Touching Ground

Visiting the Concentration Camps of What the Night Sings

By Vesper Stamper

On New Year’s Eve, as the ball dropped into 2011, I was drawing a little girl clinging to the legs of a flying eagle. It was the first time in my years as an illustrator that I truly felt a story come to me. That story grew into the first novel I wrote, an as-yet-unpublished work set in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. As I wrote, I began to feel that if I were going to write as authentically as possible, a place so otherworldly could only be experienced first-hand. So in 2013, I traveled on an arts grant to a little village on the edge of the world, where I lived for several weeks until I felt I knew the soil and sea well enough to write about them.

My research on What the Night Sings in 2016 was a different matter. I was in graduate school in Manhattan at the time, with a grueling classroom and studio schedule. I did as much research as I could in New York—which was, thankfully, readily accessible—but it quickly became apparent that I could not do justice to this story without walking in the footsteps of my character, sixteen-year-old Gerta Rausch. What grad school did offer was Spring Break. So I asked my trusted friend, Noelle, to come with me on a whirlwind journey through three countries in five days.

Coordinating a trip like this is daunting when you’re short on time. I chose to drive, rather than take the train, mostly because connections were harder to make to some of the off-the-beaten-path locations I was aiming for. Driving also actively connected me to the ground in a way that trains don’t seem to.

We flew into Frankfurt and immediately drove north to Bergen Belsen, arriving just before closing, as the sun was setting. Nevertheless, the research department, whom I had contacted beforehand, welcomed me in and answered my most obscure questions, and let me handle archived copies of Unzer Styme, the camp newspaper produced by survivors who lived in the displaced persons camp until 1951.

From the work I had already done on the book, I knew that we would be having some emotionally difficult days ahead of us, so I made sure our evenings would help us to unwind, reflect and refresh for the next day. We ate good meals and stayed in good hotels, and attended local classical music concerts. We tried to laugh in the evenings as much as we could. Noelle made sure I was taking care of myself, and I felt a certain amount of guilt about that, but I kept reminding myself that in order to communicate the hard truths of the Holocaust, and to be as sensitive as I could, my body itself had to be one of my art tools.

During the days, we spent hours in the car, talking, thinking through the manuscript and the relationships depicted within it. Noelle was researching and writing on the subject of friendship, for what would eventually become her podcast, Friending. So we had plenty to process as we explored the relationship between Gerta and Lev, and together discovered the character Roza, the antagonist who winds up having a surprising influence on Gerta after liberation.

From Belsen, we drove to Terezìn, a former garrison town just north of Prague, which functioned as the concentration camp called Teresienstadt. I knew about Teresienstadt from the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of drawings done by children in the camp. What we discovered was a place of extreme paradox: a quaint little European town painted in pastel colors, with beautiful doors and a large town square. But this was far from the whole truth about this still-inhabited town.

Teresienstadt was a place of deep duplicity. The Nazis had billed it as a kind of spa town, even charging people to relocate there. The wealthy, the elderly, whole families, and especially artists and intellectuals were deported to Teresienstadt, where they quickly learned the conditions were anything but luxurious. Disease and infestation were rampant, with up to eighty people crammed into small rooms lined with narrow bunk beds. Still, art and learning flourished there; plays and concerts were performed. By day, the artists were forced to create propaganda work; by night, their pencils came out to depict—on pain of death—the true squalor and misery of their living conditions.

Teresienstadt was probably the place with the most surprises, because it was a place out of time, and had its own idiosyncratic culture that was like no other camp.

We drove to Auschwitz the next morning, on a frigid, misty March day. We arrived just before opening at the smaller camp, Auschwitz I, which functioned mainly as a labor camp but was the site of the first experimental gassing, in the basement of Block 11. The gas chamber/crematorium building at the other end of this camp was one of the most sacred spaces I’ve ever been in, and I still choose not to put words to it.

This is the camp with the famous “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate, which is far smaller than it seems in photographs. In fact, Auschwitz I is a fairly human-scale place. By contrast, however, the second camp, Birkenau, about 2 kilometers up the road, is decidedly industrial, as it was built specifically as a mass-killing factory. Its vastness cannot be overstated. It is truly a place to be experienced rather than read about. I suggest that everyone should visit it at least once in their lives if they can; that is, if they wish to look deeply and unflinchingly into the truth about human nature.

To say we flew out of Poland would not be an exaggeration. We had a couple of days to ourselves, and we went to Nuremberg, where I was born, and then to a small spa town for a soak in the mineral springs before heading back to the United States.

Touching ground in places of dark evil like these, that also happen to be in the land of my birth, left me with emotions that reside in a place words cannot yet access. Not every writer needs to physically go to the places they write about. Maybe because I’m also an illustrator, I’m highly sensory and affected by place. There are angles from which I need to see things as an artist for which a photograph or documentary won’t suffice. You just have to go there.

See some of the photos Vesper took during her time researching.

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