-> continued from above

There is something so vulnerable in this though, and important. The best I can do is press on as carefully as possible, with his help. It’s not an exercise in separation, rather the opposite. Looking this morning at the photos I took of my thread-drawings, where both our faces feature, I wished desperately that he’d focus his blurry, confused gaze, and look at me.

And I couldn’t do any of this if I wasn’t an artist. Through the processes of making&writing I try to create a safe unsafe space for us, father and daughter (who still&again wants to scoop him out of that hate-filled calamitous time, knowing full well there are countless daughters (and sons) wanting to extricate their parents/grandparents from…, or at least let things slumber, not ask questions lest they implicate…). The closeness to him which this tenuous bridging of time and history brings is precious. The sense of compassion I finally arrived at while writing my last post was an instant where I allowed myself to simply consider and feel for his young self, and not immediately question and quell that impulse.

Do you remember that a while ago I asked, with respect to my thread-drawings, if I was allowed beauty in this context? People have commented on the beauty of my writing and while that left me unsure how they/you perceive its substance, I wonder if this is where affection and tenderness come forth, where I rescue something from the abyss that is German history.

Well, a heartfelt thank you to all who have given me feedback! You challenge and support me and I appreciate that when communication and engagement happen here, it’s of a deep, empathic and inclusive kind.


Although I didn’t realise it at the beginning this was always a mourning project, on so many levels, personal, collective, historical, and in the context of WWII and the holocaust necessarily fraught and unsettling. When I read Sonia Boué’s wonderful post on The Palette Pages the other day, another aspect of mourning emerged.

Sonia, who trained as an art-therapist, writes about art and healing (and joy) in relation to her project Barcelona in a Bag. She too makes work as a daughter who holds trauma for a father unable to speak of his experiences and losses. In her dad’s case the fact of displacement plays a significant part, away from country and culture, language and communion, acutely painful to a playwright.

We share too a direct knowledge of the far-reaching (within and over generations) toxicities of silence imposed – under Franco’s dictatorship and beyond, under Hitler and in post-war Germany. Both our fathers were on the cusp of adulthood when fascism and war launched them into untried roles and on pathways which irredeemably ruptured their biographies and affect our own.

I can’t but acknowledge once more that our endeavours are different in one fundamental respect: my dad fought on the perpetrators’ side; my investigations have to bear the weight of fascism, the holocaust; I have to measure him (and myself) against its razed landscape. Joy and celebration aren’t what I expect, although I may wish for it. Tiny moments allow breathing space (that he took food to the ghetto, that his aunts refused to join the NSDAP and lost their professions) but this project can hold no joy. And yet …

… I suspect there’s a lot in it for me. Not just because I learn history on an intimate scale. The Third Reich is so far away and ungraspable, that I struggle to connect; it is so close and concrete, that I can’t turn away. And if the truth is harsh and harrowing, silence feels deadening to me. This is part of my legacy. It’s not a gift I would have chosen, but it’s mine. A few posts ago I wrote: there is no room for innocence. What, if anything, might healing mean in this context?

We make memory-work, make memory work to retrieve and somewhat reprieve (in very different ways) our fathers’ hopes (and failings) and regrets. Through our respective processes we, artists from a post-memory generation, are looking for ways – not to break the silence -, but maybe to address it, speak into it. Here is what I mourn today: where Sonia has the play her father wrote (a great source of joy) mine left me no direct expression of his inner self. Without his knowledge I declared two cherished words my heirlooms (see posts #94&107), but regarding the worst time of his life and much of the time before he gave at best hints and intimations, which I conjure up when I pore over copies of the photos from his album; when I do my research; when I try to place him (and myself) in history.

I know (and am glad) that he did speak. Not to me, not to anyone in the family: at a time when it wasn’t the done thing he chose to go into therapy, which gives me a wee sense of pride.

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-> continued from above

I remember how, in the first weeks after he died (my mother, brother, sister-in-law and I were with him) I could not recall his life-face. It was overlaid by the face the dead share: gaunt, concentrated, unknowable; almost impersonal, while still being his. During a meditation class the face I knew came back to me, to my great relief. And now his young face, also unknowable to me, has emerged from the shadows. We were never further apart and yet, here and now, I feel great tenderness for his unfledged self. Maybe this is where instances of joy (and a form of healing?) come forth – just between me and him, daughter and father, in a deeper, more compassionate connection. It’s a source of sadness that this can only happen now. And while I write these words something whispers in my ear: compassion – how dare you, when … and my eyes burn and his dear face disappears again in a sea of images, of crowds raising right arms as one and faces lit by elated smiles as Hitler passes in an open car, of mass graves and mounds of shoes, men’s, women’s, children’s, and I know I can’t save him, nor myself, for more than an instant.

A while ago a friend, who was due to give birth as her sister lay dying, wrote to me about Rilke‘s double kingdom. Rilke considers Orpheus, poet and musician, who enters the underworld to find and bring back Eurydice, his wife (he fails). It occurs to me that I occasionally inhabit that double realm when I investigate the photos of my father as a 17year-old Wehrmacht-soldier. Rilke’s words bring me intuitions of art as a restorative and stimulating medium. I think in a strange way, through this haunting, hopeless, often hapless and unhappy exploration, my voice is slowly coming into its own. And so I take the liberty of adding to Rilke’s words a woman’s

Only the man who has raised his strings / she who has spun her threads
among the dark ghosts also
can sense it and give
the everlasting praise.

Only she who has eaten poppy
with the dead, from their poppy,
will never lose even
her most delicate sound.

Even though images in the pool
seem so blurry:
grasp the main thing.

Only in the double kingdom, there
alone, do voices become
undying and tender.

(From Sonnets to Orpheus, translated by Robert Bly. All she’s are mine)

Three simple pieces (work in process):

1. I held against lamplight a photo of my dad in PoW-uniform and one of myself at approx. six years of age. Strangely I recognise the face resulting from the overlay as mine, today (minus wrinkles), whereas the photo of my child-self seems almost alien to me.

2. Collage from photo of my dad in RAD (Reichs Labour Service) uniform and a shape cut from a page in an embroidery journal.

3. Cursed calyx, 2014, crocheted from a silk/wool yarn, dimensions: 19 x 20.5cm
I’ve started to put it through the wash with other clothes, want to get a ‘real’ hand-me-down feel. Questions again around pathos and authenticity…


I only encounter my dad’s young self through photographs, and yet over the last few months the face I knew directly has been overlaid with the one in the images I study, so that, when I happened to look at a portrait taken a few years before he died, I was surprised to find him old.

Last week I stitched into (a copy of) a photo I’ve used previously (posts #90+95) which shows him as PoW. The idea was to explore suspending a photograph from something mounted inside the picture. When I took quick snaps I was intrigued by the results. The original object is small (5×7”), but here a different sense of scale and spatial dimensions emerged, as well as aspects of drawing. I’ve ordered prints and will chose a few to stitch into again.

I find some of these thread-drawings quite beautiful, in a melancholy way. This pleases and (of course?) worries me. But maybe that question in itself is interesting: Am I allowed beauty in this context?

I’ve re-read W.G. Sebald‘s Austerlitz and all the way my heart&brain seemed to bob in arctic seas, little lumpy ice-floes, or burn from uncontrollable fevers. I must confess that I read German authors with a degree of distrust, probe their words for instances where they overlook …, make excuses, self-justify, consciously or unconsciously. I’m prone to it myself, as I well know. Fact is: my father is both blind spot and flickering light as I glance at things I really really want to turn away from.

Sebald I trust utterly.

The book is without paragraphs, and (apart from occasional, very grainy b/w photographs set into the text) each page is a block of lines, which in the course of reading become an intermittent flow of devastatingly precise prose. Actually, this flow is stemmed once, quite early in the book, by a scream entirely made up of A’s, over three centred lines – as if all language started and ended there.

Sebald is unconditionally committed to being truthful, and charts and scrutinizes facts and effects of the human catastrophe that is the holocaust. Memory, remembering, is for him a deliberate and without fail fraught act, and a matter of emotional life and death. Grief, sorrow, dread, horror, need to be faced, without solace. Not knowing is terrible. Knowing is terrible. This is true for both sides, with different implications, but the latter allows moments of connection.

For me the text is almost a life-entity, breathes.

The narrator never speaks. He listens, accompanies, becomes a receptacle for Austerlitz’ story, with all its silences, hesitations, uncertainties. All he can do is bear witness, (try to) bear what he hears. Austerlitz, it turns out, was sent from Czechoslovakia to England on the Kindertransport at the age of four. He ends up in Wales, is given a new name and ‘forgets’ where he comes from. Decades later he painfully, laboriously, driven almost against his will, starts to assemble tiny scraps of information about his Jewish family, the circumstances of his parents’ disappearance and murder. Everything he learns leads to more questions, points to what cannot be known yet must be attempted. Remembering comes at a huge cost, but the effort to keep memory at bay is so enormous that it seeps into every aspect of his life:

“I did not read newspapers because, as I now know, I feared unwelcome revelations, I turned on the radio only at certain hours of the day, I was always refining my defensive reactions, creating a kind of quarantine or immune system which, as I maintained my existence in a smaller and smaller space, protected me from anything that could be connected in any way, however distant, with my own early history. Moreover, I had constantly been preoccupied by that accumulation of knowledge which I had pursued for decades, and which serves as a substitute or compensatory memory. And if some dangerous piece of information came my way despite all my precautions, as it inevitably did, I was clearly capable of closing my eyes and ears to it, of simply forgetting it like any other unpleasantness. Yet this self-censorship of my mind, the constant suppression of the memories surfacing in me, Austerlitz continued, demanded ever greater efforts and finally, and unavoidably, led to the almost total paralysis of my linguistic faculties, the destruction of all my notes and sketches, my endless nocturnal peregrinations through London, and the hallucinations which plagued me with increasing frequency up to the point of my nervous breakdown in the summer of 1992.”

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