Susan Silas
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Helmbrechts walk - meditations

At the close of World War II, as the allies descended on Europe, the Germans began to evacuate and destroy the concentration camps they had built. Thousands upon thousands of prisoners were marched off on foot, often with no specific destination in mind. Commandants with vague marching orders dragged half-starved prisoners from their barracks. From a birds-eye view one imagines seeing the back roads of Eastern Europe clogged with huddling, ill dressed, half-dead men and women, barely distinguishable from one another and barely recognizable to themselves, moving en masse—retreating. One such march originated in the town of Helmbrechts, in southern Germany. The town was the site of a women's work camp; a satellite camp of a larger concentration camp called Flossenbürg in Upper Franconia.

On the 13th of April 1945, with the Allies roughly two days away nearly 600 women were forced out of the camp on foot, under armed guard. These women were denied adequate food and shelter and many of them, already struggling to survive, died along the way of starvation and disease. Others were randomly beaten and shot, their bodies left in the woods or by the side of the road. Twenty two days and 225 miles later they were abandoned by their guards outside the Czech town of Prachatice.

Twenty-four years later, in July 1969, the commandant in charge of this march, Alois Dörr, was brought to trial in the Federal Republic of Germany. The transcript of his indictment made it possible for me to reconstruct both day to day events and the precise route the marchers had taken. On 13 April 1998, I set out from the town of Helmbrechts on foot and retraced the route of this 22 day march. The suite of photographs and videotapes documenting this walk constitute a work. But in a larger sense, it was my physical presence in the landscape that was and is the work—my physical being inhabiting that space in real time.


The map room at the New York Public Library is an extraordinary place. Before I began research on this project I didn’t even know of its existence. Housed there are maps from every conceivable place and time. In order to retrace the steps of this march, I needed maps with the place names of the towns and villages as they had been called in 1945. I also needed maps made immediately after the war ended and I needed a set of contemporary maps.

When Germany annexed this part of Czechoslovakia, Germans occupied these small towns, forcing the Czech population out and all of the towns were given German names. When the war ended, the towns were reclaimed and their names were changed again, back to Czech names. Thus Zwodau becomes Svatava, Neustadtl becomes Straz, Wilkenau becomes Vlkanov, Taus becomes Domazlice, and so on.

Of the 225 mile march route, there was only one 9 kilometer stretch of road that I didn’t cover. It was just past the village of Desenice and I couldn’t find it on the contemporary map of the Czech Republic. The evening before, my assistant Rebecca and I had gone out to scout ahead by car and I was very excited to discover what appeared to be that road as indicated on my two war era maps. It was barely passable in the car: grass, dirt, narrow.

We’d gone several hundred yards down the road when a car pulled up behind us honking its horn—its two elderly passengers gesticulating wildly. They spoke some German and Rebecca was made to understand that the people living here considered this road to be private property. If we continued along we risked being shot.

After a great deal of thought about what to do and whether or not to believe these two rather peculiar old people, I concluded that it would be wiser to stop at the beginning of this small road and pick it up again at the other end outside Jeseni. This involved a 30 kilometer detour.

I think, in the end, the thing that convinced me to make this detour was the simple fact that the road was missing—didn’t exist at all—on the official map of the country. It was as though the government tacitly acknowledged that this piece roadway was in fact “privately” owned.


I arrived in the town of Helmbrechts on the 12th of April in 1998. It was raining. The town is situated in the German state of Bavaria, not far from Weimar, the birthplace of Goethe, and the Ettersberg, the birthplace of Buchenwald. During the war, there had been a satellite camp for women in the town, an offshoot of a larger concentration camp to the north called Flossenbürg. On April 13th, 1945, as the allies drew near, nearly 600 women prisoners were marched out of the camp at Helmbrechts. The town holds a commemoration of this departure every year on the 13th in the town cemetery in front of a plaque dedicated to the women prisoners. I don’t recall the plaque mentioning that these women were Jewish. Six or seven people gave speeches in German, all of which I taped and none of which I understood. Then an elderly woman stepped forward in a bright red jacket and accompanying herself on the accordion, sang Blowin’ in the Wind in German.

The site where the camp had been is now a housing development. I hadn’t expected that and so I drove up and down the street repeatedly, attempting to ascertain its location. I finally stopped in front of a house where people were standing in the driveway and asked. The man I encountered was somewhere between 60 and 70. He was handsome and well spoken. His command of English was impressive. He knew exactly where the camp had been. He had lived on this same road as a child. He pointed up the street toward the development houses and explained that during the war this road had been closed. It was not possible to drive past the camp. Even though the road was a major thoroughfare one had to drive around in the other direction to get into town. He was the one who told me about the town cemetery and the town tower, from which you can see in all directions for miles.

In the early afternoon, on the 12 of April in 1998, a small child was being christened in Helmbrechts at the church located in the center of town; a ritual to welcome this small new member into the community. I had come to the church to find out about the commemoration of the women prisoners that was to take place the next day in the town cemetery. I sat through the entire christening, an uninvited Jewish guest. I’d been in churches before, I’d even attended mass on Palm Sunday in St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a girlfriend as a child. But this felt different. A bit like trespassing. Perhaps it was just the act of watching the intimacies of a small town German family unbidden.

After the christening, I approached the priest. He spoke virtually no English. Through the priest I met two very sweet born again Christians, people whom I sadly realized, I would never have given the time of day to at home. Through them I met a man, Klaus Rauh, who had studied the march as a student. He's a geologist and lives in Helmbrechts. He was to prove extremely generous and helpful. As it happened, his mother had lived at the center of town during the war. Every morning she would raise her window and watch the women prisoners from the camp being marched to work. At the end of the day she saw them return from the other direction.

Although the camp site is now a housing development, the work site remains. It was Klaus who took me there. Klaus also taught me something by example, that was to prove indispensable during the trip. It was part of his precise German nature. He showed me the exact route the marchers had taken, two days in a row, before I set out on foot. From this I learned that I needed to scout in the car at the end of every day to ascertain exactly where I would walk on the next. Getting lost on foot is costly and time consuming and without Klaus I feel certain that I would have gone astray at some point. Klaus gave me a map. It consists of dark black lines on a white ground with a thicker red line showing the march route through Germany and into what is now the Czech Republic. Along the route there are dark black dots to indicate places where women are known to have died. Each dot is meant to represent one body.

On the first day, I set out early in the morning. I had a young student with me. She was to follow me in a car to insure my safety. Rebecca had pulled the car over to the side of the road to have a cigarette and to let me get well ahead of her. I explained to her that at the fork in the road I would go to the left. Somehow, by the time she had finished her cigarette she had forgotten this, and I had gone around the bend and vanished from sight. After walking for nearly half an hour I realized that the car should have appeared behind me long before. I had so far to walk that first day. I wasn’t keen to retrace my own steps and go back to the fork in the road. I continued to go ahead, stopping to stare down the road behind me every few minutes. Finally, some twenty minutes later the car appeared, escorted by another vehicle. I turned to see Rebecca step out of the car and speak for a time with the elderly man driving the other car. Then he drove off. Evidently, she had finished her smoke and driven straight ahead without coming across me along the roadway. Fearing that she was lost, she had stopped this elderly gentleman and explained to him what we were doing and where we were going. He offered to drive her to where he thought she might find me and in short order both cars were behind me on the road to Ahornberg. He was a farmer. His father had also farmed this land. When he was a child, at the end of the war, he had been out walking with his father and they had come across the dead bodies of several women from the camp. "As you come around the bend, by the underpass, that is the place." This is confirmed on the map by several black dots.


In the late 80’s a curator from the Guggenheim Museum in New York came to visit my studio. Because there were works in the studio about the reception of the Holocaust in film and literature we got into a more general conversation about Jewish identity. We talked for some time about the power structures in the various museums in New York City and about where in the museum hierarchy Jews were situated. A very candid, interesting and eye opening conversation. She was also Jewish and roughly my age and somehow we ended up talking about our sense of Jewishness as children and she asked me if any other religion had ever been attractive or tempting growing up. And it seems that both of us had thought briefly of converting to Catholicism around the ages of 9 and 10. Oddly, both of us had been prompted to this momentary Catholic fervor by the same Hollywood film—The Song of Bernadette. The film starred Jennifer Jones as the young peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous who sees or rather “is chosen by God” to see the vision of a “Beautiful Lady” in the town of Lourdes in 1858. So these two sweet middle class pre-pubescent Jewish girls were attracted to the romance of Catholicism by this Hollywood depiction of a young Catholic nuns’ suffering born in silence. After the opening credits to the film but before the action begins there are a few introductory captions, the last of which reads: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe in God, no explanation is possible.”

When I thought back over the years on that desire to convert to Catholicism I had always attributed that momentary lapse to having osmosed and identified with the misogyny of American mass culture. But after this meeting, I was no longer convinced that the catch-all of patriarchy was to blame, but rather some intuitive recognition of Jewish identity as suffering.

I bought a copy of the film and saw it again for the first time in nearly 40 years. It was originally released in 1943, 10 years before I was born and 6 years before my parents emigrated to America from Eastern Europe. I was astonished to hear the following words coming from the mouth of Vincent Price, of all people—so astonished that I rewound and listened at least half a dozen times more: “Good news, Monsieur Mayor, the holocaust will spread no more. I have found a way to stop it.” The word holocaust here referring to the mass pilgrimage on foot from all over the French countryside to the small and now overcrowded town of Lourdes where a curative spring had bubbled up through the soil on the site of this miraculous visitation to a young peasant girl.

In The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H. George Steiner imagines for us that Hitler has successfully escaped war ravaged Berlin and made his way to the jungles of South America. There he is finally caught by a handful of intrepid Nazi hunters who decide to try him on the spot. Steiner put these words into the mouth of Adolf Hitler as he defends himself on the witness stand: “You call me a tyrant, an enslaver. What tyranny, what enslavement has been more oppressive, has branded the skin and soul of man more deeply than the sick fantasies of the Jew? You are not God-killers, but God-makers. And that is infinitely worse. The Jew invented conscience and left man a guilty serf.”


Recently, in the New York Review of Books, I came across a review of the collected poems of Boris Slutsky. He had been a member of the Soviet Writer’s Union. He was born in 1919. He was Jewish. His poetry spans the years under Stalin, the Nazi invasion and nearly the duration of the cold war. After his death it was discovered that well over half of his writings remained unpublished, the implication being that they could not have been published in the political climate at the time. His work is described in this review as “the most valuable body of individual poetic testimony to the experience of the Russians under Soviet rule”.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s my mother’s basement and den served as a refuge for newly arrived immigrants from the communist Eastern Bloc, a halfway house for numerous Hungarians who hadn’t yet fled in 1956. All of these new arrivals seemed to harbor the same peculiar desire—to see Dr. Zhivago. In those days, the forbidden film, banned in Hungary, was always playing in some obscure art house in Manhattan and I was repeatedly forced to see this three hour long sentimental film with whatever newcomer insisted on seeing it. By the time I graduated from high school I must have seen the film more than half a dozen times.

In a meeting with the scholar Dora Apel, who was working on a book about artists born after the conclusion of the war who have made work about the Holocaust, these excursions into Manhattan from suburbia with various Hungarian immigrants, some of whom could barely speak English, came up. She too had seen Dr. Zhivago in her teens. Given the number of times I had seen the film back then it came as a surprise to me to discover that I could only remember one scene in the film with any clarity. It is the scene in which the young girl, played by Rita Tushingham, is asked by her father’s half -brother, played by Alec Guiness, “How did you come to be lost?” It is the scene that opens and closes the film.. And she replies: “I was walking with my father and he let go of my hand. He let go of my hand! And I was lost.” This scene was also the only scene that my scholar friend Dora remembered.

Despite the fact that Slutsky was Jewish and that half of his output was not acceptable to the authorities during his lifetime, he was among the writers who voted to expel Boris Pasternak from the Writer’s Union after the publication of Dr. Zhivago outside the Soviet Union. He thought of himself as a patriot but later regretted his vote against Pasternak.


When I returned home from my walk to Prachatice I had many images to edit and many experiences to absorb. With the metaphor of journey in mind I sat down and read a travel book. After graduate school I worked for an art consultant who had known Bruce Chatwin and was quite fond of him and she suggested his writings to me. It was while reading one of his books that I began to sort out my thoughts. I imagine now that I must have selected this particular book by Chatwin based solely on the aptness of its title. Here is what I found in What Am I Doing Here in a chapter entitled Werner Herzog in Ghana - “He (Werner Herzog) was also the only person with whom I could have a one-to-one conversation on what I would call the sacramental aspect of walking. He and I share the belief that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills. He sums up his position in a stern pronouncement: ‘Walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin’.”

It is from this chapter of Chatwin’s book that I learned that in 1974 Herzog had set out on foot from Munich and walked to Paris. He had learned that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and he believed that if he walked to Paris to see her he could save her. Lotte Eisner participated in the fouding of the Cinémathéque in Paris. She was a film critic and a fan of The New German Cinema. According to Chatwin, Werner Herzog was her favorite amongst these young directors.

Herzog set out on the 23rd of November and arrived in Paris on December 14th. It had taken him 22 days to walk from Munich to Paris. It had taken me the same number of days to walk from Helmbrechts to Prachatice. Perhaps Herzog saved Lotte Eisner because she lived another ten years. Herzog had kept notes; a diary of his walk. It had been published under the title Of Walking in Ice, but was now out of print. found me a copy. Herzog was just three years old at the end of the Second World War. His career in film began shortly before Albert Speer completed his twenty year prison sentence in Spandau prison.

In 1945, Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and later his Minister of Armaments, was tried by the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, along with numerous high-ranking Nazi officials. Unlike most of the others, who were found guilty and sentenced to death, the urbane, handsome, charming and self-serving Speer was sentenced to only twenty years in prison.

Spandau prison was located in Berlin and was administered by the four occupying powers: the British, the French, the Soviets and the Americans. In the summer of 1947 the Americans gave the prisoners (all German war criminals) permission to garden the exterior space at Spandau—then described as “a 6000 square meter wilderness”. This wilderness was later described by one American colonel as “Speer’s Garden of Eden”.

Speer had laid out a path in the garden he created. It began as an exercise path but in September of 1954 he decided to think of his exercise rounds as a walk from Berlin to his home in Heidelberg. “I had worked it out—if I did thirty circuits of the path I had laid out in the garden, that would be seven kilometers a day. I asked Hess, who sat and watched me, if he would mark down each time that I passed him, so that I wouldn’t lose count. He had a marvelous idea. He gave me thirty peas and said, ‘Put these in one pocket and move one to the other pocket each round. That will do it’. It was a more imaginative goal than just completing the circuit thirty times as I had been doing. That was successful, so I kept on going across the mountains to Italy, and finally decided to see how far I could get. After preparing for the walks by studying maps, travelogues, and art history books, I focused imaginatively on the differences in the landscapes, the rivers, the flowers, plants, trees and rocks. In the cities I came through, I thought of churches, museums, great buildings and works of art.” He determined what he thought to be the shortest route around the world at 40,000 kilometers and so the goal became a “Walk Around the World”.

September 29, 1966 was the last day Speer spent walking in the garden. He was released from Spandau the next day—having served 19 years in prison. In the twelve years since he had begun he had walked a distance of 31,936 kilometers. At midnight on his last night at Spandau he had sent a close friend the following message: “Please pick me up thirty-five kilometers south of Guadalajara, Mexico.”

The next day I saw him on television. I was thirteen years old.


The date of my birth coincided with an auspicious and unforgettable event. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing were standing on top of the world. For the first time two men had reached the summit of Mt. Everest. My trip to Helmbrechts also began with an auspicious event. I flew into Berlin and before setting out for Helmbrechts I visited the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee. This large urban cemetery had remained intact during the war, having been used as a showcase to prove to visitors of the Reich that Jewish cemeteries were not being desecrated by the Nazis.

I spent several hours there photographing and when I arrived back at the front gate I found myself locked inside. There are tales of Jews who survived the war hiding in the cemetery monuments and it is the one place in Berlin where German Jewish culture feels alive to me. Scaling the ten foot wrought iron fence with loads of camera gear was not an easy feat and that is how my journey began.

It was during this trip that I created a small disturbance in the fabric of time. I wouldn’t necessarily characterize it as a negative disturbance but rather as a minute bend that allowed a consequence to appear in advance of its cause. I have reviewed the chain of events in my mind a number of times and as often happens, with each successive going over, the sequence of events becomes slightly less clear. I am no longer sure where and when I made the phone call home, although I am sure that I never got a single telephone to work in Poland. That would place me in Germany or in the Czech Republic. In any case, I can see myself standing outdoors at a public telephone in front of the Hotel Bobick in Volary on the 21st day of my walk from Helmbrechts talking to my five year old daughter and I can hear her explaining that an army of small black ants has invaded our apartment. They were first seen marching by the hundreds in a straight line across the living room floor to the bookshelves, toward some sticky unidentifiable overlooked spill. Despite formidable effort— traps and poisons—they would not go away.

If I was in fact in Volary when we had this conversation then I can say with certainty that the invasion of ants that would not go away began before the precipitating event that I wish to describe. After walking from Helmbrechts to Prachatice, I returned briefly to Germany and then went on to Poland to see and photograph the four death camps there: Chelmno, Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzéc. When I arrived in Belzéc, the last of the four camps, I encountered the British historian Michael Tregenza. He was then living in Poland and had become an expert on this camp. Michael was about to leave when I arrived, but he generously offered to stay and show me around.

All of the original structures built during the camp’s operations were destroyed before the Allies liberated this portion of Poland in 1945. At one point we were standing on a large sand dune watching two young girls tumbling in the sand. The sand dune overlooks the railroad tracks that brought those destined to be killed at Belzéc into the camp. “This is an eroding mass grave.” We were standing on it and the two neighborhood children were tumbling in it. “Look down at your feet.” Michael bent down and picked up several smooth white stones and few bits of charred wood. I leaned over to inspect the sand and I too picked up two smooth stones lying on the surface of the sand. “Remains.” I looked at the two small white objects in the palm of my hand. Michael tossed what was in his hand back into the sand and began to move on. I stood there momentarily paralyzed—staring at the palm of my hand. Then I took a small tissue out of my bag, folded them up in the tissue and jabbed them into my pocket. Almost immediately Michael was showing me other things and for a brief time the contents of my pocket were entirely forgotten.

A few hours later, on my way from Belzéc to Krakow in the car, it began. Low grade anxiety, mild at first but progressively more insistent. I recognized after a time that this feeling of unease was being generated by the unwilling travel companions quietly stowed in my pocket. I knew, of course, that I had no business removing them from their resting place in Belzéc but at the same time I had already driven quite far and was reluctant to turn around and go back. I could hardly take them home as “souvenirs”. I berated myself for ever having picked them up. I remembered the cemetery at Weißensee. Perhaps I could bury them there. But I wouldn’t be back in Germany for several days and I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to rid myself of that all pervasive feeling of dread.

In a beautiful Jewish cemetery behind an old but still active synagogue, I buried them among the Polish Jews of Krakow. I hoped they wouldn’t mind too much. I chose a peaceful spot under a tree near some old gravestones. As I was moving the dirt to cover them up I unearthed a swarm of large red ants. I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed them before putting my travel companions into the ground. I felt uncomfortable digging them up again to find a new spot, I had spent so long deciding on that one.

The army of small black ants arrived in my apartment before I arrived in Belzéc, but that matters little in the grand scheme of things. Don’t misunderstand—I don’t perceive this as a punishment. I am not afraid. My apartment is infested with ants that won’t go away. Every time I see one of them I think about my travel companions.

And there is one more thing. Something I hadn’t thought about for years, something that crept back to consciousness—my earliest childhood memory. I must have been two or three years old. I am standing on the porch of our old house. It is warm out. Possibly summer. Suddenly, I feel a strange tickling sensation on my tongue. I swipe my tongue with my hand. When I gaze into the palm of my hand I see two large ants, one red and one black, standing on their hind legs embattled with one another. I am overwhelmed with horror but also embarrassment that these two small creatures should have come to inhabit my mouth, my body. I begin shrieking. My grandmother comes out onto the porch and tries to discover what has happened. I am completely unable to speak.


I came upon the cemetery in Volary on the 21st day of my walk. 95 of the women who died en route were buried there. Some bodies were exhumed from along the march route while others were found rotting in the woods or by the side of the road. Those bodies never positively identified bear the word Neznámá on their headstones.

The Allies forced the town to devote the front portion of their cemetery to the burial of these women. After the allies departed, the town planted a hedge of trees between the remains of their dead and these woman. That row of trees grew over the years and now they completely obscure the view of the “Jewish cemetery”. They have become two separate cemeteries.

The town, like the rest of the country, became part of the communist bloc. According to the current mayor of Volary and his wife, the communists needed a reason to visit and tend to this cemetery filled with strangers. Evidently the presence of 95 female Jewish bodies wasn’t compelling, so they decided to bury a Russian male “worker” among the women. His headstone is the one with cyrillic text. The cemetery itself, unlike its neighbor to the right, is very spare and simple. There are the 95 unadorned headstones, the Russian worker, and a few daffodils planted here and there.

The Mayor of the town of Volary, together with his wife, created a museum devoted to these women. It is housed in a tiny brown building, possibly the smallest museum I have ever seen. The interior consists of one small room in which there are a few vitrines filled with personal affects. There are a several photographs of individual women, half clothed and nearly starved, taken in a makeshift hospital after the liberation. That building still exists, and today its exterior is painted a beautiful pastel pink. In those photographs there are no sheets on the hospital beds. None of the women pictured in the photographs lived more than a few days. Then, on the wall, there is a large blown up reproduction of a photograph taken surreptitiously by an unknown photographer. It is a grainy, black and white image of these women huddled together, trudging down the road. None of the women who survived the march have been able to identify where or when it was taken. I had just walked that 225 miles from Helmbrechts and I could not identify its location either. It is as though the photograph had not been taken in real space and time. The perfect documentary lie. The women appear as an indistinguishable mass, all unidentifiable. The only distinct bodies are those of the guards standing several paces back.

This essay was first published in cultureID May 21, 2010.

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Helmbrechts walk, day 7
(the road between Zwodau and Lauterbach)

Helmbrechts walk, day 4
(the road between Treben and Bukowa)

Bus shelter, Lodz
(Poland), 1998

Helmbrechts walk, day 3
(the road between Neuhausen and Treben)

Helmbrechts walk, day 7
(the road between Zwodau and Lauterbach)

Helmbrechts walk, day 12
(the road between Straz and Vilkanov)

Children at play in eroding grave of human remains, Belzéc
(Poland), 1998

Jewish cemetery, Krakow
(Poland), 1998
©2012 by Susan Silas