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.

published in Vertigo on October 8, 2010