You Can’t Escape It (History That Is).

Posted: January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized
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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine shared with me an amazing Flickr and Facebook page called Ghosts of History (or Ghosts of War).  A Dutch photographer named Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse is the creator of both.  Very concisely, Teeuwisse states on her Flickr account that she loves “making photos in places where people took a photo long time ago” (sic).  Often she does more than just replicate a photo from the past; instead she overlays the past photo onto the contemporary photo, making it look…well…ghostly.

The effect of old photos seemingly being absorbed by the new is fascinating, and I highly recommend spending a couple minutes (or hours) exploring what she has done. Teeuwisse focuses upon her Dutch homeland, and the period of the Second World War, so you can imagine that a great many of the photos are tragic, which just adds to their eeriness.  One photo is of a dead French soldier on a sidewalk that today is a quiet Dutch lane.  Such photos display the everyday tragedy that marks modern war.

One photo that struck me was this one:Image

Here is a beautiful street in Amsterdam, with tourists taking a stroll, not realizing that the Nazis had an SS station on the corner directly behind.  Underneath the infamous double lightning bolt SS symbol, is a word not quite as well known, but that signifies horror: Einsatzkommando.  The Einsatzgruppen and Einsatzkommandos were the ‘special task forces’ that swept into Nazi conquered lands after the Wehrmacht (regular army) knocked out enemy military resistance.  The goal of the Einsatzgruppen was nothing less than the destruction of Nazism’s political and ‘racial enemies’.  After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, a couple thousand Einsatzkommando’s used small arms to methodically murder roughly 1 million Polish and Russian Jews and other ‘undesirables’.  These small groups of men were the initial actors of the Holocaust.

Teeuwisse’s photo illustrates that the Einsatzgruppen were not only active in Poland and Russia. Of course, the Einsatzgruppen did not murder their victims so openly in Holland, but they were central to the deportation of Jews and political enemies of the Nazis to ‘the East’, which in Nazi doublespeak meant an almost definite death sentence.

With such background knowledge, the happiness of the modern day tourists and day-trippers adds to the photo’s eeriness.  The dark history of this random Dutch corner is not given a second thought by those enjoying the summer sun. This photo displays the ubiquity of history, and our ignorance of it.  We have our historical shrines that we recognize as places of central importance to our historical narratives.  In America, we could point to Gettysburg with its hundreds of monuments; or Philadelphia, with the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall; perhaps the Alamo, or Pearl Harbor. Such places leave visitors hushed with reverence for those who came before.  Though it is well and right to have such memorialized shrines, we should not forget that our history is all around us, always.  These photos forcefully remind us that though we may be walking our boring everyday streets, we are never alone.  The past is always with us, no matter how we often try to forget it, or obscure it.


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