An Island, a Fortress: On Terezin
Editions Inculte, 2016
The town of Terezin, about forty miles from Prague, seems at first glance to be an islet separate from the surrounding landscape. Formerly a useless fortress, never used during wartime, a garrison town then an internment camp that would become the antechamber to Auschwitz, this ghetto eventually was deserted by its inhabitants, frozen in a historical moment that would come to isolate it from the rest of the world. Terezin was a camp that the Nazis wanted to present as a “model ghetto,” a backdrop that had been used in 1944 for a Nazi propaganda film made by a Jewish inmate. Terezin is the locus where images, language, and artifice become oddly interwoven—an emblem of the Nazi criminal project’s inherent deceit, a screen where images continually occlude further images. By describing encounters, witness accounts, and archival finds, this book investigates a place in transformation, stuck between an impossible history and the as-yet-undimmed hope of a rebirth. The ghosts of Robert Desnos and W.G. Sebald are omnipresent, as are the figures of Petr Ginz and Kurt Gerron, and many others, each one of them a strand of human experience extending through the fortress’s walls. Gaudy’s meditation delves into the problem of deception, traces, and their tight-knit relationship, because even traces can prove deceptive based on who exhumes them and deploys them.
An Island, a Fortress is a wholly unique carnet de voyage, an exploration of a space at once historical and ever-changing, an investigation into blindness both intentional and not, a description of a place that inspired “an extraordinary blossoming of literature and art in the face of death,” and a meditation on the inescapable weight history imposes upon the present moment.
The Author: Hélène Gaudy was born in Paris in 1979. An artist by training, she frequently explores the relationship between text and image, and the way in which setting influences story. After her first novel, Vues sur la mer, which was a finalist for the 2006 Prix Médicis, she joined the collective of writers and editors for Inculte and published children’s books, art monographs, and further novels, including Si rien ne bouge (2009) and Plein hiver (2014). Her novels are consistently set in enigmatic locales drawn from memories and found photographs that themselves shape and infuse her characters. She is fascinated by moments of slippage, miniscule gaps, when an environment and the people living therein become unnervingly foreign to one another. Her newest book, An Island, a Fortress, locates her passions in her own experiences and the actual past: the book chronicles her research on and visits to an old Czech fortress called Terezin that would become, during the Holocaust, the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.
From above, it’s a star. It’s hard to count its arms, its corners eroded by voracious plants. Zoom in and its structure becomes more detailed, in its heart is a central square, a rectangle where the shape of a fountain can be made out. At the level of the red roofs, the view is seamless: interlocked rectangles, barracks reminiscent of Dresden, Hanover, or Hamburg.
As it approaches, the car goes past an empty pool, a small lake. In the middle of a field, a row of headstones. By the tiny huts made out of dark wood, a man tanning in his garden, surrounded by bright geraniums, cornfields, a water treatment plant, the far-off, purple shape of the Bohemian peaks, sunflowers by the thousands, a tractor in a cloud of dust, a lattice of rivers.
Nothing hints that we are nearly at Terezin. Through the window can be seen some cypresses, a church, clothes drying on a line, a Star of David spray-painted on a bus shelter . . .
The factories and tenements have changed into small country houses, Helga Weissová writes in her diary describing her deportation to Terezin then Auschwitz, Flossenbürg, Mauthausen; as she prepares to enter this unknown village, the first stop on her travels, blackened streets have changed into meandering tracts of snow-covered fields.
None of us has ever been to Terezin before; no one knows anything—just fuzzy, indefinite ideas . . .
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