath of such overwhelming evil?

For hundreds of years before the German occupation, Jews and Christians lived harmoniously in the town of about 12,000. After the war, the leftover chemical factory (Auschwitz III- Monowitz) was exploited by the new communist regime and the town grew to around 50,000 inhabitants. Now in its fourth political chapter since the 1930s, Oświęcim hangs in the balance between the rapidly developing Polish economy and its own uncertain future.

The series title, Land of Oś, is a satirical allusion to the journey of Dorothy in the fantastical land of Oz. Thematically there are similarities between my experience and those of the innocent girl from Kansas, although there is a certain absurdity in comparing the two. The words ‘Auschwitz’ and ‘Holocaust’ have been used inappropriately and in the wrong context so often that they lose meaning. This project intends to make the viewer feel slightly uncomfortable, revealing the Auschwitz construct established in popular culture. My experience in Oświęcim was more of a personal journey than traditional reportage. It forced me to confront deep-rooted assumptions about my own perceptions of Auschwitz, stemming from firsthand accounts of the Holocaust, classes in school, a high-school trip to Poland, and years of exposure to media.

The beginning of town’s name, “Oś” means “axis” in Polish. Being the focal point of Holocaust symbolism and the source of much emotion, Oświęcim serves as an axis around which Holocaust discussion revolves. As a result, the separation between the town and Auschwitz are difficult to define. Over the years an official protective zone of 100 meters was established around Auschwitz and Birkenau to limit construction around the camps. However, the overlap of camp and town goes beyond the physical in the psychology of residents, visitors, and the international community. Most foreigners are either oblivious about Oświęcim’s existence, or they conflate the camp and town as a death zone that should be left uninhabited. On the other hand, many residents say Oświęcim is a perfectly normal town, claiming a clear delineation between past and present.

As the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy rages on in America, I can’t help but notice parallels in human behavior surrounding Oświęcim and the World Trade Center. At these two locations, symbolism is projected onto spaces and inanimate objects. Residents continually negotiate consciously and unconsciously with the shadow of trauma and passionate feelings of memory. As a result, it often becomes difficult for rational discussion to emerge. It is therefore important to examine the lingering effects of violence on memory and identity to help open dialogue and improve our perceptions of these sensitive places.

Danny Ghitis is an award-winning freelance photojournalist based in New York City. For more information, please visit his website.

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