- Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory
Writing about the Holocaust has recently moved in new directions, within both creative and critical discourses. As the number of eyewitnesses continues [End Page 857] to decrease, various forms of representation take on the burden of remembering the horrific events in Nazi Germany. Brett Ashley Kaplan’s Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory contributes to this biographical debate of how later generations can relate back to the past. Following a very brief introduction, the book includes three parts. In the first, the author travels to Germany to visit the location of what used to be Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg, which after the war was turned into a US army recreation center. In 1999 a documentation center opened there, and in 2005 a luxurious spa hotel. Kaplan reports extensively on the background of the location, on its role in Nazi mythologizing of the Alpine landscape, and on the media echo following the opening of the hotel. As the site engages in “a battle between memory and forgetting” (66), it brings out the numerous contradictory directions that engagement with the landscape takes. While the bulk of this part deals with historical documents and photographs, critically analyzed as belonging to nostalgia and testimony, one chapter discusses a quasi-biographical novel by Sybille Knauss, Eva’s Cousin, which portrays life on Hitler’s chalet from the eyes of a young cousin to Eva Braun. Kaplan raises the issue of how, in the novel, shame and responsibility taint the memory of the past. She notes that the landscape somehow connects the characters (and readers) to the Nazi crimes, but does not quite show how such complicity is specific to the Obersalzberg. Indeed, when she argues that Hitler rebukes a visitor over her comments relating to the treatment of Jews, we may wonder whether his response would have been different at any other place. In other words, Kaplan does not always succeed in presenting the unique impact that location has on the events portrayed.
The second part of Landscapes discusses photography. It begins with a description of Lee Miller’s work as moving between aesthetic and documentary modes of representation. Drawing on surrealist tropes, her photographs topicalize the problem of the gaze and the horrors of war. Kaplan is particularly interested in how Miller portrays perpetrators in a manner that documents the reality of their crimes. While proper geographical landscapes rarely feature in this section, the detailed analyses of the exact composition of photographs shed light on the spatial element in remembering the Holocaust. The following discussion of photography artwork by Susan Silas documents the artist’s revisitation, in 1998, of a Nazi death march route. Silas superscribes the resulting photographs with her first-person comments about the experience and with current news about atrocities. Kaplan notes how “the beauty of Silas’s images” contrasts with “the literal and metaphorical violence of these landscapes” (101), raising questions of erasure and forgetting with reference to the very sites where genocide took place. She argues that Silas’s work makes visible the scars in the landscape. The final chapter on photography [End Page 858] discusses Collier Schorr’s portraits of Nazis. Shot in black and white and set in German landscapes, many of her images are not immediately recognizable as staged. Indeed, Kaplan connects Schorr’s forest settings with the Nazi attitude towards the woods and landscape in general, though she does not quite explain how or why the Nazis connected forests with violence and brutality. In the light of Western culture’s long-standing othering of nature, Nazism’s particular take on nature is not fully worked out here.
The final part of the book looks at works by J. M. Coetzee, whose artistic oeuvre has been the subject of frequent debates over ethics and politics. Kaplan claims that the Holocaust plays a prominent yet overlooked role in Coetzee’s fiction. While much of her discussion of Coetzee’s texts rehearses other aspects, she also draws parallels to concentration camps, to fire and ashes, as well as to complicity and guilt...