TOPICS > Arts

Silent Places

December 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT

TRANSCRIPT

ROGER ROSENBLATT: In a time of bombs and sirens, it is interesting to confront silent places. This is what is done in a new book of photographs called “Silent Places,” a record of some of the houses and institutions in Poland that were evacuated by the Jews during World War II, when they were shoved to their deaths.

The record was made by an American doctor, Jeffrey Gusky, who decided to teach himself both photography and his Jewish past by depicting what he calls “A Landscape of Life and Loss.” That is what these silent places convey: Loss in what one can see in the present life, in what one infers from the structures.

As moving as these photographs are in connection with Jewish history, they also reach out to the history of everyone. The world is dotted with silent places; that is, houses and institutions once the sites of vibrant human existence, now left to rot into the earth because of some evil or some mishap or simply because of time’s erosions.

In Ireland at the turn of the last century, John Millington Synge wrote of the buildings of the Irish left to crumble among the hedges and the vines. Synge called the process “the splendid desolation of decay.” Desolation with splendor. And there is a shadowed, accidental beauty attached to these relics, even to the places the Nazis caused to be silent.

All that goes on in a home– the birthdays, the quarrels, the excitement of a winter night, the casual innocence of daily life– suggest their own sounds. Subtract the people from the houses, and the sounds go with them, leaving sometimes not even the traces of ghosts.

The great abandoned houses of literature– Manderlay, Tara– absent of people, they become characters themselves, only they cannot speak through anything but their silence, forcing, as the pictures of Poland force, a melancholy scrutiny. A battered doorway. A stairway unused. A window that looks out because no one looks in. A house of worship that God seems to have deserted.

The world is full of silent places: Statues, arches, monuments. Nature itself is composed largely of silent places. But the silence of places where people once flourished are of a different sort. They are homes that have become like the homeless, standing incomplete because they were built to be occupied.

One wonders what, if anything, the Nazis thought as they invaded the homes of others and took them over: That one occupant is as good as another? That walls don’t talk? The desolation of decay loses splendor when someone’s home is converted to a public toilet.

Only the house itself knows what it really was, like an old man or a woman stopped, staring in one’s tracks in the silence of memory. Those who work for historic preservation keep old buildings alive, and that is admirable– a president’s home, an author’s home, revived for the admiration of the future– but the places such as these that were raped, eviscerated, and left to die probably could not be revived.

The life was ripped out of them. They stand and wait for nothing, except perhaps the individual imagination, which can travel back as well as forward, back to a time when the windows showed light. I’m Roger Rosenblatt.