The Inspiration

In 2010 I made my first trip to Germany and the Czech Republic. I was driven through these countries by a retired Dutch Army officer and former NATO officer. At that time there was not a plan to tour World War II sites…it just unfolded that way. Even in the towns with no distinguishable WWII historic interest, there were small but poignant indicators of a tragedy that defies description.
In Celle, I discovered brass blocks that replaced paving stones in the sidewalks called Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks). These brass markers, the project of an artist named Gunter Demnig, hold the name of a person that had lived on that street and was victimized by the Nazis during the war. Often, the date and location of their death was included. (Murdered in Birkenau, 1944, for example). This was repeated in a number of the towns I visited.
These stumbling blocks are just one example of how people have created remembrances. Poetry, music, memoir, painting and photography have all been created by people moved to establish remembrances.
The experience of visiting Bergen-Belsen was unsettling. There was a modern, stark, nearly sterile museum, information center, library and bookstore. In an exhibition in the visitors center I made a photograph of a painting of railroad tracks. It was the image that spoke to me from all the paintings hanging. And then, upon leaving the museum, a clearing opened in a beautiful birch forest cloaked in autumnal glory. I was unprepared for this.
I walked through the meadows, saw traces of foundations being consumed by stands of slender birch trees, and came upon mounds of earth with markers telling how many bodies, approximately, were entombed in these small hills. Here and there were placed other markers, each covered with small stones, honoring a particular person or community. But the overall impression was of a gently rolling wide meadow. And except for the wind in the leaves of the birches, silence. No shouting, no sirens, no barking of dogs or pain-filled wailing.
Later, while editing photos from the day, in an effort to generate an understanding of how a place so beautiful could hold so much suffering, I layered a photo of the birch trees over the image of the painting of the railroad tracks. This gave me some peace, a small step toward reconciliation of what was with what is.
As I ventured deeper into eastern Germany, and then into the Czech Republic I was sinking into quiet, unspeakably sad reflection.
Prague was a swirl of confusion for me. I could not appreciate its antiquity or artistic heritage. Prague had always been a center of intellectual, musical, literary, and artistic activity. All I could see was a tiny graveyard that held the remains and tombs of tens of thousands of people from 6 centuries. This graveyard is one of just a handful of Jewish cemeteries that survived desecration in World War II. Unable to photograph successfully, I decided to drive out to Terezîn (known as Theresienstadt during World War II).
Once again, as in Bergen-Belsen, I was confronted by a different reality than I had imagined. But instead of lacking structures or edifices, the town of Terezîn IS the concentration camp and it is still there. All of it. In fact, it is a town that sits, in my opinion, uneasily, on top a mountain of memory, of suffering and the inescapable intention of cruelty and annihilation.
I was so disoriented by the living, breathing fact of this community that I had to leave the town to search for what I thought must have been a ‘camp’, only to come back, looking again at the one small map of the town that gave the only indication of its former existence. Then I walked into the small museum and saw the artwork of the children that inhabited Terezîn for that short time. Hundreds and hundreds of drawings, poems, little songs and paintings told a story of loss that no monument could conjure.
The memory of my time in Terezîn grew stronger as the time away grew longer. I was searching for a way to respond, artistically and authentically, when I read the book The Girls In Room 28, by Hannelore Brenner. Fourteen survivors offered remembrances of their time in Terezîn that included joy and happiness. Painting, drawing, singing and performing sustained them. These women showed me the way. They made it possible for me to create images and foster a conversation about the uplifting, healing, and sustaining power of the creative act. In November of 2011, I made my way back there, arriving on the day when exactly 70 years earlier, the first victims were transported to Terezîn. I did not know this at the time of my planning.
Photographing that week, with intention, was nearly as difficult as my first visit there a year earlier. Ice and hoarfrost covered everything. The town was brooding and gray. The one warm spot was the hotel dining room, with my daily bowl of borscht and friendly but halting conversation with the young waiter.
At the end of the week I decided to drive to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was my thought that I should honor the victims that were transported from Terezîn to their final destination by following the same route. Seven hundred kilometers later, in one of the darkest towns I have ever visited, I arrived in Auschwitz. The darkness seemed to swallow even the street lamps. Because of this enveloping black, I drove in a half-square mile area for nearly 30 minutes trying to find my hotel. Again I was feeling an unwelcome disorientation.
The next morning I was alone in Auschwitz, the most visited Holocaust site in the world. For several hours I walked in the cold and silence. I marveled at the small size of a site that holds such immense connotations of evil in our history and memory. I was not afraid, but I was aware of the power of such cruel and shamelessly monstrous intent.
The following day I drove the short distance to Birkenau to encounter hatred on a completely different scale. The vastness that is Birkenau dwarfs the Auschwitz camp. This was more ‘familiar’ to me in my imagination. The size of the horror had some small relation to the size of the camp.
Again, I walked and photographed, still completely alone. Perhaps it was the cold or time of year that accounted for the absence of other visitors. Putting the camera to my eye provided a thin protective layer between what I was seeing and what I was feeling. It allowed me to photograph. Hours later, as I was leaving, a group of high-school aged students arrived. Too boisterous, too loud, too plugged in to smart phones and ipods. I was angry at what I perceived was their disrespect. I still am. My ability to photograph meaningfully was over by that time, exhausted by the unrelenting cold and perception of unremitting horror. I drove the entire way back to Prague and boarded a plane.
Several days later, while editing my photos, I was feeling less than happy with my work. With the images arranged in light table format, the idea came to me, as it had a year earlier, in Bergen Belsen, to layer my images together to illustrate the conversation that I perceived between Terezîn and Auschwitz. I believe it is a conversation that continues to this day. It is one of searching, one of fear, and one of sadness, but ultimately one that illustrates the power of beauty/love to overcome darkness and evil.
I found beauty among the loss and devastation. Not a soft, enveloping gorgeous beauty, but a fierce, insistent, undeniable voice that contains truth and spirit and humanity. This is beautiful to me. But this beauty arose from suffering. It also arose from my own torment and incomprehension. But in the moments when I was working, I was comforted and able to inhabit a different energy. Must we suffer to experience beauty? No. But we must be aware that beauty can offer a light to dispel the darkness, if only for a brief time.

"Loss and Beauty is a literary work of photography based on Holocaust survivor's diaries. But it is also a uniquely involving visual experience, one that uses masterfully merged photographs to draw one in, establish and hold a mood and ultimately tell a story. Importantly, the work also asks each viewer a searching and timeless question: Can profound loss by addressed by beauty? Keron Psillas' answer, in her deeply realized book and exhibit, is yes."
- Sam Abell