Susan Silas
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Volary


(see images)

On day 22, the last day of my walk I started the morning in the town of Volary, where the 95 women who perished along the march route were buried by the allies. I ended my day in the town of Prachatice, where the women were abandoned by their guards, who changed into civilian clothing and stole away as the allies neared the town. The town of Volary was liberated by the Americans. This is the top caption to the last spread of Helmbrechts walk, 1998-2003:

The mayor of the town of Volary, together with his wife, created a museum devoted to the women who came to be buried in Volary. 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 and a few photographs of individual women, half clothed and nearly starved, taken in a makeshift hospital after the liberation. There are no sheets on the hospital beds. None of the women pictured in those photographs lived more than a few days. Then, on the wall, there is a large photograph, taken surreptitiously by an unknown photographer. It is a grainy, black and white reproduction 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 might have been 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.


The bottom caption on the last spread of the work cites a report from the New York Times about the theft from the Louvre of the painting The Sèvres Road by the 19th Century French painter Camille Corot. The canvas, which measures 13.4 x 19.3 inches, turned out to be exactly the same size as the images I had produced to represent my walk. And I found it compelling that the news item about the stolen landscape took place on my last day walking from Helmbrechts to Prachatice; for it had all been stolen landscape in 1945. The Sudetenland was occupied by the Germans in 1938, and Neville Chamberlain's policy of "appeasement" helped to insure that it stayed in German hands until the allies arrived in May of 1945.

In small towns and villages in Eastern Europe it is relatively easy to find the town center. It is often close to the church and the church is generally the tallest building in the town. In Volary, I found the church relatively quickly along with the town cemetery. I knew that the women who died along the march route were buried in the town cemetery and as I strolled through it, I saw no indication that these Jewish women were buried there. I realized that there must be another cemetery somewhere in the town. I tried to ask someone tending a grave and planting flowers. Almost everyone recognizes the German words for war, Jew, and death but the woman continued to shrug her shoulders and finally simply ignored me. Along one side of the cemetery was a long stand of very tall trees. As soon as I walked past the trees along the road past the town cemetery another cemetery revealed itself. This one had no crypts or elaborate headstones. All of the headstones were simple, in rows, and there were no plantings other than a few scattered daffodils. The cemetery had been just a few feet from where I'd stood asking this woman for directions.

When I met Sam, the mayor of Volary, he told me an anecdote about the Jewish cemetery. Even though the town of Volary was liberated by American troops, the town ended up in the Russian orbit and the Czech Republic became part of the Communist bloc. The town had ambivalent feelings about the Americans bequeathing them a Jewish cemetery and certainly there were no Jews around to tend it. So the onus of upkeep for the Jewish cemetery fell on the townsfolk. Because it was right next to the town cemetery, was in fact a part of that cemetery, it was not possible to allow it to fall to ruin. In most cases throughout Eastern Europe, Jewish cemeteries large and small were no longer maintained after the war because all of the Jewish communities had been destroyed and there were no Jews left to care for them. The townsfolk that remained, some of who had stolen the belongings or homes of their rounded up neighbors, may not have wanted to be reminded of that past in so visceral a manner as tending a cemetery might have prompted, so these Jewish burial places became a collection of falling headstones overgrown with weeds.

To overcome their collective discomfort with this bequest, the town came up with an ingenious strategy. They decided to bury a Russian worker, who was not native to the town, in the cemetery with the women. In this way, the now communist town had a symbolic stake in the cemetery because a fellow comrade was buried there. So the 95 Jewish women who died on the march from Helmbrechts to Volary are buried together with a Russian worker unknown to them and to most of the residents of the town. His headstone has a slightly different shape and can be easily distinguished by the Cyrillic engraving on its face.

But even this measure proved insufficient. The transformation of the cemetery, or doubling of its size, with half given over to the burial of Jews unrelated to the town must have felt like an affront and was not done voluntarily, but forced on the town by the allies. So the town planted a row of trees that ran along the back of the Jewish cemetery and along the edge that joined the Jewish side to the town side. Over the years the trees grew and from the town cemetery it is no longer possible to see the Jewish cemetery, hence my difficulty locating it from the town cemetery when I arrived in Volary.

I don't know how the town feels about the cemetery now. It is maintained and judging from the small rocks resting on the gravestones, it receives Jewish visitors or others familiar with the Jewish custom of leaving a small stone on the headstone of a loved one. When I visited Poland I had the sad impression that the entire country was a vast Jewish cemetery. The sardonic remark that "The Germans will never forgive the Jews for the Holocaust.," came to mind traveling in Poland, for no matter how the Poles may or may not have been complicit in the fate of Jewry in Poland, they too suffered being overrun and occupied and terrorized and it seemed to me that the relationship between Jews and Poles remains fraught, especially due to the limited Jewish population and lack of social interaction between Poles and Jews. Whether this is also true of the town of Volary it is impossible for me to say.

Sam, the mayor of the town, seemed to be an exceptional man and I'm not sure his views were shared by the town. He and his wife are the ones responsible for the small museum in the town of Volary memorializing the women who are buried there. At the site of the Sobibor death camp in Eastern Poland, which is extremely difficult to find, the memorial museum was in something akin to a trailer. It was tiny and housed a few personal items and photographs including a small pink dress that had belonged to a very young child. The sight of that small dress inside a display vitrine in what amounted to a prefab trailer was somehow more moving to me than the horrific piles of luggage and shoes and glasses I encountered in Auschwitz. Perhaps it is true that huge numbers are mind numbing and that we respond more readily to the single exemplar than to vast generalities. Members of bourgeois culture are conditioned to respond this way, hence the easy manipulation of the audience when the little girl's dress in Spielberg's black & white film Schindler's List, turns red. I felt less manipulated by the scant items in the vitrine. The vitrines in the little museum in the one story brown building in Volary were similar. They contained some personal items and some photographs. The items in the vitrine, when I stood before them, were 53 years old. And yet all of it seemed older, at a very far remove; the items of clothing, the combs and other personal effects and most of all, the photographs.

What happened to representation in the intervening years to make those images seem so old, as if the Second World War had taken place 100 years ago? I would speculate that the most significant change was the one from black & white to color photography (incredibly, one not undertaken by the New York Times until 1997). Most of the documentation of the Second World War comes to us in images shot in black & white. The newsreels shown in movie theaters were all shot in black & white. In fact, I would argue that our entire visual knowledge of that period plays in our heads in black & white. The change to color is so convincing as a further representation of "reality" that it nearly mirrors the invention of photography in its claim to be the most accurate mimesis of the "real world". And this change, while wholly dependent on a language of representation that begins with the invention of perspective, still creates enough of a break with black & white imagery to cause a chasm that removes these images from us in time in a way that distorts their distance and creates a kind of complacency built on a foundation of forgetting. And this forgetting is all the more distressing as the generation who lived through the war dies off. My father died long ago but my mother, who is 88 and totally lucid, can still answer my questions about both his experiences and her own personal experiences during the war. I am very grateful to still have her but once she is gone there will be no one to ask.

I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. shortly after it opened. Most of the material was familiar to me. I have read many books, both fiction and non-fiction about the war period, and seen many photographs and documentary films but there was one surprise. Near the end of the exhibition there was a screening of short film clips and I happened to stand in front of the screen at the moment when a very grainy and faded color clip began. This was already unexpected as there is virtually no color representation of the Holocaust. A text states that the clip was shot by an American GI. He must have had access to very early Kodacolor film.

A small child, a toddler, is making his way toward the camera. It looks like a small boy and he has bright carrot red hair. He is the epitome of a pale skinned, freckled, Ashkenazi Jew and the incredible thing is that this small child is alive and being filmed in a liberated concentration camp. So here he is, in "living color", striding into the future, into modernity, a modernity that henceforth will be represented in color.


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©2012 by Susan Silas