OCTOBER 8 - OCTOBER 24
Theresienstadt was no ordinary camp. For the Nazis, it was a PR stunt: a show camp that they would dress up and parade the Red Cross through to prove that their Jewish “resettlement” campaign was thoroughly humane. The Jews who were sent there were often intellectuals and musicians. Children painted pictures and wrote poetry in school. But the reality, of course, was quite different. An old prison on one side of the river that went through town, known as the “little fortress,” was converted into a slave labor concentration camp, where people were literally worked to death. The “large fortress” on the other bank, filled as it was with living quarters, became a sealed-in Jewish ghetto — starved, overcrowded, diseased, hopeless. Jews arrived there from all over Europe and were shipped off periodically to other camps and, in the end, to gas chambers. Of the 144,000 people, most of them Jews, who stayed at Theresienstadt, all but 17,000 perished.
When Speer first arrived in Terezín, “I saw a sea of headstones,” he says. “They had pebbles on them. There was a Star of David and a cross. I spent an hour trying to wrap my head around it. Then I started exploring.”
As he started taking pictures. He was struck by the light coming through windows. “It was weird because it was so beautiful,” he says. “And then I felt guilty, because I saw the beauty in everything.”
His photographs certainly testify to that. They are haunted, but not overtly so. And somehow that stark juxtaposition of invisible past and tranquil present says more about the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt famously wrote of war criminal Adolf Eichmann, than actual photographs of the Holocaust do. Removed from context, no work of art can ever, ever equal the horror of what happened.
Speer took a box of his photos to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He met with the curator of photography there, but she was too busy at the time to pay him much mind. But eventually she did, and the work was invited to become part of the museum’s permanent collection.