End of year questioning time! Every post was a wrestle, a delving deep, and yet hardly more than a touching of fingertips to an important topic. I ask myself: what have I learnt, truly understood, communicated? If my focus was on tiny facets of the complex&sickening period in German history during which my parents grew up, what about that vast expanse of unknowable and unacknowledged terrors, implications, responsibilities? Can I move beyond a limited and ever precarious sense of the time? My processes of assembling/exploring/distilling bring instants of cohesion, which fall apart as soon as I press ‘publish’. Considering this year’s work, its small scale and scattered disposition, its intimacy and transitory nature, both in writing&art, I see endless lessons in grief, overhung by the possibly unanswerable question: why/how could this happen?
Post-memory work is not based on direct experience, done at several removes and so has an aspect of abstraction – I am protected by time. It sometimes feels like a kind of surrogate, stopgap learning, no more than a surface-skimming of sorts, and yet takes me to the brink of what I can bear imagining. Over the last few days I read and re-read the first few pages of Charlotte Delbo‘s Days and Memory, all of which I wanted to quote. Here is an extract: ‘Auschwitz is so deeply etched in my memory that I cannot forget one moment of it. – So you are living with Auschwitz? – No, I live next to it. Auschwitz is there. Unalterable, precise, but enveloped in the skin of memory, an impermeable skin that isolates it from my present self. Unlike the snake’s skin, the skin of memory does not renew itself. Oh, it may harden further… Alas, I often fear lest it grow thin, crack, and the camp get hold of me again. Thinking about it makes me tremble with apprehension. … To return from there was so improbable that it seems to me I was never there at all. Unlike those whose life came to a halt as they crossed the threshold of return, who since that time survive as ghosts, I feel that the one who was in the camp is not me, is not the person who is here, facing you. No, it is all too incredible. … I live within a twofold being. … Without this split I would not have been able to survive.’ (pp.2-3)
No matter how much I learn about the time I cannot begin to understand how such a huge number of ordinary (?) Germans could give up so much of their humanity and tolerate, go along with, take active part in ever extremer measures, the steady reduction of civil rights and in the end ‘disappearance’ of their neighbours and colleagues, the closing down and/or opportunistic take-over of Jewish-owned shops, companies, flats, houses, the war-mongering and everything else.
In October I watched, over and over again (as I do), a few seconds from André Singer’s Night Will Fall (first mentioned in post 2 Oct. 2014) which shows German men and women from Weimar (eight km from KZ Buchenwald) filing past bodies laid out on one side of a path along the edge of a forest (a staging of a strange kind, by soldiers of the American Forces who liberated the camp, to force the population to face what had been done in their name). Many look down at the ground in front of their feet. I also didn’t look at the bodies of dead internees – I looked at people looking or looking away, searched their tiny faces, grey and grainy on my iPad – for traces of knowledge, shock, distress. I wanted them to cry, show terror. No, that’s not true, what I really wanted them is to fall, face first, like Yehiel Dinur, when he tried to walk away from the witness-stand at Eichmann’s trial (see post 10 Sept. 2014).
The question how much people knew remains disputed. We know about the main concentration camps (Konzentrationslager – KZ), Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bełżec, Sobibór, Buchenwald, Dachau, Bergen Belsen, Chełmno. But camps had Aussenlager (affiliated forced labour camps) – around 1.000 all over Germany. I’ve checked on-line for sites near where my dad grew up, my mom, and I, postwar, and found that Aussenlager existed in the vicinity of our respective home-towns, whose emaciated inhabitants will have slave-worked on nearby farms and in factories.
So many looked away or cooperated during the Third Reich and that knowledge bears down on me. There are tiny counter-weights (I’m focusing on private acts of resistance here) which cannot tip the balance, but allow a little breathing-space. Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple, wrote postcard-pamphlets denouncing the National Socialists, which they left in staircases and letter-boxes of tenement houses, fully aware of what might and did happen to them: in 1943 they were executed for their small deeds of resistance. Or Korbinian Aigner, a Bavarian village pastor, who criticised the Nazis in his sermons, refused to christen babies with the name Adolf, and was consequently sent to Dachau and Sachsenhausen, where he worked in agriculture and managed to cultivate new strains of apples, one for each year he was interned (he named them KZ-1, KZ-2, KZ-3 and KZ-4). He also created around 900 postcard-sized drawings of apples and pears, some of which were exhibited at Documenta (13). Johannes Fest, the father of historian Joachim Fest, lost his position as a teacher (as did my great-aunts) because he refused to join any NSDAP-affiliated organisations. He was part of a privately formed group who helped a number of Jewish friends and acquaintances to escape from Germany by buying false papers and supporting in other ways. He and his wife Elisabeth decided early on that it was of extreme importance to raise their children to have critical minds, to doubt and distrust everything around them.
I wonder about the conversations in my dad’s house. About the attitude of my mom’s parents, my beloved Omi and Opa. Through my research for my father/daughter/history-project I’ve gained a sense of distrust towards every member of my extended family who was an adult during the Third Reich. Maybe this was overdue. Everything leaks shadows.
Before I leave you another extract from Charlotte Delbo‘s Days and Memory: ‘In Auschwitz I took leave of my skin – it had a bad smell, that skin – worn from all the blows it had received, and found myself in another, beautiful and clean, although with me the molting was not as rapid as the snake’s. Along with the old skin went the visible traces of Auschwitz: the leaden stare out of sunken eyes, the tottering gait, the frightened gestures. With the new skin returned the gestures belonging to an earlier life: the using of a toothbrush, of toilet paper, of a handkerchief, of a knife and fork, eating food calmly, saying hello to people upon entering a room, choosing the door, standing up straight, speaking, later unsmiling with my lips and, still later, smiling both at once with my lips and my eyes. Rediscovering doors, flavours, the smell of rain.’ This work I’m trying to do is meaningful. If only I could do it better.
Wishing all of you a relaxing&restoring Xmas-break! Will write to you again in the new year. Thanks for reading!