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  • 1 Social Text 122 s Vol. 33, No. 1 s March 2015

    DOI 10.1215/01642472- 2831844 2015 Duke University Press

    Shouldnt truth itself, as transitivity and incessant transition of a continual coming and going, be listened to rather than seen? But isnt it also in the way that it stops being itself and identifiable? Jean- Luc Nancy

    Boven Digoel was an isolation camp, built in the deepest of the jungles of the Dutch East Indies. Indonesians who attempted to overthrow the colo-nial government in the fall of 1926 and the spring of 1927 were interned in the camp. The internment, for the rebels and their families, was for an undetermined period of time, and few were released before the camp was evacuated in 1943 when Dutch rule appeared to be over and the Japanese armies were approaching.

    Terezn (Theresienstadt), a Czech town sixty kilometers from Prague, was emptied of its original population in 1942 and made into a ghetto for the Jews who did not manage to escape from Europe in time. Initially designed as a camp for elderly and privileged Jews, the ghetto remained moderate by Nazi standards. Nevertheless, most of the Jews were gradu-ally transported from Terezn to Auschwitz and the other camps of death.

    The two camps could not differ more one from the other. Boven Digoel was in the East, in the wilderness; the other was built in the heart of Europe. Political radicals were kept in Boven Digoel; Jews were locked in Terezn because of their grandmother. Terezn belonged to the Holo-caust; Boven Digoel belonged to colonialism.

    1. Camps as Cans

    Red brick eighteenth- century walls with bastions surrounded the Jews in Terezn. The town was built as a Habsburg fortress against Prussia.

    Thick Whisper and Thin VictoryConcentration Camps Contribution to Modern Acoustics

    Rudolf Mrzek

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  • 2 Mrzek Concentration Camps Contribution to Modern Acoustics

    Josef II, the father of the homeland . . . on October 10, 1780, laid the cor-nerstone of this eternal edifice, according to a Latin inscription on one of the fortress walls.1

    Inside the walls,

    all the Barracks of Terezn were built with the same design. The quadrangu-lar courtyards with archways and wide encircling loggias are pleasantly rem-iniscent of the architecture of Southern monasteries. There is also a practical reason for this plan an alarm signal sounded from the center of the court-yard must be equally audible in all surrounding dwellings.2

    No walls surrounded Boven Digoel no bastions, and not even a wire. There was a forest instead, huge with no roads. There was perma-nent twilight in a forest filled with marshes, mosquitoes, snakes, rivers with crocodiles, and the people of the forest, the most primitive men on the surface of the earth, as the Dutch authorities in the camp liked to point out, head- cutters and cannibals.

    But neither of the two camps was an oubliette. Neither the walls nor the forest completely deadened the noise and voices from the outside. It was not about these two camps that these words were written in the Book of Job: Down there bad men bustle no more, / there the very rest. / Prisoners, all left in peace, / hear no more the shouts there of the gaoler.3

    The Jews in Terezn heard the bells from a nearby village church. A motorway from Prague to Berlin cut through the ghetto. It was separated from the barracks and houses where the Jews lived by a six- foot wooden fence on both sides. But the people in the ghetto heard cars, trucks, buses, and bicycles, even pedestrians as they passed through. They could only hear them. Sometimes, Aryan relatives came to the wooden fence that separated the ghetto from the main road, once the time and place of meet-ing had been determined through a go- between, in order to exchange a few words with relatives, even if they could not see their faces.4 Planes of both the Nazis and the Allies flew over the ghetto on their missions to Prague, Dresden, or Berlin. And when the siren woke us at night, first we were scared. . . . The fast fighters cut the skies with their lightning speed; one could hardly follow them with eyes.5

    In Boven Digoel, with no nearby village or town that modern people of the camp would call village or town, the internees listened for sounds around the camp with no less eagerness than the Jews in Terezn. The survivors of Boven Digoel vividly recall hearing the forest: We felt our-selves in the middle of the primeval forest nobodies and helpless. . . . It was all indescribable! A forest without monkeys, elephants and tigers, but with wild swine, cassowaries, birds and especially reptiles. All completely

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  • 3 Social Text 122 s March 2015

    other than the fauna of Sumatra!6 All but very few internees came from either Java or Sumatra, the big islands in the west of the huge Indies archipelago. Boven Digoel was on the very eastern edge of it. The famous Wallace divide between Asia and Melanesia lay between the camp and home. Monkeys did not screech around Boven Digoel, and the birds, some internees recalled, could not sing.7

    Planes flew over Boven Digoel, too. As the war in the Pacific broke out, Japanese planes appeared over the camp. As in Terezn, the planes were eagerly awaited listened for. As soon as the roar of the motors could be heard, the guards pushed the internees inside. Many internees disre-garded the orders. They waved to the planes with whatever they could put their hands on at the moment the Japanese were the enemies of the Dutch and so the friends of many in the camp. Like in Terezn, in Boven Digoel the planes roared like freedom.8 The internees in either camp might cry out with Wagners Tristan: What, am I hearing light?9

    Every six weeks a Dutch government steamer came up the Digul River to the camp with a load of guards, internees, supplies, and letters. Like the sound of planes, the ships whistle was eagerly listened for and could be heard days before the ship became visible at the turn of the river bend.

    s s sThe camps face me like a painting on canvas now, like the Warhol paint-ing of the Campbells soup cans. Warhol must just provoke me. The cans cannot be as depthless as he makes them look. Are they full? If so, how does their fullness sound? Is this what a scholar should be provoked to to put an ear to the cans, to put an ear to the camps?

    can, noun: 1. A cylindrical metal container; 2. Informal, prison; 3. Informal, the toilet. Verb: . . . 1. Preserve (food) in a can; 2. Informal, dismiss (some-one) from their job . . . reject (something) as inadequate. . . . Phrases: a can of worms, a complicated matter likely to prove awkward or embarrassing.10

    When I was about seven, I helped my mother make preserves. I pushed the lids down. Each can was a vessel to keep inside what naturally was of the outside. If fresh air got in, the preserves would be spoiled. When I put my ear to the can, and when I could hear a bubbling sound from the inside, it was a sign of disaster. The can might even explode. Of course, this is a metaphor.

    At Belzec . . . a German visitor, Professor Pfannenstiel, wanted to know what was going on inside [of a gas chamber]. He is said to have put his ear to the wall and, listening, to have remarked: Just like in a synagogue.11

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  • 4 Mrzek Concentration Camps Contribution to Modern Acoustics

    The camps were like cans, and like vessels, but not of the Heideggerian sense, the manifold of the world: of clay formed into a shape by human hand, dried in the sun to hold water or wine, blessed by gods, the source of life. The essence of the camps as cans was fully in their function to shut and to open, to compress to concentrate.

    2. Calling from the Outside

    The walls around Terezn and the forest around Boven Digoel did not deaden the sound from the outside. They reverberated with it. The sound from the outside reached the camps, but its fullness was produced by the enclosures. What the camps heard of the world beyond the camps was the enclosure sounding.

    History mentions tapes or relays as the inevitable fixtures of the Russian czarist penal colonies.12 Through the relays, tapes, or halting stations, the exiles as well as the guards journeyed from Europe to the camps. The relays on the way made them, one relay at a time, into the camp people.13 A relay is

    1. A group of people or animals engaged in a task or activity for a fixed period of time and then replaced by a similar group . . . ; 2. An electrical device, typically incorporating an electromagnet, that is activated by a cur-rent or signal in one circuit to open or close another circuit; 3. A device to receive, reinforce, and retransmit a broadcast or program; a message or program transmitted by such a device. . . . Origin: . . . based on Latin laxare slacken.

    There could never be certainty in the camps about the truthfulness of the sounds heard from the outside. The walls, the forest, the enclosures around the camps, and the distance the tape, the relays let through or stopped, muffled or amplified the sounds. This incertitude about the sounds, in fact, is what the camp people describe when they say what they heard.

    There were Czech gendarmes on guard duty in Terezn (the SS guards were stationed in special quarters). On a rare and happy occa-sion an internee could overhear the Czech gendarmes talking about their home, their world after work and beyond the walls. As the government steamer was being reloaded in Boven Digoel, sailors had to wait for a few days in the camp. They might get relaxed or bored or drunk and say something to or within earshot of an internee. These bits of message that got through, of course, had also pass


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