At Risk of Interment: WG Sebald in Terezin and Breendonk

By Will Stone

terezin_-_entrance_to_small_fortress.jpgTerezin, Entrance to a small Fortress

The supreme felicity of the thinker is to have explored the explorable and to serenely venerate the inexplorable. – Goethe

I don’t think you can focus on the horror of the Holocaust. It’s like the head of the Medusa. You carry it with you in a sack, but if you looked at it, you’d be petrified. – WG Sebald

My aim here is simply to discuss certain ‘creatively enabled’ melancholic gleanings made by the late writer WG Sebald from the morbidly endowed climate of two Holocaust related locations, which play a key role in Austerlitz, and to suggest how the historic realities harboured by such locations as well as their own unique post-atrocity atmospheres may have served to underscore the limits of the author’s own sanity. The two locations in question, Terezin in the Czech Republic and Breendonk in Belgium, have a personal significance also in that I found my experience of visiting them at different periods of my life, both before and after reading Sebald’s works, appeared curiously to overlap with the tenor of those found in his texts, resulting in a kind of uncanny merging and subsequent blurring of events which defies explanation.

The circumstances of my encounter with Breendonk, for example, suggest that I was drawn to that location either by coincidence or fate shortly after the appearance of Austerlitz and the subsequent untimely death of its author, both of which were uppermost in my mind at the time. In the case of Breendonk, whilst travelling in Belgium on a research trip for a work of literary translation in January 2002, I happened to stumble completely by chance (literally driving past in fact) the entrance of the Breendonk fort which had made such an impression on me from Sebald’s text, but whose exact location I had barely absorbed. Without falling prey to over dramatisation, it did feel rather as if an unseen hand had directed me there at that particular moment.

My visit came at a time when the memorial site was undergoing the ubiquitous visitor-friendly ‘makeover’, the installation of giant displays and banners, recordings on TV monitors by white haired survivors droning on in ill-lit cells to no one and the unremitting looped barkings of dogs ghosting the courtyards, attempts to educate the casual visitor and amplify the atmosphere, which were in many ways superfluous and proved an interference to the more unembellished encounter Sebald would have experienced years before. Thankfully, however, the architecture was still all too vividly disorientating and mentally imposing, the atmosphere still uniquely charged and heavily weighted with the significance of the past.


SS Fort Breendonk, situated some twenty miles south of Antwerp, was a mere dot in the vast Nazi camp system. Barbarity on an industrial scale was not its function but, between 1940 and 1944, as headquarters of the local Gestapo, it was set up as a brutal penal camp for resistance members, communists and others deemed enemies of the Reich. Though it may lack the scale and global notoriety of an Auschwitz or Dachau, Breendonk’s ‘celebrity’ rests on being one of the best preserved sites of Nazi crimes, partly because of its unique situation in a moated fort which resists physical destruction. As it has been virtually untouched since 1945, one can visit a building in which, with only the feeblest of imaginations, one will sense the residues of the lives of the inmates and their tormentors, whom it seems have only recently departed.

Sebald leads the reader into Breendonk through his preferred device of exposing human folly in overreaching architectural ambition. He employs this again at the close of the book when he makes a brief return to Breendonk, selecting another futile fort constructed at Kaunas in Lithuania. In the case of Breendonk an absurdity worthy of the Maginot line is illustrated in the ambitious C19th construction of a defence line of forts which ultimately proves redundant as the galloping city of Antwerp catches up with it, pushing these redundant leviathans further and further out into the countryside. So we learn of the circumstances around the location of Breendonk, a defiant leftover from this chain of forts, relatively innocuous until the Nazi occupation when, with their usual eye for the perfect existing building in which to commit their atrocities, the Nazi authorities took over the fort and established their prison.

breendonk-guard-tower-distant.jpgBreendonk, Guard Tower

The author or narrator arrives at Breendonk, we are told, in 1967, symbolically to face the fort upon the bridge which spans its moat. To the right he would have noted a watchtower of distinctive design and which appears in a clip from Alan Resnais’ brief filmic response to the death camps, Night and Fog, in a sequence detailing the plethora of creative designs for the construction of the camps. It seems unlikely that Sebald would not be familiar with this unique film document and yet, in characteristically reticent style, he eschews mention of it, since it is perhaps too explicit a Holocaust reference and instead mentions, later on in the book, Toute La Mémoire du Monde, another short Resnais made about the mysterious inner workings of the Bibliothèque National in Paris.

This determination to approach the Holocaust through some link that establishes our partial complicity as human beings with a communal history is why it seems to me Sebald chose the pre-Nazi era fort and Czech garrison town and what drew him to them, with the historical human impetus in their initial construction and relative resignation from the modern world, suddenly skewed for eternity by the incomprehensible events that took place in them over those four years of German occupation.

This would seem to have a deeper resonance than a row of functional wooden barracks near a pine forest, or the site of a purpose-built death factory, which we know about in tremendous detail, but at whose cairns of stones and memorials, at whose torn rail spurs inappropriately nestled in murmuring summer grasses, one simply stands shamed at one’s failure to find any significant purchase, mentally asphyxiated by figures and images which, in deference to the mind’s capacity for self-protection, cannot accurately deliver the true reality and within whose trailing weeds we become hopelessly enmeshed and drown desensitized or are left brimming over with an ever-increasing, endlessly sifted knowledge, a knowledge that one is obliged to lug around like a load of useless damp firewood until it gradually forces us to our knees.

Approaching the dark muzzle-like portal of the fort, one leaves the bridge for ancient cobbles over which the police vehicles would have sped with their terrified captives. To the left and right depressingly unrelieved windowless walls stretch away above an uncomfortably serene moat. In Sebald’s own words… ‘what I saw now before me was a low built concrete mass, rounded at its outer edges and giving the gruesome impression of something hunched and misshapen: the broad back of a monster, I thought, risen from this Flemish soil like a whale from the deep…’

Later, after failing to get a hold on the shape or design of the sprawling edifice and, as he puts it… ‘unable to connect it with anything shaped by human civilisation’, he goes on to describe the walls… ‘covered in places by open ulcers with raw crushed stone erupting from them, encrusted by guano-like droppings and calcareous streaks, the fort was a monolithic monstrous incarnation of ugliness and blind violence’ and ‘an anatomical blueprint of an alien crab-like creature.’

sentry-boxes.jpgSentry boxes

Two photos support this vision, the first, fittingly, showing a dead end where two walls join, one with the ulcer he describes, like the crude bite of a shark from the body of the whale and the other showing stunted tower-like bastions with no sign of apertures or embrasures anywhere, rising out of the pasture like some volcanic outcrop from the sea. Thus there appears to be no opportunity anywhere for light to enter. Sunk in the earth, this colossus of numbing concrete flaunts its ungainly claws and pincers, whilst the seemingly endless exteriors of walls give an impression that there is no interior behind them, as if they were only solid and utterly pointless, offering protection to nothing but their own inner core, the unrelieved whole resulting in a kind of force field which induces a palpable darkening of the mood.

This initial anxiety, aroused by the demented crab-like form and aesthetically repellent decaying of the building materials, only serves to increase the inevitable sense of unease Sebald experiences on finally entering the fort and encountering evidence of the crippling punishment men endured there. He mentions for example the heavy, primitive wheelbarrows and sees the unfortunate inmates ‘bracing themselves against the weight until their hearts burst’. When he encounters the SS café and mess area still with its cheerful ‘bulging stove’ and evidence of Germanic lettering on the beams and walls, Sebald quells his rage and merely reports. This uniquely preserved room, its funereal stillness somehow mocking the existence of those rowdy Bavarian cellars devoured by Hitler’s dark insistence, stands in triumphant indiscretion only a stone’s throw from the torture chamber.

Sebald includes a picture of one of the fort’s electrically lit, cable-lined corridors with a cell door ajar. And here, as he descends symbolically again into the darkness, drawn into this echoing mine, this sepulchre, at imminent risk it would seem of interment, he responds. ‘…the darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself…’ This corridor with its numbing functionality, vertiginous perspective and suggestion of some unbearable subterranean pressure, recalls a passage bored deep into a cliff or a mine, or a more modern catacomb, the briefly calm corridor of a Victorian era asylum or hospital.

After encountering the torturer’s cell within the casement, its hook still visible in the ceiling, the nauseating scent of soft soap causes Sebald to swoon against a wall which ‘was gritty, covered with bluish spots and seemed to me to be perspiring with cold beads of sweat.’ Here it appears the very walls are alive but only in so far as they are rotting, the interior surface somehow gesturing to the ‘open ulcers’, the gouged and pitted exterior which he had explored earlier.

But, crucially, it is not the more obvious Jean Amèry-related trauma, the hook in the ceiling that makes Sebald swoon, but the unwelcome scent of a particular soap which recalls some uncomfortable family memory. However, at this point, using his habitual bridging movement from one story to another, Sebald departs Breendonk, only returning at the close of the book.

The night before, he spends in a grotty hotel on the Astridplein in Antwerp and includes an intriguing photo showing the view from his window over a depressing scene of grimy walls, ducts and pipes sealed with barbed wire. One would be mistaken for thinking that this was an image taken at Breendonk itself or indeed the roof of a gas chamber complete with vents. In fact, if you just flicked through casually, that might be your surmise. But this is a hotel, this is freedom, this is now, and here we are on the other side of the moat, Sebald seems to be saying, and yet and yet...

terezin-the-ramparts.jpgTerezin, The Ramparts

But, as Sebald leaves the hotel to return to Breendonk, he passes an unknown sick woman lying on a stretcher in the lobby. Such sightings occur throughout Sebald’s works, for example ‘the disturbed individual waving his arms’ that Austerlitz encounters at Terezin, whom, Sebald suggests, ‘seems to have been swallowed up by the earth as they say, even as he was running off.’ Plausibly shadowing countless silent victims of the Holocaust, they are positioned to maximize feelings of dislocation and trauma, symbols of the individual’s swift fall from perceived security. ‘I saw a pale faced woman of about forty with her eyes turned away lying on a high trolley down by the reception desk, where there was no-one in evidence.’ It is both the last part, ‘no one in evidence’ and the line ‘with her eyes turned away’ which properly fuels the haunting image.

Sebald hurries past, out into the world a free man, noting the woman but unable to assist, apart from exhuming her from oblivion in this random moment through memory, whilst she lies there ‘eyes turned away’, awaiting a fate unknown to her or us. Totally vulnerable to the abrupt emergence of the void, her destiny suddenly rests in the hands of strangers ‘the two ambulance men chatting outside’.


Languishing some thirty miles north of Prague with no defined role since the late 1880s, during the German occupation the garrison town of Terezin came to prominence in the mechanics of the final solution as a ghetto for deported Western European Jews. Terezin, or Theresienstadt, as the occupiers renamed it, extends to about one km square, laid out to a symmetrical grid within fortified star-shaped walls, and was designed for some two thousand residents. A quiet, unremarkable place with its shops, bakeries, parks, bandstand and rather methodical tree-lined avenues, Sebald describes it as ‘a world made by reason, regulated in all conceivable respects.’

No wonder such a place was eagerly seized on by the German mind craving order and exactitude. Over two pages Sebald displays the numbingly precise yet disorientating German military map of the site, ushering in pictorially the mania for lists and records the Germans obsessed over, to support what lies beyond in the text. Close by the main town but quite apart from it was the ‘Kleine Festung’ or Small Fortress. This was a prison within a prison and had always been so.

Thus, as at Breendonk, the SS and local Gestapo found it was ideally situated and architecturally suited for the detainment, punishment and execution of special prisoners. For some reason, possibly because the Terezin fort seemed too close to that at Breendonk, Sebald chose not to clarify the separateness of the town of Terezin and the nearby prison, with the result that there is an important ambiguity in the text and photographs. A reader then would have no idea which location the image referred to. A clutch of initial photographs show the fortifications of the Small Fortress and how, like Breendonk, the fort seems organically subsumed in the landscape that encloses it. But, unlike the bunker at Breendonk, one observes pathologically undeviating flat walls of brick topped with stone, creating narrow terraces topped by weeds and creepers. Here nature has accepted the concrete and stone as a semi-permanent intruder and adapted to its contours. Ditches, dykes and embankments form labyrinthine layers of acute angles and confounding dead ends. Sickly turf, moss and high grasses adorn the roofs of the ugly drowned buildings, making nature seem somehow complicit in the fort’s brutally unyielding presence.

As Austerlitz surveys the deserted townscape of Terezin town, we are granted a double page spread of weary Terezin facades, their closed doors and windows seeming resolutely to deny access to the unsavoury memories behind them, the peeling paint of the doors and walls showing not only the eagerly melancholic textures of decay but a human unwillingness to dabble here, to repair or maintain these mausoleums. A powerful image simply shows a row of metal dustbins, their numbers daubed in paint, before a wall clearly in the vanguard of dereliction.

Like the photo of the hotel roof wreathed in barbed wire, the numbered dustbins seem here to be pointing us forward to the German fixation with lists, rolls calls and tallies or, as Sebald puts it, ‘their mania for order and purity, put into practice on a vast scale through measures partly improvised, partly devised with obsessive organizational zeal.’ On the following page we find two more almost full page vertical shots of grim doors, sealed within the walls of the crypt-like chambers and courtyards of the small fortress. These raw weathered walls seem to request demolition and yet, in one case, an impassable door absurdly overwhelmed with huge hinges and latches stands fast, as if sealed forever, somehow defying the disintegration of the whole. The sense of abandonment and desolation these images cast is pervasive.

Austerlitz learns that into Terezin the Germans crammed some 60,000 Jewish men, women and children. Here many of the more well-off German Jews were brought, the cream of bourgeois and artistic Jewish society, artists, writers, professors, bankers and industrialists, but also shopkeepers, tradesmen and the like, so that this town somehow resembled a microcosm of European Jewish society diabolically crammed into one square km of space. And, following meticulously formulated procedures, they were left to be whittled away by illness, exhaustion and despair in, as Sebald says, little more than two square metres of personal space, with only the chimneys of Auschwitz to break their unchanging horizon.

But Terezin’s most terrible secret and shame, as Austerlitz soon discovers, lies in the alarming juxtaposition of a skewed normality in the planned workings of this ghetto town, this civic dummy, with the coordinated extermination of its inhabitants, a fact which causes the mind perpetually to recoil, forever thrown back on itself, straining through the creepers of ever more bestial revelations and paralysing absurdities. It is the latter that Sebald seeks to convey. Note, then, how he laces the page with a form from the archives containing over fifty protracted German terms for offices and locations within the town, overblown compounds such as ‘Marketenderwarenerzeugung’, that seem to haul their ludicrous linguistic vanity across the page and deposit them incongruously beside a less sophisticated entry such as the deceptively bovine ‘SS Garage’.

gate-with-original-sign.jpgGate with original sign

Sebald focuses on the working conditions of Terezin, how the prisoners were compelled to labour as slaves, their bank issuing a currency which had no value and with which nothing could be bought. He lists the wide variety of trades which prisoners toiled away at, even those flaunting their exotic specialism such as ‘the shearing of rabbit fur’, ‘the bottling of ink dust’ and, most memorably, ‘a silk worm breeding station run under the aegis of the SS.’ He describes the carefully tended vegetable plots and market gardens flourishing under the town’s walls, the café, the theatre, even a lively cultural programme tolerated by the Germans. Sebald catalogues a dummy citadel forced to run itself using customs from the outside world habitually ascribed to a process of life, but here, for the convenience of their murderers, merely fleshing out the procession to extinction.

Already condemned, the inmates had become mannequins, ghosts acting out a tragic play at their masters’ bequest. In line with their customary comedic abominations, the SS allowed a fleet of old decrepit hearses onto the Terezin streets for prisoners, use and these ‘oddly swaying conveyances’, as he describes them, were hardly likely to be overlooked by Sebald. These pathetic vehicles, some with their ornate baroque roofs shorn off, were utilized for everything from delivering the bread ration to their original purpose, yet with not just one body in an ornate coffin but teetering stacks of pine boxes, conveying the hundred plus who perished each day in Terezin.

Jewish artists such as Leon Haas and Bedrich Fritta left memorable images showing them carrying new arrivals. These newcomers, intimately captured by Fritta, crestfallen, confused, slumped on their baggage, spending their first night in what they had been led to believe by German propaganda was a luxurious ‘spa town’, concern Sebald too. He includes the reproduction of a stamp with a Terezin postmark, one from many postcards sent by newcomers to tell others of a wonderful resort to which they too must make haste. As Sebald explains, the overcrowded conditions caused the extreme human attrition of these elderly people, rapidly reduced to infantilism and acute malnutrition. But everything, Sebald seems to suggest, however seemingly innocuous or fleeting, inane or tragic, is, through the SS logic of destruction, for the Nazis either a profitable or benign tributary that drains into the stronger current leading to extermination.

In the summer of 1944, the prisoners of Terezin were informed of the sudden plan to beautify the town for a proposed inspection by senior officials of the Red Cross. Recognizing a rare propaganda gift, the decision was taken to show the world a charitable haven of peace for Jews who clearly did not deserve such German benevolence. It was this then, the pinnacle of Nazi deception and enforced victim collusion together with the survival of an accompanying film, ‘The Fuhrer Grants the Jews a Town’, that elevates Terezin from a purely functional death camp ante-room to something even more disturbing - if such a thing is possible - a freakish hybrid poised over the abyss midway between ersatz normality and murderous depravity.

The Red Cross inspection team duly arrived on a fine July day and the ruse worked perfectly, largely due to the Germans’ painstaking attention to detail and ruthless determination to erase any sign of the reality of life in Terezin. In advance of the visit, the whole town was scrubbed and revitalized. Berlin had decreed that anyone who did not look healthy enough or characteristically Jewish enough was to be immediately shipped east, a policy resulting in some seven thousand inmates and a whole TB ward being herded off.

barbed-wire.jpgBarbed wire

Sebald is at pains to communicate the grotesque deception and pregnant tragedy of this assiduous preparation, how Terezin reversed to a sham of its former state, a theatrical folly with its doomed players cast in their elected roles, the majority of whom were ‘rewarded’ by being transported east anyway soon after. He homes in on the relentless activity in the smithy, the pottery, the sewing and weaving workshops, the incessant ‘hammering, cutting, gluing and stitching…’ The prisoners are seized in a frenzy of progressive labour that mirrors the craftsmanship of the exterior world they have left, where something honestly made is for a useful purpose, while here there is no purpose, since all is a facade.

And in the false ‘El Dorado’ of this new Terezin, they are forced to smile, cheer and show those very emotions which are the antithesis of their appalling situation. Everything is thus turned on its head. Insanity prevails and any response fattened on a preceding history simply collapses in its tracks. Sebald also records the stringent refurbishments and new civic creations; ‘children’s playgrounds, paddling pools, a coffee house with sun umbrellas, a cinema, shops stocked with provisions borrowed from the SS stores…’

Nothing was left to chance, no expense spared, every detail pored over. On the day of the inspection the pavements were scrubbed with soap, the bread ration was handed out by men in white drill gloves... Sebald reports these incredible facts benignly, methodically, so that the sense of the plausible is intimately shadowed by the implausible. It was as if the SS were using the opportunity not only to fool the Red Cross and the world, but were also revelling in this chance to further torture their victims, to tempt them with a world they would never see again. Not content with murdering them, they sought to humiliate them before death, the creation of the model town almost luring them onto ever greater psychopathic indulgences. In this passage Sebald culminates with the haunting image from the film of the residents, carefully choreographed, flocking to the ramparts at the end of a working day, or as he puts it ‘to take the air, almost as if they were passengers enjoying an evening stroll on the deck of an ocean going steamer…’

In all this, Sebald seems to be questioning not the embalmed rhetoric of ‘how can it have happened’, but how can it have happened ‘in this particular way’ and how can we return to our lives knowing this happened, how can we mirror such activities and not feel something of the resonance of those silent condemned individuals on the temporary Terezin stage within its grim fortified walls, enacting our future lives for us. This sense of sudden breaches in the dyke of linear continuation, a malign otherness, of something constantly jarring our consciousness, some ‘thing’ recumbent, unaddressed, still languishing in the tidal outflow of atrocity, awaiting our true response, is exacerbated by the ingenious device of the tape of the Terezin film, which Austerlitz views at a slower speed in an attempt to discern Agata’s face in the crowd.

Here a merry polka becomes ‘a funeral march dragging along at a grotesquely sluggish pace’, while the strenuous high pitched German voiceover becomes ‘a menacing growl’. The workers with their needles and thread are reduced in slow motion to dream-bound marionettes who ‘looked wearily up to the camera’. Now the people are truly adrift, lacking all purchase on reality, moving, as Sebald suggests, ‘in a kind of subterranean world, through the most nightmarish depths, to which no human voice has ever descended’.

Would it not be too outlandish a presumption that these same depths are physically manifest in the descending casement of Breendonk where Sebald, at risk of interment, is overcome by nausea and ‘black striations across the eyes’? Are not these forts, with their morbidly affluent architecture, their gratuitously symbolic moats and ramparts, their labyrinthine tunnels, stark cobbled courtyards, permanently chilled passages, dungeon-like cells and sepulchral casements, physical manifestations of a Piranesian descent into folly, nightmare and human extinction itself, yet also the warning beacon of a past which has learnt to secrete itself beneath the carapace of certain infected landscapes and edifices, from which it will intermittently spring to assault a selective amnesia, or that necessary rational ‘accommodation’, of impossible realities which flatters the instinct for human prolongation?

And is this amnesia or secret complacency, which blooms from that obscure selection of what is overlooked and what is compromised by saturation and interference via the current frantic exertions of the Holocaust market place, likely to be dented by the subtle soundings of Austerlitz? The following lines, left by an unfortunate caught up in the hell of Terezin, that somehow seem to look forward to, and commend, Sebald’s lonely vigil, may help fill the space left by the absence of any answer. ‘The heaviest wheel rolls across our foreheads to bury itself somewhere deep inside our memories…’

WG Sebald’s books are all widely available.

Will Stone is an acclaimed writer and translator. He lives in Suffolk. A version of this paper was given at a conference on Sebald’s work at UEA, Norwich in 2008.