Slavek sent his “Best greetings from my trip to Poland to all my coworkers”. On the front of the postcard: the gate to Auschwitz II Birkenau. According to the postmark, the card was sent in 1947. Only two years after liberation of the camp. It’s one of the oldest postcards reproduced in Paweł Szypulski’s book Greetings from Auschwitz, but if you travel to Auschwitz’s museum tomorrow you can still buy a card with a view of the camp.
Greetings from Auschwitz is a book that came about from a set of postcards chosen from a collection gathered over several years. It all started with a single card found at an online auction. It was a cheap and rather ugly postcard with a few typical images touristic spots of one of the regions in central Poland: cottages, castle, map of the local forests… and among those completely ordinary places, a monument commemorating victims of the extermination camp. It was Treblinka one of the darkest places on the map of Europe, reduced by a touristic industry to a banal local attraction. This image was a starting point for a collection of around 100 postcards sent by tourists from various former death camps: Treblinka, Majdanek and of course Auschwitz.
Looking at postcards reproduced in the book, spending time with these simple, ordinary objects, we can learn a lot about something that may be unexpected at first a social amnesia concerning the Shoah. No matter how much the media is saturated with images of the Nazi genocide, many of us live in a world without Auschwitz, and not in a world after Auschwitz as intellectuals of the post-Second World War era used to think about our times. It’s so simple, and yet so meaningful that some of us are unable to see and understand the reality of a death camp to such an extent that we can send holiday greetings on a postcard of a gas chamber.
Surprising as it may be, in the first instance it should make us reflect on ourselves rather than judge the people in question. Maybe in some deeper sense, that is the only option we have: not knowing is to some degree the only solution. If it were not so, if we were able to cross the distance that separates us from experience of Auschwitz, we would not be able to live normally together as a society. This wall of “not understanding” is something that allows us to function.
One of the central themes of Holocaust related art is silence. And the question of what is appropriate is also a crucial one. The tourist postcards propose a radically different chatty and inappropriate narrative. A narrative that perhaps can tell us more, if treated seriously, than sublime aesthetics of high art.