mitchellirons

rough notes

Theresienstadt, Shame, and Living with War

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There is a small part of the Holocaust I have been dwelling on since either April 30 or May of 2007, depending on which Event you wish to judge things by, as well as how you wish to define “dwell”. Either way, when not working on the thesis, my mind has been stuck in the mud on this subject for the past week. I’ll start with the April 30 event, since it is most recent, and may provide a better narrative, and context, for the dwelled thoughts.

On the 30th of April, the Globe and Mail published an article by Marsha Lederman in its Review about the pending production of Brundibar by the University of British Columbia’s Children’s Opera Ensemble. Brundibar was composed in 1938 by the Jewish Czech composer Hans Krasa; what makes the performance history of the work (and all its productions) so profound is that it was performed at the notorious labour camp, Theresienstadt, in front an audience of Red Cross officials and Nazi officers who were trying to prove that the Jewish prisoners there were cared and provided for in a humane manner. The Nazi forces went so far as to film the performance as part of a larger documentary titled, “The Fuhrer Gives a Village to The Jews,” to prove to the world that Nazi antisemitism was a myth. In researching the story, Lederman interviewed Ela Weissberger, a woman who performed in this performance as a child. Weissberger, now 77, tours the world as often as she can to take in (if not bear witness to) new productions of the opera.

Weissberger Ela Weissberger, age 11. Performing in _Brundibar_ at Thereseinstadt Jewish Concentration Camp (Terezin), 1938._Brundibar_ at Thereseinstadt Jewish Concentration Camp (Terezin), 1938.provided a childhood photograph of herself to Lederman, which The Globe published alongside the article. The photograph is innocuous and hardly tells the story of the suffering experienced in the camp. In the photo a girl holds a bouquet of flowers and is dressed in a pretty white dress, with equally white (and therefore “clean”) socks, shoes and gloves. She has a bonnet, a ribbon or some sort of fabric in her hair – my lack of knowledge on these things prevents me from describing it accurately. Regardless, the picture does not to be of a girl whose childhood was wrecked by the ravages of war.

It could be that this photograph was taken before Weissenberg’s family was sent to Theresienstadt. Lederman’s article states that she was only 11 when she was sent there, and this photograph appears to be of a younger child. This quibble, however, does not take away from the sadness in her future anterior: rather than showing a photograph that conceals the devastation of man on man, Lederman shows a photography of the apparent “innocence” before the devastation itself. One does not diminish the other. Neither does one make the other “more real” or “more poignant”. Both readings of the photograph are in themselves a testament of the depravity of mankind.

A viewing of the documentary is perhaps a more chilling reminder of we we do to ourselves, though. It it difficult to watch the film and not consider how one group finds enough power and loses enough reason in order to enslave and exterminate another, or how one group could allow a second group to enslave and exterminate a third group. Any way you cut it, “The Fuhrer Gives A Village to the Jews” reminds us that we are all victims, as well as monsters.

In an of itself, there is nothing particularly haunting about the film. The documentary is largely a montage of scenes depicting a “working day in the life of a community”. I would really like to suggest that there are overtones of a national-socialistic “hard work = honourable men” ideology, but such a mindset is as much western and American and Christian as it is nazi or “Aryan.” “An honest day of work for an honest pay” is as American/western as apple pie, and very close to that which he despise in Nazi ideology. Rather, this film is a grim reminder of how close we all are to victimizing others, or being victimized ourselves. It is a collection of scenes from everyday life. The nazis succeeded in their intent – Theresienstadt might be a labour camp, but it could be your home town. Or it could be the labour camp situated just outside your hometown.

The film opens with a serious of shots depicting the “honest work” ideology of physical labour. A man is shoeing a horse; others are working at a forge; another is welding together steel. The actions are physical and provoke strength and presence: arms swing sledges; torches blow hellfire and light. There is something “honourable” about physical work because of the sacrifice involved. A person’s back will ache by the repetitive motion of throwing the sledge hammer down on the iron, but at least one knows that the what the back has given, the iron has received – physical work is a communion between the body and the world. It is that which keeps our soul rooted in and appreciative of this space created and given to us by god.

Of course, the men doing this work should not so much be honoured as they should by sympathised. With every lift of the sledge hammer, I can count the ribs of the weak man holding it. His biceps bulge ever so slightly by the lifting motion of his upper body, but his chest wheezes from the inordinate effort involved. He has gone well past the point of “lean.” He is malnourished and weak. He is not humbled by his labour; he is broken by it. We broke him. Yes, of course, we liberated him, too. But we broke him. Theresienstadt was not a German concentration camp. Germany may have germanized the name of the castle (Terezin), but it did not become German. That concentration camp, whether it be Czech or German, is a product of the West.

Although I’ve recently had some particular strong emotions regarding the Holocaust as of late, Marsha Lederman’s article struck a chord because of the subject matter’s similarities to a book I read last year, W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. I have written a couple times before on the strength of Sebald’s verse, generally, and of the arguments lying behind what was his final work before an untimely death in a car accident in 2000, so I won’t say much more on the subject. (I’d like to, but I’m not adequately prepared to do so; I have neither re-read the book nor thought about it enough to put forward cogent thoughts; this post barely gets my point across.) (Also, I am not sure this afternoon screen captureif I agree with my previous repudiation of Adorno’s “no art after the holocaust dictum.) In his mixing of fact and fiction in Austerlitz, Sebald played with the Theresienstadt story as well as the nazi documentary made for the Red Cross. He focuses on one image in particular in the film, of a tired, browbeaten young woman in the audience of a recital. Although she is dressed fairly well, wearing a black dress, what appears to be a nice necklace, and perhaps even a flower in her hair, she is a pale picture of depression in the film. Her visage was empty and hollow, not from this act produced for the Red Cross, but from the forced labour and extreme conditions of Theresienstadt.

I can recall Sebald’s description of the woman even though I haven’t read the text in over a year now. Sebald made a point to cite the flower in her hair. He was not fixated on it, but it did create a certain poetic moment in the scene. In the grim and bleak picture was a beautiful flower woven into a woman’s hairdo, as if to beautify or enlighten her body by the elegance of the flower itself. Of course, that plucked flower was dead already, and would wilt in the coming days. The people in the film are not dissimilar from that metaphor (mine, not Sebald’s, but I draw it from his prose). The prisoners of Theresienstadt may appear beautiful for the camera, but they are already dead. They died the moment they were rounded up and sent the labour camp. The woman in the clip might show a certain form of beauty by way of the rose, but her life has already been cut from her. It is only a matter of time before she will be thrown away once shifted to Auschwitz.

I am looking at the dead – I am looking at the dead with Sebald and Sebald’s narrator when I read Auschwitz or watch “The Fuhrer Gives a Village to the Jews.” Does the act of looking at the photograph of Ela Wiessenberger, who managed to survive, alleviate the combined weight of death and complicit guilt? I try to let it, but it does not. In spite of the child’s smile set on her posing frame, I look at the photograph and see nothing different from the image Sebald is fixated upon in the documentary and which form the climax of his text. I look at it and see only the emptiness of man. I do feel the possibility for redemption; the myths of the west demand redemption, however hollow it might be. But before there is redemption, there are vile, inhuman acts enacted on other humans. The Holocaust (and all the other genocides I have not mentioned, and that we neglect to dwell upon) is a shame we will never rid ourselves of. Germany didn’t kill the Jews of Europe. Europe, and the West killed the Jews of Europe. We all are, and remain, complicit in this act.

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Written by mitchellirons

May 12, 2008 at 3:49 pm

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