Medien|Denken – Ifor Duncan – Fluvial Trace (Audio)

28.11.23 | IFOR DUNCAN (University of London /UK)

Fluvial Trace: The Wisla, Sola, Przemsza Rivers  and the Legacies of Genocide 


In the summer of 2015 central Europe experienced a drought that led major rivers such as the Wisła to recede to their lowest levels for centuries. The result of anthropogenic climate change, the drought, inline with a 60 year trend in lowering summer river levels, performed an unexpected archaeology. This paper considers how the traces from the crematoria, scattered by the Sonderkommando in the Wisła and Soła rivers near Auschwitz-Birkenau, encounter the shifting materialities of the river. In the reduction of remains to ash, and the pulverisation of bone and scattering into the river the very sedimentary processes of the river were appropriated through the obfuscation of the remains of genocide. In the Wisła’s fluvial processes these culturally and politically sensitive traces were, and are, confluent with the chemical and heavy metal pollutants entering the industrialised upper Wisła river valley. An industrialisation process that includes the hydrologic calculations produced by IG Farben scientists involved in the siting of the Buna rubber plant at Monowitz (Auschwitz III). With these overlapping histories and presents in mind, I mobilise recent work in the study of watery environments through the environmental humanities to consider the submerged spaces as holders of trace rather than sites of oblivion.
Indeed, where Astrida Neimanis has written about the complex archival qualities of water bodies as ‘memory-keeper[s] or archive[s] (storing flotsam, chemicals, detritus, sunken treasure, culture, stories, histories),’ (2017) and Matthew Edgeworth has described rivers as ‘cultural artefacts’ (2011), I approach rivers as the complex dynamic mediators of the material traces of extermination. In doing so I ask what implications this has for the practice of memory and for ethical considerations of Jewish burial law. Drawing on a multi-disciplinary approach, including literature and media (fiction, film, photography and forensic archaeology) I offer alternative ecological and hydrological perspectives on the memory politics of Holocaust sites as they are entangled in the changing and degrading environments of the present. In doing so I ask how can we remember through sediment?

Biographical Note

Ifor Duncan is a writer and interdisciplinary researcher who focuses on the overlaps of political violence and degrading watery ecosystems. He is a Lecturer in the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he completed his PhD entitled Hydrology of the Powerless, on the ways watery properties are instrumentalised through border regimes, as technologies of obfuscation, and weaponised against marginalised communities. He was postdoctoral fellow at the New Institute Centre for the Environmental Humanities (NICHE), Ca’ Foscari, University of Venice (2020-22), and has been a visiting lecturer in the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art.

IfM - Institut für Medienwissenschaft
IfM – Institut für Medienwissenschaft
Medien|Denken – Ifor Duncan – Fluvial Trace
Natascha Frankenberg