Icy Forest - A country road between Litomerice and Terezîn is overlaid on an image of the Small Fortress at Terezin. Arriving in late November of 2011, I was greeted by ice and hoarfrost on every surface. It reminded me of the endless miles of walking to and from work by many of the prisoners of Terezin. This daily trek turned into a death march for many. The cold took its own toll along with starvation and beatings for those who couldn't keep up. The ice, the trees and finally, a quiet, remain. The promise of "work will make you free" is now synonymous with the hate filled deceit and propaganda of the Nazis. Death was the singular path to freedom for the vast majority of European Jewry as well as prisoners of conscience and resistance.
Columbarium and Auschwitz - The Columbarium at Terezîn is overlaid on an image of the main gate at Auschwitz. The 'final resting place' for the ashes of 33,000 inhabitants of Terezîn was another cruel hoax for the families of the victims, just as the sign above the gate was an empty promise that "work will make you free". Each was a place of death, of no return. Each was a journey into darkness and deception.
Buhosovice and Auschwitz - The right side of this image is from Buhosovice, near Terezîn, while the left side is from Auschwitz. The image is a metaphor for journeys, for arrivals and departures, for the unrelenting fear that pervaded the consciousness of all the prisoners of Terezîn: transport.
Countryside - A glimpse of the countryside was a common dream for many of the children, and certainly their parents, in Terezin. Diaries speak of longing for their villages or trips to visit cherished aunts, uncles and grandparents in the countryside. They missed the freedom to roam in the country with their friends. This pastoral view of hoarfrost covered trees outside of Terezîn is overlaid on the interior of one of the women's cells in the Small Fortress. The pervasive cold and isolation from family and friends are common threads in the histories and autobiographical accounts of survivors and victims alike.
Laundry - Laundry hanging from the ceiling in an attic dwelling in Terezin is overlaid on an image of the women's changing room in the Gestapo offices and prison (Block 11) within Auschwitz. Women were required to remove their uniform, fold it neatly on the stool, and walk naked into a courtyard to be murdered; shot in front of the killing wall. One captivity was exchanged for another, with death the only release.
Window - An image of a window and bunks in the Death House at Birkenau is overlaid by an image of a home from the Jewish Quarter in Prague. The Death House was in the women’s camp and even with all the horrific treatment that had been endured, the thought of going to the Death House drove many women to feats of heroism in defiance and avoidance. Being sent to the Death House often resulted in a break with reality. How disparate could experience be? Life in elegant surroundings created by a cultured community ending in death in the basest, harshest of surroundings. Both are images of a reality constructed by humans.
Orchard - An orchard near Litomerice with children’s names overlaid. I was deeply affected by the memories recalled by the child survivors of Terezîn of an all-night roll call in a place called The Hollow. It was a low, marshy place, a sort of natural bowl in the landscape just outside Terezin. The feeling or isolation and desolation was present in this orchard for me and I thought immediately of the night in the Hollow. Seeing the discarded piece of red clothing sealed my belief in the similarity of the two places. People were left to die in the cold that night while their friends and families stood beside them without any possibility to comfort or care for them. And yet, they live still; among us in every breath we take, in the fog that envelops us and the icy mist that numbs us, as it did over seventy years ago.
Barbwire / Balustrade - The barbwire and buildings of Auschwitz overlaid by an elegant home in Prague in the Jewish Quarter. The fineness in the balustrade that enhanced the facade of this home creates a stark contrast when seen with the barbwire and inelegant, blocky buildings of Auschwitz.
Zitenice Orchard - This image of an orchard near Zitenice is overlaid on an iconic view of Birkenau. What was Birkenau, or for that matter any of the hundreds of other camps, before it became a place of suffering, of murder? Farm land, marshes, orchards, forests? All were leveled to make a place for death. And what of the unnamed places? What of the unmarked graves? Are the roots of trees seeking nourishment in this bitter land? Or have the graves been paved over to make room for homes and expanding towns?
Music / Silence - On the River Ohre, just outside of Terezîn, is a quiet spot along a non-descript waterway. It’s called The Place of Piety. Here, the remains of 33,000 souls that perished in Terezîn were dumped unceremoniously and surreptitiously into the river. Women and children were detailed from Terezin to perform this odious task. Immediately after it was completed, they were all sent to Auschwitz to be murdered. It’s likely they passed a playing orchestra on their way into the camp. It played in this spot alongside the building in the background. The rhythm of the trees in the breeze and the gently rippling current seemed to be the essence of music. Laid on a silent image of a now silent place, the strains of the small orchestra rise up in echoes.
Christ / Latrine - I come from a Protestant tradition. As such, and as a believer in a Higher Being, I continue to struggle to understand the idea of God in a place of such evil. This photograph of a crucified Christ, taken near Terezin at a crossroads in the surrounding farmland, is overlaid on an image of a latrine. Why? To state the question as strongly and starkly as possible: Where is God in the midst of unrelenting horror? It’s a question each of us must answer if we spend any time at all in thoughtful inquiry of The Holocaust.
Pinchow - A road near Pinchow in Poland is overlaid with an image of Auschwitz I. Very soon after the invasion, many Poles were sent to Auschwitz in an effort to destroy the societal fabric of Poland. Professors, government officials, composers, leaders of communities (those lucky enough to be living still) were sent to what was then a labor camp. This would soon change.
Resistance - Resistance fighters lived in the forests of Poland, always with the specter of the camps in mind. The very few who were able to escape from the camps faced long walks at night to try to find the resistance groups. Some were successful while most were found and murdered by the Nazis. The Nazis were zealous about finding escapees because they didn’t want the world at large to know the truth of the camps.
Mala Strana - The image of part of the vast extermination camp at Birkenau is overlaid on an image of the hill and dwellings above the Mala Strana (lesser town) in Prague, home to many government officials as well as writers, composers, and artists…in the end, victims of the Holocaust.
Tree and Tracks - The tree has long been a metaphor for life. It's roots depict our ancestors and its branches our children and their children. Its strength and spread depend on fertile ground and life-giving water. The rail tracks invoke journeys. Journeys to and journeys from. Victims arrived in Terezin from villages, towns, and cities all across Europe. They departed Terezîn in the dreaded transports, mainly for Auschwitz and Birkenau. Though the majority of European Jewry perished in the Holocaust, along with Roma and Sinti peoples, and prisoners of conscience and resistance, the tree of life persists. This grand specimen was photographed near Terezin and overlaid on an image of the last 100 meters of rail track to survive from the spur that was built from Buhosovice to bring the victims to Terezîn and take them to their last destination in Auschwitz or Birkenau.
Synagogue/Prayer Room - The interior of the restored Spanish Synagogue in Prague is overlaid on an image of a ruined synagogue north of Cracow, Poland. The Nazis aimed to destroy the very fabric of Jewish community, but the knowledge of the impor- tance of faith, values, and tradition has survived the murderous intent. Today the Spanish Synagogue within Prague’s Jewish community of 5,000 people, exists for us today to feel the strength of will and humanity that pervades the space. The richly decorated interior speaks to the robust nature of faith and community that has survived. The illumination reminds us that only light dispels darkness.
After Departure, Terezîn - An image from an attic dwelling in Terezîn is overlaid by an image from Birkenau. The specter of the Tower is always there, a metaphor for the ever-present dread of the Transport. The tree is mournful, the light is delicate. The spirit was sorrowful, life was fragile. And then, silence.
Front Doors - A home in Dzialoszyce, Poland, is joined to the ‘Death House’ barracks at Birkenau. The barracks were hastily made, at times using materials from nearby villages for the doors and windows. It was not unusual for prisoners from Poland to recognize their own front or interior doors.
Birkenau/Bohemian Countryside - In many of the diaries, biographies and surviving letters, victims and survivors of the Holocaust speak lovingly of home. This image of the countryside in Bohemia is laid upon an image of a single bunk in Birkenau, ‘home' to six women from Barracks 25, the Death House. Home and hearth were so far away and never to be seen again by most.
Cattle Car/Countryside - Much of the rail track that transported victims to the camps is overgrown or destroyed. This image of track and an original train car is overlaid on the Czech Countryside in Bohemia. Nature reclaims, slowly, what has been created by humans. The question that remains is if we will be able to reclaim our humanity after creating such unfathomable horror.
Gestapo office/Auschwitz - A photograph of the commandant’s office in the Small Fortress at Terezîn is overlaid by an image of the gallows and original gas chamber at Auschwitz. Rudolph Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, was hanged there, in front of the first place where victims were murdered by gas. It makes me think about the thousands of decisions undertaken daily, by individuals, to set in motion the killing on such a vast scale. Forms and telegrams, orders and checklists…all stuff of normal office life. And yet, unimaginably different.
Countryside/Shtetl - A rural road in the Czech Republic is overlaid on an image of a prosperous family’s home in Dzialoszyce, Poland. Dwellers in this home often faced forced marches on rural roads to their deaths by shooting in a woods or cemetery. The pitifully few lucky survivors of the camps faced forced “death marches” ahead of advancing Allied troops in the wintry early months of 1945.
Bedroom/Mala Strana - An attic dwelling in Terezîn is combined with an image from the Mala Strana in Prague. Life in the sunlit streets of Prague was very different from the cramped, restricted existence in Terezîn. The baroque splendor of the Mala Strana contrasts strongly with the spare, somber aerie in the corner of an attic above a workshop. After transport, the luxury of this tiny attic would be a vague memory, merciful for being so. Year by year and step by step the time passes and recol- lections grow dim. And yet there are memories that can sustain us through times of adversity. The Girls of Room 28 spoke often about the streets of their neighborhoods and meeting friends to walk to school or play after school. They even promised one another to meet beneath the big clock in Old Town Square on a Sunday when the war was over.
Discarded - A cell block in the Small Fortress here combines with an image of gravestones from a destroyed cemetery in Poland. The Small Fortress held enemies of the state: Jews, Christians, resisters, politicians... anyone that was not fully aligned with the Nazi agenda in Czechoslovakia. The discarded icy stones serve as metaphors for the isolation and hardship imposed on so many in this cruel place. Slowly, the scattered stones from fields, foundations, patios, and myriad other uses, are being returned to places of reverence.
Benediction - Stars and arcs create a rainbow over a guard tower and barracks at Auschwitz. An image from the secret prayer room in Terezîn bestows a consecration of sorts over the horrific camp.
Barriers - A window, rain-covered and foreboding despite the delicate curtains, is matched with an image of the ubiquitous barb wire from the camps. Barriers, closed doors and windows, malice and menace were everywhere. Long lines of victims making their way to and from transports were greeted by this and more. But most disturbing was feeling apart from a normal existence in a home much like this, with lace curtains drawn for privacy and warmth on a rainy day.
"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." X
- Sam Abell