Barbies and barbarity: exhibition takes novel approach to post-war massacres of Germans

Photo: Lukáš Houdek

A new photography exhibition that gets underway in Prague on Thursday takes a novel approach to one of the thornier subjects in modern Czech history: the massacres that took place during the expulsion of millions Germans at the end of WWII. Photographer Lukáš Houdek has reconstructed some of those actual events – using Barbie and Ken dolls. Ahead of the opening of The Art of Killing, Houdek told me about how he prepared for the unusual project.

Photo: Lukáš Houdek
“I searched in archives materials and some historical studies and also spoke to people who saw cases or had family members killed in this way. I tried to reconstruct the situations as they happened.

“Of course, I cannot know what exactly happened, how somebody was standing and that kind of thing. But I tried to be as believable as I could be.”

What is your own relationship to the subject? I believe you yourself are from the [former German-inhabited] Sudetenland.

“Yes, I come from the Sudetenland, from the town of Stříbro. It was a German town before the war – almost 100 percent. My family came there in the 1950s. They came and got some of the houses that were left by the Germans…”

So your house when you were a child was a house that had been previously occupied by Germans?

Lukáš Houdek,  photo: Czech Television
“Not exactly. I grew up in a block of flats but my grandmother lived in that house still and my childhood happened there also [laughs], because I of course also spent my childhood with my granny. My cousins and I were trying to find treasures that Germans had left, because it was said that Germans had hidden jewellery – so we wanted to find the jewellery that they’d hid.”

Do you think it’s fair to say that this subject is back in the news these days? There was a new documentary recently about the situation in Nový Bor, where there was a massacre at the end of the war. Also the [expulsion sanctioning] Beneš decrees were an issue in the recent presidential elections. Is the subject back in the news?

“I think it is. I’m kind of surprised. It wasn’t my plan to come with the topic at this time [laughs]. You have to plan exhibitions and we planned this in November, so we couldn’t have expected it would happen. I was quite surprised and shocked that it came up in the presidential election, honestly.

Photo: Lukáš Houdek
“On the other hand, I’m very happy, because it’s still fresh and people are people are still ready to discuss it. So I think it’s good timing.”

Am I right in thinking you are critical of the typical Czech approach to the subject of the expulsions?

“Yes, exactly. I don’t try to judge the expulsions or the murders, because people were of course angry after the war and it’s very hard to judge it now.

“But what I don’t like, and what I would like to show, is just to show the cases, to say that they really existed. I want the public to say, yes, this happened, and maybe we should talk about it.

Photo: Lukáš Houdek
“That’s why I’ve done it. I’m critical of the opinion of the public and their reactions, because they get really aggressive when you start to speak about this.”

The Art of Killing begins on Thursday at the National Technical Museum, while some photos from Lukáš Houdek’s series will also be displayed on what is known as the ArtWall at the Prague embankment Nábřeží Kapitána Jaroše.