Obscure Holocaust prison camp inspires Stanford artist-in-residence

As a boy growing up in Germany’s Black Forest — a region best known for its cuckoo clocks — Gerhard Trimpin stumbled upon a wooded area “with stone formations coming out of the brush” and inscriptions in an undecipherable language.

Thinking he had found an undiscovered archaeological site, he couldn’t wait to tell his parents.

But his parents already knew about that old Jewish cemetery — and they also knew the more recent story of why no more Jews lived in their area, and why their son had little idea of what a Jew was.

On Oct. 22, 1940, 11 years before Trimpin was born, 7,500 Jews from the Black Forest region had been deported to a little known prison camp in the Basque region of southwestern France, near the village of Gurs. Tragic fates awaited many of them.

It was before the Final Solution was implemented, and many Jews were sent to that camp in unoccupied France simply to get them out of Germany. Perhaps later they would be transported to Madagascar, they thought. But that never happened. Some 900 lucky ones, including political philosopher Hannah Arendt, escaped. And many children were transferred to other facilities and eventually found safe shelter at boarding schools.

However, some 3,900 former Gurs prisoners, including the parents and older brother of Manfred Wildmann (a longtime Menlo Park resident), were eventually turned over to the Germans and later deported to Auschwitz, where many were put to death. Many others died at Gurs.

While Gurs was neither a transit nor an extermination camp, conditions were so horrific that more than 1,000 Jews died of malnutrition and infectious diseases, according to the camp registry and other sources.

Trimpin, who was raised “nominally Protestant,” learned nothing about Jews, Gurs or the Final Solution in his German elementary school, he said during a recent interview at Stanford.

In his first history textbook, he said, “all the pages after 1933 were missing.” And as a child, he knew no Jews.

But slowly, propelled by the lingering questions of his childhood and a series of coincidences as an adult, he began to fill in the blanks.

The result is “The Gurs Zyklus” (Gurs cycle), a live performance piece that will have its world premiere Saturday, May 14, at Stanford’s Memorial Auditorium. Trimpin has been the artist in-residence at Stanford since the fall of 2010.

Commissioned by Stanford Lively Arts and sponsored in part by the Taube Center for Jewish Studies,  the piece utilizes both vocalists and actors, incorporating the letters of those who were interned at Gurs, as well as sound sculpture, projected images and kinetic set design.

He shaped the piece in collaboration with director Rinde Eckert and students at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (where Trimpin has been teaching instrument building). Lately he has been commuting from Seattle, his home since 1980.

The work of Trimpin, who goes by his last name only, crosses the boundaries of art and science, music and sculpture, teaching and technology.

Inspiration comes from a wild imagination, as well as the mathematics of Pythagoras, the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, the music of composer John Cage, the plays of Samuel Beckett and a love affair with junk. Yes, junk, as castoff items such as wooden shoes, an IBM Selectric typewriter and bobbing mechanical birds often find their way into his electromechanical contraptions.

For a previous project, he created a tower of guitars that played as a single instrument, and for the Gurs project he has created  two 30-foot teeter-totters with rolling speakers playing recorded sounds and newly composed music.

Though some describe him as a “mad scientist,” his unorthodox assemblages have led to myriad awards, including MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships and a grant from Creative Capital (a national nonprofit that supports artists) that helped fund the Gurs project.

“The Gurs Zyklus” features both his “fire organ” and “water organ,” the former producing sound as fire fills a glass tube, the latter dripping water onto piano strings. Both will be activated by human voices during the performance.

While the discovery of the Jewish cemetery in his hometown of Efringen-Kirchen first whetted his curiosity about the Jews of his region, events of his adulthood spurred the Gurs project. While studying mechanical music with the late Conlon Nancarrow, he discovered that the composer had been interned at Gurs in 1939.

That coincidence took “me back into my childhood,” he said. “What I learned later was that [the Holocaust] is an incomprehensible issue. You can talk about it, you can write about it, but I wanted a different way to express it, using visual elements [and Nancarrow’s music].”

Another fortuitous event helped bring the “Gurs Zyklus” to fruition.

When a 2006 New Yorker interview mentioned Trimpin’s interest in creating a Gurs composition, he was contacted by Victor Rosenberg. A descendant of a family interned at Gurs, Rosenberg shared with Trimpin some 200 letters sent from the camp.

Jenny Bilfield, artistic and executive director of Stanford Lively Arts, also became intrigued and invited Trimpin to pursue the Gurs project at Stanford. That move brought him into contact with Wildmann, who related his childhood memories of his journey to Gurs.

In 2008, Trimpin went on that journey himself, taking the train from southwest Germany to southwest France. He documented his journey with photographs and recordings, capturing the whistles and sounds of the train — which he uses in the show to transport audience members on a simulated journey.

The camp at Gurs was bulldozed in 1954, and nothing was left except the cemetery. Trimpin says the only “living witnesses” at Gurs are old growth trees, photos of which will be projected during the performance.

Moreover, the markings on the trees’ bark have been scanned and transcribed into a musical score using Morse code and other applications developed at Stanford. A water sculpture will honor those incarcerated, with droplets slowly forming letters to spell their names.

Trimpin hopes that the project will touch people and stimulate dialogue.

“It always will be a work in progress, because every time you do this, other coincidences will happen. It will never be a done, finished piece,” he said.

“This time can never can be forgotten,” he added. “This piece has to [be performed in] Germany … not just for the younger generation, but the older generation needs to be confronted by what happened.

“For me also, it’s a healing process. It’s healing more and more, and that’s what I had in mind.”

“The Gurs Zyklus” plays 8 p.m. May 14 at Stanford Memorial Auditorium. $10 to $68. Post-performance discussion with Trimpin and Jenny Bilfield of Stanford Lively Arts. Information: (650) 725-ARTS or livelyarts.stanford.edu.

cover:  photo/cathleen maclearie, Trimpin, the co-creator of the multimedia, live performance piece “The Gurs Zyklus”

Related story: ‘Remain strong so that you will survive’ Menlo Park man recalls internment in French camp

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is writing a memoir on her late-life romance. She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].