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Nazi Camp as Mecca for Artists?

An hour’s train ride from the Prague station from which thousands of Jews were deported in winter 1941, in a derelict small town pierced with unreal silence, Petr Larva has a dream. He imagines visual artists from all over the world converging on his adopted town, to live and work and exhibit. He imagines a shattered populace resurrected by the power of art — a town enlivened, even saved.

But this isn’t just any town. It’s Terezin, Theresienstadt in German, once a concentration camp en route to Auschwitz that is now, though barely, a functioning enclave of a few thousand, many elderly.

It’s here, to this town founded in the early 19th century as a fortress in tribute to Empress Maria Theresa, that the Nazis established a Potemkin village camp to house mostly Czech Jews, a stop-off for artists, the intelligentsia and the politically minded to serve the Reich’s propaganda aims. When the Red Cross requested the right to tour a camp to ensure that they were run “hygienically” and “humanely,” the Nazis invited them here, to where musicians like Viktor Ullmann and Gideon Klein once held sway and nominal Jewish autonomy was merely a pawn in the Nazi’s larger solution. After the war, with all the town’s inhabitants cleared out by the Nazis, the Soviets resettled these crumbling buildings mostly with so-called “undesirables” such as Gypsies and invalids; 15 years after the fall of communism, Terezin is still one of the strangest places in all of Europe, a tourist attraction with tourists who never stay the night, a town beset by financial and identity crisis.

Five years ago, Prague-born glass artist Petr Larva leased two adjoining buildings here, just off the main square — an old Wehrmacht armory and the Central Depot for Confiscated Items — with the idea of launching Mecca, the Middle European Colony for Contemporary Art, a forum which hopes to provide facilities for resident artists, stage exhibitions and film festivals, and generally jump-start the depressed town into something resembling its new, albeit mostly notional, position as a European Union city.

“Terezin has a unique status as an artistic place, and under terrible conditions,” Larva said recently, while giving a tour of Mecca’s enormous facility. “But, aside from art, it also has a responsibility to talk about human rights.”

To that end, Mecca’s current exhibitions are a panoply of pure art and political intent. Most interesting are three rooms — old mechanics’ bays — of Jindrich Streit’s black-and-white photographs from Chechnya, seemingly commonplace images of school assemblies and bathing kids given incredible weight not only through the unavoidable political prism but also through Streit’s masterful avoidance of sentimentality and exoticism.

Israeli-born Yasha Rozov’s two exhibitions are also virtuoso balancing-acts of politics and art: The first, entitled Israel Uncensored, presents his political posters and those of his Israeli friends and students regarding the immediate past, present and future of the Jewish State. From half a neon Jaffa orange impaled on the Dome of the Rock, to people-shaped sections of the infamous security fence out riding a bus, these posters not only provide Europe with a fine example of informed dissent from within, they also manage to be amazingly colorful, high-design and humorous in a manner of subtle self-deprecation.

“This is only half the idea of Mecca,” Larva insisted as he led the way through the facility’s falling-apart top-floor theater, which once held premieres of musical and theatrical works by camp inmates. “Soon we will host our first resident artists, and we hope that their interactions with the people of this town will somehow change things, for the better.”

Larva then provided some detail about the insanity of his undertaking: A once-in-a-century flood two years ago — which shut down Terezin for weeks — destroyed almost all his initial reconstruction; a million euros is still needed for funding, which Larva hopes can be obtained on his upcoming trip to meet with benefactors in the United States; and on top of all this, the mayor of Terezin recently has decided to cut the center’s electricity for the winter — a measure that Larva, aided by Pavel Dostal, the Czech minister of culture and various European Union arts and architecture cooperatives (most of them German), are fighting tirelessly.

Still, Larva’s dream is close to becoming a waking, creating reality. The exhibitions are up, and are both aesthetically and intellectually formidable; the rooms of the two buildings are slowly being transformed into studio and living space and, most importantly, the word is out among greater Europe that something is happening in Terezin, that a broken town is getting a chance at a new soul.

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