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"Families Gone to Ash": The Poignant Photo Essay Inspired by a UT Maymester

Dennis Darling Terezin Photo Essay Prague

Entering the gates of Terezin, an 18th-century stone-walled fortress just outside of Prague, you're greeted by the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei"—'Work will set you free' in German—painted above the archway entrance. UT professor and well-known photographer Dennis Darling describes the garrison town, also known as Theresienstadt, as being almost frozen in time. Its structures, once home to thousands upon thousands of Jews imprisoned by Nazi forces, remain wholly untouched—from the overcrowded barracks to the silent gallows and the haunting echoes of the ghetto's crematorium.

Between 1941 and 1945, more than 150,000 Jews made their way through Terezin, a transit camp that served as a waystation of sorts between extermination camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Nazis repurposed the Czech fortress, which could comfortably house 6,000 to 8,000 residents, into a ghetto designed to keep 70,000+ Jews at a time trapped inside its walls. 

Darling first stepped foot inside the Terezin fortress seven years ago. In Prague to teach his Documentary Photography Storytelling Maymester course in 2007, Darling hitched a ride on another university's bus tour while his students were off traveling for the weekend. Little did he know that one day spent exploring the outskirts of Prague would affect him so deeply—and would still be influencing his photography years later.

"I was taken aback that this place even existed to begin with," Darling recalls. "It was very moving, and I contacted our program provider as soon as we got back to schedule a visit for my class the next year. That's when they told me they had some survivors who would gladly take us around and share their stories."

With many of its inhabitants coming from Bohemia, Terezin was known for its unique creative activity, which was uncharacteristically condoned by senior Nazis. Imprisoned composers, directors, artists, and musicians were allowed to practice their art within the fortress walls. Children drew. Because Terezin was strictly a transit camp, its residents were not tattooed, wore their own clothing, and didn't have their heads shaved. Families were even allowed to co-mingle.

Dennis Darling terezin students with holocaust survivorThat's not to say that Terezin inhabitants escaped the horrors of what we traditionally understand the concentration camp experience to have been. More than 144,000 Jews were transported through Terezin in its four years of operation; of those, 88,000 were shipped west to death camps. 33,000 died of starvation and disease, which ran rampant due to massive overcrowding within the fortress walls. It's estimated that only 3,000 Terezin residents survived.

So profoundly impacted by his visit to Terezin that May, Darling set his mind to capturing images of its survivors—a true race against the clock, considering most living Holocaust survivors, who were children at the time, are now in their 80s and 90s. The result is a documentary photo essay entitled "Families Gone to Ash," which has been featured on NPR and will be exhibited in the Prague United States Embassy on June 18. In it, Darling photographs remaining survivors in locations relevant to their experiences in Terezin, from the Terezin Hospital where one woman's mother died, to the Sudeten Barrack where one man was first held upon his arrival to the camp.

"Up until that point, I'd never met a Holocaust survivor," Darling says, "and it was difficult to get them interested in being photographed. Luckily, I managed to get Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor at the time. Alice was my Mona Lisa; everybody knew her, and others began to think, 'Well, if she let this schmuck take her photo, then maybe I should, too.'"

So far, Darling has been able to take nearly 70 portraits for the project. After he finishes up teaching in Prague next week, he will spend some time lecturing at conferences and photographing a few survivors he has made contact with in London. Visits to Israel and Berlin are also on his to-do list, thanks to connections he's made with groups of survivors that landed in those areas following the camp's liberation in May 1945. After three summers of working on this series in earnest, Darling says the project is still far from over, which serves as a practical take-away for any of his students vying to become professional documentary photographers.

"It's definitely a lesson in perserverance," Darling says. "I've done primary research—digging down, finding contacts, and following through. Photography is maybe 5 percent of this project; the rest of it is just combing books. I've written 500 letters. It's like the difference between running a sprint and doing a marathon." 

Today, as urban sprawl forces Prague outwards, the Terezin fortress is in danger of disappearing. But thanks to Darling's poignant portraits, the stories of its survivors never will.

"Families Gone to Ash" will be on display at the Prague United States Embassy on Wednesday, June 18. To see more photos from the series, visit the Alcalde website.

Story by Jordan Schraeder

Top, Andula Lorencova was imprisoned with her mother and brother at Terezin. Inset, a group of Darling's Maymester students gather around a Terezin survivor. Photos by Dennis Darling.