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 blow, knock, strike – 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