I was preparing a post about thread-drawings when @SoniaBoue, @katemurdochart and I had a little twitter-shoe exchange and I promised to photograph a special pair of booties which, as you will see, in the end, in the beginning, set me on today’s trail. Re-reading and editing older texts for this post I realise that many of the issues explored are still/again mine, and that, in a way, my engagement with Edith’s shoes opened up writing for me.

Seventeen years ago I bought an old pair of children’s shoes stuffed with yellowing newsprint from 1941 on a flea-market in Berlin. They looked like two of a pair: same make, same leather, similar degree of wear and tear. But the left shoe was remarkably bigger than the right one, extending the length of my hand, while the smaller one covered about two thirds of it. Still I never stopped thinking of them as a pair.

The shoes led me backwards and forward in time. All the pathways that slowly unfolded and opened up to me are entangled, make up a dense web of history, of experience, of stories told and untold. Stories of mine and stories of others.

There are many reasons why the shoes continue to move me. They have obviously been worn extensively and repaired and repaired, with tears and cracks in the leather and lots of tiny nails hand-hammered in their soles. The way their confident asymmetry is so perfectly wed with two-of-a-kindness, without making a ‘proper’ pair, and thus the impossibility of restoring them to an owner, even an imaginary one, pierces me. But what derails me is their link to war-time, fascism in Germany.

Looking at this uneven pair I thought of my cousin Edith for the first time in decades. Edith was five years older than I and died when I was 12. We only met a few times when I was small as our fathers became estranged, but I found her again in a photograph, tiny against the mass of happy relatives: Whitsuntide 1956, my mother’s and father’s engagement, the whole family photographed standing in the park. Everybody smiles, my mother’s face is lit up like I have never seen it. Edith is four years old. She stands there, her little body so tense, pressing her hands to her middle as if about to fold in onto herself. While some of the women in the photograph wear sleeveless dresses she is dressed as if for winter. The coat with its little round collar is cut like a dress, only that the material is heavier. She wears a sweater or blouse underneath, the edges of which are just visible under the coat sleeves, and a pair of dark trousers, which in the photograph have congealed into a heavy black pedestal for a legless girl. I read pain into the hands clutched over her stomach and into her little serious face that is the only one in the photograph that doesn’t show at least a trace of a smile. She looks straight into the camera: a girl with a hunchback and one foot in a shoe with a high-raised sole.

I thought I remembered another photograph of her, standing under a tree on a summer’s day. I saw her like this: motionless, still, peering into the eye of the camera with a small smile. When I found the photograph I realised memory had played a trick on me: the smile is mine, I stand where I thought she stood, limbs intact. It made me wonder what need her image touched in me.

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The crumpled newsprint I found in the shoes was from a German newspaper, 1941. Why were the shoes put aside at this time? Had the child outgrown them? Died? Had he/she been taken away? I imagine feet which fit into the shoes (which I imagine), and legs to the feet carrying a small, probably malnourished body. This child has no face and no gender nor race.

But then German history weighs in. War. The horror of the holocaust. But also, less discussed, fascism’s intense focus on the control of the body. The denial of a vulnerable and fragmented body was taken to extremes and found its terrifying expression in the elimination of ‘unwertes Leben’, of those who were deemed socially, physically and mentally unfit, a measure from which children were not excluded. To the contrary, childrens’ euthanasia was only stopped with the end of the war.

While at college I bought myself a pair of brown boots and had one furnished with a high-raised sole. I consequently used them to work on a performance. Wearing the unequal pair was uncomfortable, moving difficult. My left foot felt like a lump. I felt dizzy, kept bumping into things, got bruised (which reminded me of my childhood). After a little while I was wet with sweat. Instead of supporting an imbalance in my body as such a pair is meant to, they unbalanced my equilibrium. I had to redress the way the shoes left me, and it affected my whole body, my whole self. But then, as I wrote at the time (in my thesis):

“I can now feel pleasure when walking in the shoes. They add something to me, to my physical consciousness, something new, as yet unexperienced. A different awareness of body, limbs, of moving, constitutes itself; my physical relationship to space is affected in this most mundane of movements (to the ‘able-bodied’), walking: My body shoots up high and down again, I almost lift off the ground, ascent, for the moment it takes me to pass from heel to toe on the left foot, this foot not touching the ground, not directly at least, only through a 5inch sole, which for a moment raises me towards the sky. At that moment the right foot, in an ordinary shoe shape, dangles at my side. Only when it is tautly stretched like a ballerina’s in a pointed shoe, does it touch the ground.”

Today of course I have only a limited number of tired steps in me, and the weight of those boots would ground me. Metaphorically though, I think, I have been walking in them ever since. I am grateful to my shoe- and heirloom-buddies to make me revisit what remains at the core of my memory work today:

“My wearing the shoes can be nothing more than a gesture. But here I see a possibility of a different movement, a taking of steps that is not smooth, has an uneven rhythm, is unsymmetrical. This movement, a movement that is not primarily about progress, out of order because of the raised sole that I do not need, might transport me somewhere. Not forward, not towards an aim, an identified location, but towards the moment, a now, and possibly, only possibly, towards an other.”

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I like the way the word serendipity skips off the tongue a sweet and merry band of syllables. Last week, searching for flowers in a break between two hospital appointments, M. and I happened on Persephone Books. You know I’ve got a thing for Greek myths, esp. its female figures, but my pleasure was heightened as Persephone had surfaced in a communication with Sonia Boué and Helen Le Broc on Barcelona in a Bag not long ago. Persephone Books re-publish (in their own words) ‘neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers’. Each tome is a beautiful object, with endpapers and bookmarks based on fabric-designs. I came home with treasures, which M. (in her own words) carried happily.

Fatigue drastically limits my ability to read and I worry about not knowing enough. I’m a great dipper-in but less good at finishing books, partly from a desire to explore multiple sources, partly because my chest fills with icy mists. When I write I wander about in my own head, and if I follow well-trodden paths, hope to stumble along the way, find new turns. But then I’m an artist, not a historian, and make my work from what I’ve heard, gleaned, glimpsed. Can I make constrained circumstances, my personal focus, the simplicity of my work, a strength? In effect my ear is pressed against a pocket on the uniform my father wears in the photographs I ponder, the pocket right above his heart.

You’ve seen before how I focus on small details so I can bear looking at the greater picture, as with the little girl raising her arm in a crooked Hitler-salute in Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will, which fuelled a whole series of crochet-pieces and has something to do with the single untethered sleeve I’m working on now. A few days ago I watched a documentary about photo-journalist and war-photographer Don McCullin who over decades reported from conflict-zones all over the world. I’d already tried several times and always found the news film-footage overwhelming. The fact that someone can be declared an enemy at the drop of a hat so-to-speak; the naked terror in the faces of those (whose hands often held no arms) who knew they’d be executed within moments, soldiers/civilians/children even; the grief of mothers/wives/lovers/children; the extreme othering at work… While I’m trying to grapple with the knowledge that we have the capacity, even the will to kill each other, something Simone Weil wrote in a letter to a friend came to mind: “As for me, on the contrary, as I think I told you, I have the germ of all possible crimes or nearly all, within me. I became aware of this in the course of a journey, in circumstances which I have described to you. The crimes horrified me, but they did not surprise me. I felt the possibility of them within myself; it was actually because I felt this possibility in myself that they filled me with such horror…”* Does this sound like an excuse when coming from a Wehrmacht soldier’s daughter’s mouth?

Strangely the one thing I can bear to recall without trying to fight off the image (and from which all else hangs) is a photo of an American soldier whose face is frozen in shock. It doesn’t matter which war, where, when. McCullin (who throughout spoke of war as madness) explained that he had taken five separate images, which all came out exactly the same, as the soldier didn’t move, didn’t blink. This face, the empty/overfull eyes, contained all that could not be said, not be borne.

Crocheting a lace of red and black along the hems of a bandage made perfect sense while I was doing it, but now I see an object that haplessly, inadequately domesticates and aesthetizes grief, loss, pain, unhealed, maybe unhealable, wounds. Not having lived through … is this all I can do?

I have penned pages of possible titles, all filled with pathos, which I’ve tried to rid myself of, but maybe it’s just the (helpless) thing here, and for now I’m staying with: Streams from his hollow heart a hope

Really it’s a kind of daughter’s lament: I feel, I fail, his shadow heart. I fail to feel his shadow heart. I fail and fault his shadow heart. My shadow heart feels fails faults furrows, feels and fails, seals, hails, heaves, holds, and cannot heal his, mine, ours, nor share. Or share?

*Waiting on God. Letters and Essays.


Something wonderful happened last week: contact&connection was made with the artist Sonia Boué, conceiver of Barcelona in a Bag. She explores memory, war and displacement through her grandmother and father, who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, which means (I admit to a measure of envy) next to the misery and loss suffered there are reasons for pride and rejoicing.

And I was able to listen to a Radio3-programme about WG Sebald which remains available until Saturday. Switch it on!

As usual there’s so much going on in my head that I don’t know where to start. Every post scatters seeds for another, and following on from last week’s I photographed in close-up details of the little sailor’s suit which spoke to me of tenderness&care, but something else will out first. Note to self: Beware self-indulgence! while I consider silences&oversights, and the complex overlaps between personal and collective.

I wished I could say that what I don’t know won’t hurt me. The adage only holds when there is absolutely nothing to feed any notions, not a morsel of doubt, not a hook to hang one’s phantasies from. If at all it applies outside of relational spheres, in rigid&reified realms, which isn’t where life takes place.

I do not know what my dad witnessed, experienced, participated in during the two and a half years he served in the Reichsarbeitsdienst (Reich Labour Service/RAD) and the Wehrmacht, and the range of possibilities, even plausibilities almost makes my heartstrings snap. As mentioned before, his RAD-service began just a few days after his 17th birthday. In pre-war years it would have encompassed construction, forestry&agricultural work Later it became much more militarised and included support of the army behind front-lines, laying minefields, supplying food and ammunition, at times even combat (without training) and guarding prisoners. Bad enough, but/and: beside the building of autobahns and fortifications lies half-hidden the building of concentration-camps. In 1933 for example the RAD helped build Dachau. My dad would have been seven/eight years old, and I breathe a sigh of relief that he wasn’t involved – ridiculous, as I don’t know what was being ‘built’/destroyed in 1943. I catch myself again and again looking for escape routes, loopholes, for him, for me. And what about the guarding of prisoners?

Twenty years ago the myth regarding a ‘clean’ Wehrmacht was finally exploded in an exhibition produced by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research under the title “Crimes of the Wehrmacht. Dimensions of a War of Annhihilation 1941 to 1944” which scrutinised the Wehrmacht’s role in activities outside of international humanitarian law. The consistently worst was done in Russia, where civilians, partisans, prisoners of war, men, women, children were slaughtered (or forced into slave labour which most did not survive for long) with active and passive support from the Wehrmacht. Full stop.

My dad fought in Russia, this much I know. And that he was briefly a PoW in a Russian camp, from which he escaped.

What did he see? Do? How do I formulate what I fear&feel when I try to fit my dad into the larger picture? It’s best and yet falteringly described as a kind of after/boding after/shadowing post/sentiment.

Sometimes what I’m doing feels like an act of aggression against him, a posthumous dismantling. And if I feel for him (and myself), does that mean I don’t feel for those who were starved, worked to death, murdered? I can’t trust myself. Yet years ago I wouldn’t even have allowed for the idea that trauma was suffered on the German side. The weight of fascism, the holocaust, tallied against my/his daughter’s love-tinted, breath-held gaze, all the way back in time, at my dad who was 19 years old when the war ended. That unbridgeable gap, that tiny cranny. One fact folded into the other. It makes me doubt and scrutinise every word I say, pick apart sentences, sniff syllables for a stink.

Thinking of the photograph which shows him as a little boy in a sailor’s suit, that puzzled look on his small face – I yearn to wrap his child-self in a blanket and take him out of the coldness and cruelty of that time, let him skip across abysses and leap from ice-floe to ice-floe without ever falling/sinking into the inky swell of water all around. I want to cradle both brain and heart (mine) in the cup of my hands, whisper: there, there. Knowing full well there is no room for innocence I don’t cry tears, I cry words that whiggle and sliver in my silvery hands.


Sometimes I wish the world would slow down with me, grind to a halt when I do. Extreme fatigue marred another week. Pain in strange places: sitting in palms like weights of woe; soles of feet as if pummeled and pounded; worst: my brain chafing against the suddenly rugged surface of the inside of my skull. Whenever I emerge my project awaits; threads to pick up and pursue, and I recognize myself again.

The little sailor-suit has stayed on my mind. I don’t know who sewed it where for which child, and while I wished I did it is clear that the lack of information allows me to beat a path on my own memory-trail. That the outfit was made/worn in the 1930s (as per ebay-listing) is significant, even if I can’t be 100% sure. So: Trying to achieve a sense of a life’s span I’m juxtaposing an acquired childhood garment with the tissue-paper shoes I made after my dad’s death. They were pitch-black originally, but changed tint through exposure to light at home and in exhibitions, which I like very much.

I am really not a well-read person, although I may give that impression, and struggle to remember books in detail, but at times a fragment reappears and pricks (like a forgotten piece of shrapnel that travels through the body) and helps me think something through. Greek myths have been with me since childhood, when I was given a version written for young people. I keep returning to them, or they to me. A couple of years ago I read Virgil‘s Aeneid (Aeneas interested me because Cassandra loved him) and what I recall most vividly is that he searched out a Sybil to enlist her help as a guide into the world of the dead, so he could consult with his father. Orpheus, Odysseus – are there instances when women descend into the underworld to commune with a loved one? If I could I would ask my dad about his childhood, about growing up in the thirties, everyday things, ‘normal’ life.

When I’m preparing to write a post I shuffle through my bundles of texts and notes and scraps torn from newspaper articles until I discover a point of entry, of focus. Often enough I fall through a trap door and find myself where I daren’t look. After the radio programme I told you about (post#96) I dropped everything else and started reading David Grossman‘s Writing in the Dark. In his essay Books That Have Read Me he talks about a book his father (who did not talk much about his childhood) gave him when he was eight years old: Sholem Aleichem‘s Adventures of Mottel, the Cantor’s son (which I in turn yearn to read now). It transported him into the lost world his father came from, helped him imagine his dad as a boy: ‘”Do you like it?”, my father asked. “Read, read, it’s just how things were with us.” And perhaps because of the expression on his face at that moment, I had a sudden illumination. I realized that for the first time, he was inviting me over there, giving me the keys to the tunnel that would lead from my childhood to his.’

My dad didn’t talk much about his childhood, which may very well be a male thing, but it’s probably also linked with the rupture trauma brings, to those against whom atrocities are committed as well as those who find themselves on the perpetrators’ side, actively or passively. And while I write out this sentence I wonder how I can without conflating lessening reducing dishonouring

I also didn’t ask much.

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