Dachau Memorial

From The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press)

Mel Alexenberg

(Following the attack on my Sukkah entry for "Sky Art '83")

Uri Levi and I took the commuter train from Munich to the suburbs.  I carried the bag of earth.  We exited the train under the large sign: DACHAU.  It was an ominous experience for two Jews.  Walking down from the raised station into the center of a shockingly beautiful town gave Uri and me a bout of aesthetic flu.  In the mist of this floral suburb with every blade of grass and tree trimmed, every pastry displayed in exquisite taste in the shop window, every house freshly clean white, Hitler built his first death camp.  Middle-class Germans lived a middle-class life in their garden paradise while the cries of thousands of Jews being tortured and brutally murdered in their midst went unheard.  I had erroneously thought that there was some connection between aesthetic and moral development of human beings. 

We walked from the Dachau train station to the rebuilt death camp taking turns carrying the bag of earth from the Land of Israel.  Allied bombers had destroyed the original.  A true to scale, neat, trim reproduction of the former death camp was rebuilt out of the same lovely Bavarian pine planks that BMW supplied for my sukkah [hut built to commemorate the exodus from Egyptian bondage].  At the foot of a concrete pillar supporting the barbed-wire fence surrounding the camp, I spread the swept remains of the scattered earth from the Holy Land.  The earth rested on freshly mowed grass that covered up bloodied ground.  I was following an ancient Jewish tradition of placing earth from the Land of Israel in the graves of our dead in the lands of our exile.  On a square of earth from my sky art sukkah spread out on the grass, I set steel rebar rods that I had found discarded at a construction site on my walk from the Dachau town center.  With the rods, I wrote out the word sukkah in three square Hebrew letters, the first letter is totally closed, the second is open on one side, and the third is open in two places.  The form of the letters in the word sukkah can be metaphorically read as “towards freedom.”  Above and below the Hebrew word sukkah, I wrote the word sukkah in rebar rods two more times upside-down and backwards.   The German iron cross and swastika were trapped between the nine letters.

Uri dropped to the ground and wept.  I paced furiously to express my anger.

It was intolerable for me to look at the photographs that I took of my earth art memorial on the verdant grass of Dachau with lovely bushes growing up against a bright blue sky.  They failed to give any indication of the horror of the place.  After years of not showing these photographs, I realized that I could transform a sunny day into a dark day in hell by removing my slide from its frame and printing it as if it were a negative.  Printing the positive slide resulted in a negative image in which bushes become rising flames and sky and grass different shades of deadly brown.