Why did I choose this place? “Auschwitz” has become a metonymy for the Holocaust and, as Anna Wienart says in On the Ambiguity of Mapping Nazi Extermination Camps, maps of Birkenau have to some extent become a cartographical metonymy for the larger complex . The Nazi aim was to make the Jewish universe shrink . Both the camp, and the town of Oswiecim itself, contain fragments of the shrunken remains of that pre-Holocaust world.
The monotonous, repetitive, orthogonal Nazi plans that remain – and there are many - lack any individuality or any indication of the inhumanity of the place. These should have given me a clue that I had much to learn. As Andrew Charlesworth points out in The Topography of the Holocaust, the camp is presented “as built on isotropic surfaces with all traces of topography and geology removed” .
When I first travelled to Auschwitz, I carried with me only a single modern commercial map of the area. I had not even considered that I had no overview of the place.
As I had spent almost thirty years reading and thinking about the site, I assumed that there would be an obvious and straightforward way of understanding the parts of the landscape. I would know where everything was and where I was in relation to all the elements of Auschwitz. The truth was, I had no idea of any of this, but my aim was to map the space by a process of wandering across its boundaries and fragmented spaces. This proved to be a hopelessly optimistic assumption but one which, in itself, has provided me with perhaps my most useful insight: there is no ‘there’, there.
I had only a vague idea of a literary-spatial approach. Inspired by William Least Heat-Moon’s Prairy Erth , an account created from the structured exploration of a single small Kansas county from which he created the concept of a deep map, my aim was to attempt something similar with Auschwitz.