How Silke Schatz’s Oeuvre Theresienstadt Creates New Spaces of Remembrance

How Silke Schatz’s Oeuvre Theresienstadt Creates New Spaces of Remembrance

Projects in the funding priority "Education in cultural spaces" open up unique, empathic, and creative approaches to the complex history of National Socialist persecution and to the artistic heritage of its victims. An example of the key role culture can play in keeping the memory of National Socialist injustice alive can be seen in the Star of Remembrance.

How should we remember? In her 1999 book "Erinnerungsräume" [Spaces of Remembrance] Aleida Assmann asked how subversive a culture of remembrance must be in order to overcome the stranglehold of forgetting and repression. With a view to the work of artists such as Anselm Kiefer, the literary scholar wrote of an art of remembrance that comes after forgetting, describing it as "damage therapy,” as "collecting scattered remains, the inventory of loss.”

Silke Schatz takes a different approach. The Cologne-based artist distances herself from her themes, which often deal with contexts of injustice, and expands them to create new spaces for critical examination. Inspired by the novel "Austerlitz" by W. G. Sebald (1944-2001), she traveled to Theresienstadt in 2004. The author describes the emptiness of the decaying city, the blind windows, the "doors and gates... that seem eerie to him, all of which... blocked access to darkness never penetrated before.” Black and white photographs of stained facades and closed doors accompany the text.

Unlike W. G. Sebald, Silke Schatz does not conjure up the horror inscribed in the village. But like his figure Austerlitz, she visits the ghetto museum and photographs facades. Like him, she may have understood everything and nothing, because the testimonies about the systematic extermination of internees were beyond her imagination. Back in her studio, she made a design drawing, set a vanishing point, and drew straight lines that created transparent spaces with new projection surfaces.

Her large-format drawing, "Terezín I. Grundriss von Terezíns öffentlicher Schautafel: ghetto 1941-46 und aktuelle Hauswandfarbenstudie" [Theresienstadt I. Floor plan of Theresienstadt’s public display: Ghetto 1941-46 and current house wall color study] sucks the viewer into the empty center of the star-shaped baroque complex. Her construction lines emanate from the central buildings of the former garrison city and spread out like an exploded-view drawing. Rather than using a floor plan as a starting point for the drawing, she used this concrete display that she had encountered during her visit to Theresienstadt.

The more than two-meter-square drawing seems at first glance to be purely technical. Nothing points to a level of content in the work. What is noticeable on closer inspection is that Silke Schatz has used crayons. The colors she chose reflect the artist’s meticulous documentation of the actual colors of walls of the houses in Theresienstadt. Her drawing symbolically draws threads, starting from a historical site of injustice and radiating into the world.

In addition to drawing, Silke Schatz builds objects from photos, cardboard, and paper, which sometimes also function as lamps. One such construction is "brundibár," a two-meter-high material collage illuminated by a light bulb. The artist has created a 16-pointed star out of yellow transparent paper, in the center of which is a picture cut out of black cardboard. This image is backed with colored transparent paper like a crafted poinsettia. The abstract scene is based on film footage of the children’s opera "Brundibár" by the Prague composer Hans Krása (1889-1944), which was premiered in the Theresienstadt ghetto on September 23, 1943.

Composed in 1939 for a competition, the opera is about the children’s victorious struggle against the organ-grinder Brundibár. Aninka and Pepiček try to earn money with street music so they can buy milk for their sick mother. However, their singing is drowned out by the organ-grinder. With the help of the animals and the other children, they manage to prevail against Brundibár. What Hans Krása initially had conceived as a declaration of war against the emerging mechanically produced music became a didactic work of political resistance against Hitler in the context of the persecution of the Jews.

The many cultural offerings of the "self-governing" ghetto can, however, also conceal the cloud hanging over the interned children of Theresienstadt. Silke Schatz’s "brundibár" reminds us of the hope for a better future without concealing the threat. The finely chiseled ornament inside the star turns out to be a wreath of flaming torches. They open into an eight-piece star cut out of black cardboard, whose points are reminiscent of barbed wire from the concentration camps. A photo of the children’s opera, which was performed more than 55 times in the ghetto, lies in the center.

The Theresienstadt oeuvres of Silke Schatz revolve around the motif of the star. Her works echo the shape and structure of the Theresienstadt fortress, the Star of David as a symbol of Judaism, the Jewish star that the National Socialists perverted into a sign of exclusion, and the Christmas stars of the city of Theresienstadt, glued to the windowpanes from the inside. In this newly created Star of Remembrance, the contradiction of a culturally formulated resistance echoes. In late summer 1944, after the filming of the National Socialist propaganda movie, the regime had the children and Hans Krása deported to Auschwitz and killed. Every "Brundibár" performance today builds a bridge of remembrance and points beyond the narrower context of its creation.

Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger warns in her book "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered" against traumatic places such as concentration camps becoming distorted sites of experience and shares an insight from a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial: "It was a clean and proper place, and it would have taken more imagination than your average John or Jane Doe possesses to visualize the camp as it was forty years earlier. Today a fresh wind blows across the central square where the infamous roll calls took place, and the simple barracks of stone and wood suggest a youth hostel more easily than a setting for tortured lives. Surely some visitors secretly figure they can remember times when they have been worse off than the prisoners of this orderly German camp."

Aleida Assmann demands: "The chasm between the place of the victims and that of the visitors must be made visible".  The affective potential of these places should not lead to an "illusionary identification".

With her work, Silke Schatz proposes a path of approach that avoids this pitfall.

Author: Carmela Thiele


In the project of the Education Agenda NS-Injustice "Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt"  [I’m Walking through Theresienstadt]” students and teachers study the compositions of Pavel Haas and Hans Krása and the texts of poet Ilse Weber.