Auschwitz for all. On “insults to memory”

In the past, when I had to write about various art protests, artivists and their actions, their right to speak out and criticize, I usually started by saying that I was not trying to estimate the artistic value of a particular gesture. There are experts and connoisseurs of modern art who can judge, and my only business was to defend the right to protest, to criticize the authorities or to challenge the society.

But over the years of defending this right, I have also developed certain criteria for assessing the success of such artistic protest actions. The purpose of this type of art is to enrage, to hurt, to provoke a reaction. In this sense, the persecution of the artists is one of the indicators of the success of their statement. If no one rushes to protest against the artists who had come out to voice their protest, if they are not being detained and brought to justice, if they are not being beaten while detained, not accused of “treachery” and “blasphemy”, if they are not suspected of being mad – their actions seem to be a failure. Even more so if what the artists said in their speech does not surprise, provoke, or enrage the people.

A provocative action always teases, torments, angers. It’s fine if it is aimed solely at the authorities – then, perhaps, it will only be the authorities themselves that will become angry (as was the case with the famous graffiti action of the Russian “Voyna” (“War”) artivist group on one of the bridges in St. Petersburg back in 2010, when the public reacted to this action generally as a good joke). But it is more difficult for those who decide to challenge people, that is their contemporaries, us.

Those who made their performance in March 2017 at the entrance to the memorial complex in former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp seem to have gained all the possible laurels – the hatred of the authorities, the museum administration and the society. Their efforts were evaluated by the court, which pronounced them worth one and a half years in prison for one of the organizers, a year and two months for another and on top of that fines, bans on profession, expulsion from Poland (where both accused studied as filmmakers). What did these “dirty tricksters and villains” dared to do that caused such a fury? The very idea of ​​the performance was quite simple: to lead a group of young people to the entrance of the infamous former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, to sit there undressed and handcuffed to each other, to hang a banner that reads “Love” on the gate (in English, which strengthened the overall impression of the hippie mood) and to pray for peace. It is difficult to qualify this as a serious provocation, although the participants used smoke and noise effects (firecrackers), but surprisingly this frightened some of the participants themselves (as it turns out that most of them did not know about the prepared firecrackers).

The most terrible element of the performance (and is there anyone who did not yet condemn it?) was a symbolic slaughter of a sacrificial animal, which received the name of the “innocent sheep” from journalists. The murder of the innocent sheep was condemned even by the naked performers themselves, as it also turned out to be an unpleasant surprise for them (only the organizers had known why they had brought the sheep there). Journalists who wrote about the action, were often perplexed: “They called not to shed blood, but they shed the blood themselves” (they prayed for peace, and they themselves slaughtered a sheep). A lot of people who have discussed it on the web-forums were horrified, everyone was sorry for the sheep (if all these people were vegetarians I would pose no questions to them, but I honestly doubt it very much). The court have supported these people and held the accused responsible for the murder of an innocent sheep “in an unauthorized place” with an additional penalty in the form of a fine and a ban to own animals for 10 years. It turned out that it was “humane” to slaughter sheep only in the places that were specially designed for this honest business (slaughterhouses). And butchers and all sorts of professionals in the “slaughter sphere” are not banned from possessing animals!

Perhaps the sheep was the only truly original element of the action at the gate of Auschwitz (and the solemn title “innocent” seems to hint at the fact that there are some “guilty” sheep). If one wishes, a certain biblical meaning can be found in it: the sacrifice of Abraham, who at the last moment was allowed to sacrifice a sheep, not a son, is a clear symbol of the rejection of homicide. The rest was performed in accordance with the laws of contemporary artistic actionism, in which it is almost necessary to be naked, handcuffs are highly desirable, firecrackers too. On the bare bodies of people praying for peace the names of cities and parts of the world in which there is no peace were written, but inscriptions on bare bodies is also a rather frequent phenomenon.

Peace, love, public exposure – are these crimes? Let us leave out the issue of the sacrificial animal – a separate punishment was imposed for the slaughter of the sheep, and most of the participants were not accused of slaughtering a ram. Why did the investigation take so long and what has the Polish court condemned them for? As in the famous case of a “punk prayer” in the Moscow Christ the Savior cathedral, the crime consisted in blasphemy, insulting feelings, in the fact that, according to the official position of the museum, “the use of the Auschwitz symbol for any manifestations is outrageous and unacceptable”.

This means that the administration of this museum, with the support of Polish prosecutors and judges, forbids us all to symbolically perceive Auschwitz, to talk about the tragic present in the context of a figurative concentration camp of the past. It turns out that one cannot say: “Our train leaves for Auschwitz – today and every day”. One cannot compare the suffering of children who die daily from violence and inhumanity of war (and this is what the action of the convicted performers was actually devoted to) with the suffering of the prisoners of the concentration camp, which since had become a museum.

The logical development of the position of the museum, the prosecutor’s office and the court was the sensational law adopted in January by the Polish Sejm, which later in February was approved by the Senate of Poland, which forbade calling this and similar death camps “Polish”, as well as to claim that the Poles participated in the crimes of the Nazis during World War II and were partly responsible for them. Now the “ban on the symbol” is also made in a legal fashion. True, this was done with an important disclaimer that it was not a crime to do so “in the course of artistic or scientific activity”. Otherwise, probably, prosecutors would have a lot of work: to prosecute the distribution of the world-famous “Maus” comic books about the fate of a Polish Jew, the father of the author Art Spiegelman, because in this comic book they talk a lot about the role of the Polish population in the history of the Holocaust; or to deal with some of the films of Andrzej Wajda, in which the Polish characters expressed their approval of Hitler who exterminated the Jews; or to close the archives and classify the already published materials.

In my opinion, “historical fault” does not exist at all: different people refused to participate in the crimes of Nazism – some in Poland, others in Germany, those of them who resisted equally deserve respect and gratitude, and their nationality and citizenship are of no importance here. The problem is not the “historical fault”, but the fact that it is necessary to know the truth about the past, and not to hide, deny or prohibit it. All those living are guilty of the crimes against humanity with the exception of those who resisted in the past or continue to resist now. Of course, all of us are guilty of the crimes of our time.

According to one of the authors of the performance at the gates of Auschwitz, he and his accomplices “will be understood when people see not the corpse of a sheep, but when the war begins and they will be asked: why did not anyone protest? But those who protested, they were imprisoned”. Auschwitz – the real and tragic one – does not belong to the administration of the museum. It is not for the administration to decide who can “use the symbol of Auschwitz” and in what way. To imprison those who protest against the war – for which many prisoners of Nazi concentration camps had died, – this is a real insult to memory.

Stefania Kulayeva

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty

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