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


Taking the measure of last week I declare it a good one, starting with a cautiously hopeful hospital-appointment and ending with an encounter with an artist I hadn’t met before, not in person that is. This is what I tweeted on Saturday, after a wonderful art/life-visit: @ElenaThomas1 was here! We unwrapped work from tissue paper, precious bundles-crocheted stitched sewn stencilled-alive under eyes&fingertips. I felt the need to tell the world. These rare and so very brief direct connections are to me momentous occasions, and afterwards, overcome by fatigue, I rejoiced as much as I mourned: meeting Elena was exceptional in every sense of the word.

I have come to ‘know’ Elena and some of her work from blogging here. We read each other and exchange comments regularly. In fact she is probably the person who has commented most consistently and often at lightning speed, minutes after I’ve put up a post. I expect nothing less now, know she is permanently and acutely tuned into a-n’s blogger-sphere, whereas I’m always behind, trying to keep or catch up. Unsurprisingly she has already written a beautiful post about our encounter… (Reading it I breathed a sigh of relief, as I couldn’t be sure if our meeting had equally moved and roused her.) Over time we had become blogger-friends, through commitment to on-line communication about our respective art-practices; a shared interest in materiality (fabrics, threads, marking, making, mending); memory and identity (the bending in and out of shape of childhood, and womanhood). Our methods are different, and have much in common – embodiment is at the heart of it all.

That Elena gave me her time, her work to explore, and mine her attention, when so much else in London beckoned, touched me deeply. She brought a bag full of textile pieces which I unpacked like precious gifts. Not the famous greatcoat, which I will see one day, but gorgeous childhood garments, some constructed and stitched from bits of fabric, others acquired and embroidered and rendered new in subtle ways, coaxing from fine stitches the felt – as you perceive – memory/impression of a tender touch, or a bruising one. Work full of affect and affection. And of course that glorious bra! Sounds were made! Remembering, I can once more feel textures under fingertips, the different ways of holding each piece required, the emotions and images evoked.

Elena had a very special way of handling my pieces, Riefenstahl’s children for example: like someone who is used to holding a tiny being, tenderly, deliberately, and with confidence. Much became clear when she took from deep in the box, out of layers of tissue paper, an older piece, We were wicked, we were wild. As she reacted to its precarious materiality she told me about her prematurely born son (I’m not breaking confidences here, Elena mentioned him in her post), his wee body (described to me in relation to the span between her palm and elbow, where he would lie securely), skin as translucent as a jellyfish’s. There was closeness, through the work and what it brought up in us, between us. We shared stories, talked about the marvel that our work evokes presence, the importance we assign the slow and meticulous processes of making, of having each piece grow from our fingers.

The way she responded to my work made it come to life for me again, and in unexpected ways. Most of my art- and other connections happen on-line; direct experience and interaction are extra-ordinary. Unwrapping, handling, holding, exploring our respective works confirmed what I already know – that through the computer screen you don’t get more than a superficial notion of (textile) work; how much it needs the ‘real’ sphere, the interplay with space, one’s senses and corporeality.

Meeting someone you don’t already know is hard when you spend much of your time in the horizontal. This year has been notable: the lovely Rob Turner of Cooling shed and Walking with Cosmo-fame came in July after he had finished his mosaic in nearby Nunhead. And if you think now, oh, isn’t she lucky? – yes, I am, but bear in mind too that I’ve literally factually actually not seen anyone else in-between, not been to exhibitions, private views, studios, nor any artist at mine. Giving someone you haven’t met before an impression of your mostly invisible life is a vulnerable and precious thing. Both Rob and Elena now have some sense of how I work, can conjure in their mind the exact place on the front-room’s carpet where I lie and crochet, make notes, or rest rest rest, when next they read a post of mine. Health-wise and socially this year has been full of challenges – here’s hoping that things are looking up a bit. I’m even planning a small art-outing, long ago pencilled into my diary – holding my breath…

I wanted to ask Elena so many questions, and esp. talk about our fathers (linking back to my project). Good to know that our conversation will continue, on-line again, but in all kinds of lively ways and profoundly affected/altered/intensified by having met, here, then. Yeaheah, Elena, and thanks.


The last ten days have been particularly tired, physically as well as mentally: limbs leaden and airy, resisting coherence; pockets of pain here and there, sewn to skin; fleeting periods of full alertness and acuity. Doubts though, about my oh, so very slow, modes of production (art and writing) sprout like weeds in the cracks of a wall. I’ve learned to bundle even tiny amounts of energy and wring from them what I can, but the gap between ideas and what I’m physically able to do is huge.

Last post’s hands surprised and stung me. I’d been thinking about painting (on) my left and photographing it, but hadn’t found the energy. It doesn’t sound like much, but imagine breaking down the process into its constituent parts, each of which can be broken down further: get out paints, brushes, tissues, water, camera; set up somewhere (kitchen is dark; front-room is bright, as is the carpet), preferably without dropping anything on the way; paint hand when light is right and take pictures with other hand from various angles; and when all is done (if it’s worked) wash paint off, clean brushes, put everything away. It’s not something I can do in one go (unless I have help), would be interrupted by any number of lie-downs, and meanwhile the light may change, or I run out of energy completely – you get the picture. All my activity is fragmented, beads on a thread, with those that need adding getting heavier in the course of the day, or rolling out of reach.

But, when sun streamed in through the window, demarcating a small rectangle of light, I worked with the sharp shadows produced to ‘paint’ my hand. I took a series of quick colour snaps (uninteresting in themselves) and photoshopped a few the next day, not quite sure what I was after until ‘it’ appeared. It’s my hand and not my hand, I don’t recognise it and recognise it fully. Cropping the images felt important; it changes the perception of the hand’s size, and, beyond an association of hard, earth-turning work, there’s a sense of something uncontainable: potential and power, a risk of transgression, trespass (by or against?). Hands (un/gendered?) to be reckoned with. And there’s a harrowing beauty. Work-in-process. I wonder what you think.

I’m now considering uncropped images – the reading seems to shift – gestures and their signification play a part. The boundaries between shadow and hand are less clear – they leak into each other.

The next project-post churns away in me, inspired by an item on the radio this week.

When fatigue falls it’s best to go with what’s already in one’s head, look at it anew: I’ve written a guest-post for Sonia Boué‘s gorgeous blog Museum for Object Research – Wäuwäu. Maybe some of you would like to help fill the museum’s virtual shelves and vitrines?


One night a couple of weeks ago my hands seemed half mine, half other, their tops as I knew them, but my palms hurt badly and felt as large as a giant’s: not swollen but grown or grafted on, and one with the rest of my hand. As I lay in the dark, mentally exploring the conundrum of these sensations, I could ‘see’ my hands, long and slim from above, massive, strong, sturdy, with hefty fingers, from below. Incongruous and true, as in a dream.

Pain can inhabit a limb, a part of a body, even all of it, or be experienced as an appendage of sorts, an extra-layer of flesh and skin, threaded with nerve-ends. Here I was, temporarily fitted (armed?) with a large man’s calloused palms. It made me think of fairy tales, of Thumbelina cradled in a nut-shell; of Ovid’s Metamorphoses where (if I remember right) each transformation/dissolution starts at and spreads out from a particular place. Of Sunday walks along the promenade when I was small and my happy little hand hatched in my father’s; of someone guiding a child’s first scribbles…

I often write: ‘weeks/months ago’ – remain in suspense until particles of life, research and art-making brush against each other, produce a flicker as I uncertainly process and put into words what bides in me, resides in me, familiar and unrecognisable; what finds me, grabs hold of me, who is simultaneously absorbed and abstracted and ever unsure of her endeavours. So much troubles me; I weigh words and question perceptions, wonder one moment if it’s wrong to shape such disparate notions into (deceptively coherent) little texts, and next what I’m avoiding if I don’t try.

Last week I started watching Margarethe von Trotta‘s film Hannah Arendt, and found I couldn’t get beyond, never mind over the (documentary) images about 30 min. in, of one of the witnesses in the Eichmann-process of 1961, a man in a white suit, collapsing before his testimony was over. I tried to watch on, but didn’t take anything else in. Later I searched for him on-line and found the full recording of his testimony.

His name was Yehiel Dinur. He sat in the witness-stand (others stood) and spoke in a low voice. His breathing was laboured and he looked hot, as if close to a faint. At one point he pulled up his sleeve to show the number tattooed on his arm. His narration was determined; his gaze though seemed absent, even disoriented, and the increasing internal pressure he was under was written in his face. He visibly held himself together to speak, moving about in his seat, turning a few times as if about to get up. Conflicting forces seemed to be working in him, one impelling to bear witness; one to flee. Towards the end he rises, sits down again, and finally, just when the prosecutor tries to put a question to him, gets up and walks away from the stand. Within a few steps he falls with a cry, face-down.

Here is some of what he said:

Q. What was the reason that you hid your identity behind the pseudonym “K. Zetnik”, Mr. Dinur?

A. It was not a pen name. I do not regard myself as a writer and a composer of literary material. This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. Time there was not like it is here on earth. Every fraction of a minute there passed on a different scale of time. And the inhabitants of this planet had no names, they had no parents nor did they have children. There they did not dress in the way we dress here; they were not born there and they did not give birth; they breathed according to different laws of nature; they did not live – nor did they die – according to the laws of this world. Their name was the number “Kazetnik”*.
*Kazett=Konzentrationslager/KZ – Katzetnik: inmate of a concentration camp

In the ten minutes of his testimony the agony of these two years pressed full-force against Yehiel Dinur‘s being. I kept asking myself – is it o.k. to watch this? It felt intrusive, voyeuristic, distressed me greatly, and yet I looked closely. What caught me, aside from the manner and content of his speech, is that this falling, this being felled by the memory of his experiences, the lived knowledge of what human beings could do and did to other human beings (and still and again do in different ways) seemed such a true, even inevitable response.

Eichmann watched across the divide of the courtroom, listening to the interpreter on earphones, his face going ever more lopsided. Yehiel Dinur was helped up by court officers and attended to.

There are times when I am almost glad that my father was so young when he was made a soldier. This is entirely self-serving, because it means that there are limits to his involvement (and thus responsibility) in the Third Reich’s politics and actions. He fought in its war, as did my grandfather (mom’s dad, who I loved loved loved as a child and about whose social and political attitudes in the 30s and 40s I know nothing), an uncle and various great-uncles. It’s harder still to know about the women whose everyday lives are covered by the bindweed of decades of silence and getting on. What I struggle to understand is how soon after the war and the holocaust a kind of (false? strained? relieved?) normalcy seemingly settled in everyday life. Where there traces I might have picked up on as a child? Could ‘it’ only be felt in absences – that we had no Jewish neighbours is mourned by me today, but was nothing I could have grasped then.

When we (as teenagers) learned about German history at school it seemed far removed, as if it had nothing to do with us. Ancient history. My interest started later – I could choose, something which would have been very different (closer to home?) for the family of a survivor. I realise how much I feared asking and to some extent still do. No matter the books I read, the films I saw over the years, I did not (dare) apply this knowledge of life under/within fascism to my family, lest I had to imagine anyone I loved had been a Nazi. Nowadays I doubt everything and everybody, have even had a crazy moment when I worried I might remember that I had been a Nazi myself.

When I’m in need of comfort I often turn to Rumi. One line flew off the page this morning: ‘I am inside your looking.’ A gaze can be open, receptive, empathic (blind spots not withstanding), or rigid, defining. I’m thinking again about the hands M.E.-pain brought me, half mine, half new. They seem to say something about the ‘other’ in oneself, myself. I am glad it was an open hand, not one curled into a fist. How do I know my body? My mind? My history? Only briefly, in fully lived and attentive instances, when we heed what we hold, what breathes in us, without fixing it in place, hardening it and us. These hands of mine can salute, wave, mend, bless, hold, offer, receive, touch, caress, cut, kill, slap, strangle, open, close, sign, gesture, shape, make, draw, strike, type, crochet, reach out, entwine. I have to make sure that I choose well.