Artist Daniel Blaufuks’ work focuses on the area of Theresienstadt, or Terezín, in the Czech Republic, a fortified town sixty kilometres to the north of Prague. At the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the Germans chose Theresienstadt as a “Model Ghetto” for Jews over 65 years old, Jewish veterans from the First World War and known Jewish personalities. The Nazis declared the camp a “ghetto under Jewish authority”, appointing a council of elders with a chairman, but under the authority of the SS. Theresienstadt boasted a functioning library, police force, fire brigade and other civic services, yet in reality the camp was another staging post on the way to Auschwitz or Birkenau.
BB: What first drew you to Terezín to make this work?
DB: I went to Terezín, formerly Theresienstadt, because of an image I had seen long before in a book by the German author W.G. Sebald. I had never been in a concentration camp before, nor have I been since: the photograph was the reason.
BB: What was so intriguing about the photograph?
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DB: I was fascinated by this image, which in the book appeared in black and white and was badly printed, at least in the edition that I had, a German or Portuguese edition from that time. There’s a part of Sebald’s narrative that is set around Theresienstadt, but he never makes it explicit whether the photograph is from there or not. I was left with this doubt: was the photograph taken inside the camp? Was it taken by Sebald himself? Only recently I learned that it is by the late German photographer Dirk Reinartz.
I had thought of using that photograph as a metaphor for my work, but then time went by. Later, through a series of other coincidences, I found some diaries and I imagined that the author had passed through this camp, and so I started looking at this picture again. I ended up deciding to visit Theresienstadt, and discovered the place where the photograph had been taken then took my own picture of it. At that time, just like when I saw the picture for the first time, everything seemed to me to be staged, it was a space that looked like a setting for a play. There was this empty working table, these stacks of paper on the shelves, the clock with symmetrical hands at six.
BB: Did you start to engage with the place on another level when you visited? Did the melancholy in the history of the place change the way you understood the Sebald image?
DB: Well, it is difficult to say. I think I inherited a very strong sense of melancholy from my own family history to start with, unfortunately not as beautiful as the one in the books of Sebald. I guess that is one of the reasons why I felt so strongly connected to his writing from the start. But to be in a place like Theresienstadt is another thing altogether. It is a landscape of hidden memories. And to see the actual place where the original image was taken and make my own photograph of it compelled me to search further.
BB: The work is a strange mix of archival images, photographs of found objects and your own photographs – there is a complexity and a texture there. Is this your usual way of working or a response to the complexity of the subject matter?
DB: Both. I have used this kind of approach before, but here I think I went a bit further. I also wanted to create a kind of narrative in the book, that you can only barely sense when you see the single images. I did however feel that I needed to stretch my boundaries, to justify somehow the use of such subject matter. I mean, the people were forced to be in that camp, and now I was forcing them to be in my work.
BB: Like the Sebald image you have described, each of the different elements which make up the work – the pages of the diaries, the found images, and the photographs you have taken at Theresienstadt – has an enigmatic quality. They draw you in, demanding interpretation, like clues in need of deciphering, yet at the same time refuse any singular reading. Was this a quality you were consciously pursuing?
DB: Yes, that is exactly what I try to do in all of my work. I think a photograph needs multiple readings, a mystery within a secret, otherwise you can use words instead of images. And in this series I was also trying to achieve some of the atmosphere that one senses in all of the books by Sebald. Some sort of enigma that seems to be hovering over each page and each image. How much is true, how much is not?
BB: And yet, as the artist – the maker, or selector, of these fragments – you do possess some degree of knowledge regarding their origins and their relation to your subject, know that, as enigmatic as they might appear, they do hold the possibility of some sort of disclosure.
DB: As an artist, I can choose how much of my knowledge is transmitted directly to the reader and how much is left unsaid or just hinted at.
BB: So in the case of the diaries, the found images and the photographs you have made, what do you think is transmitted directly and what is hinted at?
DB: I hope and I think that the historical facts are transmitted and that the possible personal experiences, that derive from these facts, can be sensed. So the work is also about personal and public memory, how these are intertwined and yet so different to grasp.
BB: How did the relationships between these different aspects begin to present themselves to you? Was this an organic process?
DB: I went to Terezín because of the Sebald image. Then I started doing some research on the camp myself and I became more and more interested in the propaganda made there. I understood this was not only about the past, it was very much about the present and about the way we perceive images nowadays. I found a copy of what is left of a Nazi film, a “documentary” showing life inside the camp and presenting the people inside Terezín as a contented community, and I was amazed by it. It seems even the Red Cross was fooled. I also had the diaries in my possession, something so intimate, and yet so universal.
As in other projects before, I started the process by making book pages. In a book you need a thread, a line, something to follow. And that is how everything starts to come together and eventually make sense. The book is almost a diary of my research. At the same time, I started working with the film, slowing it down, which Sebald advises, and tinting it red. The colour made its way into the book as well. Or was it the other way around?
BB: It is interesting, listening to you talk about the project, that the thing you seem to mention least are the photographs you made yourself in Theresienstadt, these empty and melancholy spaces. I wondered what you see as their role within the larger project?
DB: I think that the photographs I made are links to the present, the spaces that were once filled are now empty, but how is it possible to feel and transmit all that they contain?
BB: So they become spaces for projection, filled, as it were, by the associations prompted by the archival material?
DB: In a way, yes. Also the photographs are traces, phantoms almost, of all that cannot be imagined. Take the one of my footsteps, for example. The dark part is the pit into which bodies were thrown. In a similar way you can look at the film, where we have these smiling people, yet what is shown as a family is not a family, as the families had been split up. We need to gather information through associations within the given materials. Like detectives, we need to learn to read images like puzzles, not to believe in their first layer, but to scratch the surface.
BB: It is an interesting point which, I think, bares upon other examples of recent photographic art. In the past few years a distinct trend has emerged, centred on the depiction of these sorts of sites, the sites of various atrocities, visited by artists weeks, years, decades after, and then photographed. It is as though by simply re-presenting these empty spaces they might offer some sort of critical engagement with the histories these spaces have witnessed. Yet to me, such work has always seemed to risk fetishising our ignorance regarding these stories, of sealing, or obscuring, the past behind what we might regard as the photograph’s imposition of a surface of the present.
I think what this raises is the issue of responsibility – the responsibility that you take on as an artist, particularly when dealing with this kind of weighty historical subject matter. I wondered how conscious you were of this, and how it may have affected your engagement with and understanding of Theresienstadt, both as a physical site and as the subject of your work?
DB: I agree with you about these risks and that is one of the reasons I had never photographed such a place before. And I do have problems with it as well. Saying this, I should add that I have been dealing with the memory of the Holocaust, of my own family, my own displacement and my German-Jewish heritage in various works in photography and video for some time now. All this is part of my consciousness and all these stories make me what I am. So here I decided to face the responsibility of working directly with such a place, a memory landscape, as I would call it.
I think that we also need to find new and different ways of dealing with this subject, now that the survivors are almost all gone, but I was primarily interested in Theresienstadt because of the make-believe reality that existed there – this is what drew me to it as a subject and this is what makes it different to other camps. The people there didn’t know what was happening around them, they didn’t know that there were extermination camps. They would volunteer to go East because they thought they were moving to other similar towns where there was more work. There are diaries in which the author is concerned with the bombing of German towns. They were hoping to be able to go back to these places, they thought that things would get better. So not only the outsiders were fooled, but also the people who lived there.
The fake documentary is still very convincing, even today with all we know. I recently discovered it has been posted on You Tube as “proof” that the concentration camps were nice places. So it seems there is still a need for this kind of work, that this is not only about the past or even about art. It is about finding ways of conveying information, of raising questions and of learning from the past. So, no, I don’t think it is enough to go to such a place and make beautiful photographs.
BB: I am particularly interested in the point you raise regarding the small number of survivors left today and the idea that, once they have gone, we may need to find new and different ways to deal with the subject. It strikes me that, for some people at least, while there are still living survivors of the Holocaust – and here I mean both victims and perpetrators – the past will continue to impact upon their sense of the present with an immediacy and urgency which at times seems to register as a very raw type of anger. So I wondered how you thought the next few years – what is potentially a crucial passage of time – might affect this, and what sort of new and different ways you think we might find to deal with the subject as a result?
DB: I don’t really know, but art and literature are, as we know, a way to deal with memory and history and to make it more comprehensive. But, of course, some events have been dealt with much more than others, which also has to do with how each culture reacts to history. We still don’t see works on many important subjects.
Personally, I feel more at ease working on something that affected my family history and that still affects me. But, as time goes by, it will become more history and less personal story.
Published in Photoworks Issue 11, 2008 edited by Gordon MacDonald
Commissioned by Photoworks