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At Risk of Interment.

W.G. Sebald in Terezin and Breendonk.


Jewish children in Terezin – photo taken by the Red Cross team June 1944


By Will Stone.

I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It’s like the head of the Medusa.

You carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it, you’d be petrified.
—W.G. Sebald




The two locations named in the title of this work, Terezin in the Czech Republik (or Theresienstadt as it was known to the Germans), and Breendonk in Belgium, both feature prominently in the 2001 prize-winning novel Austerlitz by the writer W.G. Sebald.

They also have a personal significance in that I found my experience of visiting them at different periods of my life both before and after reading Sebald’s works, appeared to curiously overlap with the tenor of his texts. The result was an uncanny sense of confluence and a subsequent blurring of his recollected experience with my own which cannot be readily explained. My encounter with Terezin occurred in the early 1990’s during a journey to Prague and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe, in that precious window of a handful of years following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 before the commercial and cultural influence of the west significantly altered the region.

This encounter with the Czech garrison town and notorious antechamber to Auschwitz occurred before I had any knowledge of Sebald and his works, which I first came into contact with during my time as a student on the MA in Literary Translation at UEA 1997–99. It was Professor Sebald himself who directed a number of our course seminars in those years and would present we students with his prose texts in English translation, so that we might offer our amateur advice as to their accuracy and faithfulness. I returned to UEA in the autumn of 2001 as translator in residence, under the BCLT scheme and it was at this time I was fortunate to meet W.G. Sebald personally on a number of occasions, initially through the introduction of his close friend, the poet and translator Michael Hamburger. My encounter with Breendonk occurred in the early months of 2002, not long after the appearance of Austerlitz and the untimely death of its author in December 2001.


Breendonk watchtower (photograph by author, February 2002)

It was in February 2002 whilst traveling in Belgium on a research trip around my translations of the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren that I stumbled by chance upon the Napoleonic era fort of Breendonk. Driving north from Brussels on the A12 to Antwerp I glimpsed a sign ‘Fort Breendonk’ on my right, then evidently well-maintained barbed wire fences aligning the highway with slender watchtowers of brick at intervals and the grey low hulk of the edifice emerging from the drizzle. When reading Austerlitz a few months earlier I had not registered where exactly Breendonk was, yet Sebald’s moving account of the wartime history of this terrible place as a prison of the SS and Gestapo had left a deep impression on me. I could not help fall prey to the notion that an unseen hand had somehow directed me there. Without further reflection I temporarily abandoned my pilgrimage to the village of Sint Amands and Verhaeren’s riverside tomb and turned off from the main highway. I left my vehicle in the strangely deserted car park by a lifeless estaminet and entered the fort visitors centre whose newness and neat modern design sat incongruously beside the ancient scarred exhibit.

It was if any modern intrusion into the space was rejected by an atmosphere of the past which exhibited an almost pathological resilience.

My chance arrival coincided with a period when the until then largely untouched memorial site had just undergone the ubiquitous visitor ‘makeover’, with all the overt signs of enhanced communication represented by the installation of over-large displays and banners, a plethora of recordings on TV monitors of survivors reciting their testimony and even an audio loop of the barks of SS guard dogs ghosting the empty courtyards. The far less embroidered experience Sebald must have experienced would have produced quite a different impression I mused, one where the imagination was not arrested at every turn by functional information serving to inform but inadvertently cloud any inwardly born vision. Yet the mournfulness and sense of doom with which the fort was endowed was so powerful, so palpable that it overwhelmed any educative device. It was if any modern intrusion into the space was rejected by an atmosphere of the past which exhibited an almost pathological resilience. The architecture was too massive, too heavy, too disorientating and mentally excoriating, the cells, rooms, hallways and yards were still charged with menace and remained burdened by the significance of the past. This was not a museum, or even a memorial, it was a giant time capsule enclosed by concrete and brick, a space permeated with human terror and deprivation, a construction designed by humans for a purpose, then recalibrated for another, to assume a permanent state of fallenness and degradation.

Fort Breendonk, Belgium, 1940–44.

‘SS Fort Breendonk’, situated some twenty miles south of Antwerp, was during the war a mere dot in the vast Nazi penal and extermination camp system. Slaughter on an industrial scale was not its function, nor was it a vast reeducation lager for prisoners or undesirables on the Dachau model, but between 1940 and 1944, it became headquarters of the regional Gestapo and SD, in short a brutal prison camp, a place of confinement and torture, mostly for resistant members, communists, Jews and others deemed enemies of the Reich in occupied Belgium. Breendonk’s ‘celebrity’ today rests on being one of the best-preserved sites of Nazi crimes, partly because of its unique situation in a moated Napoleonic era fort which resists physical destruction and has limited redevelopment potential. Virtually unchanged since its liberation in 1945, one can today visit an edifice where the physical and psychological residue, almost the forms themselves of inmates and their tormentors, seems spectrally present as nowhere else. One moves through cavern like tunnels, chambers, along monotonous passageways in which an oppressive silence dominates yet from which one feels victim and perpetrator had only just departed.

Sebald leads the reader into the chill darkness of Breendonk through his preferred device of exposing human folly in overreaching architectural ambition.

Sebald leads the reader into the chill darkness of Breendonk through his preferred device of exposing human folly in overreaching architectural ambition. The history of the fort is one of the absurd delusion of static defence of a citadel, as history, which is movement, irresistibly passes over and around. At the close of the book Breendonk is reprised, when Sebald discusses another militarily futile fort constructed at Kaunas in Lithuania. In the case of Breendonk a defensive futility worthy of the Maginot line is illustrated in Sebald’s telling of the ambitious nineteenth century construction of a grandiose line of forts which ultimately proves redundant as the burgeoning merchant city of Antwerp which they were designed to protect eventually catches up with them, pushing these now redundant leviathans further and further out into the countryside. Breendonk is one survivor, a reminder of this heroic failure, relic of military plans made in sand, reposing as an immoveable folly until the Nazi occupation in 1940, when with their customary eye for espying an existing building best suited to carry out their heinous crimes, Himmler’s men took over the fort and quickly transformed it into their grisly prison.

The author or rather narrator of Austerlitz arrives at Breendonk we are told in the year 1967, and like every visitor before or since faces the ugly muzzle of the fort upon the ancient bridge which spans its wide moat. To the right he would have noted a tall watchtower of distinctive design and which appears in a clip from Alan Resnais’ landmark filmic response to the death camps, Night and Fog (1956), during a sequence detailing the plethora of creative designs for the construction of the camps.

It seems unlikely that Sebald would not be familiar with this unique film document and yet characteristically he eschews mention of it, since it is perhaps too explicit a Holocaust reference and instead mentions later on in the book another legendary short by Resnais, Toute La Mémoire du Monde, made a year later about the mysterious inner workings of the Bibliothèque National in Paris. This authorial determination to approach the Holocaust through some oblique link that more persuasively establishes our potential complicity as human beings within a communal history is why it seems to me Sebald chose the pre-Nazi era fort Breendonk and pre-Nazi era Czech garrison town Terezin and what drew him to these sites rather than those which were constructed from scratch in the war period. What interested Sebald it seemed to me were the three stages of their presence; namely the historical raison d’être for their initial construction, that of strength, importance and necessity, giving way to a retraction from the encroaching modern world, a period of stasis and obsolescence. Finally being drawn back into service as a protective enclosure, a corral for criminality over those four years of Nazi occupation. We might add to this the fourth stage, that of their presence today, as places of residue, of recollection and remembrance for that relatively brief but disturbing period in their history. Such a site harbours a deeper existential resonance, than even a line of brick chimneys accusingly pointing towards the response less heavens, or the rubble piles of destroyed gas chambers and severed rail spurs inappropriately nestled in murmuring summer grasses.

Approaching the unwelcoming portal of the Breendonk fort, one leaves the moat bridge of ancient cobbles over which the SS vehicles would have thrummed with their terrified captives. To left and right depressingly unrelieved reptilian grey walls stretch away above uncomfortably serene dark water. Windows are noticeably few. In Sebald’s own words…

what I saw now before me was a low built concrete mass, rounded at its outer edges and giving the gruesome impression of something hunched and misshapen: the broad back of a monster, I thought, risen from this Flemish soil like a whale from the deep.

Later, after failing to gain purchase on the rationality behind the shape or design of the structure or as he puts it; ‘unable to connect it with anything shaped by human civilization’, he goes on to describe the walls as ‘covered in places by open ulcers with raw crushed stone erupting from them, encrusted by guano like droppings and calcareous streaks, the fort was a monolithic monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence’ and ‘an anatomical blueprint of an alien crab like creature…’ Two photographs within the Austerlitz text support this vision, the first showing fittingly a dead end where two walls join, one with the ulcer he describes, like the crude bite of a shark from the body of the whale and the other shows stunted tower-like bastions but with no sign of apertures or embrasures, rising out of the pasture like some volcanic outcrop from the sea. There is no opportunity anywhere for light to enter the structure. Sunk in the earth, anchored for all time, this concrete colossus flaunts its ungainly claws and pincers, whilst seemingly interminable exteriors of walls give an impression there is in fact no interior behind them, that they were only solid objects and thus pointless, offering protection to nothing but their own extinct inner core, the unrelieved whole resulting in a kind of metaphysical force field which induces a sense of oppressiveness as one approaches.

This initial sensation of foreboding aroused by the crab-like form and the morbid decay of the building materials, only serves to increase the anxiety Sebald experiences on finally entering the fort by the main entrance and encountering a penal colony in concrete, an enclosed machine of torture and death which apparently had only just ceased its functioning. Directly on entering Breendonk one finds oneself in a wide tunnel which gives the feeling of descending into the earth, into the primeval underbelly of the living world above, whose colour and light cede to a place of burial. Immediately to the right Sebald would have encountered the one-time SS café refectory and mess area, still sporting its cheerful ‘bulging stove’ and Germanic gothic lettering on the beams and walls, like some Teutonic perversion of a fading medieval church fresco. This uniquely preserved room designed for the perpetrators’ recreation, trapped now in its funereal stillness appears a curious inversion of those rowdy Bavarian beer cellars it was meant to stand in for.

Dotted about the passageways and courtyards beyond here are some of the left behind primitive tools the prisoners were obliged to use in their back breaking labour. Sebald mentions for example the heavy wooden wheelbarrows which even without any load of bricks or stones appear more than a challenge to shift, the inmates ‘bracing themselves against the weight until their hearts burst’. Moving deeper into the structure, Sebald includes a picture of one of the fort’s electrically lit cable-lined corridors with a cell door ajar. This long passageway upholds some unbearable subterranean pressure and the electric light does not properly alleviate the darkness that seems to press in on all sides, from further unlit tunnels and chambers. This darkness is analogous to that which clouds the mind that seeks to retain a lucid grasp on the most difficult realities, Sebald writes:

the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself…

After encountering the chamber designated for prisoner torture, meat hook still visible in the ceiling, the nauseating lingering scent of soft soap causes Sebald to swoon against a wall which ‘was gritty, covered with bluish spots and seemed to me to be perspiring with cold beads of sweat.’ This sense of the edifice putrefying, the sweating and mouldering interior surface gestures to the ‘open ulcers’, the gouged and pitted exterior which he had earlier explored. Tellingly, as with the Resnais reference, it is not then the testimony of writer Jean Amèry who suffered in this very chamber that has Sebald prey to vertigo, but the Proustian perfume of a particular soap which also recalls some uncomfortable family memory. At this point, Sebald abruptly departs Breendonk, only returning at the close of the book. The night before this reprise he spends in a seedy hotel on the Astridplein in Antwerp and includes an intriguing photo showing the view from his window over a melancholy scene of grimy walls, ducts and pipes sealed with barbed wire. One would be mistaken for thinking that this was an image taken at Breendonk itself or indeed the roof of a gas chamber or crematoria complete with vents.

On leaving the hotel to return to Breendonk, Sebald passes an unknown sick woman lying on a stretcher in the lobby. Such mysterious spectacles involving animated or inert figures occur throughout Sebald’s works, for example ‘the disturbed individual waving his arms’ Austerlitz encounters at Terezin, who Sebald suggests ‘seems to have been swallowed up by the earth as they say, even as he was running off’. Plausibly shadowing countless silent victims of the Holocaust, they seem positioned so as to maximize feelings of dislocation and trauma, symbols of the individual’s violent fall from perceived security. There is something about this stricken woman that links the scene to his destination and the fate of those who had the misfortune to be incarcerated there. ‘I saw a pale faced woman of about forty with her eyes turned away lying on a high trolley down by the reception desk, where there was no-one in evidence.’ It is both the last part ‘no-one in evidence’ and the earlier ‘with her eyes turned away’ which existentially emboldens the image. Sebald walks past whilst she lies there ‘with her eyes turned away’, awaiting a fate unknown to her or us. Vulnerable to a horrific degree, her destiny suddenly rests with terrible certainty in the hands of perhaps indifferent strangers, ‘the two ambulance men chatting outside’.


                 Terezin aerial view

Situated some thirty miles north of Prague and with no specifically defined role since the late 1880s, the garrison town of Terezin came to prominence during the German occupation of Czechoslovakia. Theresienstadt, as the Germans called it, was established by the SS in 1941 as a unique ghetto for deported Western European Jews, a significant proportion being women and children, the elderly and those with special dispensations, the so-called ‘Prominenten’. There were a higher than normal number of artists corralled in the Theresienstadt ghetto, whose work revealed the appalling condition there as well as the undying humanistic spirit of its inhabitants.  But for all its special character, Terezin was simply a holding pen for the crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau. However from its population of victims, groups of ‘special Jews’ were held back from extermination in the gas chambers both at the Ghetto and later in the Birkenau camp as long as they might be of use for Nazi propaganda, such as the infamous dummy Theresienstadt created by the SS for a Red Cross inspection of the ghetto in 1944. Many of the old wealthy Jews from the west had been lured in by the SS, with reports of a pleasure resort awaiting them, an attractive well-appointed spa town in the Czech countryside where they could see out their days in relative luxury and peace, they had only to hand over their money and valuables and of course purchase their own one-way ticket…

After the shock of arrival, the cold realization of having been deceived and the prospect of crowded unsanitary living conditions in alternately bitterly cold or stiflingly hot attics many succumbed quickly to infantilism, malnutrition, disease, and death. This suited the SS as they did not have to bother transporting these slow old people who couldn’t walk easily to their deaths in Birkenau, they simply had other Jews remove their corpses from the attics. But Terezin also had a high proportion of artists, composers and writers amongst these prominent Jews, which meant that against all odds many of these doomed creative spirits were able to practice their artistic vocation within the camp perimeter, leaving behind a prodigious number of works across all disciplines, under the encroaching shade of death. Their saved work forms a vital document revealing the appalling conditions in Terezin as well as the undying humanistic spirit of its inhabitants, many of whom were children.

The town of Terezin was constructed in 1780–90 to a symmetrical grid pattern of about 1 square km within fortified star-shaped defensive walls and dykes. It was designed for some two thousand civilian residents. It was unremarkable and unassuming, a slow-paced town with its scattering of little shops, bakeries, formal parks, bandstand, and rather monotonous tree lined avenues. Sebald describes Terezin as ‘a world made by reason, regulated in all conceivable respects.’ No wonder it appealed to the German plan for an easily managed and regulated holding pen. Sebald gives two pages to the onerously exact and yet disorientating German military map of the site, symbolizing pictorially the Nazi’s mania for lists and records, an illustration to support the text. At a short distance from the town lay the ‘Kleine Festung’, or Small Fortress. This was effectively a prison within a greater prison and had always been so. Thus, as at Breedonk, the SS and local Gestapo found it was ideally situated and architecturally suited for the detainment, punishment and execution of special prisoners. For some reason, possibly because the Terezin Small Fortress seemed too close to that at Breendonk, Sebald chose not to clarify the separateness of the town of Terezin and the nearby prison, with the result that there is an important ambiguity in the text and photographs. A reader without prior knowledge could not know which of the two locations the image referred to. A group of photographs shows the fortifications of the Small Fortress which transport us back to Breendonk and how like the Belgian fort, the fort seems subsumed in the landscape that encloses it, becoming part of the topography. But unlike the pockmarked grey reptilian skin of the bunker-like Breendonk, here one observes undeviating oppressive walls of red brick capped with stone, sharing between them lost portions of wasteland without purpose, descending terraces choked by scrub, grass, weeds, and creepers. A labyrinth of ditches, dykes, glacis, and embankments form these star shaped bastions with their acute angles and confounding dead ends. Turf, moss, and high waving grasses now adorn the rooves of the ugly functional buildings in the lee of the walls.

Sebald describes Terezin as ‘a world made by reason, regulated in all conceivable respects.’

Seen through Sebald’s eyes, Austerlitz surveys the deserted town of Terezin, we are granted a double page spread of images; faded facades, their closed doors and shuttered windows seeming to resolutely deny access to the unpalatable memories behind them, the peeling paint of the doors and walls showing not only the melancholic textures of decay but a human reluctance to linger here, to renovate these mausoleums, restore them to life. One image simply shows a row of old-fashioned metal dustbins, their numbers daubed in paint, before a wall clearly in the vanguard of dereliction. The numbered dustbins seem here to be evoking the Germanic fixation with number checking, lists, rolls calls, and tallies, or as Sebald adroitly summarizes; ‘their mania for order and purity, put into practice on a vast scale through measures partly improvised, partly devised with obsessive organizational zeal.’ On the following page we find two more almost full-page vertical shots of grim doors sealed within walls of the crypt-like chambers and courtyards of the small fortress. These heavily weathered walls seem to be poised for demolition, yet an impassable door absurdly festooned with huge hinges and latches stands fast, as if sealed for eternity, somehow defying the disintegration of the whole.

Austerlitz learns that into the ghetto of Terezin the Germans forced some 60,000 Jewish men, women, and children. Here as already indicated were gathered the cream of bourgeois and artistic Jewish society; artists, writers, professors, bankers, industrialists, but also shopkeepers, tradesmen and the like, so that this strange ghetto town now somehow resembled a microcosm of Western Europe’s Jewish society crammed into a tiny space, imprisoned. And following carefully laid down exterminatory procedures, they were left there to be whittled down by illness, exhaustion, and despair, in as Sebald explains, little more than 2m sq of personal space, with only the crematorium chimneys of Auschwitz to break their unchanging horizon. And Terezin’s most terrible secret and shame is as Austerlitz soon discovers, this alarming juxtaposition of a skewed normality in the planned workings of this ghetto town, this civic dummy, with the scrupulously coordinated exploitation and murder of its inhabitants, a fact which causes the mind which encounters it to perpetually recoil, forever thrown back on itself, straining to remain lucid in the face of ever more bestial revelations and paralyzing absurdities. It is the material of the latter that Sebald seeks to convey in his text. Thus he presents on the page a form from the archives containing over fifty long-winded German terms for offices and locations within the town, overblown compounds such as ‘Marketenderwarenerzeugung’ (Marketing / Sales production), that seem to shamelessly launch their linguistic vanity across the page, alongside deceptively innocuous labels, such as ‘SS Garage’.

Sebald focuses on the insufferable working conditions common to the inmates of Terezin, how the prisoner slaves laboured pointlessly at menial tasks, but who were condemned, the living who were already dead. He is at pains to show how these victim citizens shadowed life in the real world beyond, steadfastly following traditional norms of civic life within the enclosure, which they must have found reassuring while at the same time being humiliated by the fakery, how they were utterly subservient and controlled by those who orchestrate everything, who are one step ahead, the masters from Germany who induce them with false hopes before finishing them off at their own convenience. True to their twisted logic, similar to their insistence that Jews should pay for their rail fares to Auschwitz and other death camps, the SS set up a ghetto bank that issued a valueless currency with which nothing could be bought anyway. There was a post office from which nothing could be sent and where nothing was received. Sebald lists the rich variety of trades which prisoners toiled away at, finding some solace in regular work, nursing the vain hope that, as across all the Jewish holding camps and ghettos, they were surely more useful alive to the Germans for labour than dead. Sebald mournfully sifts the unlikely exotic specialisms; ‘the shearing of rabbit fur’, ‘the bottling of ink dust’, and even ‘a silk worm breeding station run under the aegis of the SS.’ He shows us the carefully tended vegetable plots and market gardens flourishing like civilian allotments in the dykes beneath the high walls. Indeed, photographs show prisoner Jews as proud amateur gardeners, their sleeves rolled up in the summer sun contentedly watering the rows of vegetables and dahlias. These garden plots were real for the SS required fresh fruit and vegetables but the images were orchestrated and the images were clearly intended for propaganda purposes.

Everything that is permitted to happen is a carefully calibrated part of the endlessly honed SS plan of destruction.

Sebald moves on to the Terezin café, the theatre, the lively cultural programme of operas and musicals, sometimes even attended by SS officers. True to their penchant for blackly comedic abominations, the SS allowed a fleet of decrepit antique hearses onto the Terezin streets for the prisoners use and these ‘oddly swaying conveyances’, as Sebald describes them, were utilized for everything from delivering the pitiful bread ration to their original purpose, though not just one body did they bear in an ornate coffin but teetering stacks of rough pine boxes to carry the hundred plus souls who perished each day in Terezin between 1941 and 1944. Jewish artists such as Leon Haas and Bedrich Fritta left memorable drawings and paintings depicting these hearse carts with their roofs shorn off carrying new arrivals into the town from the trains. The newcomers, intimately captured by Fritta, are unsurprisingly downcast, discombobulated, slumped pathetically on their baggage. Sebald includes the reproduction of a stamp with Terezin postmark, one taken from the many postcards sent from new arrivals to Jewish relatives and friends in Germany, Holland, France, and Belgium to excitedly tell of the wonderful health resort north of Prague to which they too must make haste. But everything, Sebald seems to suggest, however seemingly innocuous or fleeting, inane or tragic, is explicitly curated and registered by the overseers, who don’t miss a trick. Everything that is permitted to happen is a carefully calibrated part of the endlessly honed SS plan of destruction. The psychological burden placed on the prisoners by the regular ‘comb outs’, the drawing up of deportation lists was grave. The cynical ploy by the SS was to leave them effectively competing against each other not to be selected. Without a ‘protector’, someone with influence, there was little hope.

But in the late spring of 1944, something occurred which initially appeared a challenge to this control. The German authority was informed of a forthcoming inspection of their Jewish camp by a team from the International Red Cross. The SS, having until then successfully fended off repeated requests from the Red Cross to visit Auschwitz, which they were officially claiming was merely a labour camp, saw the ghetto of Terezin as their trump card and a way out of a precarious situation. Recognizing the potential for a rare propaganda gift, the decision was taken to show the world not a concentration camp or overcrowded ghetto with its lethal raison d’etre, but a haven of civic peace and prosperity for Jews who hardly deserved such German charity and hospitality. It was this cynical ruse then, an exercise of enforced victim collusion recorded for posterity in an accompanying film ‘The Führer grants the Jews a Town’ that elevates Terezin from sordid holding pen to something even more disturbing if such a thing is possible, a ‘Potemkin’ town of ersatz urban normality inhabited by contented townsfolk enjoying summer evening strolls along the ramparts.

The deception conjured by the Germans for the visiting committee worked better than they could have hoped for, largely due to their painstaking attention to detail and ruthless determination to erase any sign of the reality of life in Terezin beforehand. In advance of the visit in June 1944, the whole town was scrubbed from top to bottom and renovated. The office of the Reichsfuhrer SS in Berlin had decreed that anyone who did not look healthy or happy enough, or characteristically Jewish enough to appear in the film was to be immediately shipped to Auschwitz for disposal, resulting in some seven thousand cinematically unsuitable inmates and a whole ward of TB patients being immediately deported. Sebald assiduously communicates the grotesquery of this artful deception, the the drawn-out obsessive preparation; how Terezin suddenly reverts to a counterfeit version of its former prewar state, becoming a theatrical folly with its doomed players cast in their elected roles, extras in the film for a day, the majority of whom were rewarded for their performance by being deported east soon after. Sebald focuses on the progressive working atmosphere conjured by the SS, the crafts and trades the Germans have decided shall represent the bedrock the fake community; unceasing activity in the smithy, the pottery, the sewing and weaving workshops, incessant ‘hammering, cutting, gluing and stitching…’ The prisoners are subjected to a choreographed frenzy of progressive labour that exactly mirrors the crafts and trades of the exterior world they have left, where something honestly made is for a useful purpose, whereas here there is no purpose, since all is a facade.

Nothing was left to chance, no expense spared, every detail pored over to achieve maximum impact.

And in the hoax ‘Eldorado’ of this animated new Terezin, they are forced to smile, to cheer, to wave and clap for their fellow sportsmen on the football field, and show those very emotions from normal life which are the antithesis of their unimaginable situation. Everything is thus turned on its head. But Sebald isn’t finished there. He records the stringent refurbishments and exciting new civic creations; ‘children’s playgrounds, paddling pools, a coffee house with sun umbrellas, a cinema, shops stocked with provisions borrowed from the SS stores…’ Nothing was left to chance, no expense spared, every detail pored over to achieve maximum impact. He continues ‘On the day of the inspection the pavements were scrubbed with soap, the bread ration was handed out by men in white drill gloves…’ Sebald relates these incredible facts benignly, methodically, so that the sense of the plausible is intimately shadowed by the implausible. It seems the SS were using the opportunity not only to fool the Red Cross and the world, but were also reveling in this chance to further torture their victims, to tempt them for a day with a world they would never see again. Not content with cold murder they sought expressly to humiliate them beforehand, the perverted creation of the model town luring them into opportunistic sadistic indulgences. Sebald concludes with the haunting image from the surviving film of the residents, carefully choreographed, flocking to the ramparts at the end of a working day, or as he puts it, ‘to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying an evening stroll on the deck of an ocean-going steamer…’ Out of all this fiendishness Sebald seems to be repeating not the mantra of ‘how can it have happened?’, but how can it have happened ‘in this particular way’ and how can we progress authentically in our lives knowing it has happened in this way, how can we mirror such ‘normal’ human activities and not feel something of the resonance of those condemned actors on the temporary Terezin stage within its fortified walls, enacting copies of our future lives for us?

This sense of a malignant otherness, of something constantly forcing a way into our psyche, upsetting our consciousness, some ‘thing’ latent, unaddressed, still present in the tidal outflow of atrocity, awaiting our truest response, is exacerbated by the tape of the Terezin propaganda film which Austerlitz views at a slower speed in an attempt to discern Agata’s face in the crowd. Now a merry polka becomes ‘a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace’, the strenuous high-pitched German voiceover becomes ‘a menacing growl’. The workers busy with their needles and thread are reduced by slow motion to dream-bound marionettes who ‘looked wearily up to the camera’. It is as if they are held in a dark trance, moving as Sebald suggests… ‘in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, to which no human voice has ever descended’.

Are these same stygian depths not manifest in the descending casement of Fort Breendonk, where Sebald, at risk of interment, is overcome by nausea and ‘black striations across the eyes’? Are not these fort prisons with their morbidly affluent architecture, their moats and ramparts, their labyrinthine tunnels, echoing cobbled courtyards, permanently chilled passages, cells, and sepulchral casements, physical manifestations of a Piranesian descent into insanity, nightmare, and human extinction itself? But are they not also a warning from a past which has secreted itself beneath the carapace of certain landscapes and edifices from which it must intermittently emerge in the face of that rationalist ‘accommodation’ of intolerable past realities in order to safeguard human prolongation? The following lines, left behind by an unfortunate inhabitant of Terezin, and which somehow seem to look forward to and commend Sebald’s conscionable disclosure, may help fill the space left by the absence of any answer:

The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads to bury itself somewhere deep inside our memories…

WILL STONE is a poet, essayist and literary translator who divides his time between East Suffolk, Exmoor and the continent. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won an international award for Poetry in 2008. Subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (Salt, 2011), The Sleepwalkers (Shearsman 2016) and The Slowing Ride (Shearsman 2020) have been critically appraised. A fifth collection Immortal Wreckage will be published in 2024. Will’s published translations from French and German include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gérard de Nerval, Georg Simmel, Maurice Betz, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Will’s latest published translations published were Nietzsche in Italy by Guy de Pourtalès (Pushkin Press, 2022) and Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (Wakefield Press, 2022). Letters around a Garden, a collection of Rilke’s letters in French will appear with Seagull Books in 2024 and Conversations with Rilke by Maurice Betz will be published by Pushkin also in 2024. Will has contributed reviews, essays, poems and translations to a number of literary publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Spectator, Apollo Magazine, the White Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agenda, Irish Pages and Poetry Review.


Image credit: Entrance to the Breendonk internment camp, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.



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