Today I’m fully in the present. The responses to my last post have stretched my safety-net to far corners and I want to share with you how moved I am by the generosity, compassion and creative spirit I have encountered. My posts are often difficult to write, but lately I’ve come to feel supported and enriched through the thoughtful feedback I’ve received, for art and writing.

I’m someone who immerses herself completely and as I work from home, wrenching every word and stitch from the grip of fatigue, have moments when I feel myself untethered, when the threads I follow threaten to pull me under. I steady myself through writing and making, use pen and needle, photograph and crochet-hook to probe and process. How lucky to be an artist! But in-spite of having top spot on Artists Talking I’ve often thought I’m holding monologues and am thrilled to have connected with a small but precious handful of like-minded artists and art-professionals. To join this chorus of vibrant and mutually supportive voices nurtures and encourages me, helps me reflect on my practice and draws my explorations into wider contexts. I’ve longed for this kind of communication.

Some of these conversations have taken place away from Artists talking – I would like to give you a flavour. Helen L.B. inspired me with her response to last week’s troubled post, parts of which I quote here with her permission:

“… I was curious how the creative part of me would respond. And this is my creative response. It’s an interesting one, even to myself. Marion, where you struggle to look at those photos from the Auschwitz album, I want you to know that I felt compelled (that word again!) to do the opposite. I have looked at them unflinchingly, because I didn’t want you to have looked at them alone. I have scoured their faces, looked at the composition, angles, costumes, faces, children, patriarchs, matriarchs, architecture. I did not want you to have looked at these alone Marion.”

It amazes me that someone I’ve never met felt the impulse to connect with me in this way, daring/sharing a difficult look at history and its after-images. A moment of joint witnessing, in a pointed performative gesture across space and time, momentous, moving and meaningful.

I’m glad to take a little break from blogging while the a-n website is in transfer. In the mean-time I thank all of you who read, and esp. those who take time to engage and feedback, to offer a multitude of views, approaches and interpretations, all the while acknowledging the strengths and vulnerabilities of an artist’s relational crafting. Much appreciated.


I’ve been thinking how to continue this. Every morning after breakfast I settle with a mug of coffee and try to read, or research on-line, but the shutters have been down for days. Nor can I watch Generation War or any of the programmes I’ve recorded over the last few months. I never feel I know enough, get frustrated with my slow, tired processes. Still, I do feel overwhelmed. Adrift in a sea of words and images, with icy waves lapping in my chest, behind my forehead, I realise I must pay attention to my state of mind.

My posts may appear like neat little bundles, but I have great doubts if what I’m doing here is anyway near (good) enough. Casting careful sideways glances at history necessarily (?) blocks out so much. And yet it takes me to my limit.

How can I do justice to different sides? Last week’s image of those young, laughing soldiers-to-be and the moments of compassion towards them continue to plague me. They are set

against (but/and not over)

the other faces I cannot show.

To attain a (false) sense of balance I searched my shelf for a book I bought twenty years ago: Gesichter der Juden in Auschwitz. Lili Meiers Album. Lili Meier, a Hungarian Jew who survived Auschwitz, found a photo-album when the camp was liberated, which one of the fleeing SS-men had left behind. It contained photographs of Jewish prisoners, documenting the transport from Hungary to the camp, and the process of selection, showing in separate sections those deemed able to do forced labour and allowed to live a little longer, and those condemned to the gas chamber right away. Step left, step right. Left, right. Young, old, men, women, boys, girls, one moment in their own clothes, and then, just turn a few pages, with their heads shorn and wearing what we know as ‘striped pyjamas’. It became a kind of terrible family-album for Lily Meier, as here she had last and lasting glimpses of loved ones who were murdered.

I could only look at these photographs for brief instants and found myself (not for the first time) asking questions which may well be specific to someone from a post-memory generation: Shouldn’t I be able to? Don’t I have an obligation?

The faces haunt. Words fail. The terror, the cruelty exercised is beyond comprehension. The fact that the SS-man took ‘snaps’ and glued them in an album just about throws me over the edge. He wanted to remember everything. Did he envisage taking the album home when war was over (fantasizing a German victory), to show to his family, his loved ones?

This is where the idea of last week’s laughing faces becomes almost unbearable. How do I take measure? Neither heart nor mind can build a bridge.

Writing here sustains and challenges me. Spurned on by you, my readers (thank you for staying with me) and the knowledge that what I’m doing is of interest, maybe even of importance beyond my own self-absorbed, angst-ridden impulsion, I flourish and flounder. Trying to make sense of my notes early this morning (I write lying on bed – not in, mind) I came to points where said chill spread through me and got up to sit in the sun for a few minutes, propped up against the house-wall. It had rained over night and initially leaves and blossoms glittered with huge, perfectly round drops. Beautiful. Moments of respite, but I couldn’t/can’t stop thinking. Nor focus on much else. What I really want to do is dig up the garden or walk for hours and hours on a coastal path. Get out of my head, walk off what I can’t shake, this sense of dread at what people are capable of. The people I stem from. And the knowledge that, whatever I do, nothing can be resolved. Grief for those who were murdered will remain inconsolable, and I am implicated.

I am imbued with a sense of urgency, the need to engage with living memory while I can, but will allow myself time without research – to process, through writing (here) and making work, slowly, steadily, at my own pace. If I had a studio I would lay out my things – objects, photographs, real and imaginary heirlooms, crochet, notes, embroidery, in long lines. I wouldn’t want them on the wall, but on the ground, like fallen pillars.

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I started with a clear idea for this post but something tugged at me and needs must. Revisiting the same photographs, pursuing, pondering, processing, I realize I’ve been laying the ground for more challenging enquiries.

Repetition for me, in my art-practice, means being called to return to and pore over a subject over and over again. If I heed that call difference occurs through the tiniest of shifts in angle (time having pushed and pulled, dislodged me from where I was), which may mean that when I look at an image, an object, a gesture, an encounter, or their memory, once more, it too will have changed. I researched traumatic memory a while ago (I’m not at all sure if that term would have been used in the 50s, when my dad underwent therapy) which stands in relation and contrast to this process, as it compels to repeat, always in exactly the same way, through flashbacks say, the scenario of an experience which overwhelmed and cannot be integrated into the flow of one’s story. When my father woke up screaming night after night, what did he see?

I find myself reluctant to turn to certain aspects of the fragmented story I explore, very much want to stay in my dad’s childhood, keep him and myself safe in ‘before’. I had meant to write about the little sailor-suit, and almost, almost did, even after I listened to Michael Rosen‘s The Benjamin Broadcasts on Radio4, and took from my shelf Walter Benjamin‘s Berlin Childhood Around 1900, where he mentions just such a suit in The Sewing Box.

Although I only know fractions of his oeuvre I feel attached to this particular philosopher who never disappears in abstraction and explored even his childhood in ways which illuminate his idiosyncratic thinking. In his radio-broadcasts to young listeners (between 1929-33) he considered complex and wide-ranging subjects, from tenement housing to Kafka to witch trials. At the end of what in fact was his last broadcast he announced his next topic: the Ku Klux Klan. I long to think that my dad listened to these broadcasts at the time, even though he was much too young. I wanted him to love this as I do, for our paths to cross here.

My sense of time is precarious. Often when I read I wonder: was my dad part of this? Was he there at the time? until I count the years. When Benjamin fled to Paris in 1933 (the year Hitler came to power) my dad was seven, when he fled Paris in 1940 he was 14. And yet there are points where, although literally miles and years apart, their individual trajectories intersect, for me. Only for me.

My dad spent three days in occupied Paris in August 1943, during his Reich Labour Service (RAD – see post#98), bought postcards of Sacre Coeur, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, like a tourist would. He was excited by the sights he saw (I think the RAD took him abroad for the first time) and after the war glued the cards into his photo-album. Not a sign of occupation in these images, not a flutter of swastika flags.

Benjamin, fleeing from the nazis in 1940 (the Gestapo raided his Paris flat not long after, confiscated his documents which amazingly survived), takes his life in Portbou, the Spanish border town on the Costa Brava, where his group of refugees, having walked the mountain pass across the Pyrenees into Franco’s Spain, is initially refused passage.

At one point in 1943 my 17 year-old dad and his RAD-battalion were stationed in St. Jean de Luz, on the Atlantic Coast near the French/Spanish border (more than 600 km away from Portbou, at the other end of the Pyrenees). It’s the first time he sees the ocean, and he marvels at its beauty. He buys postcards as well as photographs of cliffs and beaches (annotated by him, translated by me: Wonderful days, in-spite of uniform!), followed by images of a border-post with armed guards, and a view of mountain ranges on the Spanish side.

This looks like a whistle-stop tour of France, before being sent into battle. Last stop in Cherbourg, as a workingman (Arbeitsmann, his notation). He also notes that his sea-journey to the US, as a PoW, starts there less than two years later.

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