Beyond the Gate

Beyond the Gate

Salaspils: the Humiliated. Acrylic. Charles Novacek

I recently received a message from a reader of Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance. He commented “Kissing the ground of his Southfield backyard really stayed with me.” This is in reference to Charles’s statement in the book, “when we returned home, I kissed the ground in my Southfield backyard.”

Charles was referring to a trip he and his first wife Valentina made to Latvia after 1991. In Riga they visited the Salaspils Memorial located on the site of the Salaspils Camp erected by the occupying Nazi regime from 1941-1945. The memorial, erected in 1967, commemorates victims of Nazism and creates a symbol of the border between life and death with its 100-meter-long concrete wall and seven concrete sculptures: “Mother”, “The Unbroken”, “The Humiliated”, “Protest”, “Red Front”, “Solidarity” and “The Oath”.

Charles sketched what he saw at the memorial, wrote about his experience and painted the sculptures when he returned to his home in the United States. Following is an excerpt from Border Crossings re Charles’s experience:

“After 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, we were allowed to enter countries behind the Iron Curtain. For the first time since 1948, we traveled through Czechoslovakia, Russia, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, and many other places that had been prohibited to us for forty-three years.

While in Latvia, I was greatly moved by our visit to the Salaspils death camp. It seemed as if all the events that had transpired there came to life before my eyes. Our driver stopped and parked on the shoulder, and we walked to the sixty-acre death camp site, which was surrounded by eerie trees. The forest cast shadows upon the walk, making it even more chilling.

We passed by the camp marker to the gigantic concrete beam spanning over the entry, on which was carved these words: THE EARTH MOANS BEYOND THIS GATE.

The massive beam sloped from right to left with this ominous warning. The land was cut by it; on one side was life, and on the other was death.

As I walked into the camp, I felt the beating of my heart, now synchronized with the electric metronome installed underground by the artist to connect vision and emotion. The enormous beam was supported on the right by a concrete building faced with a carved granite calendar of the years 1943 to 1944. Behind it, in the field, stood the stone epitaph constructed in memory of more than one hundred thousand people. Our driver explained that the exposed aggregate paved road, the pebbled surface on which we walked, symbolized the thousands of souls killed in that concentration camp. I froze then, for I felt I was walking over a thousand corpses; then I stepped over to the concrete paved edge constructed for that purpose. My blood pressure rose; the beating of my heart resonated in my bones and I felt the dead watching me and telling me of the horrible past.

I indeed heard the earth moan and I saw the indictment; I saw it in the weakened light of the falling sun, the indictment that had the form of a light and dark body, indictment carved in stone. During the last minutes of the sunset, the huge illuminated sculptures towered over the dark woods, and I found myself frightened and intimidated by the gloom. My imagination lured me into the nightmare, and I drifted back to 1943.

Terror controlled all. The barracks, overfilled with dying men, crying women and screaming children, surrounded me. Toward the east, against the sky, I saw the silhouette of the gallows. I stood in the shadow of the central watchtower; six stories high. Skeletons crowded the way to and from the shooting fields. Barbed wire fence around the camp, barracks and the commander’s building at the gate completed the image of carefully organized murder. The Nazi killing machine came to life in calculated detail.

I felt both numb and deeply troubled. In my mind, all the prisoners around me suddenly perished, but their hearts continued to beat. My heartbeat joined in rhythm with theirs and I, too, died. The sun fell and the camp darkened. Just the penumbra remained under the branches, and the weak light reflecting through the mist lit our way out to the road. I was speechless all the way to Riga and pondered why humans fell to such monstrous levels.

This was our first journey behind the Iron Curtain, and everywhere we went we found perversions and scars from the past, remnants of the Nazis and the Soviets. Saddened by all this, when we returned home, I kissed the ground in my Southfield backyard.”

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