Irish professional photographer Nigel Swann says one of the most telling details of his photograph of one of the “Yellow Star Houses” of Budapest didn’t hit him until he examined it later – the name “Jakab” spray-painted on the apartment block’s front door.
“It just jumped out at me and there was this ‘Jakab’ graffiti on the door of the Yellow Star House – absolutely a Jewish name,” Swann, who is originally from Portadown but has lived and worked in Budapest, said in Dublin.
About two dozen of his haunting photographs of the facades of Budapest’s Yellow Star Houses, where Jews were rounded up to live before being exterminated at the end of World War Two, are on display at the Irish Architectural Archives on Merrion Square through March 31 (www.iarc.ie).
Swann said his contemporary photographs are intended to help keep a memory alive – a memory of one of the darkest moments in modern history, but one that might well fade away were it not for work like his, and that of a humanitarian group in Budapest, Yellow Star Houses (www.yellowstarhouses.org), which mapped the houses for a remembrance anniversary in 2014.
“It suits a lot people to forget,” Swann said in an interview with IrishArtsNews.com. “I mean we’re as bad here in Ireland, believe you me, we’re also very bad at the culture of remembering – both have evil, double-sided swords. It’s people who rewrite history, they’re dangerous, you know, they’re really dangerous.”
(for an edited podcast of the interview click here: https://soundcloud.com/user-864880754/yellowstar-nigelswann-interju-28-02-17-edit-1mp3)
On its website, the Yellow Star Houses organisation explains what they were:
“In the summer of 1944, during the final months of Miklos Horthy’s governorship, and having nearly finished deporting Jews from the countryside, Hungarian political leaders decided it was now the turn of Budapest Jews to be forcibly expelled from their homes.
“On June 16, the mayor of Budapest issued a decree that marked out almost 2,000 apartment buildings in the city, into which 220,000 targeted individuals were obliged to move: 187,000 Jews and a further 35,000 converted Jews, subjected to a series of ‘Jewish laws’, and forced to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing. They had to leave their own apartments by midnight on June 21, and move into one of the 1,944 designated apartment buildings also marked with a yellow star, the ‘yellow-star’ houses.
“This network of yellow-star houses was unique in the history of the Holocaust in Europe. The houses served the same purpose as the ghetto, a preparatory stage for deportation. For the Budapest of the time, an astonishingly large number of apartment buildings bore the yellow star, but barely a trace of this remains in public memory.”
Swann’s exhibition shows only a fraction of the apartment blocks used by the Nazis and their Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross henchmen to round up and methodically exterminate the city’s Jewish population. But Swann, who makes a living photographing locations for fashion shoots and other projects, thinks they speak volumes about the otherwise unspeakable events of that time.
For one, there are no people in his photos – only facades, many covered with graffiti, one, tellingly, blotched with yellow paint. Swann, in an interview, said he spent many hours waiting to shoot when there were no passersby, a city without people. He also took all the pictures in roughly the same light conditions – emphasising that these were not homes but places that had something in common – they were all being used as holding pens for people who were doomed.
Swann said someone used the Latin phrase sunt lacrimae rarum from Virgil’s “Aeneid”, which translates as either “there are tears for things” or “there are tears of things”, in relation to the Yellow Star Houses. It has stuck in his head ever since.
“Some of these buildings, they were definitely weeping, I tell you,” he said. “There was something awful going on there, that’s for sure.”
– By Michael Roddy