Families Gone to Ash: the survivors of the Terezin concentration camp are given a voice by American photographer Dennis Darling
Above Andula Lorencova, b.1927, Photographed in her apartment holding her original yellow star, Prague, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges frequently explored the concept that with every death, something unique dies. What each person has experienced in this world leaves with him or her, never to be duplicated in quite the same manner by another. Imagine, Borges asks, what it would have been like to be the last man to have actually seen the face of Christ? That person took to the grave an experience shared by no other. ‘This state of becoming the last living member of a group, or at the least, the last few of a particular category, touches an emotion within many of us,’ writes American photographer Dennis Darling. ‘We bestow a certain kind of reverence on the last of a line — that single thread that binds the past to the present, that tangible link of human history that will soon vanish leaving no flesh and blood reminder of what came before. In many cases, the honour and interest generated toward a survivor is not bestowed upon the recipient for any significant achievement in life, but simply from the fact that the person has survived longer than any of their peers.’
‘The ranks of the generation that lived through the horrors of World War II are rapidly thinning. Within the next few years, all the people who have experienced the wars seminal events will be gone. Living memory will cease to exist,’ says Darling, who has recently become involved in visually documenting U.S. combat veterans who fought in that conflict and recording their oral histories. But there is much smaller group of survivors from that same period. In 2009, he visited Terezin Concentration Camp — located in what is now the Czech Republic, and opened by the brutal German Gestapo — it would mark the beginning of an ongoing self-assigned project to document the survivors of the Holocaust. Earlier this year Darling travelled to London, where he produced a wonderfully warm and sensitive portrait of 108 year old Alice Sommer, not only the oldest living survivor of Terezin, but the oldest Holocaust survivor in the world; and photographed amongst others Jacky Young (Jona Jakob Spiegel), who at just three-and-a-half weeks half of age (some records suggest he was three-and-a-half months old) was perhaps the youngest person sent to the camp, where an estimated 33,000 inmates died as a result of hunger, sickness and the sadistic regime of their captors, and from where many others were transported to other camps, such as Auschwitz where they to would die.
Above Toman Brod, b.1929, Photographed in a WWII vintage rail building located in Bubny Rail Yards from where he was deported, Prague, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
‘There are lessons to be learned from these people and compelling reasons to document as much as possible before the last living memory becomes irretrievable,’ says Darling, who during the summer break from his teaching post as course director of the photojournalism program at the University of Texas, Austin — where he has taught since 1981 — returned to the Czech Republic to further his project with a series of striking environmental portraits, that record living history about to vanish, which he says ‘has shaped much of my career as a photographer and has fuelled a life-long interest in history.’ Continuing to work in black and white as he has done for the earlier chapters of this emotionally powerful series, he utilises a panoramic format in these new environmental portraits, depicting those survivors of the Holocaust either in their own homes, or in poignant locations.
‘While in Prague my ideas about how to photograph the subjects evolved after the first few sittings,’ says Darling. ‘I decide that since I was there I should try to tell more of their story in a single photograph by asking them to return to a site of significance to their personal history.’ In these new portraits, which differ from the earlier portraits of Sommer and Young, which are characterised by a tighter composition, Darling takes a step back to record his subjects within a space of critical importance to their story, and in doing so he expands the narrative of his photographic document. ‘I feel that making panoramic portraits not only expands the storytelling qualities of the image but also they record historically locations that are rapidly vanishing because of urban renewal or simple neglect,’ he remarks. ‘Writer Lance Marrow comes closest to what I had in mind when he wrote once in an essay that, “photography puts marrow back into the old bones of history.” That is what I was attempting to do with the wide angle location shots — “a photographic marrow operation” of sorts.’
Above Irena Lustigova Ravelova, Photographed in the Hanover Barracks, Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech republic, April 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
In Darling’s passionate and engaging document, we are introduced to various people who have lived through the unimaginable, and whilst they are connected through the shared experience of the Holocaust, each has a different and unique story to tell. ‘In November of 1941, at the age of 19, Felix Kolmer had the dubious distinction of being sent on the first prisoner transport, Aufbaukommando, “AK I,” to Terezin,’ writes the photographer. ‘He was one of a vanguard of 342 young men between the ages of 19 and 22 who were sent to prepare the 18th century military outpost that was Terezin for the more than 130,000 Jews that would eventually follow. Kolmer worked as a carpenter building stacks of bunks and creating improvised barracks,’ that would house 70,000 inmates at any one time, in a space that had never held more than 7,000 residents before.
For Toman Brod, who was born in 1929, it is a vintage World War II rail building located close to Prague’s Bubny Railway Station that formed a significant marker in his story. It was from here that he was ‘processed’ and ‘then herded into the nearby trains for the two and one-half hour trip north to Terezin.’ A year later he and his family would be ‘deported’ to the ‘Family Camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he would be one of 89 boys selected from amongst hundreds, by Josef Mengele — the notorious Angel of Death — to work along side adults as slave labourers. ‘The rest of the family camp’s residents, including Brod’s immediate family, would perish in the Auschwitz gas chambers,’ writes Darling. Brod would be deported once more before the end of the war, this time to the equally notorious Gross-Rosen camp, where in 1945 he would be liberated by the Russian Red Army, and become one of the lucky few, as only 45 of the original 89 ‘Birkenau Boys,’ would survive their ordeal.
Above Helga Weiss, Photographed at the Liben Synagogue, Prague, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
The father of Andula Lorencova — who is photographed in her Prague apartment holding her original yellow star, inscribed with the German word ‘Jude,’ that has become a symbol of Nazi persecution — had realised ‘that Europe’s future was too laden with danger for he and his family and travelled to China to establish his medical practice in Shanghai. But whilst he was trying to obtain the correct approval and paperwork to allow his family to join him from the Chinese authorities, Lorencova along with her brother and mother were deported to Terezin. She would spend her interment working for the German war machine cutting mica in the camps machine shops, whilst her mother worked in the kitchens. ‘Unable to return to Europe, her father practiced medicine in the Far East until 1945 when the family was reunited in Prague.’
Michaela Lauscherova Vidlakova, is depicted amongst the graves of Prague’s Jewish Cemetery holding a small wooden toy, that would be instrumental in saving her family from almost certain death in the camp. During the last week of December 1942, Vidlakova and her family reported for deportation to Terezin. For her father, ‘It would be a surreal homecoming,’ as nearly three decades before he had been born in Terezin, the son of a local mill worker, and now he and his family where prisoners in his hometown. Amongst the small bag of possessions that six-year-old Vidlakova carried with her, was a single toy — a small mechanical wooden dog nicknamed ‘Pluto’ that her father had made for her.
Above Michaela Lauscherova Vidlakova, b.1936, Photographed at the Jewish Cemetery holding the toy that saved her family’s life, Prague, Czech Republic, July 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
‘Upon arrival at the concentration camp deportees were interviewed and then appraised for their value to the Nazi war effort,’ says Darling. ‘Those with skills, especially those that could contribute to the maintenance of the camp, were considered an asset. The old, sick, and weak were burdens not to be tolerated. Those elderly and infirm that survived the initial depravities of the camp would eventually be shipped East for extermination.’ Whilst the young and fit — especially if they had carpentry skills — were in ‘demand at the camp because barracks needed to be built and maintained for the tens of thousands of inmates that would eventually he billeted within the five square block former military town.
Vidlakova’s father, had these valuable skills, and had recently made his young daughter the small wooden toy to amuse herself. ‘Jewish children were not allowed to play with non-Jewish children and thus confined by Nazi edict only to play within the confines of the Jewish cemeteries. The wooden dog was created to give her a playmate.’ Pressed by the Nazi overseers about his wood working ability, her father reached into her bag and retrieved the wood and string mechanical toy named after the Disney cartoon character. Darling says, ‘He then proceeded to put the dog through its paces for his inquisitor– making Pluto sit, nod its head, wag its tail and lay down. He was allowed to joined the camp carpentry staff and credited his piece of wooden whimsy for allowing him the opportunity to keep family together at Terezin where they all survived the war.’
Above Doris Grozdanovicova, b.1926, Photographed in front of the former military hospital where her mother died, Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
In January 1942, Doris Grozdanovicova, along with her immediate family and that of her uncle, reported to Bruno railway station, along with over one thousand other Jews from Czechoslovakia’s second largest town for transportation north. Packed onto a train, Grozdanovicova, then 16-years-old, her brother who was three years older and parents, would make the terrifying journey towards Terezin. On their arrival at Bohusovice,the nearest station to Terezin, the family would be made to walk in bitterly cold temperatures the mile-and-a-half to the camp. ‘Along the road Doris experienced the sight of her first Holocaust victim — a corpse frozen in place where it had collapsed, a paper identification tag attached to one toe,’ says Darling. Meanwhile, Grozdanovicova’s uncle and his family had been ‘unexpectedly’ detained on the train. ‘No one in the family could have guessed that the next stop for that family branch would be an execution ground in Poland where they would be shot dead.’
On arrival at the camp the family was immediately separated; her brother and father were sent to one barracks, her mother to another, and Grozdanovicova to the ‘Czech Girls’ Home.’ Her mother quickly succumbed to the hardship of life and ‘the wave of infectious diseases that were easily transferred in the barracks’ close quarters.’ An operation performed at the overcrowded, ill equipped, and understaffed hospital failed to stop the infection and she died shortly thereafter.’ It is in front of this hospital, that Darling photographs Grozdanovicova, a place that she has not visited since the day her mother died, 70 years ago. Later, the young girl would be left alone in Terezin, as her brother and father would be transferred to Auschwitz, were her father too would die. But her brother would somehow beat the odds and survive.
Above Anne Hyndrakova, Photographed at the Bubny rail yards, Prague, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
Like Grozdanovicova, many of those that Darling depicts in this significant and emotionally powerful series of sensitive portraits, have agreed to be photographed in places that they have not visited or returned too, since those dark days of the 1940s, and which hold such dark memories and sadness. Eva Smolkova was photographed at the former Bata Shoe Store in Liben — a suburb of Prague — where she had once been questioned about her possible involvement in the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführe Reinhard Heydrick in Prague on 27 May 1942, which was carried out by British-trained Czech and Slovak forces, in an operation codenamed Anthropoid. Personally appointed by Adolf Hitler, Heydrick is widely considered by historians as one of the darkest members of the Nazi regime, and a primary architect of the Holocaust. Such was the anger of the Nazi regime following his assassination, that the village of Lidice, a farm community on the outskirts of Prague — from which the Nazi’s suspected the assassins originated from — was razed to the ground and the entire adult male population executed, whilst all but a small handful of women and children where deported to concentration camps, were many would latter perish.
‘Less than a year after appearing in the Heydrich line up, Eva and her family were rounded up and deported to Terezin. Her father was soon sent on to Schwarzheide where he perished Christmas Day a year later,’ says Darling. ‘Eva and her mother were deported to Auschwitz and from there to Hamburg. They worked in the Neugamme Camp’s various sub camp factories. Her mother died in early 1945 before the war’s end. Eva, ravaged by TBC, typhus and jaundice, was finally liberated from Beren Belsen. After being sent by the Red Cross to Sweden to recover, she returned to Prague to be reunited with her grandmother and an aunt – the only other family members to survive the Holocaust.’
Above Hanna Zentnerova Travova, b. 1925, Photographed in the Old Ridding School where she worked as a woodworker, Terezin Ghetto, Terezin, Czech Republic, July 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
Alongside an all male staff, teenaged Hanna Zentnerova Travova worked the nightshift in Terezin’s carpentry shop, a converted riding school, where she is photographed by Darling. Here she was assigned to construct hundreds of coffins; but her mother worked in a far more dangerous environment. ‘She had discovered that if she would volunteer for the typhus ward of the hospital, she would have a greater chance of keeping her family together and not being placed on a transport,’ says Darling, and for a time this proved to be true. ‘However, in 1944 Hanna’s entire family was sent to their death in Auschwitz. A capricious fate made Hanna an orphan who would live out the war making coffins in Terezin.’
‘From the vantage point of his fourth floor apartment bordering the Bubny rail yards, nine year-old Tommy Karas [originally Katz] regularly watch hundreds of Jews being loaded into rail cars wagons parked on the web of tracks beneath his window,‘ writes Darling. ‘He was destined to join them two days before the Christmas of 1942.’ While at Terezin, Karas, who is photographed looking towards his former apartment building, became interested in children’s theatre and sang in a number of performances, including his role playing the ‘schoolboy’ in the children’s opera, Brundibar. Karas still has a photograph taken at the time that depicts the young cast, and which today hangs in the study of his home surrounded by faded black and white images of relatives portrayed in happier times before they were executed at Auschwitz. ‘Center stage are the play’s principal characters — the Dog, the Cat and the opera’s namesake, the black-moustached evil organ grinder Brundibar (meant to represent Hitler),’ says Darling. ‘Just to the right of the villain, peaking out from behind the star, is the face of the diminutive Karas.’ Many of the cast and other performers would be transported to the gas chambers ‘before they had the opportunity to perform again.’ And whilst fate would allow Karas and his mother to survive the war, the remainder of his immediate family would perish in the ovens of Auschwitz.
Above Eva Smolkova, at the former Bata Shoe Store where she had been questioned about her possible connection to the Reinhard Heydrick assassination, Liben Neighborhood, Prague, Czech Republic. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
Lamenting the fact, ‘that after 65 years, the last living survivors of the Holocaust are disappearing one by one,’ the author and Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar, ‘points out that at best, only the impersonal voice of a researcher will soon be left to tell the Holocaust story. At worst, he warns, it will be told in the “malevolent register of revisionists and falsifiers.” He cautions that this process has already begun. “This is why those of us who survived have a duty to transmit to mankind the memory of what we endured in body and soul, to tell our children that the fanaticism and violence that nearly destroyed our universe have the power to enflame theirs, too.”
For Darling, the most important and timely part of this impressive project is making portraits and recording the oral history of the small group of Terezin survivors who are still alive. ‘Most are in their 80’s and 90’s. Many child prisoners lost one or more family members to the ovens of Auschwitz,’ he writes. ‘What do they now have to tell us now that they have had a lifetime to reflect on their childhood spent at Terezin? How did those experiences shape their lives? What do these people look like?
Above Tommy Karas, b. 1932, (originally Katz), Photographed as he looked towards his former apartment building, Bubny Rail Yards, Prague, Czech Republic, June 2012. (©Dennis Darling/Courtesy of the photographer).
In this series of compelling and emotionally complex environmental portraits — of those who have experienced the unimaginable — and the oral histories that he records, Darling has produced a highly significant and poignant social document, that goes a long way in answering not only his own questions, but so many questions raised by the world as a whole. And he addresses the core issue raised by Pisar, and facilitates the transmission to ‘mankind the memory’ of what was endured by this now small and dwindling group of people, as they enter the twilight of life’s journey.
Dennis Darling is keen to make contact with Terezin holocaust survivors in the United Kingdom and United States, who would be interested in participating in his important ongoing body of work. If you are a survivor of the Terezin camp you can contact Dennis directly here.
Families Gone to Ash will be exhibited as part of Terezin: Creativity in the Face of Death at The University of Texas at Austin, 3 October 2012 to 1 January 2013.