Agnes Janich

Bodies Despite All, Obieg, a CCA Zamek magazine

Bodies Despite All, on Agnes Janich's That You Have Someone,

Marta Raczek-Karcz, PhD,,

a magazine of the CCA Zamek, Warsaw, PL




Much has been written on the impossibility of imagining and picturing the Annihilation. As Izabela Kowalczyk puts it, the issue is not that commenting on the Annihilation is artistically or ethically impossible. [1]The issue is finding a tactic other than merely documenting Shoah witnesses. The problem becomes pressing when undertaken by an artist and prospective grandchild of actual Holocaust survivors.


Agnes Janich painstakingly researched the archives of Aushwitz,

Mauthausen-Gusen, Majdanka, Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck. She read diaries published but once, in the 1950’s Poland. She devoured Hanna Krall’s and Marek Edelman’s novels and met dozens of survivors in constant search of a tactic allowing her not just to archive or chronicle, but to comment upon.


Dominick LaCapra writes from the point of view of psychoanalysis: these reflections prove the need for critical work on the topic of memory in the hope of bringing back an imagined past and thus opening up the future[2]. Janich does exactly that. Upon seeing her images, we begin to relate. To feel. Hers is neither a historical account or an objective repository. Agnes Janich doesn’t reconstruct the past but evokes feelings in quiet and minimal way. Feelings we can, thanks to her works, experience here and now. We become the characters in the story.


In her project, Janich picks up on a topic hardly ever present in Holocaust narration. A topic silenced and swept under the carpet, on which Didi-Huberman, touching on the four images remaining from Birkenau: the most important is not there.[3]


The body. Yet not an annihilated body . A body that wants and desires. That loves. A body outside the limits of history.


An annihilated body is a body on a stack of corpses, a body stripped of dignity, a terrifying musulman from Wanda Jakubowska’s movie The Last Stage.

The body in war is a body bruised and abused. A partitioned body. Cannon fodder. Collateral damage. Living weapon. Still, as we read in many source texts, these bodies desired and fulfilled their desire.


We read in Wieslaw Kielar's Anus Mundi: We spent almost every moment in conversation. Conversation naïve enough to prove us other to different inmates. Conversation depicting our blissful childhood, home, travels, sports life, trips to the cinema and first dates…Conversation touching on everything that build up our joyful teenage years. Holding hands and looking in each others eyes, we were forgetting the world around us, the poverty, the hunger, the cold, the dirt and insects, the rapes, the violence, the persecutions, the gassings, the selections and mass murders, the...deaths of ours. Enveloped in each other, we were intoxicated by happiness. The happiness of our love, our innocent, platonic love, for the corporal one we hadn't known yet.[4]


The above could be an extract of any diary. Of a story of one’s first love. Yet it ends with words shattering its innocence. The camp, the gassings, the selections of fit and unfit to live, these are words that build up Holocaust discourse. Auschwitz, Dachau, Annihilation, Shoah, KL…Still, in this hell on earth created by humans unto others, in this chasm that to its after-the-war chroniclers seemed to heavy to bear or even to record, and surely to heavy to permit anything human – there was love in this hell. There was desire and there was sexuality.


We don’t hear these words often in Holocaust discourse, as if they just didn’t fit, as if they needed to be erased to uphold the image of the victims and the grimness of the perpetrators. Love exists in the stories of deceased loved ones. At best as a force that granted them survival. What shall we do with loving infatuation, with desire, closeness and sexual want so present in survivors diaries and novels depicting that past?


Lyle Rexer wrote that Janich’s point seems to be much more emotionally complex than that. First of all, the events of the last century and its crimes, from the Holocaust through the Balkan wars and beyond, have made an imprint on the consciousness of everyone, so that the body and its pleasure cannot be a form of forgetting[5] His is one of the interpretations of Janich’s That You Have Someone, a series of erotic pictures of the artist combined with true stories from the time of WW2.


Janich's hunger for love seems to come from a need to save one's body and oneself. My body, my love, my desire are what allow me to believe the illusion of normalcy. They become my weapon in a fight forever unequal, forever fatal yet never forlorn. The fight to save myself. The fight won just for a moment, often unknowingly, like Marta’s, the Birkenau inmate and a character from Andrzej Munk’s Passenger. Marta’s fiancée, Tadeusz, risks his life to bring her birthday flowers. Her camp guard, the German Lisa, takes the bouquet away. Still, it is that precise moment that marks the victims victory. Lisa says to herself: Nobody remembers about my birthday. Nobody gave me flowers.[6] Lisa becomes a symbol for all those whom love, bodiness and desire rescued from the abyss of the Annihilation.


Stories recalled by Agnes Janich tell a war that leaves no place for hope. A mother cannibalizing on her own child just to die a few days later, a woman who will wait sixty years for a lover never to return from the dead, Anka, who remains loyal to her fiancée and thus dies in a concentration camp…All these women are battered by the war and its inhumane rights, yet they win. They win by loving and desiring. This feeling did not bring them to oblivion. It let them find dignity despite and within Annihilation. It let them live through something that their perpetrators preyed upon as viciously as on their lives: the right for one’s body. For one’s intimacy.


Each story from That You Have Someone is a story of woman told in a factual, down-to-earth way. It is precisely here that the striking contrast of Agnes Janich’s oeuvre is born: through the clash between the impersonal narration, recalled by the witnesses and inscribed in blood red ink, and the intimacy of images of tenderness and desire. The bodies we see here are bodies granting each other a sense of security, the same sense of security that Wieslaw Kielar’s Anus Mundi characters described: almost every man has a lover, a family member or a wife here. Almost every woman longs for a caretaker. This longing gives them the strength to go on in conditions too crude even for animals to bear.[7]


With their pure, minimal form, Agnes Janich's rewrite the story of imagining the unimaginable. Experiencing the impossible to experience. Imagining that in the times of Annihilation bodies still longed and hearts desired. That the bodies stripped of dignity still wanted for someone to want them back.


The invisibility of bodies mentioned in Holocaust discourse relates also to the body as a symbol of desire. The visible bodies in the Annihilation: corpses barely covered by skin in the ditches of liberated camps, skeletons filling trenches and haunting with blank bullet holes in the backs of their heads – these are all bodies that can not be desirable. Agnes Janich draws our attention to the non depicted but spoken aspect of war narration. She proves it to us with the texts she’s quoting. Her bodies are problematic since their desire knows no race boundaries, just like the German she recalls romancing with a Jewish wife and Lisa, who loves and desires Marta. Marta, the Pole meant to be annihilated. The Pole supposed to obey her. The Pole that dares to love somebody else.


Janich's project tells no easy narratives. It is full of stories which shouldn't have taken place but they did. Of stories that we've done so much to silence, layering them with pompous tales of the past. Yet these stories can not be silenced. What terrified yesterday’s perpetrators is too much to take by today’s historians. The love and desire the camp guards tried so hard to erase is today being erased from the heroic, martyrological tales of victims.

Janich successfully brings up an otherwise silenced topic. She also brings back the dignity to these bodies - now people, much deserving their place in Holocaust narration.


[1] Prof.Izabela Kowalczyk, Podróż do przeszłości. Interpretacje najnowszej historii w polskiej sztuce krytycznej, Wydawnictwo SWPS Academica, Warszawa 2010, p.162

[2] Dominick LaCapra, Psychoanaliza, pamięć i zwrot etyczny, M. Zapędowska, [in:] Dominick laCapra, Pamięć, etyka i historia. Anglo-amerykańska teoria historiografii lat dziewięćdziesiątych. Antologia przekładów, ed. E. Domańska, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, Poznań 2006, p. 129

[3] Georges Didi-Huberman, Obrazy mimo wszystko, tłum. Maja Kubiak Ho-Chi, Universitas, Kraków 2008

[4] Wiesław Kielar, Anus Mundi, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków 1980, p. 198-199

[5] Agnes Janich's Task, Lyle Rexer, in:Agnes Janich, Body Memory, Fotohof Edition, ISBN:978-3-902675-80-4

[6] Pasażerka, directed by Andrzej Munk, Zespół Filmowy Kamera, 1963, 27:19.

[7] W. Kielar, op.cit., p. 193

© 2003 - 2018 Agnes Janich