The Holocaust: Still a part of our world, photographer says
More than a half a century has passed since the Holocaust gripped World War II Europe, but by no means has the passage of time erased the memories, said Rudy Brueggemann, a 1993 graduate of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The 35-year-old photographer and communication specialist from Seattle traveled to Europe this summer to document 22 concentration and death camps, along with other sites related to the Holocaust. His journey, which took him to five countries over four months, resulted in more than 2,000 images and a lifetime of memories.
"You (can't) come away from this experience without having something different inside of you," he said.
Remnants of Nazi camps still exist today, though many people who live there don't know it.
"As you travel through Poland by rail, after you begin to realize what a camp looks like, you can still see them by the railroad," Brueggemann said. "I saw about seven or eight that were completely empty. They had no memorials, no names, no markers, they weren't on any maps that you could find but they were definitely Nazi camps."
Barbed-wire fences and curved concrete fence posts are telltale signs of what was once a Nazi camp, he said. "If you don't know what you're looking for, you don't know what you're seeing."
Six different kinds of camps existed in World War II Europe, ranging from labor-education camps to transit camps to extermination camps, Brueggemann explained. All told, there were 10,006.
"When you ask most people how many (camps they think) there were, they'll say a dozen or 20," he said. "When you tell them it's 10,006, their eyes kind of pop out."
And unbeknownst to many people who live there today, some of the facilities used by the Nazis still exist and are in use even now for other reasons. Some can be found at Auschwitz, a facility that served as both a concentration camp where slave labor was used and a death camp.
"Several of the buildings that were used to hold women and supplies are now apartment buildings used by Polish residents," he said. "Poland is a poor country, relative to Western standards. So it makes perfect sense just to convert an existing unit into a practical use."
Brueggemann said many of the camps have been preserved and converted into museum sites that draw tourists from all over the world.
"Auschwitz gets about a half a million people each year," he said. "There were so many people at Auschwitz when I was there that people were literally pushing each other into the infamous death block, which is where they did the first experiments with Russian prisoners. You couldn't even move."
There's even a hot dog stand in the parking lot at Auschwitz, but as Brueggemann explained, "if you have a facility that gets a half a million people a year, people want to eat."
Aside from scattered food stands, visitors are generally somber at the death camps.
"People are very reflective. It's a rather intense experience. It's very quiet," he explained.
Visitors to the Nazi camps deal with their emotions in different ways, the photographer added.
"Is it a cemetery, (where) you have to show a certain type of deference because you're standing on the graves of thousands upon thousands of people? Or is it a state museum, like the Smithsonian, where you can become informed, but you don't have to have that reverential respect that you would at a cemetery? It's up to you to make that call."
Brueggemann made his summer pilgrimage to document the camps with his camera.
"I wanted to show someone who had never been there what these physical facilities look like," he explained. "For each place, I had a checklist," including dormitory bunks, shower rooms, gas chambers, guard towers and other remaining buildings.
He said different photographic themes began to emerge strongly as he went from camp to camp: "The medical rooms, for example, were particularly disturbing for me, because they all look the same. They're always next to the crematoria. That's the facility where they would do medical experiments or dissections of the dead prisoners who were killed through the concentration camp system."
The photographer explained that the medical rooms' proximity to the final destination place of a corpse - the crematoria - tells you they were only put there for reasons of efficiency. "That was particularly tough," he said.
Brueggemann made his summer trip to fulfill another personal goal that of putting on a photographic show when he returned. He said he had done a small show this spring of five prints he had taken in Rwanda in 1997, where three years earlier more than 800,000 civilians were slaughtered in a genocidal campaign organized by Hutu hardliners.
"I try to do something every anniversary to raise attention to the fact that genocide occurred again (in Rwanda) and no one did much about it in the international community," he said. "Every time you allow genocide to occur, it kind of erodes our sense of being human beings and our sense of humanity."
But Brueggemann's show on Rwanda was censored due to the graphic nature of one of his pictures. "I was given a choice to present a kinder, gentler genocide exhibit, minus the strongest picture I had of the mass murders. I chose to accept those conditions, but with many feelings of regret. I felt so horrible I had acquiesced to a request like this."
The photographer said he had higher aspirations for this new show about his tours of the Nazi camps. "I promised myself I would do a big show and have everyone see it, knowing that if anyone dared to censor the Holocaust they would risk public ridicule. That was my personal challenge."
Brueggemann said he has run into some roadblocks in trying to show his work, such as the politics of negotiating facility and exhibit space. But he hasn't given up.
"My goal is just to show people places of importance to the human experience. I am particularly drawn to human rights issues and particularly this one because it's such a monumental story about what happens when nations abandon people [and] when good people become bad people."
"I don't want to be a preacher and tell people how to behave," he added. "I just want them to see it, and to see it is quite an amazing thing."
Because of his Holocaust project, Brueggemann said people often ask him if he's Jewish.
"I don't have to be Jewish to be interested in this," he said. "That's the wrong way of looking at it. I'm a part of a world where this kind of thing happens. I'm just trying to figure out why."
Nadia Watts is a first-year master's student in the research sequence.