Exhibition “No Night So Dark” tells an emotional story about the Holocaust and a family’s treasure out of a black box.
In the midst of the illuminated space of a First Republic’s villa on top of a hill in Prague stands an open giant black box right next to a grand piano. With 1930s music playing from a radio in the background, the exhibit “No Night So Dark” resonates in the ears of the visitors when they enter. The Winternitz villa in Smíchov hosts the story of a Jewish family that ought to have been forgotten, but is now being remembered.
In 2014, David Vaughan, the curator of the exhibition and a British radio journalist, who has been living in the Czech Republic since 1991, met with Colin Wels in Prague. Born and raised in the UK, Colin is the son of a Czech Holocaust survivor, but much of his father’s past had been kept secret from him most of his life.
It was not until 1984 that Colin first found out about a family treasure in a cupboard nicknamed “the Black Elephant”. Inside was a box left behind for decades full of letters from the relatices, family photographs, children’s sketches and paintings, and including a hand-written book from 1919 “U Bernatů” by Colin’s great-grandfather, Šimon Wels.
“I became fascinated by the story of [Colin’s] search for his family’s past,” said Vaughan who initially made a series of radio programmes based on the family story for the Czech Radio.
Colin only remembered the box when his father, Tomáš, was transported to a hospital to undergo a heart surgery. “I want to tell you about my past,” said Tomáš to Colin on his hospital bed, as David Vaughan reconstructs their conversation.
Three days later, Tomáš was hit by a strong stroke and never spoke again. The need to find and tell the story about a family that ought to have been forgotten began.
Tomáš Wels was born to a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia and was the only one of the Wels family to survive the horrors of World War II. Tomáš’s mother (Ida), father (Rudolf), and younger brother (Martin) were killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“This is a story that the Nazis wanted to destroy. Martin, Ida and Rudolf, along with many other members of their broader family, were murdered,” said Vaughan. “They were silenced, so I felt it was important to tell their story, to give them a voice,” he said.
A true family gold
The collection of photos and documents in the Black Elephant offered, according to Vaughan, not just an insight into one’s family life, but a historical and social context of the era too.
There was also a colourful book called “Sancta Familia” which Tomáš and Martin (as children) wrote and illustrated, depicting the everyday interwar lives of the Wels family.
“I felt that the wealth of material preserved in the family archive was of great value in its own right. For example, Šimon Wels’s U Bernatů has great literary qualities, and Sancta Familia is a unique and fascinating document. Its illustrations show the great potential that Martin Wels had as an artist,” said Vaughan.
The full title of the exhibition, “There is no night so dark, that it is not followed by the dawning of a new day,” is actually a quote taken from the book U Bernatů.
And so today, a symbolic model of the Black Elephant, much bigger in size, with duplicates of the family material stands in the living room of the Winternitz villa for visitors to see. It represents the chaos and enthusiasm Colin Wels and David Vaughan had to go through to bring the exhibition to life.
“There is a huge amount of material – much of it handwritten – and even several years later, I am still coming across things (details in letters, notes scribbled on the back of photos) that I hadn’t noticed before,” said Vaughan.
One of the most imposing parts of the story is Tomáš Wels’s fate. He managed to escape the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. Taking a route through the not-yet-invaded Poland, he got to the UK. He served in the Royal Air Force up until the end of the war and settled there for the rest of his life.
The fate of Tomáš’s family is bitterly ironic, demonstrating the hopelessness of the time. Rudolf, Ida, and Martin applied for American visas at the beginning of the war. The reply of the embassy is part of the exhibit.
“Under the present immigration laws, it is assumed that your turn might be reached within the next fiscal year, i.e. between July 1 1939 and June 30 1940. This estimation of your waiting time is given without any obligation,” the U.S. Embassy replied.
“All the so-called Western countries were guilty of not doing enough to help Jewish people in the face of the Nazi threat, not just the United States,” said Vaughan. “The language is bureaucratic, at first sight it seems neutral, but its consequences are tragic,” he said.
The Black Elephant was the last physical memory Tomáš had about his family. After finding out they had been killed by the Nazis, he took the box with him back to Britain but never looked inside.
More than just a building
Vaughan decided to house the exhibition in Prague’s Winternitz villa because of its connection to the Wels family.
“For a start, it is a wonderful building,” said Vaughan. “Secondly it has direct relevance to the story,” he said.
Before World War I, Tomáš’s father, Rudolf Wels, went to study architecture in Vienna. He was a student of Adolf Loos, one of the most influential architects at that time in Europe and the architect of the Winternitz villa.
In addition, Josef Winternitz, who originally commissioned the villa, also perished in Auschwitz, according to Vaughan.
The design and atmosphere of the villa further interlinks with the exhibition as it illustrates the era of the Czechoslovakian First Republic. The villa has two spacious terraces overlooking the Czech capital, a narrow staircase connecting four levels, and at the top, small rooms with period furniture intertwine chapters of the Wels’ story.
“In a sense the villa is part of the exhibition. It creates a particular ‘genius loci’,” said Vaughan.
Vaughan is also the author of several books so his next goal is to write a book about the rediscovery of the Wels’ family history.
“The exhibition tells only a very small part of the family story and uses only a fraction of my research,” he said. “I am also interested in looking in greater depth at the significance of the story from our own time,” he said.
The “No Night So Dark” exhibition in the Winternitz villa ended prematurely due to the Covid shutdown. Visitors can hopefully see it in the future in Berlin, beginning February 2021, or in the Czech Centre in Munich sometime later in 2021.