I started with a clear idea for this post but something tugged at me and needs must. Revisiting the same photographs, pursuing, pondering, processing, I realize I’ve been laying the ground for more challenging enquiries.

Repetition for me, in my art-practice, means being called to return to and pore over a subject over and over again. If I heed that call difference occurs through the tiniest of shifts in angle (time having pushed and pulled, dislodged me from where I was), which may mean that when I look at an image, an object, a gesture, an encounter, or their memory, once more, it too will have changed. I researched traumatic memory a while ago (I’m not at all sure if that term would have been used in the 50s, when my dad underwent therapy) which stands in relation and contrast to this process, as it compels to repeat, always in exactly the same way, through flashbacks say, the scenario of an experience which overwhelmed and cannot be integrated into the flow of one’s story. When my father woke up screaming night after night, what did he see?

I find myself reluctant to turn to certain aspects of the fragmented story I explore, very much want to stay in my dad’s childhood, keep him and myself safe in ‘before’. I had meant to write about the little sailor-suit, and almost, almost did, even after I listened to Michael Rosen‘s The Benjamin Broadcasts on Radio4, and took from my shelf Walter Benjamin‘s Berlin Childhood Around 1900, where he mentions just such a suit in The Sewing Box.

Although I only know fractions of his oeuvre I feel attached to this particular philosopher who never disappears in abstraction and explored even his childhood in ways which illuminate his idiosyncratic thinking. In his radio-broadcasts to young listeners (between 1929-33) he considered complex and wide-ranging subjects, from tenement housing to Kafka to witch trials. At the end of what in fact was his last broadcast he announced his next topic: the Ku Klux Klan. I long to think that my dad listened to these broadcasts at the time, even though he was much too young. I wanted him to love this as I do, for our paths to cross here.

My sense of time is precarious. Often when I read I wonder: was my dad part of this? Was he there at the time? until I count the years. When Benjamin fled to Paris in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power) my dad was seven, when he fled Paris in 1940 he was 14. And yet there are points where, although literally miles and years apart, their individual trajectories intersect, for me. Only for me.

My dad spent three days in occupied Paris in August 1943, during his Reich Labour Service (RAD – see post#98), bought postcards of Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, like a tourist would. He was excited by the sights he saw (I think the RAD took him abroad for the first time) and after the war glued the cards into his photo-album. Not a sign of occupation in these images, not a flutter of swastika flags.

Benjamin, fleeing from the nazis in 1940 (the Gestapo raided his Paris flat not long after, confiscated his documents which amazingly survived), takes his life in Portbou, the Spanish border town on the Costa Brava, where his group of refugees, having walked the mountain pass across the Pyrenees into Franco’s Spain, is initially refused passage.

At one point in 1943 my 17 year-old dad and his RAD-battalion were stationed in St. Jean de Luz, on the Atlantic Coast near the French/Spanish border (more than 600 km away from Portbou, at the other end of the Pyrenees). It’s the first time he sees the ocean, and he marvels at its beauty. He buys postcards as well as photographs of cliffs and beaches (annotated by him, translated by me: Wonderful days, in-spite of uniform!), followed by images of a border-post with armed guards, and a view of mountain ranges on the Spanish side.

This looks like a whistle-stop tour of France, before being sent into battle. Last stop in Cherbourg, as a workingman (Arbeitsmann, his notation). He also notes that his sea-journey to the US, as a PoW, starts there less than two years later.

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My heartstrings are stretched like tightropes, as I think back and forth between him and Benjamin who believes he will be handed over to the Gestapo in Vichy France. As much as I want to scoop my dad from history, I want to call out to Benjamin (like a child watching a film where a villain suddenly appears behind the protagonist): wait, wait! because I know the next day he and his group will be allowed through. Then I think of Paris, where Benjamin wrote the final version of Berlin Childhood, which only re-surfaced in the 80s, and remember Marguerite DurasLa Douleur. Finally I fall off the tightrope, with the present as my safety net.

My tongue forms but after but. No! Not but, and. In the first photo of my dad in RAD-uniform, still bar of any insignia, he looks serious, pensive. There follow photos, clearly a while into training, probably after the tour of France, where I come upon a different face. This person, half boy, half man, laughs a lot! I find this difficult to behold, struggle to comprehend that these things exist next to each other. 1943 war was raging in many parts of the world. The year contained the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the building of several new gas chambers in Auschwitz, to name but a few. And this group of boy-men laughs, incl. their only slightly older commander. Some smoke fags, some pipes, and banter and tomfoolery is in the air. I shouldn’t be surprised. Here is a group of 17 year-olds, with a sense of camaraderie and adventure (still safe from direct war-fare). How much they knew of what was going on all around I cannot say. And yet…

The difference in gaze and holding between the young soldier-in-the-making and the still young, now dazed-looking PoW two years later, is striking. Photographs tend to survive of ‘better’ times, of stories that can be told. My dad’s album shows nothing, nothing at all, which would allow me an insight into those experiences to which he’d return later, night after clamouring night.


My series Riefenstahl’s children, for which I imagined a generation whose right arms had undergone a kind of devolution, was inspired by my re-engagement with the little girl in Triumph of the Will (see post#62). The film is saturated with images of people – in and out of uniform, men and women, adults and children – jubilantly extending arm and hand for the Hitler salute – examples of communal rapture and exaltation which are unfathomable for someone who finds crowds difficult and can burst into tears when, after a theatre performance say, an audience rises and applauds as one.

Post-memory should lack sensory details. Yet for months I ‘felt’ the gesture every time I stretched my right arm out to reach, to wave, to slip into a sweater, as if it was a physical memory, part of my fabric.

After 1933 children learned the exact execution of the salute in kindergarden and first grade. They had to perform it, accompanied by enthusiastic enunciations of ‘Heil Hitler’, at the beginning and end of each school day and whenever an adult entered the classroom. (I heard from an acquaintance that her mother recalled how the (female) owner of a sweet-shop wouldn’t sell to kids unless they did the salute on entering the shop).

The other night, when sleep wouldn’t come, I watched parts of Triumph of the Will on YouTube, searching for the little girl whose wonky salute touched me years ago and has stayed on my mind. I won’t buy the DVD and finally thought to check if it can be viewed online. Of course it can, manifold! A train of worries hangs from this fact too…

I switched off the sound so I didn’t have to listen to rabid speeches or Volksmusik (so much is tainted in association), and peered at the faces of people lining the streets. There are scores of children stretching their arms diagonally upwards=towards the Führer who passes in an open car. At one point the camera is on a young mother who approaches his vehicle, carrying her toddler. Both salute. Smiling, she offers her child to the supposed father of the nation, to do with her/him what he will.

Watching intently, lest I miss her in a blink, I found the girl 18min33 secs in. You can see her for just 1.5sec (not 7.5sec as I mistakenly wrote in my earlier post). She uses her left arm to ‘salute’, maybe because she mirrors the gesture of an adult standing behind the camera, maybe because her right hand is otherwise occupied, holding the roll she chews on. Although blond and wearing a dirndl, she isn’t quite the perfect Aryan poster-girl: performing her duty hesitantly and with a sullen face she clearly reacts to off-camera coaxing (at college I analysed the video-footage frame by frame; on-line she just swishes past).

By 1934, the date of the Nuremberg rally, when the salute had entered every part of civilian life, my dad was eight years old, my mom not even a year.

This is just one instance of how nazi-shaped norms pervaded the everyday. There’s more to be said about the Hitler Youth replacing all other youth organisations and the re-writing of school curricula, but I’ll keep that for another time.

The way people relate to each other is mapped out at the point of encounter. When I grew up shaking hands was the done thing (oh my, curtsies too). Think of the closeness, intimacy even, of actually touching another’s hand. To see how much physical distance the Hitler salute creates I just got up to furtively raise my arm. In a real way you keep the other at bay, at arms’ length. There were those who were critical of the gesture, avoided it, found ways around it, made fun of it (dangerous, as they could be taken to court, and worse), and in that small space I breathe a little better.

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Like follow-blogger @RuthRandomI love researching the origin of words, tracing how they shapeshift and carry residues of older manifestations. A quick look on-line under greet brought surprising demarcations, spanning from ‘to come into contact with’ in the sense of ‘attack, accost’ as well as ‘salute, welcome’ and ‘touch, take hold of, handle’ to ‘weep, bewail’. At the initial point of contact between … a decision is made which way you go, with or against. I wonder if children who grew up with the Hitler salute still ‘felt’ the gesture at the root of their arm with every Guten Tag after war and Third Reich had ended, as an impulse, a small twitch, and how long it took them to unlearn it, physically, mentally.

I can’t consider this gesture on its own. It is an emblem of a tightly controlled and closed system, in which those who are ‘in’ recognise and affirm not only each other but also the regime they live under, and those who are ‘out’, actively, aggressively excluded (from 1934 on people of Jewish origin were forbidden to do the salute), are deprived of their civil rights and in the end their lives.

Looking through at a book about WWII I came across images of Jewish men, women and children with arms raised in a very different, terror-laden gesture. The photographs were taken May 1943, when German soldiers and SS quelled the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, turning the ghetto to rubble, and killing as many as possible. Warsaw Ghetto at one stage held 400.000 people. At least 300.000 were murdered over the years.

This is an iconic image (I give you the link as I don’t know if it’s against copyright to use a photo found on Wikipedia): an SS-officer points his gun at a group of adults and children emerging from a building. More soldiers stand nearby. The civilians look exhausted, terrified. The boy in the front, in coat, cap and short trousers, holds his hands up, as do the other children. The fear in his face.

The joyful elated raising of the right arm of those who sided with power versus the abject gesture of those who did not count in any way at all.

I wrap myself in shadows.


While some of my blogger friends accompany their art across borders and oceans I often feel like I’m turning round and round in the dip a blunt needle made on a map (and yes, my mien is somewhat green). From here I try to make every little thing go a long way – materials&making,energy&concentration, communication&procrastination. Actually, there is not much room for the latter, I practically lie in wait for muscles to move and brain cells to spin for a wee while.

I am so hungry for more. And delighted that some art/life-conversations have started to intensify. This week I had a little flurry of encounters, one face-to-face when the lovely Rosalind Davis visited and shared art, texts, insight, and enthusiasm; and on-line with Sonia Boué, Helen Le Brocq, Kate Murdoch, Elena Thomas and Jean McEwan. These exchanges augment my thinking&feeling in every respect.

It was interesting to me that my last post should get such strong reactions. The sentence “I would never want to be held forever accountable to who I was as a 17year old” pierced me and made me wonder if that’s what I’m doing, hold my father accountable (in many ways I was glad that someone else felt protective towards him). It’s an important question and points to a dilemma at the heart of my explorations, namely if and how to pull apart the personal and the collective when they are so closely intertwined; and how to explore the surrounding themes of responsibility and culpability, and ultimately guilt.

This is how I formulated it a while ago (post#102): “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 often think I’m dizzily walking on a tightrope made from a single silken thread, and can but fall, and only to one side.

The impetus to remember is different for those who were persecuted (who can’t bear to recall what they and others were subject to) and those on the perpetrators’ side (who want to excuse and justify). And the gap between lived experience and what is told of it, is huge on both sides, again for very different reasons. The fact that both war and holocaust were possible because of the involvement of ‘normal’ people from all layers of society is what makes this so hard. It is much easier to think of Gestapo and SS as sole perpetrators, and this is how we learned it at school, but what about the soldiers, civil servants, train conductors, secretaries, and all those who remained silent when race became the foremost identifying factor and the Jewish population was expelled from universities, professions, hospitals, department stores, their shops raided, their assets stolen? I struggle with the horror of history, at a remove from me by just one generation, and the unanswerable question of what I might have done had I been alive then.

My dad was not a nazi, he had no part in bringing the regime about, was sent to war before he could vote and thus sucked into the regime’s dark heart… Whatever he did or didn’t do, he, who was so young, was there (and came back traumatised). Through him I too am directly connected to that time.

That I have chosen to make him the centre of my explorations imbues me with a power which I am very, very uncomfortable with, and maybe the fact that I am putting him in that context in front of all of you is already an aggressive act. There are questions I have to ask myself: Do I let him stand in for Reich and Volk? Do I direct at him my anger about this abject heritage? Oh, I hope not. This project stirs up complex, even extreme emotions, and I won’t pretend that I can begin to spell them out. Yet for someone whose family was murdered in the holocaust my contortions may seem ridiculous. One thing is sure: when I find my dad wanting I find myself wanting too.

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