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Waldsee 1944 postcard exhibition: a 'woodland lake' in Auschwitz.

 The artisans of execution would not meet the industrial challenge
 with more gun cartridges.... Mass murder demanded the gas Zyklon B and
 the mystification of its victims as well....
 --Alain Finkielkraut (1)

IN THE SUMMER OF 1944, RECENTLY DEPORTED PER-sons sent postcards to Budapest from a place called Waldsee. (2) The postcards were handed to the Jewish Council in Budapest to be distributed to the addressees. "I am doing fine," the cards read. "I am working," or "I have arrived safely. I have got work in my occupation," or "Follow us here!"

Those who received a postcard from Waldsee searched for it on a map and easily found a place with this name. More than one, in fact; there was a "Waldsee" in Austria and in Switzerland. One of the leaders of the Hungarian Jewish Council, Fulop Freudiger, helped to distribute the postcards. It was he who noticed that on one of them, the word "Waldsee" was imposed over another name ending in "witz." Only later, at the end of June, would he fill out the remainder of the obscured postmark: Auschwitz. He came to that realization when he himself received a postcard from two of his acquaintances. (3) In this card, the senders, Jozsef and Samuel Stern, signaled the deceit by signing their names as Joseph R'evim (Hebrew for "hungry") and Samuel Blimalbiscj (Hebrew for "without clothing"). (4)

What Freudiger may have surmised, and what we now know, was that the postcards were dictated by SS soldiers to the deported people, often right before they were sent to die in a gas chamber. Some postcards from "Waldsee" have come down to us as documents of this postal fraud; a few are in the possession of the Budapest Jewish Museum.

The trick of the Waldsee postcard was first used in 1943 with the Greek Jews. (5) They were taken to Auschwitz and Treblinka and, immediately before their murders, were forced to write a message home saying that they were "in Waldsee" and "doing fine." (6) Such tricks got the deported people to cooperate in their own deaths, making the process of their annihilation smoother and easier. Over a half-century later, the fake postcards provide at least a partial answer to the often-asked question, voiced at times with accusatory overtones, about how people could go to the slaughterhouse of their own volition, without much resistance, if any at all.

The messages from "Waldsee" were posted to Hungary when the mass killing was at its peak in Auschwitz and the suspicions of victims not yet deported had to be allayed. The ruse may often have succeeded; the postcards may have helped assuage fears and secure the consent and obedience of many of the subsequent victims of Auschwitz.

At the beginning of Imre Kertesz's Fateless, Waldsee is also mentioned. In the train to the concentration camp, he reports, people are guessing at their destination: "I am completely ignorant how (but some adults did discover it) we learned that our journey's end was a place named Waldsee. When I was thirsty or hot, the promise contained in that name immediately invigorated me." (7) The cool shady water of this "woodland lake," for that is what "waldsee" means in German, calmed the imagination of the deported youth.

The Waldsee postcard is a part of a densely woven texture of Nazi lies intended to disavow the genocidal reality of the concentration camp and help reconcile both victim and perpetrator to its intolerable nature. As the historian Saul Friedlander has pointed out, the euphemisms and bureaucratic jargon employed by the Nazis inserted the horrible events into the banal course of everyday life and showed that everything followed a normal course according to laws dictated by necessity. (8)

The examples of such dissimulation abound: "resettlement" for deportation, or "final solution" for mass extermination, "showers" for gas chambers. In a private letter sent by an employee of the I.G. Farben Factory in Auschwitz, the writer referred to attempts to escape from the camp as "attempts to change one's climate"; of those who died, he wrote that they "got a touch of sunstroke." (9)

The perverse motto Arbeit macht frei (work brings freedom), which was posted at death camp gates, was also part of this effort to disguise reality and make the victims complicit in their own destruction. At Treblinka, the camp railway station displayed such signs as "Cashier," "Buffet," "Storehouse," "Telephone" and "Telegraph"; train schedules were posted on the wall to inform people when the trains would arrive from Berlin or Vienna. Also, at the beginning of the liquidation in Treblinka, an SS guard asked people to prepare one zloty as a fee for showering; he collected money in a booth at the entrance of the gas chamber just to maintain the illusion. (10)

The stamped card that made a resort out of Auschwitz is one of those cynical lies intended to create the appearance of normal life in a place devoid of normalcy.

Waldsee is a lie, the metaphor of the deliberately deceptive creation of fiction out of reality. Ironically, even reality was used to distort itself. As literary critic Debarati Sanyal states, referring to the sports matches described by several survivors, "a simple game of soccer can create a beautiful fiction within the deadly realities of the camp." (11) Holocaust survivor and writer Primo Levi concurs; "the true horror of the concentration camp is normality, the soccer match played in front of the crematoria." (12) Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski reports on how, "between two throw-ins in a soccer game ..., 3,000 people had been put to death." (13)

Only recently has the Holocaust become a topic of public discussion in Hungary. This greater, more open exposure of Holocaust history and memories is due largely to Hungarian-Jewish author Imre Kertesz's Nobel Prize in literature in 2002 and the Goth anniversary of the deportations of Hungarian Jews. The anniversary could not simply dissolve into silence, as did the 50th, only five years after the fall of socialism in Central Europe in 1989. Memorialization under socialism had downplayed the centrality of the Jews in the Hungarian Holocaust and had advocated a generic anti-fascism in which all Hungarians could present themselves as victims of Nazi occupation and the terror of a small number of collaborators. Socialism thus was complicit with the failure to work through the historical role of anti-Semitism in Hungary and its continuing legacy. This public silence, the emotions provoked by 40 years of socialism in its victims, and long-concealed guilty feelings about the past make historical memory and artistic representation of the Holocaust in Hungary even more difficult.

The international discourse on the memory and art of the Holocaust have typically centered on the question of how a generation can "remember"--memorialize and internalize--events its members did not experience. In Hungary, the question was how present and future generations can remember events they did not directly experience, and that, for many years, they were neither told nor taught. Because of this confused situation, Hungary's remembrance of the Holocaust in 2004 was tied to a more general humanistic discourse about universal suffering and discrimination in general, as well as about the specific historical event of occupation and genocide. Memorialization itself has a history and a politico-ideological dimension, (14) and there are only a few topics that reveal so many obvious confusions. This is especially true in a post-socialist country where such notions as "historical distance," "truth" and "objectivity" have been contested in theory and by practical problems of interpreting what once was and what now is.

In this difficult situation of remembering and memorializing, the call for artistic contributions to an international postcard exhibition by the 2B Gallery (15) in Budapest was especially refreshing. Instead of the macro-historical viewpoint, the gallery offered a micro-historical one, one that could be approached in a very personal way, with its focus on the single individual. The curatorial proposal of Andras and Laszlo Borocz offered the artists a small surface the size of a postcard, but one that invited rich projection and response to the deceptive Waldsee postcards, 60 years later.

The postcards from "Waldsee" undoubtedly came from someone whose handwriting could be identified and authenticated; only the message itself was a lie forced on the author. The authentic information of the postcards lies not in their falsified message, but in the writing itself, as an indexical sign of the real living people who wrote them. The cultural theorist Ernst van Alphen analyzed the indexical nature of the postcard works of the Dutch artist Armando, with the help of semiotic concepts derived from the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. The three most important categories of Peirce's semiotics are the icon, the index and the symbol. As van Alphen summarizes it,
 [a]n icon is a sign that has some feature in common with the thing or
 concept it stands for; it is motivated by similarity. A footprint, for
 example, resembles the foot that makes it, so it is capable of
 functioning as a sign meaning "foot." An index is a sign motivated by
 contiguity or continuity; that is, there is a juxtaposition in time,
 space or causality between the sign and the object it stands for. In
 the case of the footprint, there is an existential relation of
 contiguity with the human or animal that left it; footprint and
 creature are "in touch" ... The same holds for causally connected
 items, such as smoke as an index of fire. A symbol, finally, is an
 unmotivated, arbitrary sign. (16)

The postcard for Armando is an index of war and, when he uses war picture postcards, (17) he overwrites them. He thus puts himself in physical contiguity with the war, making contact with the card that once was touched by the hand or by the look of the person who wrote it.

Following van Alphen's line of thought, we can understand the artists' answers to the Waldsee postcards as indexes, "traces" of contiguity to the Holocaust and to the war. And, we may add, they also have an indexical relationship to the compulsory lie, to being at the fatal mercy of that lie.

Among the artists who "answered" the gallery's call, a few made small-scale monuments or abstract pieces. Others, however, very much in the spirit of contemporary international Holocaust discourse, made the theme their own. They accepted a "low point of view" and took approaches to the Holocaust that might be seen as blasphemous--using toys or other banal objects, exploring less obvious and easy identifications, or even being apparently disrespectful. These artists seized the opportunity of the project proposal in ways that explored the problematic nature of the task, rather than feeling compelled by a generic imperative to remember, to make a monument to the Holocaust and its victims. They engaged in a complex, imaginary connection between sender and receiver, yesterday and today. The idea of responding to the fake message from "Waldsee" touched many of the issues and concerns--authenticity, identification, teaching, relation of past and present, objective truth, personal viewpoints, etc.--inextricably linked to representation of the Holocaust. Above all, they explored a key problem: what role and function art can have in connection with the Holocaust and the privileged approach to it based on history, documents, testimonies, facts; how artistic and historical discourses might be reconciled. (18)

The philosopher Jorn Rusen (19) analyzed historical thinking that detraumatizes trauma by transforming it to history. In the process of being thought through, a senseless event becomes history and the result is that it makes sense. In general, historical writing has not adequately responded to the existential needs of post-Holocaust readers, helping them to carry out the task of mourning. Rusen maintains that new ways of historical thinking should be found that can integrate mourning effectively. Many unsettling questions about how to present the bare facts and respect and arouse emotions, how to integrate the Holocaust into public education but preserve its uniqueness at the same time, remain unanswered by history alone.

Art appears not to provide a viable or sufficient alternative, since aesthetic pleasure is threatening and undesirable when connected to the terrible event. However, as van Alphen puts it:
 History brings with it more responsibilities than only knowing and
 remembering facts, especially when that history concerns the
 Holocaust. Other responsibilities that are poignantly imposed on us
 involve the working through the traumatic intrusion of an unimaginable
 reality, and the fore-grounding of the cracks and tears that are
 concealed by the coherence of the stories being told. It is in
 relation to those responsibilities that the imaginative discourses of
 art and literature can step in and perform functions that, though
 historical, cannot be fulfilled by the work of the historian. (20)

Also, the fear of aestheticizing the Holocaust through art touches upon commonly held conceptions of art itself as a canon and practice. Contemporary art does not simply offer aesthetic pleasure, but is connected to knowledge and reflection in the public sphere. This is why contemporary artists can contribute to the understanding of the Holocaust. The Waldsee exhibition did exactly this.

Identification is one of the key problems in Holocaust studies and art. One of the exhibiting artists, Dora Mauer, writes a postcard to herself in which she tries to copy the apparently authentic handwriting of her own grandmother from "Waldsee." She is both writer and addressee--identifying herself with someone through that person's handwriting. Tibor Varnagy, another contributing artist, would like to identify with the writer of the card. But while he is thinking of what he would have done if he had been forced to write it, while meditating about what he should do, he does not want to be obedient and write; he does not want to cheat or cause trouble to the person to whom he writes; he does not want to make a fake. In the end, he chooses visual silence and covers the card with black lines. Others, such as Andras Borocz, took the idea of counterfeit normality to its extreme, transforming Auschwitz literally to a soccer field, a coffeehouse or a gardening yard. Some artists, including Gabor Rosko, themselves remember the memories of their parents' generation, and feel their anxieties as if they were his or her own childhood stories, his or her own memory images.

Using the literary scholar Marianne Hirsch's notion, we can view the postcard as an instance of "post-memory." Trauma is so strong and monumental that it becomes memory and anxiety on its own and can be the trauma of another generation. (21) It is in no way easier when we have to deal with another situation of identification; for instance, if we came across our own father's picture in the course of killing: if, for example a by-now almost emblematic photo of an SS man killing a woman with her baby, part of public memory, suddenly became personal, as for Susan Silas.

Some of the postcards reflect not only on life in Auschwitz, but also how we can see Auschwitz today as a historical exhibition, in a museum environment, and how even in this museum environment the present is registered. There is no one single point of perspective where we could see these objects without reflections, without the present, without the photographer, without acknowledging even the Holocaust tourist. Postcards with the stereotypical and empty message of tourist greeting cards, "Wish you were here," uncomfortably connect the contradictory picture of what is seen, what is reality and what is said, what is told as a lie or fiction. Some artists chose to take up a tourist's attitude and desperately tried to find the real Waldsee, the reality behind the fictitious lie. The relationship between lie and truth can actually be converted by tattooing the name "Waldsee" on the arms, thus making the fictitious Waldsee a real concentration camp site, as shown by Agnes Eperjesi.

The South African artist William Kentridge chose the map as an ambiguous creation, a tool that helps to orient one in reality and a very strong abstraction, as well. Through the "higher point of view" of abstraction, the map renders the horrors and the horror-stricken invisible. In the aerial photographs of Auschwitz made by the Allied Forces and published not long ago, when they are appropriately analyzed, even traces of people standing in the Appelplatz could have been identified. We can, in fact, assume that they indeed were identified, but allowed to remain abstract, unrecognized. In the context of the Waldsee lie, the authentic document's presence accuses useless truth, the literally higher, outsider point of view. In his contribution, Kentridge intentionally adopts the map's distanced perspective on a reality that would be inescapably horrific if viewed up close. His approach dramatizes our capacity to abstract away from recognition of the suffering of others; but he also reveals the disquieting truth that a historical, factual view in itself is not enough when it comes to studying and understanding the Holocaust.


The exhibition, like the memory of the Holocaust itself, is an ongoing project. (22) By providing opportunity for personal answers to a horrible part of history, it keeps the past open. The Waldsee postcard offers a surface onto which to project our thoughts and identifications. It provokes our reflections about what it meant to lie, to write the card, to distribute it, to receive it, to believe it, to reveal the lie, to resist writing it, or not to receive a card or news at all. The postcard offers both an authentic document based on inauthentic information and sets the imagination of these artists free, a freedom of invention, which, in connection with the Holocaust, according to unwritten laws, is virtually forbidden.

Instead of the shocking realities that are the horrors of the Holocaust, the artists mobilized a much more personal, wide-ranging, uncontrollable set of fantasies. The postcard as a simple medium of communication does not belong to the sphere of high art. The artists were not forced to stay within the borders of strict historical truthfulness. They were not limited to the frustratingly difficult task of creating strong, "appropriate" emotional effects. They were not constrained by the canons of official remembrance. The predicament of reconciling the facts of the Holocaust-which are considered the most effective, strongest means of memorializing it-and these diverse, specifically artistic, approaches to it, was resolved like a Gordian Knot in the concept of the exhibition. The artists thus did not universalize the Holocaust, expanding it into a huge, generic notion almost without boundaries, considering all kinds of discriminations, all deeds and events against human dignity. Instead, they prepared fictive answers to a real lie. The senders and most of the addressees too have probably been dead for a long time. The dead, however, have also been haunting the living, and the artists of the exhibition let themselves be haunted by them and by the past, so that this spectral dialogue might become more audible in our present.


(1) Alain Finkielkraut, The Imaginary Jew, trans. Kevin O'Neill and David Suchoff. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 45.

(2) Randolph Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), Vol. 2: 653.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Jeno Levai, ed., Eichmann in Hungary: Documents (Budapest: Pannonia Press, 1961), 42. Quoted by Braham ibid.

(6) Braham, 71, note 87.

(7) Imre Kertesz, Fateless, trans. Christopher C. Wilson and Katharina M. Wilson (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1992), 54. I am grateful to Laszlo Borocz for calling my attention to this passage of the book.

(8) Saul Friedlander, Reflections on Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 105.

(9) Ota Kraus-Erich Kulka, Ejszaka es kod [Night and Fog], trans. from Czech to Hungarian by Dr. Andras Anderlich and Laszlo Major (Budapest: Kossuth Konyvkiado, 1961), 329

(10) Kulka, 80.

(11) Debarati Sanyal, "A Soccer Match in Auschwitz: Passing Culpabilty in Holocaust Critcism." Representations 79. Summer 2002: 2.

(12) Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (London: Abacus, 1993), 65.

(13) Tadeusz Borowski, This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 84.

(14) This was the focus of the exhibition, Auschwitz 1945-1989, which reconstructed the earlier exhibitions in the Hungarian pavilion in Auschwitz. Budapest, Centralis Galeria, April 23-May 30, 2004. <>; site accessed on September 10, 2006.

(15) A private non-profit gallery, owned and operated by the artist Andras Borocz and his brother Laszlo.

(16) Ernst van Alphen, Caught by History: Holocaust Effects in Contemporary Art, Literature and Theory (Stanford: University of California Press, 1997), 126.

(17) The title of one of Armando's postcards is "Waldsee," however this might be a coincidence and probably he was not aware of the postcards sent from the non-existent Waldsee. Reproduced in Alphen, fig. 26: 134.

(18) Alphen, Chapter 1.

(19) Jorn Rusen, "Trauma es gyasz a tortenelmi gondolkodasban. (Itt elnemul a tortenelem ertelmer l szolo beszed)" ["Trauma and Mourning in Historical thinking (Here the discourse about the meaning of history falls silent)"], Magyar Lettre International, 2004: Fall.

(20) Alphen, 37.

(21) Marianne Hirsch, "Projected Memory: Holocaust Photographs in Personal and Public Fantasy," in Mieke Bal, Jonathan Crewe, Leo Spitzer, eds., Acts of Memory: Cultural Recall in the Present (Hanover, N.H.: Dartmouth College-University Press of New England, 1999), 8-9.

(22) The exhibition has been traveling since 2004. More and more local artists joined the project, "answering" the Waldsee postcard. So far, the exhibition has been in Budapest (Gallery 2B, May 2004), Berlin (Collegium Hungaricum, May 2005), New York (Hebrew Union College Museum, July 2005), Ulm (Donauswabisches Zentralmuseum, May-August, 2006), Jupiter, Fla. (Hibel Museum, Jan 3, 2007-March 30, 2007). Upcoming exhibitions include London (Ben Uri Gallery, Autumn 2007) and Miami (Alper JCC, April 10, 2008-June 20, 2008).

HEDVIG TURAI, an art historian, writes on art and on how art and social policy often intermingle. She is co-editor with Peter Gyorgy of Art and Society in the Age of Stalin, published in English by Corvina Books.
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Author:Turai, Hedvig
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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