As I found it hard to come back to my project after the Xmas-break I looked at my last post of 2014, to see where I was. My writing always surprises me, I forget what&how I’ve written, marvel at those moments of lucidity that I can’t quite hold on to. I read: ‘Post-memory work is not based on direct experience 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.’ Actually, I think I didn’t phrase this strongly enough. The chasm between the original experiences, both singular and boundless, during what we now call ‘The Holocaust’ (is naming, crucial as it is, a kind of diminishing too?) and what I, of a post-war generation, glean as a wavering ‘witness’ of those momentous, horrendous facts and accounts, seems unbridgeable.

The little I know, the little I allow myself to know, before I switch off (radio, tele), put the book aside… – comes second- and third-hand, transmitted, mediated, and further thinned out by my own interior filters. Never fully held.

I worry about feeling – too much, too little. Even rationally – no matter how much I learn I simply cannot grasp it. How can we even begin to understand what people did, what was done to people, in the name of a nation, in the name of a race, in the name of a war?

And yet, maybe there is not much else, and this delegated, belated witnessing is of the essence today, lest history dilutes beyond regress?

I thought about this again after watching André Singer’s Night Will Fall* (first mentioned in post 2 Oct 2014). There were moments when I cried; several times I stopped breathing until I gasped for air – and was ashamed for noticing and thinking ‘I need to write about this’, instead of being undone. Whatever I felt and feel cannot measure (up to) what was shown/told. The worse I saw the more I had a sense of unreality. I froze.

The footage (b/w) of masses of dead men and women found when Bergen Belsen was liberated, starved, emaciated down to the bone, with close-ups of their gaunt faces, sculpted&deformed&reduced by hunger and extreme suffering, man-made suffering, over time, over time, witnessed daily by other prisoners on the brink to dying, and concentration camp personnel, seemed utterly incomprehensible to me. More like visions of terror thought up by an apocalyptic artist than – real. By which I mean: of course I know it was real, but I can’t fully ‘know’. Every image, every word, frames a new question.

I’ve been thinking about looking and staring, and how blinking, that micro-sized moment of shut-eye, enables vision. A stare is a gaze that seemingly misses nothing. A gaze without gaps, without loss, without darkness. Lifeless. Barren. Finding&fixing whatever the starer wants confirmed. No connection. No compassion. What did the guards see?

And how about eyes permanently prised open, unable to close on the world? Seeing too much, unable to turn away. No possibility of respite. Exposed. Those who lived (barely) under the stare, saw and experienced everything a person, a nation, is capable of.

The German term for to stare is starren, which forks in two directions: Starren (stare), Starre (rigidity). Not far off is Totenstarre (rigor mortis).

What kind of witness do I want to be?

I got angry (unfroze somewhat) on seeing how the dead were handled, man-handled, when the SS concentration camp guards (and others) were made to help take those dead men and women to quickly dug mass-graves. Often their bodies were dragged, by hands or feet, and I wanted each to be carried, cradled. Suddenly I shouted at the soldiers and officers of the Allied forces – on-screen: Tell them to carry, gently, to take care!

A day after Holocaust Memorial Day my mom and I spoke on the telephone. Just before we put the phone down she mentioned that she had watched the commemorations in Auschwitz on (German) television. A week or so before she had ‘accidentally’ watched Night Will Fall (she had been channel-hopping and, to her own surprise, found herself unable to change to another programme). My mom, who was eleven years old at the end of the war, cannot understand my interminable preoccupation with the Third Reich. It took me a long while to accept that she is entitled to her own limits to what she wants to engage with – a good portion of post-war generation arrogance at work here, I’m afraid. Consequently she knows very little about my project. On and off I’ve shown her photographs of my work, told her bits and pieces – carefully selected small offerings, to see if she wants to know more, without forcing a conversation on her.

My mom, who is so scared of what she might hear or see, watched Night Will Fall all the way through. Maybe she could because I wasn’t there (I’ve often wondered if we enforce each other’s positions). I felt strangely proud of her. And when we talked about Holocaust Memorial Day and the commemorations in Auschwitz, we suddenly cried together.

Now I think I’ve learned something about witnessing, even at several removes, its profound nature, its contingent energy, how it affects and connects, and that it is, or comes close, to an act of love.

* You can watch Night Will Fall on Channel 4 for another 20 days.


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Urgent whispers ricochet in skull&ribcage, hissed missiles: Why do you bring me back, over and over again? One moment it’s my father speaking, who I drag backwards&forwards in time, without a by-his-leave; the next it is I, compelled to return and meet him, in places I know of but don’t recognise, in places I recognise but will never know. Most paths lead into the past now, around all corners lie vistas I’d rather not see, and yet I must, I must, I must. The present has me hurtling back too, so much going on in the world, dotted lines leading to&from that time. I want to understand!

I need history embodied, need my father as anchor, motivator, guide, protector, perpetrator, innocent. But what does he need me for? Do I have to come to grips with what I ‘am’? Am I in the furthest sense a kind of witness, and to what – to the little he could share of his distress, decades after the war? To his inability to speak about concrete deeds&experiences? Am I accuser, defender, inquisitor, researcher, caretaker, processor? One who implicates and is implicated in turn? All and none, and one who attempts forms of address, who cannot speak but in tortured phrases, who learns and forgets, writes and overwrites and forgets again, tries out narratives like hand-me-down clothes, weaves stories and discards, finds facts and lets them slip, from fingers frayed as nerve-ends, failing, failing.

Why this rush of panic now? Well: I’ve decided it’s time to face the war, everything so far just a prelude, a leading up to, a preparation… But I don’t feel prepared, not in any way. And I struggle with the responsibility, towards him, towards the victims of fascism, towards history. Against the savage&methodical, living&breathing, embodied system of the Third Reich, I feel like a child looking at something huge before she has words&concepts to make sense of what she sees. So I get angry, turn on my absent father: You, with your hints and riddles and elongated silences, why have you given me custody of that time, me, the daughter (not the son)? I have become the one who questions and carries, who can’t look and can’t avert her gaze, can’t shake the responsibility. Yes, I have accepted the gift. And so I’m suspended between languages: here’s gift as in present, accompanied by a measure of love&trust – but the same letters spell a German word: Gift, which translates as poison.


About a year ago I started listening to an audio-book by Richard J Evans: The Third Reich at War. I’ve made several starts, another one this week, and am still in Poland, the first country invaded. I was about to write ‘by the nazis’ but am less and less sure what that means. It wasn’t always a clearly delineated group, and many/most of the soldiers for example, who didn’t consider themselves nazis, weren’t members of the NSDAP, may well/will still have participated in atrocities, like the murder of civilians. Following victory over the Polish army (attacked by the Soviet Red Army too) SS and Gestapo, in conjunction with the Wehrmacht, brutally assaulted, murdered, dispossessed, displaced, deported (for slave labour) thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilians. I have no records to peruse, my father left no notes, no diaries, no letters, no photographs of his time as a soldier, only images of before and after. For the war I have a handful of sentences, and a weight of silence. How do I follow him now, to a time of concentrated terror in which he may or may not have had a part, when the best&humane is possibly, probably less likely than the worst?

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Skull-pain so severe I’m ready to disembody. The world shrunk to an airless site of sensation, an outcrop at the side of my head. The labour of breathing carries on.

A relief when pain moves after a day or two, first to my feet (a weight dropped from a great height although I am supine), and starts its journey – right hand left forearm forehead root of left middle-finger right forearm right side of skull ear right palm lower left calf right thigh left kneecap… That I can trace trajectories is a sign of moderate recuperation – when my skull hurt so relentlessly there was no-other-thing. I write the memory of pain while its shadows persist in me, flare-ups of tapering intensity which allow breathing space, here and there. And there.

How does one speak pain? What of its experience – so personal, interior, changeable, can be conveyed? I think of ‘my’ pain as an ‘it’, an (incorporated) entity, manifesting in different places, a noxious parcel sent by my nervous system, exuding&consuming gradations of calamity. Its energy shines a brazen light on discrete chunks of me – body parts are lit up (a pornography of pain?) and brought into focus in proportion to how they are affected, crystal-clear (and at the same time distorted) when pain surges; with softening edges as sensation calms.

Pain does not discriminate, or not much – there are few parts of me which remain untouched over time. If I painted each afflicted spot blue how long would it take to cover all skin? I often think that I would like to do that, have a certain hue in mind, slightly darker than Klein’s blue (I would sign myself!) and lie imagining that I apply paint to skin, but as pain’s conjoined twin is fatigue I never get around to it. Limbs don’t comply. When I’m not hurting anymore the impulse wanes.

I have no wounds to show, or bruises, no discolourations, no scars. Pain is invisible (although it may be read from face&posture, inferred from voice or lack thereof). It shapeshifts, sometimes at lightning speed. The brain wants to name and master, at least after the fact, but all it finds are hollow incantations: undersize iron-cap, knife in head, poison-poultice; outgrowth, ingrowth; piercing, pounding, burning, icing over, pulsing, shredding, penetrating, protruding, tearing, flaring, stabbing, drilling, grinding; a fist, a folly, a furrow – where they don’t belong.

As I resurface I try to think myself out of this realm of concentrated woe. With a hand that feels bare-boned I write notes, proof to myself that I do more than exist. In a strange way I come from nature to nurture, from all-body to culture, draw myself up up up, first to what I remember.

My pain often locks me in a crackling second skin, a shrinking suit of armour, a layer of hardening bark, and as I arise I recall something I read aeons ago, about a character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, most likely a nymph, turned into a tree for some transgression or as a protective act. I’ve always wondered, in fairy-tales too, what remains of a self in and after transformation, even and esp. when the spell is broken. What do you carry of, say, ravenness, once you have been magicked back into human form? I’m shortchanged by the fact that those tales finish at that point, as if the ensuing wedding to some prince or princess released the character from everything that was before. Oh, and to transgress further (I’m becoming myself!) my favourite fairy-tale figure is the seventh brother, or is it the sixth, the youngest and surely most cherished, who, because his loving&beloved little sister couldn’t finish work on the saving grace of his shirt, literally embodies his past. The shirt had one sleeve only, and left her brother with an arm and a jet-black wing. Just beautiful. If only I could meet him – I see connections. No denying of history there! And such stories to tell… (Note to Ovid: When in the throes of ‘that’ skull-pain, when everything is arrested, being turned into a rivulet might save me. Temporarily only. Pretty please!)

I can’t begin to do justice to the intense and severe nowness of pain. It’s so utterly utter, so otherly other. Time moves again when that outcrop at the side of my skull falls and drifts off like a piece of iceberg in the Arctic sea. I may wish that time moved faster when the sensation is at its most extreme&obliterating, hope (and thankfully know from experience) that it will pass, though never soon enough; and when I finally move through and out I wish once more to slow time, to catch up, to un-lose those days, to create.

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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!

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I should know better by now. Every time I finish a post I feel sure about the next one, which will follow on directly and be faster&easier to write. Ha! And every time I find I bob in dark, cold waters where questions and qualifiers swell the waves, urgent and unanswerable. This week’s selection of one tiny inky drop to peer at under my personal microscope, a wee globule hanging from a trembling fingertip, came about through an expected yet timely find.

I was looking for something else (still am) when I happened upon three colour-photos (all but forgotten) of me sitting cross-legged on a cement floor in a narrow whitewashed space at art-college, sixteen, seventeen years ago, facing a small television (as deep as it as wide), also placed on the floor. I am watching the looped b/w footage of the girl from Triumph of the Will (see earlier posts), those 1.5 seconds which I keep returning too, doing her whatever it is over and over again. I’m alone in the room, have my back to the camera which is on timer and my right arm is half-raised.

Yes. Half-raised and going up. I am imitating the girl’s approximation of the Hitler Salute, and by extension the gesture itself. I have become obsessed, have furtively tried out the salute at home, felt stretch&strain in shoulder and arm, and how it might momentarily make you feel tall&strong&towering. I have done this just a couple of times, with breath held, and thereafter felt suspicious of each&every gesture for which I have to extend my right arm – waves now contain perilous seeds and have to be modified; the hand that slips&stretches through a sleeve or reaches for a book on a high shelf suddenly pulls sinister memories in its wake.

At the time I analysed those 1.5 sec frame by frame and saw what otherwise flashes by: When the girl’s hand is highest her gesture comes closest to looking like a Hitlergruss. All the intermediate stages could have different meanings: waving, pointing, framing… The imperfection of her gesture and the grumpy face with which it was delivered were almost startling in the mass of rapturous miens, of movements and marching executed with military precision. But I also saw a tension in what I was doing (as I do now, taking my dad as an entry-point into German history): while I used the focus on the girl’s gesture to pry something open in the fascist discourse Riefenstahl’s film presents, I held her, froze her in that gesture, that context.

I worked a lot with that film, engaging not so much with speeches and marches, but exploring the faces and gazes of those looking on, the population (‘ordinary’ men and women) lining the streets and hanging out of windows (there are more photos to find, somewhere), and in the course and without noticing drowned a bit. When my turn came for a presentation of work in front of class it didn’t go well. A few minutes in I was crying and crying and couldn’t stop.

Since then I’ve regularly returned and revisited, often in oblique ways, and now explicitly. I think something is different this time around; it has become a somewhat healthier pursuit. I write, reflect and process here, at my own slow and deliberate pace; try to gauge how much I can take in and hold at any one time, allow for breaks and withdrawals, although with varying degrees of patience with myself. I’ve managed to link up with a handful of people for conversations&exchanges full of compassion (you know who you are!). And – this too seems vital – my work and processes have become embodied; I use my hands to work through and out. Whereas before I looked and looked and mostly produced photographs and video-pieces (which can be a highly cerebral medium) I now touch pierce pull stitch cut fold sort sew play lay out crochet assemble undo untangle brush nudge grope stroke scratch. It mends something in me.

I also watched Imagine this week, about Anselm Kiefer, whose work in scale, vision and approach could not be more different from mine and whose exhibition at the Royal Academy I could not get to, alas, though I’ve been to others. We seem to be operating at opposite ends in ways which comply with clichés about male and female artists, masters and mistresses. There’s something about the scope&ambition of his vision and the space he so confidently takes that induces vertigo in me, fascinates and exasperates (all tinged with a good dose of defensiveness and envy I’m afraid – for assistants, funds, energy, working and storage spaces, materials, and he can stand too!). I have reservations about the appropriation of the Nazis’ megalomania – disquieting and effective, as well as the fact that Kiefer’s work inspires awe. But then I’ve got reservations about the work I produce, so directly personal, intimate, small-scale, diminutive even. I’m all boldness-in-waiting. And yet (I fall from but to but here) what I find most interesting at the moment and really enjoy is laying out little things next to me on the floor (see #artlings), not gluing, not sewing together, just layering, photographing, posting and disassembling. Where Kiefer reaches for eternity I seem to slip more&more into what fits a thousandfold into the blink of an eye.

In the end both are valid approaches. The most important thing we share, beyond subject matter, is the starting point – our respective fathers. After all Kiefer wore his dad’s Wehrmacht-coat when he placed himself at historical sites and performed the Hitler Salute. There’s a kind of intimacy in that too. And by the end of the programme I’d warmed to him and his vision more. I was bowled over by how he chooses to inhabit his working spaces, allowing parts to speak and breathe without interference, and transforming others completely. But as ever I zoomed in on small details. When one of his early interviewers remarked (1970?) that Germany wasn’t ready for his work at the time he said: “But I wasn’t ready too.” That resonates with me. I’m still not ready for what I’m trying to do, and yet deeply&irrevocably embroiled. And when people wondered at the time if he was a neonazi he did not answer, explaining that through his work he went back to an earlier time when he might not have known what he was. Very simply. I connected.

I dug up (on my computer) a few older pieces. You’ve seen one as I am a stick, I am a stone before.

Seasons of the Fall (2011-13)
Crocheted from wool/polyester mixture
Dimensions: to follow

And below my last #artling.

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