The Trees and the Chill

Outside Krakow, Poland. December 2008.

An upcoming staff and parent art exhibit at our school has given me good occasion to have a look back through some of the older photographs I’ve taken, but not shared or printed.

I took these photographs on the morning of New Year’s Eve in 2008. We were visiting Poland for the first time and we wanted to visit Auschwitz. We didn’t want to be part of a big tour; we wanted to go more quietly, so we hired a private guide who recommended that we leave at from Krakow at dawn. It was one of those mornings where the clear blue skies and warm sunlight made me think it should feel warm, but the air was so crisp and clean and cold that it froze the inside of my nose with every breath.

And that was the contrast of the day. The road to Auschwitz was watched over by stands of trees that seemed full and sparse at the same time; the early light cut between them, warming their bark and green needles and moss, and stretched out their shadows to define them in hyper-reality. And yet there was also an emptiness about them, the space between so palpable and full of absence. That negative space pervaded the camps at Birkenau, but where the trees were draped in the daybreak’s radiance, the remains of Birkenau were chilling in every way.

There was a wreath somewhere along the way. I’m not even sure that I saw it as our car sped by, but my camera caught it, its bright flowers aflame in the interstice. I don’t know why that wreath was there, or who placed it, or when, or whether it was marked by ceremony or if it was just set down, unnoticed by all the cars racing toward their imposed importances beyond the vanishing points of the hills and roads. But it’s frozen there now in a photograph at least, a testament of someone’s loss that without specific reference, without a name or story of how and why, becomes symbolic of all the losses I can’t imagine in those woods, along those roads. And more than that, it leaves me considering that only where love survives can we really remember.

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