This article was written by Rachael Heffernan, writer and researcher with The Drawing Board.

 

If you’re feeling like you don’t spend enough time on your creative self, and you’re getting tired of the same-old-same-old dinner and a movie, you may be a perfect candidate for Sits.

Sits, you say?

Yes, Sits.

Sits began (as far as I know) in my partner’s family. Because they all live far apart during the year, in the last few days of summer they have a ritual they’ve dubbed Sits. They each spend some time scouting out the best places around the property, and then, in one glorious day, grab a couple of bottles of wine and some folding chairs and trek their way to each spot. They sit, they drink, they chat, and they admire the beauty that can only be found in The Middle of Nowhere, Ontario. It’s a beautiful tradition all about spending time in undiscovered places with people you love.

The idea of Edmonton Sits came out of this ritual with a couple of little twists to make it more appropriate for city life, and, as a bonus, orient it towards accomplishing the dreams of two author-wannabes. Here’s how it works:

  1. You and your posse of creative minds go out on the town armed with good pens, notebooks, and no more than one book each for inspiration. You may trade books with one another as the night goes on.
  2. Go to a place you’ve never been before. This can be in nature or can be somewhere indoor that has beverages and appetizers.
  3. Everyone orders drinks OR a timer is set  – and here’s the crutch of the game – you must write as much as you can for the duration of one drink, or leave before the timer runs out.
  4. Then you move on to the next location.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 for as long as you please.

My partner and I went out and it was one of the best date nights we had had in a very long time. Getting to spend some time joyfully writing together and sharing our silly stories and poems was hugely refreshing. The unexpected side effect was that I felt it activated my creativity in a whole new way – armed with my notebook in my purse, for the next few nights we went out I ended up furiously scribbling poetry amongst the baskets of french fries and pints of beer on the table.


Here are some of my favourite poems from our adventures:

BEER

Lemon half moon

Bubbly balloons

Sittin’ under Edmonton skies

Burdened down I ain’t

Pickin’ at the paint

Not knowin’ when I’m gonna die


HEIGHTS

My nephew toddled softly

He would adamantly walk

And stoop and stop and bend and stretch

And talk and talk and talk.

He’d pick the little clovers

And stare down at the grass

He’d grab pink rocks and stash them

He’d point out bits of glass

And I’d walk and stop and hurry

I’d take him by the hand

All I could see were stop signs

While his eyes were on the land.

 

It might not seem like the most important thing in a CEO’s daily purview of company operations but writing has a surprisingly important place in building an organization’s legitimacy, marketing prowess, teaching capabilities, and legacy and online presence. Time and time again, we have seen companies spending thousands and thousands of hard-earned dollars on beautiful website designs only to find that they are not hitting the first page of search engines.

Why is this the case? The online reality is that if your site lacks timely, diversified, precise content writing and images, it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is: no one will find you. And that is a recipe for business disaster – not only for those of us who conduct our business online, but for everyone else too.

These days, if a company does not have a solid website with essential content in an organized, intuitive fashion, people either won’t know you exist or, if they do, won’t trust you. A website might not obviously turn into dollars walking through your business’ door but just because you can’t see how something is directly working, doesn’t mean it isn’t.

A website functions like a safety blanket for potential customers who are using search engines to find businesses in their communities. They might look for particular services you offer by googling keywords. If your site lacks the appropriate content, despite the fact that your business is offering those services or products, your competitors will appear in the search results long before you do.

If you are on your content game, and your potential client comes to a beautiful, branded, navigable site, your online legitimacy immediately starts to build a trust relationship with them by communicating your standards for quality and professionalism. It doesn’t matter if you run your business out of a home office or a professional building centre downtown, your website may be the first impression that clients have of your company and the principles on which you run your organization.

Sloppy websites with dated content can hurt you just as much as excellent websites with timely content can help you succeed. And it all starts with developing adequate, targeted content on your site. Content comes in many forms and can include:

  • Blog articles
  • Static Content
  • Advertising
  • Embedded Video
  • Slideshows
  • Images

Trust your content development to someone who is professionally trained to do appropriate research and create high-quality writing for you on a consistent basis. For some of the most basic reasons to hire a professional – such as those from The Drawing Board – check out our top five reasons here.

 

You may have noticed by now, but the women of The Drawing Board have accumulated considerable professional and academic successes in the form of accomplishments and awards. And we shamelessly celebrate these events every time they arise. While there is a lot to be said about online issues of contributing to another’s depression or low self-esteem when we celebrate our own successes, it is important to realize that publicizing these facts goes beyond mere celebration: they are acts of political defiance and feminist resistance.

Every time I have been inclined to share a success, I have been hesitant for a variety of reasons. In Islam, we are encouraged to thank God first (which I do, alhamdulilah) and to avoid showing off in front of others. Additionally, Muslims are taught about the dangers of the evil eye – or jealousy that comes from unexpected sources. The other reason I hesitate is my personality. For anyone who knows me personally, they know that self-confidence has only come with a lot of work in the realm of self-development and, even then, only recently. When you don’t think highly of yourself, and don’t want to think highly of yourself (as an ascetic practice) it is difficult to see the benefit of announcing your accolades publicly.

But there are a few reasons to do it.

Firstly, as Rachael has reminded me, people who are successful are often entangled in numerous projects and initiatives – so much so that they can forget to take the time to recognize what they have done. For people who are particularly focused on the betterment of their community and other altruistic work, it can be tragic to fail to realize how far you have come and the difference you have made.

For activists and academics in particular, this is especially important. Our communities (along with artists) tend to suffer from mental illnesses disproportionately. Additionally, activists can be focused on how much more work we have to do, and will push to make change tirelessly, not taking a breath in the meantime. The constant focus on the negative (on what is left to be done) can cast shadows over the light-filled ventures that activist projects can be for the communities they serve. And it can take away from the actual change initiated, making our work feel more like a performance than anything else. A moment of celebration or recognition can be the antidote to negativity before we put our nose to the grindstone again.

For academics, the focus on “what is left to do” is also ever-present, perhaps more so. In academia, you are constantly reminded of the greats who came before you, and how what you do will “never be enough.” Yesterday’s doctoral degree is today’s post-doc. A colleague of mine recently passed his candidacy and is now ABD (All But Dissertation) for his PhD program and when he made this monumental announcement via social media, he received some comments like “Don’t get too comfortable” or “Now the real work begins” when I personally think the only thing in order was a solid congratulations (which also came in droves). I can’t say how he felt nor what the others meant by those comments (he doesn’t even know I am writing this or thought about it), but I couldn’t help but feel like the reminders that others have “been there and done that” diminished the countless, likely sleepless, hours he had spent to get to that point. But that’s just me.

The second reason that it’s important to celebrate accomplishments comes to me from Liz. When I was really worried about posting that I had received the SSHRC for the coming academic year and to support my thesis research, Liz reminded me that, especially for women, the celebration of our recognition is its own form of social activism and feminist resistance. For me, celebration gives time and space to countless hours of work and tireless efforts. It means that long nights and juggled commitments have not been in vain. That slogging towards a better future can not only be recognized in the here and now, but ought to be. It is injecting a “good news” story into the prevailing narratives of oppressive patriarchy and can inspire others to pursue their dreams, whatever their inhibitions about them.

Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Director of Public Policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

 

 

 

The Drawing Board was started by Nakita Valerio in 2009. Over the years, we have supported many amazing clients and the scope of what we do has changed from writing to full-on marketing support with the offer of eBook publications, newsletter authourship, social media management and much more. We were founded on the principle that talented people should be acting on those talents, whatever their business may be.

Let’s face it: the digital world is here to stay and if all of us are going to be using websites and social media to communicate, shop, share and live then we had better be doing it well. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that is facing companies, non-profits and charities these days is good, quality content on the social media and websites that keeps them informative, relevant and interesting. This is because of a very simple fact of life: Web designers and business owners are not writers.

We are writers. This is what we do. And even though we make it look easy, we are trained professionals in our trade and we make it our mission to uplift you and your business through our writing services.

What do you get when you cross three historians with passion for writing? You get The Drawing Board.

NakitaNakita Valerio
Owner and Head Writer for The Drawing Board

Nakita Valerio is an academic, activist and writer in the community. She is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the 2016 Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, as well as the Walter H. Johns Graduate Studies Fellowship. She has also been honoured with the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies in 2015. She has been recognized by Rotary International with an Award for Excellence in Service to Humanity and has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and the Director of Public Policy with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.

1395963_10152046806551411_1850691895_nRachael Heffernan

Writer and Researcher for The Drawing Board

Rachael Heffernan is currently completing a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received a number of scholarships and awards, including the Harrison Prize in Religion and the Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

lizLiz Hill

Writer and Researcher for The Drawing Board

Liz came to Edmonton to do a Masters degree in History at the University of Alberta after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History at the University of Victoria. Her research interests include medieval and early modern social and cultural history, especially issues around medical history and persecution. In the first year of her Masters degree, Liz received the Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, followed by the Walter H. Johns Fellowship, Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship, and the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship.She  presented at the HCGSA Conference at University of Alberta in 2016 and will be writing the entry on Leprosy in World Christianity for the De Gruyter’s Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (forthcoming). She has worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Alberta, and as a contract researcher and writer for the Government of Alberta’s Heritage division. In addition to her work as a writer and researcher, Liz volunteers with the Art Gallery of Alberta and Latitude 53 Contemporary Visual Culture.

A version of this article was originally presented by Liz Hill in February 2016 at the University of Alberta History and Classics Graduate Student Conference on the theme of the sacred.

liz slide 1

In his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Bonaventura credits an encounter with a leper with being a formative moment in Francis’ conversion. While traveling, Francis happened upon a leper on the side of the road. Initially horrified by this surprise encounter, Francis remembered his developing spiritual intentions and that if he was to become a soldier of Christ he must first conquer self. He leaped from his horse to embrace the leper, and kissed the leper’s hand as he gave him alms. After mounting his horse and turning back towards the leper, Francis found that the leper had miraculously vanished without a trace. Shortly after this episode Francis received a vision of Christ that called him to the apostolic life. “From that time forth,” writes Bonaventura, “Francis put on the spirit of poverty, the feeling of humility, and the love of inward godliness.” In contrast to his previous loathing of lepers, the converted Francis began to frequent their homes, giving alms and kissing their hands and faces. In The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, a later collection of stories about Francis and the early Franciscan Order, Francis is credited with curing a leper both physically and spiritually. The leper in this story was so ill tempered and blasphemous that none of the other brothers would tend to him. Francis bathed the man and where the saint touched, his leprosy was cured. Seeing this, and the charitable and compassionated example of Francis, the leper repented for his sins and after his death Francis received a vision of the leper’s soul ascending to heaven.

Catherine of Siena also tended to an ill tempered and ungrateful leper. Catherine’s leper was named Tecca and her leprosy was so severe that everyone was repelled by the smell and she had no one to care for her. She was going to be removed from the city when Catherine came to the hospital, promising to tend to her every need and be her servant for the remainder of Tecca’s life. Unlike Francis’ leper, who was moved to penitence after the saint’s charitable example, Tecca became filled with pride, ingratitude, and irritation at Catherine’s humility and charity. Nonetheless, Catherine persisted in her ministrations until the leper’s death. Catherine even contracted leprosy on her hands from her contact with Tecca’s corrupted body. This leprosy miraculously disappeared after Catherine prepared and buried Tecca’s body. Raymond of Capua reports that Catherine’s “hands seemed to be whiter than the rest of her person, as though the leprosy had imparted additional delicacy to them.”

liz slide 2

Lepers appear in miracle stories throughout the Middle Ages, beginning with Christ cleansing lepers in the New Testament. There is a transformation in their narrative roles and the type of sainthood that they help construct around the eleventh century, though. Prior to the eleventh century leprosy mainly appeared as an affliction under divine control, often as a punishment or penance. Miracles that involved controlling leprosy – whether by curing a penitent leper or afflicting a sinner with the disease – were highly effective demonstrations of a saint’s supernatural powers because of leprosy’s natural incurability and biblical associations. The leper’s role was to be an outlet for the saint’s powers, and show the link between sin and punishment, and penitence and mercy. After the eleventh century the “ministering” saint became more prevalent and the role of lepers in those stories is simply to be the suffering recipient of charity. Catherine and Francis are both ministering saints, as are Elizabeth of Hungary and the less well-known St Eleazar. Martin of Tours and St Radegund were earlier models for the ministering saint. Martin cured a leper with a kiss, and St Radegund welcomed a group of lepers into her convent. Some ministering saints are credited with curing lepers, but stories of these interactions emphasize the saint’s compassion and ministration to the material needs of lepers. Rather than focusing on encounters between supernaturally powerful saints and stricken, penitent lepers, late medieval hagiography depicts penitent and humble saints serving lepers out of Christian charity.

liz slide 4

Charitable service is regularly represented in hagiography by acts such as bathing, embracing, and kissing lepers. Martin and Radegund both kissed lepers, but it became a common hagiographic trope along with the increased popularity of ministering saint after the eleventh century. Francis kissed the leper he met on the road and St Eleazar kissed three lepers who later found the stench of their disease replaced by a pleasant scent and their bodies cured. Both bathing and kissing involve close physical engagement with the leprous body. Catherine’s ministrations to the leper Tecca brings her so close to the leprous body that her own hands become leprous. Visual depictions of Elizabeth of Hungary also show her bathing lepers and Jacques Voragine wrote that she “laid in her lap a man horribly sick, which had his visage stinking like carrion” and shaved and washed his head. (The patient’s “stinking visage” suggests that he was a leper since bad breath and smell from the mouth and nasal cavity was a known symptom of leprosy.)

The intimacy and tenderness of these acts is often contrasted with descriptions of the disgusted responses of onlookers, or even by the saint’s own initial negative response to the leprous body. Before his conversion, “even the distant sight of lepers had filled [Francis] with violent loathing,” wrote Bonaventura, and Francis’ initial response to suddenly coming upon the leper on the road was horror. Raymond wrote that one of the virtues exhibited by Catherine in her care for Tecca was “patience [that] led her to support with joy the violence of the leper’s temper as well as the disgusts inseparable from that loathsome malady.”  Tecca is introduced as having been abandoned by her care-givers because her disease had become so unpleasant and smelly that no one, except the saintly Catherine, could stand to be around her. Elizabeth’s tenderness towards the patient with the “stinking visage” was also met with “loathing” and “scorn.” “All shuddered” to see Martin kiss the leper whom he cured outside Paris and one of Radegund’s attendants questioned who would kiss Radegund now that she had embraced lepers, to which Radegund responded “Really, if you will not kiss me it is no concern of mine.”

liz slide 5

These interactions between lepers and ministering saints have a fairly clear didactic purpose. They give hagiographers the opportunity to illustrate their saint’s charity, kindness, and humility. In some ways, the ministering saint can be viewed as a rather “down to earth” and practical model of sainthood. Rather than performing miracle cures they give alms and simply display compassion for the marginal and poor, modeling behaviors that could be emulated by ordinary Christians. This narrative purpose could be just as easily fulfilled by describing interactions between saints and any type of poor, sick, or disabled person, however. The leper has a uniquely untouchable nature, however, that gives more weight to the hagiographer’s demonstrations of his subject’s holiness.

The leper’s untouchable nature was perhaps most acutely manifested in his body, which was characterized as repulsive and gross, but his social status was also defined by untouchability. Recent scholarship has shown that rigid and punitive segregation and confinement of lepers has been simplified and over exaggerated, but medieval society did follow the spirit of biblical laws about leprosy that stated that the leper must live “outside the camp.” The leprosarium provided refuge, care, and community for lepers but it developed because lepers were customarily excluded and stigmatized, putting them in a vulnerable and needy social position. Lepers were marked out from the general population by special clothing, noisemakers that they carried to attract almsgivers and warn people of their presence, and of course by the physical marks of the disease itself. Although some could afford to remain in seclusion at home, most were made to live physically outside of society and their interactions and freedom of movement were restricted by measures that prevented them from eating with the healthy, sharing the same water sources, or frequenting public places such as taverns and markets. The actual institution and enforcement of these measures varied by time and place but the overall social responses to leprosy aimed to prevent contact, both physical and social, between lepers and the healthy.[1]

The socially and personally untouchable nature of lepers made the tactile interactions between lepers and saints a double transgression. There was transgression across the social boundaries that removed the saints, as healthy and often upper class members of society, from the lepers who lived on the margins of society, and there was transgression of normative personal boundaries. As the reactions to saints embracing lepers, and hagiographers’ descriptions of the corrupted bodies of lepers show, the normal response to the leprous body and person was repulsion and disgust. Saints are able to make these transgressions at the extreme level of intimate touch because of their exceptional, and sacred, natures.

Merchant class or noble saints such as Francis, Catherine, Eleazar, and Elizabeth serving members of a segment of society so marginal as to symbolize the entire concept of marginality was a transgression of social boundaries that demonstrated saintly humility and charity. Representing that transgression with an act as intimate and lowly as washing lepers’ feet dramatized this transgression very powerfully. It also drew on the idea that charity and service to the lowest of society was charity and service to Christ. Because Christ’s suffering during the Passion, and disfigured appearance after, were likened to the suffering and disfigurement caused by leprosy. Thus the charity and humility demonstrated by serving lepers had additional significance as symbolic service of Christ.

Transgressing the personal boundary created by the leprous body’s repulsiveness demonstrated mortification of self and transcendence of normal bodily reactions of disgust, in addition to being an expression of compassion and love. Francis’ encounter with the leper marked a turning point in his conversion because it was an act consciously undertaken in order to “conquer self” by resisting his normal, but selfish and uncharitable, revulsion towards the miserable leper. Raymond credits Catherine with the virtue of patience for bearing the disgust of her patient’s disease. When saints don’t struggle with their own revulsion, the ease with which they physically interact with lepers, such as in the cases of St Martin and St Radegund, is contrasted with the disgust of onlookers, demonstrating that the saint already possesses a degree of spiritual love and charity that allows them to be undisturbed by either their or others’ physical states.

Interactions between lepers and saints in hagiography make use of the untouchable leper and the act of touch by the saint to articulate ideas about sainthood – the traits that make a saint, and what the enactment of ideal Christianity looks like. The act of touch itself, however, has significance itself as an act with sacred power. Medieval Christianity made use of touch in a number of ways to express, transmit, and interact with sanctity, including the laying on of hands, the kiss of peace, devotional gestures, ascetic use of sensation (especially pain and discomfort), and devotional touch. Mystical experiences and spiritual relationships were also expressed through images of touch. The use of relics, in particular, demonstrates the perceived power of touch to confer sanctity through touch. Relics, sacred sites, and even living holy people became the objects of devotees’ feverish desire to touch. Hagiographies and miracle books from shrines recount the miraculous healing powers of relics, but even for those who were not sick, touching a relic provided a moment of closeness to the sacred and divine, possibly conferring some blessing or special grace.

The act of touch between leper and saint can be interpreted as a transmission of sanctity, much like that which occurs when a devotee touches a relic. In earlier hagiography that emphasized the saint’s power to heal and the leper’s penitential attitude the leper takes the role of recipient of the powers of the saint’s sanctity, but in the later examples, in which touch becomes most prominent, these roles are almost reversed. The lepers are sometimes healed, either physically or spiritually, but it is the saint who seems to truly benefit from the interaction. Catherine’s leper does not even repent for her ingratitude at the end of her life. Catherine, however, receives a sign of her own special grace by the miraculous cure of her leprous hands. Francis receives a vision that confirms his vocation after kissing his leper. Bathing lepers at least serves their physical needs, but kissing a leper primarily serves to demonstrate the saint’s piety more than to benefit the leper. The leper is the passive object of touch, like a relic, and in the tactile interaction between leper and saint, it is the leprous body that is emphasized rather than the saintly body. The saint is the holy person, and the leper might not even be portrayed as a very good person, but the leprous body has power when it is touched because it is normally untouchable. The leper’s body is in a sense sacred because it is only touchable by the very holy. Through receiving a saint’s touch, it either confers or reveals that individual’s sanctity.


 

[1] It is worth noting that this was not motivated by fears of contagion. Medical theories about the spread of leprosy only developed in earnest in the late Middle Ages and the idea of easy contagion by miasma only began to gain prevalence in the fourteenth century. Most medical sources suggest that leprosy could only be contracted by regular and prolonged interaction with lepers, or by sexual contact either with a leper or with a woman whose last partner was a leper. The leper’s isolation through out the Middle Ages was much more firmly rooted in Biblical tradition and the disease’s moral associations than in medical fears.

Further Reading

Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: disease, religion, and politics in European art. Kirksville: Truman State University Press.

Demaitre, Luke E. 2007. Leprosy in Premodern Medicine: a malady of the whole body. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Orlemanski, Julie. 2012. “How to Kiss a Leper.” Postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 3

Rawcliffe, Carole. 2007. “Isolating the Medieval Leper: Ideas – and Misconceptions – about Segregation in the Middle Ages.” Harlaxton Medieval Studies 15.

Stemmle, Jennifer. 2015. “From Cure to Care: Indignation, Assistance and Leprosy in the High Middle Ages.” In Experiences of Charity, 1250 – 1650. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.

This paper was presented by Nakita Valerio for the Annual HCGSA Conference at the University of Alberta, February 2016.

slide 1

On January 27th, 2010, I stood in the freezing cold outside Auschwitz-Birkenau after a long day of watching the ceremonies for its 65th anniversary of liberation. Visitors had been huddled around burning fires just beyond the women’s camp on the way to the gas chambers. In a large tent across the infamous rail tracks, survivors, politicians, and press had listened to speeches in Polish and Hebrew. Violins had been played. At the end of a twelve-hour day, with the sun having set over the camp, many of us started to make our way toward the exit to go back to the nearby town, or to catch a bus to Krakow. In the ‘parking lot’, we met with mass confusion as guards hurried everyone along in the dark, survivors were shuffled onto buses wearing their striped uniforms, and cars took off left and right. We were informed that there were no taxis and no buses for us who remained. We would have to walk five kilometers in the cold back to the town if we hoped to leave Birkenau that night. One woman from our group grabbed me and we raced over to a tour bus as it was leaving. She managed to convince the driver to let us on but we were told that we must stand at the back and we were to remain absolutely silent: we had hitched a ride with survivors. As the bus filled with the sounds of their laughter and their chattering in a variety of languages, the woman turned to me, complaining in English about the poor organization of the ceremonies and a litany of other criticisms about its memorialization, in general. This woman confided in me that she was one of the main curators at Bergen-Belsen and when I asked her why she thought it was such a problem at Auschwitz, she replied: “It’s because Auschwitz is in Poland.”

This unusual comment has always stuck with me, not only because it is indicative of a kind of German-centric authority in memorializing the Holocaust but also because it demonstrates a narrative common about Poland, which even permeates within Poland, about a kind of ineptitude at existing in general, never mind at memorializing what is considered one of the most important sites of memory for the Holocaust. This curator is not the only person to express a sense of insufficiency when visiting the camp, in fact, entire books have tried to get at why the memorials at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau leave the visitor with a nagging sense of incompleteness and “restlessness of the soul”. Such authours as Jonathan Webber argue that the Holocaust is a rupture in the fabric of creation, and that trying to identify its causes (morally) leads to insurmountable issues for the writers of history, thus rendering any memorial hopelessly inadequate, presumably more so than memorials normally are. Webber is not alone, citing a slew of authours grappling with the immense anti-ethical implications of the Holocaust and failing to come up with solutions for curators of this critical space. Webber concludes his article by citing the lack of a unified religious (specifically Jewish) voice as crucial for reconciling the immensity of the Holocaust to our inability to reason with it and, by extension, as a comfort for our collective morality.

I argue that it is neither some kind of perceived Polish ineptitude nor a lack of religious unity nor existential trauma that are to blame in terms of the majority of problems people have with the camp, and, in fact, the sacralisation that happens in the latter formulations, which make Auschwitz the inverse of the Kantian sublime, inhibit our ability to assess Auschwitz for the historical space that it is. The symbol of Auschwitz is no longer the historical place of Auschwitz and something very valuable and illuminating has been lost in the process. Considering I am working in the field of social memory and the Holocaust, you would think I would be deeply interested in the symbolic currency of the symbol of Auschwitz and how it is used in various mindscapes of cultural systems around the world –and I am. But my point in trying to ground us in the physical space of Auschwitz once more is to note something of urgent necessity which thinkers who sacralize the camp run the risk of overlooking, and which could have dire consequences for the symbolic use of Auschwitz in the future: its conservation.

slide 2

Before I get into the stark challenges of conservation, which are wholly unique to it and will illuminate a major reason for the sense of insufficiency in the camps, I want to discuss both the problems of religious unity and sacralization briefly. An article published on August 10, 2007 by The Krakow Post was entitled “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation wants to build sanctuary in Auschwitz.” The concept behind the proposed monument “was to reflect a symbolic burial ground for those who died in the concentration camp.”[1] The presumed purpose of something like this is to recognize the diversity of people who died in Auschwitz and whose remains ought to be honoured. It is also assumed that this sort of project has been undertaken because of the impossibility of separating intermingled remains for appropriate burial according to each victim’s religion. Ultimately, however, “The International Auschwitz Board [was] not keen on the project [because] Auschwitz is considered to be a cemetery today and Judaism does not permit any monument erection within the grounds of a cemetery.”[2] Other such memorials have been proposed and rejected in the past, preferring instead to be built outside of the camp where they “have a greater chance of success.”[3] This is but one example of how Auschwitz has become a contested space. Some might argue that contestation is an inherent part of constructing culturally important places, particularly those that are religiously sacred; that, by virtue of defining a place for one group, others will necessarily be excluded. This is a bleak reality that does not bode well for the future of those seeking to heal at Auschwitz for numerous demographics who flock there looking for closure and answers, nor for those who want to use it as a space of learning for future generations. It is, in my opinion, that under exceptional circumstances, exceptions need to be made. An example of this type of exception was reported again in The Krakow Post when an Aboriginal Elder from the Budawang people in New South Wales Australia was permitted to perform the first ever Aboriginal healing ceremony in Auschwitz.[4] Perhaps it was the fact that 59-year-old Noel Butler had no link whatsoever to any identifiable religious group that had been victimized at Auschwitz that he was permitted to do this. However, this reasoning does not hold true for a mass Muslim prayer for the dead held inside the camp and conducted by imams from around the world on May 23, 2013. Rather, perhaps the acceptance of such acts of ritual healing have been accepted by the establishment because of the impermanence of such ceremonies.

Religious contestation of the space is, by far, the least of the worries associated with the camp. Most of these attempts at closure and religious healing in the space are thwarted by its sacralization in another realm: with the elevation of Auschwitz as the site for commemorating the tragedy of the Holocaust, as somehow emblematic of the entire historical episode’s face. By making Auschwitz untouchable, a kind of gruesome hierophany at which all the darkness of the human soul broke through and is somehow still emanating from that space, many historians have lost the ability to see what really underlies the first main obstacle to memorialization, something completely left aside in the conversation: that is, conservation.

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In “Wisdom Sits in Places” from Senses of Place, Keith H. Basso, states that “the self-conscious experience of place is inevitably a product and expression of the self whose experience it is, and therefore, unavoidably, the nature of that experience is shaped at every turn by the personal and social biography of the one who sustains it.”[5] Ultimately, our sense of a place like Auschwitz derives from our animation of place and its reciprocal animation of “the ideas and feelings of persons who attend to them… [and] this process of interanimation related to the fact that  familiar places are experienced as inherently meaningful, their  significance and value found to reside in the form and arrangement of their observable characteristics.”[6] Furthermore, Basso (quoting Jean-Paul Sartre) notes that things can reflect for individuals only their knowledge of them. In this understanding, it is possible to imagine an individual who has never heard of the Holocaust  and, in coming to Auschwitz, would not realize what took place there – in fact, this idea of place necessitates that hypothetical in order to counteract the alleged inverse-sublimity/sacrality that some people describe as now “emanating” from Auschwitz. What an individual such as this picks up on from the site itself is not the moral black hole that many claim is now there, but may be indicators from the landscape, both natural and altered, that offer subliminal or overt clues as to what took place there. As Basso points out, “places come to generate their own fields of meaning… [by being] animated by the thoughts and feelings of persons who attend to them[;] places express only what their animators enable them to say.”[7]

The record for the preservation of Auschwitz has been grim and it is clear that the primary reasons for this relates to inadequate funding that has hampered the process of restoring the buildings and other structures of the camps.[8]

slide 4

Jolanta Banas, the head of preservation at Auschwitz has stated matter-of-factly, “Our main problem is sheer numbers. We measure shoes in ten thousands.”[9] When the sum is totaled, Banas and her staff are responsible for the monitoring of 150 buildings and more than 300 ruins at the two main sites of Auschwitz-Birkenau.[10] According to Robert Jan Van Pelt, a cultural historian in the school of architecture at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the leading expert on the construction of Auschwitz, “80 to 90 percent of the original structures are gone or in a state of ruin.”[11]

Part of the issue with this state of affairs is the size of the camp and thus the sheer volume of funds that are required on a continual basis for the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds. For anyone who has not been there, the three camps comprising the Auschwitz zone are enormous and total 40 square kilometers or 4000 hectares. In comparison, the other major killing zones on Polish soil are tiny. Treblinka, is a mere 17 hectares. It was never conceived of as anything other than a place to commit murder and the overwhelming majority of people sent there were killed within two hours of their arrival, totaling a minimum of 870,000 murders. Belzec camp near Lublin, Poland (another death center only) was reported to have been the site of murder for at least 434,508 people. It measures only 27 hectares. Sobobir death camp claimed the lives of between 200,000 and 250,000 prisoners and it measures only 24 hectares. Auschwitz, on the other hand, was part of a larger agricultural and industrial experiment initiated by Heinrich Himmler to assist Germans of the Reich who had settled on stolen Polish land. Slave labour from the camp, involving around 10,000 prisoners at any given time, was part of the prerogative of the creation of Auschwitz. The size of the camp is the first major obstacle to preservation because the level of funding required is both enormous and in constant demand. The fact that the camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau has come to stand for the face of the entire Holocaust makes its preservation crucial for many and yet, it is in need of the most funding to do this, to the neglect of other killing centers.

slide 5

Reports immediately after the fall of the USSR indicated that many of the wooden barracks had rotted away, the crematoria were literally sinking into the ground, and the mountains of belongings stolen from the victims (from their hair to shoes, suitcases and eyeglasses) were breaking down. An article in the Ocala Star-Banner from February 19, 1990 indicated that Poland (which had toppled its Communist government only the summer before) had “formed a commission to change the 35-year-old museum exhibition, which highlight[ed] the Soviet army’s liberation of the camp but mention[ed] the Holocaust only in passing.”[12] Preservation cost estimates at that time were thought to be around $40 million. Frank Reiss, the vice-president of a New York foundation enlisted to help with the assessment of the site, called for an urgency in the repairing process, stating that “If nothing is done, in 10 to 20 years, the site will be practically non- existent…[and that] the tens of thousands of pairs of shoes…if you touch them, they fall to dust.”[13] The fact that these exhibits have not changed since the 1950s (until the present day) says a lot about the sense of urgency employed in addressing these urgent matters.

Preserving the structures and the artifacts of Auschwitz were not the only priorities for museum staff at this time. Former inmate, Kazimierz Smolen, who headed the museum group, has “struggled with the beautifying effect of ever-growing grass, the soothing sound of bird singing and the government’s limited resources to maintain the camp’s hellish authenticity.”[14] While some might assume that grass and birds were present when the Nazis were gassing prisoners, this was not always a reality. Firstly, Polish winters are very long and have high precipitation rates in the form of snow. This is why many visitors to the camp have expressed its especial bleakness when seen during the winter months as it resembles its former terror and what people expect of it much more eloquently. In the spring and summer months, the camp would have been very muddy or of hardened dirt because of the constant impact of numerous prisoners’ footfalls on what was once a grassy field. In this sense, Smolen is quite right that the current grass affects one’s overall experience of the camp when visited outside of the winter months. As Andrew Curry put it, “the scene [at Birkenau] was so peaceful it was almost impossible to imagine the sea of stinking mud that survivors describe.”[15]

It is also true that the grass threatens to overtake the boggy pool of ashes that still lies beyond the crematoria where remains were buried. If this is an issue that can (or should) be addressed is another point of contention in memorialization. Are curators supposed to “recreate” the experience for visitors? Does this lend itself to authenticity or Hollywood-esque practices? Reiss, in the exact same article, notes that rebuilding things to be as they were is unproductive, and that ruins should be preserved as they are: as ruins.

slide 6

Competing narratives about how preservation should happen continue to plague the allocation of limited funds, to the continued detriment of the decaying camps. Van Pelt, quoted above, has also stated that recreating the experience for viewers undermines the nihilism of the camps, particularly Birkenau. He has publicly stated that it is “the ultimate nihilistic place. A million people literally disappeared. Shouldn’t we confront people with the nothingness of the place? Seal it up. Don’t give people a sense that they can imitate the experience and walk in the steps of the people who were there.”[16] And yet, most people don’t share this view, particularly when the impending disappearance of the camp running parallel to the disappearance of Auschwitz survivors as time marches on.

The second point to take from Smolen’s comment is the inadequacy of funds that the Polish government has made available for undertaking such a massive preservation process. It should be noted that there are at least 13 important extermination, concentration and labour camps located in Poland alone –  all in varying stages of neglect, some in far worse condition than Auschwitz.  For example, the gas chambers at Sobobir weren’t unearthed (after being discovered beneath a road) until September 2014, likely due to the fact that the camp was closed in 1943, prior to the end of the War.[17] The number of places of historical responsibility for the government of Poland is seconded only by Germany. This has resulted in a number of unusual methods of preservation in the country, some of which people might call bizarre. This includes one program (called Tikkun and meaning “Fixing or Rectification” in hEBREW), started in 2003, which has enlisted the help of 1,500 inmates in Polish prisons to clean and repair Jewish cemeteries, and engage in Jewish cultural and learning activities such as touring extermination camps and watching films about Jewish life.[18] That the Polish government has contracted out its memorialization work to inmates at the local prison is a clear indication of the dire and desperate point to which the process has come.

slide 7

As a result of frustrations in the Polish government about the inadequacy of reactionary preventative measures, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation was founded in 2009 following repeated failed efforts by the Polish government to raise adequate funds for the preservation of the camps.[19] Just prior to this, the spokesman for the Polish government on the issue of Auschwitz, Jaroslaw Mensfelt stated, “Without outside help, Poland could have trouble retaining Auschwitz as a memorial site.”[20] This occurred due to continuous underestimations of the costs involved because of the size of the camp. Revisions of the budgets forced the government to seek more funding, exacerbating lucrative relationships previously established. In 2008, the director of the memorial, Piotr Cywinski, pointed out that “Poland has been mostly the sole up-keeper of the museum for 60 years now. In the 1990s and 2000s the programmes for conservation works financed by other countries were those that catered to the most urgent needs.”[21] However, because the site was never designed to last long and it was built by inexperienced prisoners, it is deteriorating at a much faster rate than anyone had anticipated. Cywinski has argued that this burden should not fall on Poland alone but rests with the international community, particularly the European Union which should share in it.[22] When asked to justify this stance, Cywinski gave an interesting response that verges on the abstraction outlined above. He said,

Auschwitz, as the only concentration camp, and at the same time extermination camp – the biggest of them all – a symbol of the terrible entirety, is one of the foundations of our post-war European civilisation. This is the reason why for me, turning to other countries for financial support is not accounting for historical responsibility. What is to be won here is not only the preservation of the past and memory, but the foundations of a future where we understand the importance of Auschwitz as a place where we should all meet.[23]

Thus, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Foundation began with “the aim[…] to create a Perpetual Fund which will finance conservation work and preservation of all authentic remains of the former Nazi German Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp.”[24] The group’s mission statement says:

We created the Fund to make sure that future generations will have a possibility to see the authentic space which is not only a living witness of one of the biggest crimes in the history of mankind but also a place which has a fundamental meaning for the entire European civilization. In Auschwitz we can fully confront and address the most important questions about: mankind, society, the poisonous fruit of anti-Semitism, racial hatred and contempt towards others. [25]

State donors for the preservation of Auschwitz-Birkenau include these main contributors: Germany ($80 million), the United States ($15 million), Poland ($13 million), the European Union ($5.9 million), Israel ($1.5million) and Canada ($400,000). However, less than a year after the establishment of the foundation for the site, the shortcomings of the museum were exposed in terms of security (with the stealing of the Arbeit Macht Frei sign in January 2010) and continuing conservation issues.[26] In an interview in The National Post as recent as May 5, 2013, Eli Rubenstein (an Auschwitz tour guide) has shown that the problem of decay at Auschwitz is still very real despite significant funds being raised and action taken.[27] It may, in fact, be an impossibility in terms of long-term preservation. The fact that, “with each spring thaw, shifts in the soil threaten to deliver a final, devastating blow to the fields of ruins”[28] is not the only daunting part of this task. Specialists in building infrastructure have the goal of restoring three brick barracks per year. This is an exceedingly expensive task that requires significant underground work, installing concrete foundations to slow the effects of the shifting ground. Conserving one brick barrack is expected to cost as much as $1 million.[29] As if that weren’t overwhelming enough, specialists in charge of deteriorating personal effects have noted that each individual shoe takes two hours to clean and inspect.[30] With hundreds of thousands of shoes alone, these specialists feel a sense of urgency like no other.

While the wooden barracks have long rotted away and brick barracks are on the verge of collapse, Rubenstein notes that despite the uphill battle, the crucial nature of preserving the places in which atrocities occurred cannot be underestimated. These are not only sites to animate narratives of survivors but they also hold power in themselves: “That power never diminishes. But, it’s only effective because the barrack is still standing to tell the story,” he said. “It’s only effective if the survivor is saying ‘I lay in this barrack and this is where my father saved my life.’”[31]

slide 8

It is on this critical point that I will conclude and know that I do so, because in a similar way as the survivors mention, I have wondered if such a massive project of conservation is worth the effort against what seems like a futile end-goal. However, if we accept that places can tell us volumes of historical information and can made to do so as well, then the narrative of the Holocaust relies on future funding for Auschwitz’s conservation in a collaborative effort, first and foremost. Simultaneous to this, while the issue of religious contestation may only be overcome through the creation of impermanent rituals of healing on the grounds of Auschwitz, the sacralization of Auschwitz as an inverse moral hierophany must be abandoned, and by scholars especially. It does not lend itself well to comprehending the factors that allowed for Auschwitz to occur, nor the possibility of another Auschwitz. The challenges of evoking sensations and understanding from a place like Auschwitz, particularly in an educational way for people with no experience of the camp, are real, particularly as time marches on, survivors continue to pass on and we get further away from the immediacy of this historical episode; however, none of this can even begin to be addressed if the space of Auschwitz is not given primacy through conservation efforts first. Given that the exhibits at Auschwitz-Birkenau still have not been altered in over sixty years and the grounds and artifacts are deteriorating faster than specialists can preserve and restore them, it looks like there is a long way to go in putting place first, before it is too late.

slide 9

[1] “U.S. Sacred Ground Foundation Wants to Build Sanctuary in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/344

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “An Aboriginal Experience in Auschwitz.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1308.

[5] Basso, Keith H. “Wisdom Sits in Places” in Senses of Place. Ed. Feld and Basso. School of American Research Press: Sante Fe. 2001, pp. 55

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid, pp. 56

[8] “US Will Give $15M for Auschwitz Museum.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/2211; “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814. “Auschwitz Museum to Receive EU Funds.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1384;  “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” Mail Online. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1041890/Poles-ask-world-funds-stop-Auschwitz-falling-ruin.html.; “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://en.auschwitz.org/m/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=722&Itemid=8.; “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html; Warsaw, Matthew. “Auschwitz Museum ‘needs £113m’ for Repair Work.” The Telegraph. April 24, 49. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/poland/4347667/Auschwitz-museum-needs-113m-for-repair-work.html; “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.; Berg, Raffi. “Cash Crisis Threat to Auschwitz.” BBC News. January 26, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7800397.stm.

[9] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid

[12]“Auschwitz’s Deterioration Alarming to Conservators.” Ocala Star-Banner. February 19, 1990. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1356&dat=19900219&id=CadAAAAAIBAJ&sjid=rwcEAAAAIBAJ&pg=4114,7711723.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “Can Auschwitz Be Saved?” History, Travel, Arts, Science, People, Places | Smithsonian. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/can-auschwitz-be-saved-4650863/.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Archaeologists Make More Historic Finds at Site of Sobibor Gas Chambers – Jewish World News.” Haaretz.com. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-news/.premium-1.616667.

[18] “Reconstructing Attitudes to Judaism in Poland.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/5840.

[19] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[20] http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html

[21] “Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254.

[22] “Poles Ask the World for Funds to Stop Auschwitz Falling into Ruin.” The Evening Standard. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.standard.co.uk/news/poles-ask-the-world-for-funds-to-stop-auschwitz-falling-into-ruin-6836666.html.

[23]“Counting the Cost.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1254., emphasis added

[24] “Mission of the Foundation.” Mission of the Foundation. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.foundation.auschwitz.org/index.php/artykuly/12-articles/22-ratowac-auschwitz-birkenau.

[25] Ibid.

[26] “Auschwitz Still Seeking Funding.” Krakow Post. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://www.krakowpost.com/article/1814.

[27] “With Auschwitz’s Historic Grounds Falling into Disrepair, Poland Appeals for International Funds to Preserve Concentration Camp.” National Post News. Accessed December 10, 2014. http://news.nationalpost.com/2013/05/05/fo0506-je-auschwitz/.;  “Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Auschwitz-Birkenau.

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid