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Silent Witness: The Resonance of Artefacts

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Robert Katz reflects on the powerful history of artefacts.

During the year of America’s bicentennial celebrations, I lived in a small, pale green house on the plains of southeastern Montana, about 60 miles south of the Yellowstone River. Just down the road from my house was the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservations. On the reservation, where Highway 212 intersects with Interstate 90, there is a barren, windswept hillside covered with buffalo grass and yellow clover where a white monument remains mostly concealed by the broad branches of the cottonwood trees. This hidden monument identifies and commemorates the site of the Battle of The Little Bighorn, which took place on a hot June afternoon in 1876.

Hills north of the Little Bighorn River. Photo: Wikipedia

Light rain fell that day in 1976 when near my home an Army band played and about 500 people gathered to commemorate the battle and General George Armstrong Custer, who was perceived by many as a heroic American military figure. Unexpectedly, a caravan of Sioux and Cheyenne arrived pounding a drum. Even though they were not officially invited to this ceremony they arrived and brought a peace pipe. Joining hands, they then recited a chant in the Lakota language.

1886 Card Mount Photograph of Native American Sioux Indians who 10 years earlier had fought in the Battle of the Little Big Horn against George Armstrong Custer and the 7th US Cavalry, performing the Victory Dance Ceremony on the Little Big Horn under the leadership of Chiefs Rain In The Face and John Grass.

At the same time, 25 miles away on Rosebud Creek on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, dozens of tepees were erected and hundreds of Indians gathered proudly performing a victory dance. A Sioux leader proclaimed, ‘We have survived 100 years of genocidal policy.’ The coinciding events of that day epitomize the contradictory perceptions of history that exists between Euro-Americans and the Native people in our nation.

The gatherings and symbolism that I witnessed that day encouraged reflection upon the history of American expansion and the government’s relentless acquisition of Indian lands. Through treaties and, when necessary, military actions with the goal of subjugating the tribes to reservation life.

Custer’s Last Stand, by Edgar Samuel Paxson (1852–1919) – Whitney Gallery of Western Art

 It was this policy that brings us to that summer day that we now reconstruct in our imagination when General Custer led the 7th Cavalry Regiment along a ridge from which he spied a river encampment of mostly Lakota Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors and their families.  Custer and his troops charged down the ridge on their horses for what they expected would be an easy victory, but they were soon overwhelmed. It is estimated that within two hours, he and all 263 cavalrymen were killed.  It has not been confirmed how many warriors lost their lives in their defence of their village.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn that is often portrayed in works of fiction including books, movies, as well as in paintings, may be fused with elements of truth, but are more often inaccurate. They present a myth, romanticizing the events of the day.

For years, the only people who knew the true story of the battle were the Indians who were there, but their stories were ignored. The story of the battle has been graphically told in the paintings by Red Horse, Little Bear and others who were witnesses or participants:

The Indian victory was short-lived and 14 years later at a place called Wounded Knee, a gathering of Lakota Sioux were performing the ritual Ghost Dance. A detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded the dancers and opened fire with a battery of Hotchkiss machine guns. 250 men, women and children were killed in those frantic moments with others dying later of their wounds. This massacre ended any further tribal resistance to the white man’s occupation of Indian lands.

However, when the deep winter snows of the distant Big Horn Mountains begin their spring runoff, and later when the hot summer winds fan the flames of prairie fires that sweep across the battlefield, artefacts not yet recovered by the archaeologists and amateur history buffs rise to the surface.

At a local trading post that I often visited the proprietor took me into a backroom to show me objects that were found by local prospectors on the battlefield. Those articles included boot leather, cartridges from the Cavalry’s Springfield rifles, arrowheads, belt buckles, rusted canteens, horseshoes and sometimes, even fragments of bone. I realized that these artefacts bore mute witness to the violence that transpired on that day and they inspired my imagination bringing me a bit closer to my understanding of those events, the struggles, the pain, and the bravery of the Native American warriors facing a well-armed cavalry.

The hillside today looks virtually the same as it did on that summer afternoon in 1876 except for the white markers placed where the bodies of the soldiers were found. There is an eerie silence. A teepee is silhouetted against the distant horizon. Magpies and eagles perch like sentinels on the branches of the cottonwood trees, rattlesnakes conceal themselves in the shade of the sagebrush and prickly pear cactus. In the darkness of night, when the moonlight glistens off the Little Bighorn River, you can hear the howling of the coyotes that emerge from their hidden dens.

I eventually relocated from the West to begin a teaching position and raise a family in Maine, far from the prairies and mountains of Montana. As my family grew, I became interested in piecing together my fragmented, incomplete Jewish history so that my children would understand their ancestral story.

Gen’l Custer’s last stand, looking in the direction of ford and Indian village. Photograph shows pile of bones found at battle site.

In 1989 when the Cold War was collapsing and the Berlin Wall was being dismantled and Soviet troops were pulling out of Eastern, Europe I learned about a wolf research project sponsored by the Polish Academy of Science. I applied to a foundation and received their support to join this expedition into the remote Bieszczady Mountains of southeastern Poland. This mountain range, an extension of the ancient Carpathian Mountains creates an imposing ridge that runs deep into Slovakia, the Ukraine and Romania. Joining this expedition would allow me access to a region where my ancestors had lived for centuries far from the shores of the Kennebec, the tidal river that flows near my Maine home. I did not know at the time that I would uncover artefacts that would connect me to my family’s fate like the fragments that I touched a decade before that revealed a hidden story from the Montana battlefield.

During World War II, the Nazis swarmed through Poland’s most eastern mountainous frontier murdering or deporting most of the Jewish population. Fierce fighting ensued between German and Soviet troops and partisan fighters. After the war had ended, regional conflicts continued and in 1948, the Soviet-installed Communist Polish government de-populated the region, removing and relocating over 140,000 local citizens who had made their home in and around these mountains for generations. The land, untouched by agriculture and sheep grazing for nearly 50 years, returned to its natural state. I hoped that by joining this expedition, I would find evidence of my family’s life in that region and their fate during and after the war.

Bieszczady Mountains in Poland.

For three consecutive years, I returned to those mountains. I joined the ongoing research studies photographing and writing about the gathering of data in this unique, pristine environment that included some of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests inhabited by populations of brown bear, boar, woodland bison, red and roe deer and most important, packs of wolves.

The wildlife biologists and local hunters served as our guides on our daily, exhausting mountain hikes. The biologists were mostly graduate and doctoral students who were all born after the war. They had little knowledge that Jews had lived in Poland for at least 800 years and that they comprised about 10% of their country’s population. They knew few details of the murder of over 3 million Polish Jews by the Nazi invaders and their collaborators. They were unaware of the ongoing anti-Semitism sentiments in their country and the violent, often deadly, pogroms that continued on Polish soil until the mid-1960s.

Bieszczady Mountains in Poland.

Their parents and grandparents had shared little information about their Jewish neighbours who had suddenly disappeared after living side by side with them for generations. They were silent about witnessing the ransacking and burning of their town’s synagogues. They did not speak about the forced marches through their village streets in broad daylight as the deportations began or of the trains slowly pulling cattle cars filled with terrified people heading to the extermination camps located on Polish soil. They never mentioned the brick walls that were quickly erected to force their neighbours into overcrowded ghettos rife with hunger and illness.  They looked away from the forced labour camps and concentration camps that appeared throughout the Polish landscape and ignored the piercing blasts of automatic rifle fire from mass executions of men, women and children that were carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile Nazi SS killing units) that took place in the local town squares or nearby forests.  The distinctive, putrid smell of burning bodies and human ash floated in the air far beyond the barbed wire enclaves that were located sometimes in sight of towns and cities, yet these brutal, tragic events remained concealed in the silence of many Polish citizens.

Defendant Otto Ohlendorf (left) receives his indictment from Col. C.W. Mays, Marshal of the Military Tribunal, before the Einsatzgruppen Trial. The other defendants (left to right) are, Heinz Jost, Erich Naumann, and Erwin Schulz.

During these journeys into the mountains, I shared the story of my Jewish identity with our guides who were sympathetic and often became determined to assist in my efforts to learn about the fate of my Polish family.

As we followed the signs of wolf activity, my guides would stop to point out to me well-concealed, overgrown mounds of earth deep in the forest. The mounds they explained, had once been root cellars located near the site of homes, and often rural Jewish shtetls that were burned to the ground by the Nazi invaders. We came across depressions in the forest floor that the local guides suggested were sites of mass executions and burials. And, deeply hidden in the recesses of the dark forest, we found stone remnants of Jewish cemeteries that the Nazis had failed to discover and destroy. Ornately carved headstones deteriorated by the years and showing the failed efforts of recent vandals still stood to mark the gravesites. Trees grew on and around some of the graves, reflecting the decades of their isolation and neglect.

However, at all of these sites, artefacts revealed themselves from under the wet leaves and the soft moss that blanketed the forest floor. Sometimes we would scramble up a steep, muddied slope, our hands, grasping for a branch or rock ledge, dislodged an unexpected object from the past.

As I carefully lifted these artefacts from their resting place, they began to reveal layers of a story. The shards of household pottery, spoons and cups, implements of war, strands of rusted barbed wire, and other broken fragments spoke to me, revealing details and the untold secrets of the past.

Cabinet Card photograph of Captain Thomas Custer

These items, which I have carefully preserved in wooden boxes, provide an invaluable insight into history. They allow us to piece together the firestorm that swept through this region of Poland. Like the artefacts that I saw long ago, uncovered on the barren hillside of southeastern Montana, these objects serve as silent witnesses to the harsh often unthinkable events of the past, compelling us to confront the stains of history and our inner humanity.

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Robert Katz is a sculptor and Professor of Art at the University of Maine at Augusta. His sculptural installations have been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the United States. Katz serves on the Board of Directors of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. 
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