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Posts from the ‘Terezin’ Category

“The fight against oblivion and silence” – Witnessing, Memory, Poetics, Pt. 3


This is the third of four posts on the recently published anthology Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald, edited by Helen Finch and Lynn L. Wolff. The third section of the volume is “Memory, Memorialization, and the Re-presentation of History”and contains two essays, the first being Dora Osbourne’s “Memory, Witness, and the (Holocaust) Museum in H.G. Adler and W.G. Sebald.” With their occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, the Nazis converted Prague’s Central Jewish Museum into a storehouse for material goods confiscated from the city’s Jewish population. It also served as a private museum for Nazi officials, offering “a grotesque parody [of] the traditions of the Jewish people” that portrayed them as an inferior race. After the war, however, H.G. Adler worked at the Museum for almost two years, participating in the restoration of its original function and collecting new objects for the purpose of building “an archive of persecution and of Theresienstadt,” the nearby concentration camp/ghetto. Osbourne examines the way in which the Museum functions in two of Adler’s novels – indirectly in The Journey and directly in The Wall.

Ruth Vogel-Klein’s essay “History, Emotions, Literature: The Representation of Theresienstadt in H.G. Adler’s Theresienstadt 1941-1945: Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz” has two primary goals. The first is to suggest that Adler’s so-called “documentary” book is actually more literary and more emotional than Sebald and others have claimed. She demonstrates how Adler injects elements of sympathy, fear, accusation, pity, and moral indignity into  his writing, which he viewed as a paradigm of sober impartiality. Her second goal is to assert that Sebald “subverts elements of Adler’s text in several ways” by insisting that Adler wrote in a “purely documentary mode.” This is not surprising. As we have seen in his essays in Logis in einem Landhaus (A Place in the Country), Sebald – like most writers and artists – gleans only selectively from those he views as his predecessors. Vogel-Klein concludes:

Adler is very far from Sebald’s melancholy world. The Theresienstadt camp is for Adler a warning, while for Sebald, it appears to be the confirmation of a malign world order. One element does connect both authors however: the fight against oblivion and silence which is carried out unceasingly and with ever new and increasing energy.

Helen Finch & Lynn L. Wolff, editors. Witnessing, Memory, Poetics: H.G. Adler & W.G. Sebald. Rochester. NY: Camden House, 2014. Here is a link to all of my posts on this book.

The Patina of History

I’ve been looking at Daniel Blaufuks new book Terezín, wondering what to say.  What kind of adjectives are appropriate to use for a book of photographs and texts that deal with the concentration camp Terezín (also known as Theresienstadt)?   Handsome?  Beautiful?   Lush?   These are some of the adjectives that I would use, but I hesitate.  Haunting?  Austere?  These also apply – and seem less problematic.  What’s my problem here?

Daniel Blaufuks uses photography and words to meditate on the seductive trappings that masked horror and cruelty: the architectural order, the charts, the translation of victims into simple mathematics, the idyllic Nazi propaganda film Theresienstadt , which showed the camp as a model prisoner village.

Blaufuks was first drawn into the history of Terezín through a single image reproduced in W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (spread across pages 284-5 in the American edition).

The photograph is a badly printed, grainy grey and white image towards the end of the book, almost like a photocopy.  It portrays a space that seems to be an office.  There is a worktable in the middle of the room with four chairs around it.  A small desk with a chair is near the right wall and there is a clock above it on the wall, positioned so that whoever is sitting at the desk is always aware of the constant movement of time.  The desk has drawers on the right side.  Below the clock there is a small unidentifiable object, probably a heater control device.  There is a wide open door almost in the centre of the image, but we cannot see anything outside the room, we have no clue as to where this space is located.

Light is coming in from the left side of the image, in such a way that one immediately becomes aware of the existence of a window opposite the door, although it is outside the image.  The light falls directly on the empty table and the shadows on the wooden floor are long, giving the impression that the picture was taken in the late afternoon.

According to the clock it is exactly six o’clock.

These are the watchful observations of a photographer ferreting out clues from the lighting, passively noting the objects visible, focusing in on the idiosyncrasy that just might be the telltale sign of something more profound or disturbing.

As Blaufuks’ photographs remind us, the remnants of Terezín’s architecture and the traces of its dead have the same patina of history as any other object from any other moment in the past.   We have become accustomed to the visual richness of abandonment, to photographs of peeling paint and old walls bubbling with moisture.  Blaufuks addresses this conundrum by making some of the photographs so beautiful we become acutely uncomfortable.  How can the environment that produced the Holocaust be beautiful, so seductive?  This is one of the central problems that Sebald wrestled with: both history and memory are reductive, erosive, equalizing.

Blaufuks’ response to this dilemma is, in part, to try to insert something new into the situation to try to bring the past to life.  He uses a set of diaries written between 1926 to 1930, which are introduced in the same mysterious manner in which accidental events and coincidences enter Sebald’s stories at timely moments

By a strange series of coincidences, the diaries of Ernest K. came into my possession in the winter of 2001.

The diaries look real, but is the story that Blaufuks tells of them real?  We never know and we don’t need to know.  “K.”, as Blaufuks refers to him, was an assimilated Jew living in Berlin and dating a non-Jewish woman.  In some intimate detail, he records his daily life, his trips to Paris and Switzerland, the death of his father.  The diaries also contain preserved objects: some loose photographs, scraps of paper, a lock of hair, a view of mountains.  Blaufuks examines each of these miniature puzzles, which give rise to more questions than conclusions.  Blaufuks tells us he pursued the story of K. to learn that he “was taken with his mother to the camp of Theresienstadt in the summer of 1942.”  Blaufuks thinks again of the photograph of the room in Sebald’s book and imagines K.’s name “typed on one of the endless files in that room.”

Terezín interweaves Blaufuk’s photographs of Terezín and of the diaries, their contents, and other Theresienstadt items, with film stills from Theresienstadt.  The stills take two forms: traditional black and white frames, often including subtitles, and haunting, red-tinted images of faces that Blaufuks lifted from the film. Just as Jacques Austerlitz searched the very same film for images of his mother, who was transported to Theresienstadt, Blaufuks wanted to search all of the faces for an image of K.

I needed to try to create some truth out of the falsity and out of those staged images.  Was everything fake here or could we at least trust some of the expressions on these faces?  Were these moments of happiness in the midst of chaos and despair or plain acting in front of a camera, just like in some of our later family home movies.

To understand how images can still lie even when we think we know the truth about them.

Terezín concludes with an essay on the film Theresienstadt by Karel Margry, which was originally published in a scholarly journal in 1992.  The volume includes a DVD of the film.  More on this aspect of the book at a later date.

Daniel Blaufuks, Terezín.  Steidl, 2010.

Vertigo (the magazine, this time)

Will Stone Terezin

Almost a year ago I wrote about Will Stone’ book of poetry Glaciation, which includes a poem entitled SS Fort Breendonk, dedicated “In memory of WG Sebald.”  (Glaciation, by the way, recently won the 2008 Glen Dimplex Prize for poetry from the Irish Writers’ Centre.)  In a few days  the British film magazine Vertigo will publish poet Will Stone’s new essay At Risk of Interment – WG Sebald in Terezin and Breendonk, which deals with the holocaust-related aspects of Sebald’s book Austerlitz. Stone’s essay will includes his own photos of Breendonk.

Poynor on Sebald


It would be easy to miss Rick Poynor’s piece on W.G. Sebald called Writing in Pictures, which feels somewhat misplaced in his book Designing Pornotopia: Travels in Visual Culture (NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2006). Who would think of finding something about Sebald in a book that promotes itself as an exploration of “the past decade of advertising and design and the invasion of sexual imagery into everyday life”? Designing Pornotopia is largely about graphic design, architecture, men’s magazines, and fashion. Nevertheless, Writing in Pictures, Poynor’s multi-layered reflection on Austerlitz, and his brief history of the cover designs for J.G. Ballard’s cult book Crash (1973) should not be overlooked.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, typographers and book designers are intrigued by the challenge of the embedded photographs in Sebald’s books, so it really is not a surprise that Poynor would write about Sebald, as he has done in several places that are easily found online. Poynor calls Sebald “one of the greatest European writers of recent years” and he feels that Austerlitz is a “masterpiece” and represents “Sebald’s most sophisticated marriage of writing and imagery.” In Writing in Pictures, he intelligently addresses Sebald as a “brilliantly visual” writer, both in his prose and his use of photographs. Poynor zeros in on one of the central issues in Sebald’s work: memory. “His eye records with photographic accuracy and then these perceptions are recovered from memory and reconstituted as fictional experience with the same exhilaratingly scrupulous fidelity.” Although he doesn’t elaborate, Poynor is suggesting that a necessary transformation has occurred when experiences re-emerge from memory.

Poynor, who is extremely interested in Sebald’s use of photography, extracts a revealing comment Sebald made in an interview: “I’ve always collected stray photographs; there’s a great deal of memory in them.” The question this raises for me is: are these two types of memories the same? Do the memories drawn from experience function the same as memories drawn from photographs – especially these “stray” photographs (by which I assume he means the anonymous photographs he collected in flea markets and antique stores)? To some extent, this depends on what kind of memories Sebald referred to when he talked about his “stray photographs.” Was he selecting photographs that invoked his own memories, that reminded him of something in his own experience? Or was he suggesting that some element of the original owner’s memory is contained in and transferable from photographs? I think it is fair to say that memory is the central process in Sebald’s work, but I don’t think memory is limited to one function.

sebald-antik-bazar.jpg [Pages 194-5 of Austerlitz]

In an appropriately Sebaldian move, Poynor visited Terezin (or Theresienstadt), the Czech Jewish ghetto and concentration camp that is a key location in Austerlitz, while attending a conference in Prague in 2004. He was curious “to find out how closely Sebald’s description of the town compared with reality.” He was especially interested in especially the two sequences of photographs undoubtedly taken by Sebald which appear between pages 190 and 197 of the American edition. The first is a series of four photographs of doorways, ending with “the brutal last door, with its heavy iron bands, [which] cannot fail to suggest a death-camp gas chamber, although no such thing is stated in the text.”  The second series depicts the window displays of a store called the Antikos Bazar on the town square.  Poynor re-photographed in color some of the locations shown in Austerlitz and he includes three of his own versions in Writing with Pictures.