Literature Study GuidesAusterlitzPart 13 Austerlitz Researches Theresienstadt 1990s Summary

Austerlitz | Study Guide

W. G. Sebald

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Austerlitz | Part 13 (Austerlitz Researches Theresienstadt, 1990s) | Summary



In 1997 London Austerlitz and the narrator take a walk, passing St. Clement's Hospital and a cemetery. Austerlitz returns to the story of his recent past. The novel includes two photographs of the cemetery and one image of the hospital.

After returning from his travels in Bohemia, Austerlitz consoled himself by memorizing the names and death dates on the cemetery gravestones. He started suffering crippling anxiety attacks and was hospitalized at St. Clement's. He wasn't released until April, a year after his return from Prague. On a doctor's advice, he took up gardening for the next two years. Photographs show a fellow gardener and a row of plants.

During this time Austerlitz began to research the Terezin ghetto, also known by its German name Theresienstadt. He read German writer and Theresienstadt survivor H.G. Adler's (1910–88) book about the camp, struggling to understand the long, bureaucratic German phrases of "pseudo-technical jargon" in the book. He was more disturbed, however, to learn about conditions at Theresienstadt. Thousands of people were crammed into tiny spaces and forced to work in factories for no pay. Many were assigned to cart away dead bodies. Images include a full-page illustration of the ghetto's star-shaped layout and a printed list of prisoners' work assignments.

Elderly prisoners, Austerlitz learned, were often led to believe they were going to a resort. Instead they were locked in a psychiatric ward, where many died almost immediately. The death toll rose between 1942 and 1943, just as the Nazis had planned. An image shows a postage stamp with a picture of trees and mountains labeled "Theresienstadt." His research also uncovers the Nazi's obsessively meticulous organization, planning, and administration to keep Theresienstadt running. As new prisoners arrived and others were sent away to death camps, officials took constant censuses of residents. One census on November 10, 1943, left thousands of prisoners standing all day in the pouring rain.

In early 1944, however, Theresienstadt guards began preparing for a Red Cross visit in the summer. Wanting to hide the ghetto's true purpose—to exterminate Jews—officials began an improvement campaign. Prisoners cleaned the grounds and planted roses, entertainment facilities were constructed, and thousands of "less presentable inmates" were sent east to death camps. As a result, Danish and Swiss Red Cross officials saw contented, well-fed inmates enjoying a variety of activities.

The Germans even recorded a film. In March 1945 the film was given a score of Jewish folk music. By then, many prisoners featured in it were dead. Austerlitz wondered whether his mother would appear in the film as a young woman. He tracked down a fragment of the film, but the scenes were short and the images grainy. When he watched the scenes in slow motion, the bodies on screen looked ghostly, not industrious, and the cheerful Austrian polka soundtrack sounded like a funeral march. A male voice became a growl Austerlitz had heard only from tigers in captivity. Two pages show large still images out of focus.

The end of the film showed a musical performance of a piece composed in Theresienstadt by Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899–1944). In the audience Austerlitz saw a woman who looked just as he imagined Agáta Austerlitzová. A photograph shows a blurry still of the woman.

At the beginning of 1997, Austerlitz continues, he returned to Prague and visited Vera Ryšanová. Searching through the 1938–39 city theatrical archives for a photo of his mother, he finally found a picture he seemed to recognize. Vera confirmed that the woman in the photo was Agáta. The photo of a young woman's face is included in the novel.


Feeling a responsibility to keep the past alive, Austerlitz memorizes the names of the dead as a way to honor them. Although he now knows about his family, he lacks the resolution and closure he's been looking for. If anything, he feels more alone than he did before. This enduring misery shows how refugee trauma can last well into adulthood and gives a sense of the Holocaust's long-term effects on those who survived.

He finds refuge in nature and in the coping mechanism of research. Theresienstadt, the German name for Terezin, is the term Sebald uses here because most of this section's facts come from German writer H.G. Adler. As one of only 3,500 Theresienstadt survivors—out of the nearly 150,000 prisoners who passed through the camp—Adler describes his experience in Theresienstadt 1941–1945: The Face of a Coerced Community (1955). He accuses the Nazis of turning "life into masses" and "the human being into a commodity," connecting Nazi bureaucracy to the impersonal, power-hungry nature of the modern era.

The novel makes a similar connection through the complicated German phrases Austerlitz struggles to read. German philosopher Theodor Adorno believed the German language was corrupted after the Holocaust because of the crimes its speakers permitted. Sebald includes a full-page photo of German text so readers can confront the language on the page in the context of the Theresienstadt camp. Though Austerlitz hints at the deeper meanings of the words, he doesn't reveal these meanings, thus leading readers to assume the worst. Finding the Nazis' "fascist jargon" unbelievable, Sebald wanted to provide historical evidence for readers. Likewise, Austerlitz describes the process of deciphering the phrases as "incomprehensible and unreal." When Austerlitz lists the many areas where prisoners worked, the narrative returns to Sebald's listing technique. Here it becomes a somewhat more understandable way for writer and reader to manage the enormity of what Theresienstadt was: a way station to a death camp.

Again the book uses layers and chains of narration to distance readers from the weight of the facts. Austerlitz is now relating Adler's observations, but readers hear Austerlitz's secondhand account as a scholar, not Adler's voice as a survivor. Austerlitz is overwhelmed, and Sebald's sentences become breathless and long. The sentence beginning "It seemed unpardonable to me today" runs for several pages with clauses set apart by commas. This sentence structure forces readers to keep paying attention without the break a period permits.

The "crazed administrative zeal" Austerlitz observes in the Theresienstadt plans shows the Nazis' obsessive preoccupation with order and efficiency. The image of the postage stamp highlights the contrast between the resort promised to elderly Terezin prisoners and the reality of the camps.

The Theresienstadt "improvement campaign" was a Nazi propaganda stunt for which the camp is still known. It worked so well that much of the world continued to believe Theresienstadt was a comfortable place for Jewish residents. However, The Nazis deliberately set up Theresienstadt to hide the true nature of the death camps. They filled the ghetto with musicians, writers, and performance artists, like Austerlitz's mother, and with elderly German Jews who the Nazis claimed were engaged in productive work. Like many of the truths the novel explores, the reality about Theresienstadt was hidden from the world for years.

Denmark was one of the few European countries whose leaders asked questions when its Jewish citizens were deported. But after their visit to the artificial camp, the Danish and International Red Cross representatives were convinced Hitler had made a pleasant city for the Jews.

The film, intended as propaganda to continue the hoax, paradoxically ends up bringing the dead to life once more. Austerlitz is again looking at people he can't save. After filming was completed, the Nazis shipped the entire cast to Auschwitz. The film's blurry stills resemble Austerlitz's visions of the dead walking beside him. They also reflect his own memories, which, like the film stills, often seem to disappear as soon as they appear. Austerlitz knows that the truth—how the prisoners felt and how they lived—will always be as blurry as these images. The musical pieces remind him of an underwater world much like the drowned city of Llanwddyn. Pavel Haas, the composer whose music Austerlitz recognizes, was a Theresienstadt prisoner later killed at Auschwitz, too.

Unlike photographs, however, film can be sped up or slowed down, giving viewers an entirely different perspective. In slow motion Austerlitz can see the prisoners' real despair. They seem to be hovering like ghosts. The howl he hears in the slow-motion soundtrack resembles an animal, hinting at the true horror of captivity.

But the images also give Austerlitz a chance to see his mother as an ordinary middle-class woman living an ordinary life. The woman in the film isn't really Agáta, who is fictional. But it is of a woman who endured Theresienstadt and most likely died at Auschwitz. The clearest film image in the book, her face provides Austerlitz with a distinct connection he hasn't felt before.

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