In Conversation with Gesche Würfel

What have you learnt through your interviews with the various people who have witnessed the war?
GW: I have portrayed and interviewed war survivors. These interviews present personal perspectives on the war and the Hitler regime. For me, as a German, it was very difficult to talk to Holocaust survivors as I feel very guilty for what happened in the past and the involvement of my family and all the other Germans. I have learned that most of the witnesses are very concerned about the recent rise of anti-Semitism, right-wing parties, and neo-Nazis. These issues are especially concerning in the U.S., Poland, Hungary, and Germany but also in many other countries that have elected right-wing, anti-immigrant leaders.

The witnesses of the war are afraid that once they are no longer alive, nobody who has witnessed the war or the atrocities will be able to speak up anymore, and then history may be repeated. A lot of them see it as their duty to talk about their experiences, also in representation of those who have died and who were never able to speak about their own memories. I have also learned that no matter who I interviewed, everyone has suffered. War only brings suffering. And even generations to follow, war is still perceptible, as I experienced in my own upbringing.

What was the significance of WWII to you personally?
GW: I was born and raised in Germany, so I have a personal relationship to the aftermath of WWII and my family’s involvement in the war. I now live in the U.S., which enables me to view my home country through a different lens. My background as urban planner, visual sociologist, and photographer qualifies me to both interview and photograph people and places. With this project, I offer an approach to place, history, and personal trauma that is historical but still resonates in contemporary U.S. and European politics where anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments have risen. The photos and interviews encourage the viewers to think about how the horrors of Facism and World War II are still relevant today. What will happen to Europe as anti-immigrant right-wing parties become stronger? Is U.S. democracy weakening and heading towards authoritarianism? What Remains of the Day—Memories of World War II inspires critical thinking and engages its viewers by forming a bridge between the past and the present.

Since I grew up, WWII has always been a part of my life. In most German families, and so in mine, the grandparents participated in the war, as soldiers, bystanders, etc. (unless they were persecuted themselves by the Nazis because of their religious, sexual, or political orientation). My one grandfather was a Wehrmacht soldier and fought in Russia. He died when I was 4 years old and never talked about his experiences to anyone. His wife, my grandmother, stayed at home with two kids during the war. She also never talked about the war.

My other grandmother (Ruth E. who has been portrayed and interviewed for this project) was a member of the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM). After a mercantile apprenticeship she became Assistant Manager in the economic group Bricks and Soil, Specialist Group Brick and Tile Industry (Wirtschaftsgruppe Steine und Erden, Fachgruppe Ziegelindustrie) that mostly employed Germans and in the last year of the war also forced laborers from the countries occupied by the Nazis. She only talked reluctantly about forced labor in the interview but used to tell other stories about the war throughout her life. She married my grandfather during the war who has also never talked about WWII.

I remember that we had a history teacher in 9th or 10th grade, and we talked in great detail about WWII, about warfare, the troops, bombings, etc.—but never about the Holocaust. Looking back now at the subject matter he taught, I think he was a former Nazi. There were many people such as teachers, lawyers, professors, policemen who continued to work in the same profession after the war as they did during WWII since the denazification process had not been very thoroughly executed.

My mother gave me a lot of books to read about the Holocaust from a young age and I had been wondering for so many years how something horrible like this could happen.

Renee F., Holocaust Survivor (USA), 2017 © Gesche Würfel

How do you think photography plays a part with the notion of memory towards WWII?
GW: Pictures influence how we see the world and how we memorize a war or an important political or social event. From seeing photos of WWII (or other wars/events) we may feel like having participated in it. We forget or misremember and think that the photographs show reality. They are subjective fragments of time. Photos fade over time when exposed to light and so do our memories.

During the interviews, two witnesses mentioned that they weren’t sure if they remember particular events (in the place where they used to live during the war) because they have witnessed these events or because they have seen pictures of the events.

What is your process of choosing the locations which you decided to document?
GW: When I started the project in 2016, I was based in Berlin. Berlin was the capital of Germany from 1871 until 1945 and became the German capital again in 1990 after the German reunification. Therefore, many places of importance for my project were located in Berlin, for example the Reich Chancellery, the Headquarters of the Secret State Police, the Reich Aviation Ministry, or the House of the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was decided.

I photographed the concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau as the primary symbol of the Holocaust, and I photographed another seven concentration camps, including Dachau, which was the first concentration camp to be opened in 1933, mainly to hold political prisoners.

Below Forest is one location of many that was a station during the death marches, on which the Nazis sent prisoners near the end of the war. Prisoners were often first taken by trains to other camps further away from the front, and then forced to march long distances with little food, water, or rest. In these marches, thousands were shot or died of exhaustion.

As a location to represent the many railway stations in Germany and the occupied countries from where Jews, Sinti, Roma, political opponents and many other people were deported from, I chose to photograph the train tracks near Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin from where a third of Berlin’s Jewish population was deported between 1941 and 1945.

The D-Day Beaches represent one location where battles with immense casualties have occurred. On June 6, 1944, Allied troops landed on the five D-Day Beaches in Normandy, France with the aim to liberate North-West Europe from Nazi occupation. During the so-called “Operation Overlord” (June 6–August 30, 1944) over 425,000 Allied and German troops were killed.

I would very much be interested in visiting locations in Eastern Europe where Nazi atrocities happened. I would also like to interview witnesses in Russia, Ukraine and Poland but I need to apply for funding in order to be able to take these photos. Places of interest are the Lublin Reservation in Poland where Jews were supposed to be relocated before Hitler decided to build the extermination camps, sites of massacres like Bialystok and Bydogszcz in Poland, the Katyn Forest in Smolensk, Russia, and Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine.

American Cemetery (Colleville-sur-Mer), 2017 © Gesche Würfel

About In Conversation : SIPF Open Call Artists
The 6th Portfolio Open Call instalment of SIPF has brought in a wide range of artists
whose themes range from human impact on our ever changing environment to tales of loss and longing. The photographers chosen for these conversations have displayed an ability to convey profound and complex emotions through their series of images, bringing us into an immersive experience that is unique to each artist. In this series of interviews, we delve deeper into why these photographers do what they do, taking a look at the intimate and personal stories behind each of their projects.

This series of interviews can be found in DECK Journal of Photography #01.