When Sonia Boué tweeted b/w images from the Oxford-London train of the globetrotter-suitcase and later her face she seemed a time-traveller from the 30s/40s, on her way to meet me at a flat temporarily located in 2014’s London (so I could be found). We both have slippery footholds in a not so distant past and had previously connected through our respective blogs. Now the real thing was about to happen – she was coming to mine!

Sonia too is a post-memory artist who intensely explores traumatic history through family-ties – her abuela features prominently, speaking and spurning Sonia on, but really it’s all about her dad, whose silence regarding his experiences during&following the Spanish Civil War she addresses through art&writing. In spring I had come across her project Barcelona in a Bag on Facebook (it now has a manifestation on a-n blogs too), left comments and at some stage revealed myself as another daughter looking at history&war slightly to the side of a father’s frozen gaze, albeit from the perspective of someone associated with the perpetrators… We have been talking in all kinds of ways ever since.

Abuela is one who readily provides support&sustenance and does so in style: it was wonderful to unpack her delicately etched silver-tongs (I wrote silver-tongue, bet that’s right too) and Sonia’s almondy sand-cake. I brushed finger-tips and eyes-on-stalks across embroidered handkerchiefs from childhood holidays in Mallorca; a table-cloth bedecked with finely threaded flowers (acquired); two small dolls which I’d seen (on-line) as part of Sonia’s evocative assemblages-in-flux; and a much loved&leafed Little Miss Moppet-book with her name inscribed on the back-cover, making links with faces I covered in soft stitching in my father’s PoW-photographs. Plus the famous handbag, smaller than I’d thought, and filled with lentils. Such bounty! So moving to be able to touch these objects, each meaningful in past/present/future terms and chosen with care&deliberation.

Sonia and I unwrapped a few of my crocheted outfits, some of which she’d encountered here, and older, unfamiliar ones (you can follow this link to her account). The box with work-in-process pieces around my dad’s photos was next, my heart aflutter as Sonia held one after the other in her hands. Oh, and of course my favourite heirloom-stand in, the little sailor-suit, with its gossamer lining, was fittingly adored. We talked easily, simply continuing our on-line conversation face-to-face, compared notes about the compulsion to unturn stones and search for living, breathing history, and the roles we’ve long had in our families, as carrier of memories. Towards the end we touched on the question of healing through our respective projects – something that remains unresolved for me. But then the conversation has only just begun.

This must be my lucky autumn then – first Elena Thomas visited (see post) and now a second far-off blogger-friend&art-sister made her way to me. These meetings cross multiple divides which for artists may be no more than cherished thresholds.

Those of you who followed my project-posts will be aware that I often ask myself how I can do justice to different sides. If I feel for my father do I disregard those who were persecuted, and if I focus on the Nazis’ terror-regime do I let (the memory of) my father down? It makes me contort myself, knowing full well that I must fail and can’t stop trying. I need to learn to hold both.

Through the exchanges with Sonia I’ve learned aspects of German history I hadn’t known about: nearly half a million Republican refugees, soldiers and civilians, fled to France after Franco’s victory where they found harsh, even hostile, shelter in internment camps. Two years later many were handed over to the Gestapo by Vichy France under Marshall Pétain, alongside Jewish men and women and political prisoners, to be taken to German concentration camps. More than 23.000 of these refugees were interned in Mauthausen alone; only 9.200 survived.*
How Sonia’s grand-parents and her dad escaped that fate is her story to tell.

I’ve been thinking back to an older post in which I considered the surprising flip-sides of the word ‘to greet’ – its origins stretching from ‘come into contact with’ in the sense of ‘attack, accost’ to ‘salute, welcome’, ‘touch, take hold of, handle’ as well as ‘weep, bewail’. It seems to me now that this term viscerally describes the points of contact of our histories, relating and repelling, touching and affecting, and mourning the separations, the violent demarkation of sides.
With these precious encounters another threshold is crossed: that between an artist who makes work lying on the living-room floor if&when she can, and others who have a stronger (even if precarious in their own right) foothold in the wider world. I often feel like a big clanking old gate has fallen shut on me, with dents only from the inside where I occasionally kick, but now and then it does creak open and in comes a person who I’ve longed to meet. Both Sonia and Elena have indicated they’d like to visit again. I hope that before too bloody long I’ll be able to travel their way, with a little improvement in health, and a little help.

* Glad to say that about 2000-3000 German anti-fascists joined the Republicans in their fight against Franco.

PS. I need to play more. Have decided to try a little thing every day, and, if I can, photograph and tweet it. At the beginning of my post you can see no. 2.


I have become obsessed with a Mickey Mouse look-alike! Didn’t think I’d ever write that sentence and certainly not in the context of my project, but there it is. You may remember the images of toys at the end of last week’s post, screen-grabbed from Billy Wilder‘s The Death Mills, and the point beyond which I couldn’t/didn’t watch. The creature in the lower right-hand corner of photo no.1, a distant cousin of Mickey Mouse/Micky Maus, called me back and back again, with its singular&startling liveliness amongst the piles of pillaged toys, its direct address, those open arms. This little figure stands where everything is strewn about, and I wonder if the camera-man placed it just so, straining towards something that for the tiniest moment lifts him/us from this place of terror, suffering and death.

The dolls, dull with their inert stances and dead stares, are too close to the shock, the knowledge, of sick and dying, no, murdered, children. In one photo a weave of curly hair streams into the image – for an instant you might take it for a dead girl’s. In this context my focus on the almost-Mickey Mouse accords a barely out-breath-sized stay, feeding a fleeting phantasy of escape, of survival – as if it might yet leap out and get away from these horrors, its owner in tow.

These are the facts‘The Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children, including over a million Jewish children and tens of thousands of Romani (Gypsy) children, German children with physical and mental disabilities living in institutions, Polish children, and children residing in the occupied Soviet Union. The chances for survival for Jewish and some non-Jewish adolescents (13-18 years old) were greater, as they could be deployed at forced labor.’

Do I know this? Is this knowable?

I suddenly had an urgent desire to own such a toy, from that time. Had no idea that vintage Micky Mice are highly priced collectables, that almost as soon as the first films were out in the US and enthusiastically received (during the Great Depression) the Walt Disney-industry started producing a huge and ever expanding range of merchandise. Mickey Mouse was quickly sanitised for this, away from the original raucous figure to one representing to-be-aspired-for morals and family values*. Licensed and unlicensed, said merchandise conquered markets in Europe in the 1930s, and after the war around the world.

Micky Mouse and Donald Duck were even given bit-parts in the US-war effort: Mickey featured in war-propaganda, on posters warning of spies and selling war-bonds, and, ominously, gas-masks for children were manufactured in its image. Donald Duck was the protagonist in ‘The Fuehrer’s Face’ (1943), a Walt Disney-production which won an Oscar.

Hitler too was initially a fan (1937 Goebbels gave him several reels for his home-cinema as a Xmas-present) but when the US entered the war Micky Mouse-films were banned in Germany. That didn’t stop some Luftwaffe-crews from painting their chosen mascot on bomber-planes, as did their American counterparts. In 1934 a Japanese animation was made: ‘Evil Mickey Attacks Japan’.

The little figure which sent me off on a wild mouse-chase (displacement activity) is likely to belong to the motley lot multiplied through unlicensed merchandise. Its earless difference makes it more touching for me, but… still… why this urge, this yearning, to have one? I don’t like this one bit – it’s wrong in this context. I like this very much – it gives me a loophole, through which to scurry out and away, for a while.

Susan Stewart writes in her book ‘On Longing. Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection’: ‘Nostalgia is a sadness without an object, a sadness which creates a longing that of necessity is inauthentic because it does not take part in lived experience. … Nostalgia, like any form of narrative, is always ideological: the past it seeks has never existed except as narrative, and hence, always absent, that past threatens to reproduce itself as a felt lack.’ (p. 23)

I untangle strands of wishful thinking. I long for something tangible from my father’s childhood (‘before’). As you know I’ve declared the little sailor-suit a heirloom stand-in (see posts 1 April, 28 May, 4 July 2014), but no matter how sweet, how precious, it merely modulates military bustle. I guess Micki Maus could weave itself from my dad’s childhood into mine, although I have no idea if he actually ever saw a Walt Disney-film as a boy. Serialised comic strips appeared in German newspapers – maybe he saw one in his father’s daily? Wanting/owning a toy from those beleaguered times is an immediately curtailed and yet persistent attempt at fantasising ordinary lives against all I know.

Art Spiegelman starts the second volume of his brilliant graphic novel ‘Maus’ with this quote from a German newspaper article (1930): “Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed… Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal… Away with Jewish brutalization of the people! Down with Mickey Mouse! Wear the Swastika Cross!“, which did not at all stop Mickey Mouse’s steady rise in popularity.

Nuremberg was Germany’s toy capital as well as the location for huge Nazi-rallies, as featured in Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will (see posts 21 May, 14 July, 1 Sept 2014)  where masses of boys from the Hitler Youth stand to attention and salute their leader. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were passed during the party congress, defining citizenship along racial and blood lines and thus setting in motion and institutionalising the process of excluding German Jews from civic life. 1938 Jewish children were prohibited from attending German schools.

Each of the toys in the photographs leads back to a (nameless) child, transported to the camp with his/her family, clutching a favourite maybe, or one chosen because it could easily be carried. It’s likely that the owner of this little Mickey Mouse-look alike was dead when the camp was liberated, or, maybe, just maybe, he/she survived against all odds, severely traumatised, holding inside unspeakable, unthinkable, yet real experiences.

My entry-points into history are the size of a pin-prick and my pursuits are selfish.

I want to carve my father and mother (born in the year Hitler came to power) from the heaving, screaming masses which are so much on my mind nowadays, want to excise their charged childhoods, which counted as ordinary while those who were defined as other – Jewish people, Sinti, homosexuals, the disabled, were persecuted to the point of extermination.

The little mouse-figure, this inanimate object seemingly brimming with life, aids escape from that upside-down world where rights are wronged, and the baddies always win, and plunges me right in its middle.

In the end I bought a wooden Mouse, from the 30s, which should be on its way to me. Not the real thing, but a sweet wee stand-in, with the aspect of a child who wants to be picked up by an adult, and held.


* It appears that in the US Micky Mouse was perceived as white (by its creators and the white population?) as I’ve come across something called The Uncensored Mouse (1989) – reprints (unauthorised and disputed by Walt Disney) of uncensored MM comic strips from the 30s which are full of racial stereotypes against African-Americans

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I’ve been struggling to find a focus for this post. Notes and motifs proliferate, make a thicket of urgent ideas – I reach in and my hand comes out stinging, holding too much or too little. The thing is: there are countless angles, issues, worries, weights, and ever more questions&connections, to consider, all stepping-stones which don’t lead across, but deeper into. There’s so much information to process, so many aspects to explore, ethical dilemmas to regard, and always another link to follow, another book to find. I unfailingly feel I don’t know nearly enough to dare speak or write a single word. Over night it dawned on me that I’m not a historian. And beating myself up because I’m not able to read and research (and remember) more is unproductive. Time to make this small again, go back to the relationship with my dad, and take it from there. But…

On 16 September I switched on Radio4 just as Samira Ahmed was talking to André Singer about Night Will Fall, his documentary exploring the making of the German Concentration Camps Factual Survey at the end of WWII, a film which was meant to be shown (but in the end wasn’t, due to ‘political expediency’) in German cinemas, to expose&expound to the population what had been done in their name, what they’d allowed to happen, actively, passively. Another film though, TheDeath Mills, by Billy Wilder, was produced (in English, Yiddish, and German), and you can find footage on-line of American soldiers leading the population of a small German town to a cinema.

Such footage was also shown to German PoWs in the US, while the general American population watched cinema-newsreels, which unsurprisingly changed the public’s previously generous attitude towards the PoWs in their midst who were treated according to the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Geneva, 1929 (see post of 17/2/2014). My dad may well have seen it; he once mentioned the programme of denazification in the camp, and no, I didn’t ask anything, was content hearing that in his case it was a brief process, probably because of his young age. So many kinds of turning away…

Since the radio-programme I’ve tried to read up on the film (given my brain is M.E.-foggy and my eyes blur when tired, not a huge amount, but as much as I could), watched the trailer for Night Will Fall, scribbled endless notes, stared at a certain two seconds over and over again, with a clear idea of what I wanted to explore. Should have left it at that, but followed more links and found Billy Wilder’s The Death Mills on the same site* where I’d peered at footage from the Eichmann-trial (see post 10/9/2014). I watched (as unsure about looking as about not looking, or looking away), with breath held, as images unfurled of emaciated men, women and children, sick, dead, dying; of mounds of discarded clothes, sacks of shorn-off hair, boxes of stolen jewelry (the Nazis made money from everything) and finally fell, internally that is, having held out that long with fingertip atremble on stop button, on seeing, for a tiny split second only, a heap of toys, like you might find on a table at a jumble sale: a couple of dolls with stiff limbs and staring eyes (context is all); a locomotive; abacuses; a lively-looking Mickey mouse with wide open arms; a small wooden horse on wheels, and much else I couldn’t quite make out.

Again I got caught at a point beyond which I ‘could not’ watch, and thinking about how much each and every member of the German (non Jewish) population knew, chose to know, before, during and after the holocaust, I wonder what it says about me that I give in to these cut-off points. Think of their idiosyncratic, utterly personal nature: had I watched the footage another day it might have been something else, but I’d just checked in with Sonia Boué‘s The Museum of Object Research (I was about to write The Museum of Discarded Objects), where an article by Philippa Perry about transitional objects had been posted, and found myself putting aside (yet again) everything I had planned for this post.

My thoughts regularly hit walls. I try to untangle the why’s and how’s, find an uncomfortable mix of horror, recoiling and pity, self-indulgence, squeamishness and unresolved attempts at scrutiny of what’s ethical with respect to seeing/being shown images of the dead and dying. I’m exposed to myself in so many ways.

Schlagschatten is a German term for which there is no equivalent in the English language. It describes a particularly dark and precise shadow, produced by a strong punctiform source of light, a spotlight, say, a photoflash, or, when the conditions are right, the sun. It’s a startling composite whose origin I have not been able to ascertain: Schatten is the word for shadow, Schlag translates as blowknockstrike – and suddenly a shadow’s inky cast conjures a moment of aggression, of violence. It’s not a word I’ve ever used, but it interests me here, linking back to the photographs of my hands (see last two posts), and as a metaphor for the fact that in the harsh&blinding light of the holocaust my figure throws such dark shadows too.

Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum