Susan Silas
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Maps

(see maps)

We watched a lot of television growing up and it left me with an extreme distaste; I don't watch it at all as an adult. This is odd in a way, as television afforded one of the great pleasures of my childhood. King Kong was on nearly every Saturday morning, and Superman was syndicated and on every afternoon after school. I remember some of the line up and most of the songs that introduced our favorite programs. Over the years some shows were discontinued and a new ones were produced; The Munsters arrived on the scene a bit late in the chronology, first airing in 1964.

When I was in graduate school someone pointed out to me that The Munsters was a trope for the uncouth Jewish family that moves into a gentile neighborhood. That I had not arrived at this observation on my own was an embarrassment because I had watched the show a million times and it was so obviously true. Every time we laughed at Herman and Lilly we were laughing at ourselves. And this caused me to reexamine something I remember vividly from childhood. When falling asleep, I was always frightened by the shapes I perceived in open drawers but especially those in the closet, if the door was left ajar. It was always Frankenstein that I imagined lurking in there awaiting the right moment to spring out and pounce on me. There is no rational answer as to why he wouldn't have just opened the door himself and stepped into the bedroom, but as long as I remembered to close the closet door, all thoughts of him were held in abeyance. I also know that from a very young age I was aware of what Julian Barnes, in his book Nothing to Be Frightened of: Travels and Travails with "Le Reveil Mortel," describes as "the wakeup call to mortality". I don't recall being awakened to it, it was as if I had been born with it, and it seems to me that many children of Holocaust survivors were also born with it because it was a pre-condition of existence—the threat of death for being who and what you are. That some malformed Jew, someone who might have been the product of a medical experiment conducted by Joseph Mengele, inhabited my closet for much of my early childhood to remind me that death was always at the ready, is hardly surprising looking back at it now.

And this informs the way in which I understand myself to be a Jew. It has nothing to do with the formal practice of religion, something my parents abandoned after the war, in part to "protect" their children from anti-Semitism. It has become commonplace to ridicule the way in which American Jews now define themselves in relation to the Holocaust and in relation to Israel, a place where many American Jews have never set foot. All the same, there is something to this. In the 60's there wasn't the conscious drumbeat of Holocaust remembrance that exists now. But my consciousness was formed in the shadow of an unspeakable event that was always present in my home. It was the near opposite of entitlement, unless we consider death to be an entitlement.

I knew that during the Second World War my father, who was a third year medical student, had been rounded up and conscripted into forced labor and had been marched from the Don River Bend in Russia back to Hungary. During the march he was bayonetted in the back by a guard for making another prisoner laugh. He survived because a close friend refused to allow him to stay seated when the periods of rest were over and essentially dragged him back to Hungary. Once back in Budapest he was shipped off to a copper mine in Yugoslavia. It was in Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners, that I first encountered a map of the route from Helmbrechts to Prachatice that the women from the Helmbrechts labor camp were forced to march along. It was a small map with the names of the two towns in bold face type and a dotted line to delineate the route between the two. I am not sure if my father's history influenced my reaction to that little map in the Goldhagen book, but I kept coming back to it.

In Primo Levi's book Survival in Auschwitz, he describes the camp being emptied out at the end of the war, as all of the prisoners fit to walk were forced out onto the road. He was left behind in the infirmary and his friend, with whom he'd spent his entire time in Auschwitz together, was marched out and never seen again. There were so many forced marches at the end of the war that one can imagine a birds-eye view of the landscape in which roads are clogged with half-dead prisoners who are being kept from the liberating armies until the inevitable last minute and during which time countless among them died.

My project, Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003, is the documentation of an artwork. I think of the actual artwork as my physical presence in the landscape that the women from Helmbrechts were forced to march through. And it is perhaps in this way, by the act of choosing to stand where they stood, and memorialize them with my physical being, that I see myself as a Jew. How I came to the decision to actually walk this 225 mile route is hard to remember.

Once I had decided, one of the most important tasks was to establish exactly where these women had been forced to walk. I knew the Goldhagen book and Daniel Goldhagen was then at Harvard. I called him and told him what I was planning to do and he agreed to give me some materials he thought would be helpful to me. A survivor of the march had contacted him at some point and given him a copy of a videotape in which she and her husband had driven a good portion of the route and he gave me that videotape. He also had a copy of the trial transcript of Alois Dörr, the commandant of the march. The transcript described what transpired on each of the 22 days en route in surprising detail, especially as the trial was not conducted until the mid-sixties. It may have been a product of the rash of trials that took place in the Federal Republic in response to Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

To my dismay, the trial transcript was in German. A friend, Alfonso Rutigliano, who is fluent in German, agreed to read the day to day part of the testimony into a tape recorder in English—basically translating as he went along. That tape became invaluable. I also requested information from the National Archives. With the information I gathered from the transcript it became possible to layout the march route on a map.

When I first began to contemplate this project I hadn't realized that only two of the twenty-two days I would spend walking would be in present-day Germany. The rest of my route lay in the Czech Republic. The map of this part of Europe underwent several radical changes between 1919 and 1945. In 1938, a large percentage of the population in Eastern Czechoslovakia were ethnic Germans and Hitler decided to occupy that portion of the country; the Sudetenland. The towns in that region had Czech names and after the occupation the towns were renamed and all carried German names. When the war ended and the Sudetenland was restored to (what became the Czech Republic) Czechoslovakia all the German town names were changed back to Czech names. In order to accurately establish where these women had been marched I needed to have maps from both periods of time, maps from the period of German occupation and the revised maps made immediately after the war was over. In the The New York Public Library, I discovered the Map Room. There I was able to find maps from both periods and to begin the task of cross-referencing town names. One is allowed to xerox these maps. I had two and they were large and cumbersome. I had to xerox them in small sections and scotch-tape the numerous pieces of paper together afterward. I rolled them up and took them with me to Helmbrechts and each night I unscrolled them to chart out where I would walk the coming day. When I crossed the border in Asch from Germany into the Czech Republic I also purchased a current road map of the country. I looked at these maps on the road many times during the course of the day and all three are creased and worn soft to the touch.

When I first arrived in Helmbrechts I was introduced to Klaus Rauh. He is a geologist who had written a research paper on the camp at Helmbrechts when he was a student. He provided me with two additional maps. One was a map of the work camp and the other was a map of the march route. The map of the march route he gave me is the one I reproduced in the work next to my self-portrait and it is the one in which the line of the march route is in thick red marker and on which the deaths of the women marchers is indicated by thick black dots.



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©2012 by Susan Silas