“Surfaces of Auschwitz”

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Here in the Bozeman bubble, we live mostly optimistic lives. Typically, our top concerns include whether to go skiing or go to class on Thursday morning and whether to go downtown or to a house party on Friday night.

But for a second, pretend you aren’t in the Bozeman bubble. Pretend it’s 1942 and you’re living in Nazi Germany, standing on the same ground where 1.1 million people spent the last days of their lives.

Now try communicating that unimaginable feeling to a bunch of people living in a bubble in Montana.

“The grass was green, and the birds were singing and the sun was out and it was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful,” Kali Jirasko described Auschwitz when she visited in July 2011. “It feels like a place that is being won back through history. By nature — it’s being overgrown in a really beautiful way — and by the people too, that are taking care of it.”

Jirasko visited Auschwitz and the surrounding area as part of a travel fellowship she won from the Berkeley Prize Essay Contest, and because of the trip she enrolled in an extra semester of undergraduate study to take a German philosophy course and a European history course. Meanwhile, she developed the visual-spacial experience now on display in the Exit Gallery, which she calls “Surfaces of Auschwitz.”

Graffiti from prisoners and post-Holocaust visitors alike adorns the historic buildings which inspired Jirasko’s project.

“Going to Auschwitz, I was interested in how the visitors could be allowed into a sensitive space without erasing the memory of the history held there or the suffering that occurred there,” explained Jirasko, now a graduate student in MSU’s School of Architecture. Her show explores the juxtaposition of new and old — how each year, 1.4 million people visit a place where 1.1 million people died before most of us were born — and the healing powers of time and a positive community.

Through architectural sketches, informal journal entries, well-researched statistics and telling photographs, “Surfaces of Auschwitz” hearkens back to a place and time most of us will never fully understand. But rather than inspire sadness or anger, the show communicates hope for the future and admiration for those who have brought happiness to a place with a troubled past.

“It was really striking to actually go there, stand on site and realize the local people that live in these small towns are literally a hundred feet away, in some cases, from the barracks and the concentration camp,” Jirasko said. ”They’re both really happy about it and really respectful.”

We are lucky in the Bozeman bubble, because we can move about freely without dwelling on violence that has occurred in the places we visit daily. But with a little travel or a little artistic influence, we can appreciate the beauty of life as we know it.

“Surfaces of Auschwitz” will be on display in the Exit Gallery through Feb. 15, with a reception Feb. 7 at 5:30 p.m.