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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.