Saturday, July 7, 2012

Theresienstadt by W.G. Sebald

Soon after the beginning of the New Year, said Austerlitz, what was described as a Vershonerungsaktion or general improvement was undertaken at Theresienstadt, with an eye to the imminent visit in the early summer of 1944 of a Red Cross commission, an event regarded by those authorities of the Reich responsible as a good opportunity to dissimulate the true nature of their deportation policy, and consequently it was decided to organize the ghetto inmates under the command of the SS for the purpose of a vast cleaning-up program. . .

As the time of the visit itself approached and Theresienstadt, after another seven and a half thousand of the less presentable inmates had been sent east amidst all this busy activity, to thin out the population, so to speak, became a Potemkin village or sham Eldorado which may have dazzled even some of the inhabitants themselves and where, when the appointed day came, the commission of two Danes and one Swiss official, having been guided, in conformity with a precise plan and a timetable drawn up by the Kommandant’s office, through the streets and over spotless pavements, scrubbed with soap early that morning, could see for themselves the friendly, happy folk who had been spared the horrors of war and were looking out of the windows, could see how smartly they were all dressed, how well the few sick people were cared for, how they were given proper meals served on plates, how the bread ration was handed out by people in white drill gloves, how posters advertising sporting events, cabarets, theatrical performances, and concerts were being put on every corner and how, when the day’s work was over, the residents of the town flocked out in their thousands on the ramparts and bastions to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying and evening stroll on the deck of an oceangoing steamer, a most reassuring spectacle, all things considered, which the Germans, whether for propaganda purposes or in order to justify their actions and conduct to themselves, thought fit after the end of the Red Cross visit to record in a film given a sound track of Jewish folk music in March 1945, when considerable number of the people who had appeared in it were no longer alive, and a copy of which had apparently turned up in the British-occupied zone after the war, although he, Adler himself, said Austerlitz, never saw it, and thought it was now lost without a trace.

For months, said Austerlitz, I tried in vain, through the good offices of the Imperial War Museum and other agencies, to find any clue to the present location of the film. I kept thinking that if only the film could be found I might perhaps be able to see or gain some inkling of what it was really like, and then I imagined recognizing my mother Agata, beyond any possibility of doubt, a young woman as she would be by comparison with me today, perhaps among the guests outside the fake coffeehouse, or a saleswoman in a haberdashery shop, just taking a fine pair of gloves carefully out of one of the drawers, or singing the part of Olympia in the Tales of Hoffman which was staged at Theresienstadt in the course of the improvement campaign. I imagined seeing her walking down the street in a summer dress and light-weight gabardine coat, said Austerlitz: among a group of ghetto residents out for a stroll, she alone seemed to make it straight for me, coming closer with every step, until at last I thought I could sense her stepping out of the frame and passing over to me.

It was wishful fantasies such as these which cast me into a state of great excitement when the Imperial War Museum finally succeeded, through the Federal Archives in Berlin, in obtaining a cassette copy of the film of Theresienstadt for which I had been searching. I remember very clearly, said Austerlitz, how I sat in one of the museums video viewing rooms, placed the cassette in the black opening of the recorder with trembling hands, and then, although unable to take in any of it, watched various tasks being carried out at the anvil and forge of the smithy, in the pottery and woodworking shop, in the handbag-making and shoe manufacturing sections – a constant, pointless to-do of hammering, metal-beating, and welding, cutting, gluing, and stitching; I saw an unbroken succession of stranger’s faces emerge before me for a few seconds, I saw workers leaving the huts when the siren sounded and crossing an empty field beneath a sky filled with motionless white clouds, a game of football in the inner court of one of the barrack buildings, with hundreds of cheerful spectators crowding the arcades and the galleries on the first and second floors, books being borrowed from the library by gentlemen of soigne appearance, I saw a full-scale orchestral concert and, in the moat surrounding the fortified town, kitchen gardens neatly laid out where several dozen people were raking the vegetable beds, watering beans and tomatoes, searching brassica leaves for Cabbage White caterpillars, whilst at the end of the day others were sitting on benches outside the houses, apparently in perfect contentment, letting the children play a little longer, one man reading a book, a woman talking to her neighbor, many of them just taking their ease at the windows, arms folded, in a way once common at the onset of dusk.

At first I could get none of these images into my head; they merely flickered before my eyes at the source of continual irritation or vexation, which was further reinforced when, to my horror, it turned out that the Berlin cassette inscribed with the original title of Der Fuhrer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt had on it only a patchwork of scenes cobbled together and lasting some fourteen minutes, scarcely more than an opening sequence in which, despite the hopes I had entertained, I could not see Agata anywhere, however often I ran the tape and however hard I strained to make her out among those fleeting faces.

In the end the impossibility of seeing anything more closely in those pictures, which seemed to dissolve even as they appeared, said Austerlitz, gave me the idea of having a slow-motion copy of this fragment from Theresienstadt made, one which would last a whole hour, and indeed once the scant document was extended to four times its original length, it did reveal previously hidden objects and people, creating, by default as it were, a different film altogether, which I have since watched over and over again. The men and women employed in the workshops now looked as if they were toiling in their sleep, so long did it take them to draw needle and thread through the air as they stitched, so heavily did their eyelids sink, so slowly did their lips move as they looked wearily up at the camera. They seemed to be hovering rather than walking, as if their feet no longer quite touched the ground. The contours of their bodies were blurred and, particularly in the scenes shot out of doors in broad daylight, had dissolved at the edges, resembling, as it occurred to me, said Austerlitz, the frayed outlines of the human hand shown in the fluidal pictures and electrographs taken by Louis Draget in Paris around the turn of the century. . .

Strangest of all, however, said Austerlitz, was the transformation of the sounds in this slow-motion version. In the brief sequence at the very beginning, showing red-hot iron being worked in a smithy to shoe a draft ox, the merry polka by some Austrian operetta composer on the sound track of the Berlin copy had become a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace, and the rest of the musical pieces accompanying the film, among which I could identify only the can-can from La Vie Parisiene and the scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, also moved in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, said Austerlitz, to which no human voice has ever descended. At the point where, on the original Berlin copy, a male voice, in high-pitched, strenuous tones forced through the larynx, had spoken of task forces and cohorts of workers deployed, as circumstances required, in various different ways, or if necessary retrained, so that everyone willing to work – jeder Arbeitswillige! , so Austerlitz interrupted himself – had an opportunity of fitting seamlessly into the production process, at this point of the tape all that could now be made out, Austerlitz continued, was a menacing growl, such as I had heard only once before in my life, on an unseasonably hot May Day many years ago in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris when, after one of the peculiar turns that often came over me in those days, I rested for a while on a park bench beside an aviary not far from the big cats’ house, where the lions and tigers, invisible from my vantage point and, as it struck me at the time, driven out of their minds in captivity, raised their hollow roars of lament hour after hour without ceasing.

And then, Austerlitz continued, towards the end of the film there was a comparatively long sequence showing the first performance of a piece of music composed in Theresienstadt, Pavel Haas’s study for stringed orchestral, if I am not mistaken. The series of frames begins with a view into the hall from the back. The windows are wide open, and a large audience is sitting not in rows as usual at a concert, but as if they were in some sort of tavern or hotel dining room, in groups of four around tables. The chairs, probably made specially for the occasion in the carpentry work-shop of the ghetto, are of pseudo-Tyrolean design with heart shapes sawn out of their backs.

In the course of the performance the camera lingers in close-up over several members of the audience, including an old gentleman whose cropped gray head fills the right-hand side of the picture, while at the left-hand side, set a little way back and close to the upper edge of the frame, the face of a young woman appears, barely emerging from the black shadows around it, which is why I did not notice it at all first. Around her neck, said Austerlitz, she is wearing a three-stringed and delicately draped necklace, which scarcely stands out from her dark, high-necked dress, and there is, I think, a white flower in her hair. She looks, so I tell myself as I watch, just as I imagined the singer Agata from my faint memories and the few other clues to her appearance that I now have, and I gaze and gaze again at that face, which seems to me both strange and familiar, said Austerlitz, I run the tape back repeatedly, looking at the time indicator in the top left-hand corner of the screen, where the figures covering part of her forehead show the minutes and seconds, from 10:53 to 10:57, while the hundredths of a second flash by so fast that you cannot read and capture them . . .

[Later] I spent several days searching the records for the years 1938 and 1939 in the Prague theatrical archives in the Celetna, and there, among letters, files on employees, programs, and faded newspaper cuttings, I came upon the photograph of an anonymous actress who seemed to resemble my dim memory of my mother, and in whom Vera, who had already spent some time studying the face of the women in the concert audience which I copied from the Theresienstadt film, before shaking her head and putting it aside, immediately and without a shadow of doubt, as she said, recognized Agata as she had been then.

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald : Random House, N.Y. 2001

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Shaplin,

    I am an historian putting together a book about the Holocaust experiences of two people who ended up in Maine. They were married in Theresienstadt. I am very interested in the image of Theresienstadt that begins this entry, the idyllic rural scene. May I ask where it comes from? I think I would like to use it to illustrate my book,perhaps for the back cover.

    Thanks for your help.

    Steve Hochstadt
    Professor of History
    Illinois College