Thursday, March 15, 2007

My Own Private Holocaust

Today while browsing at the housing works thrift store in tony Chelsea which was once a run down, affordable and real neighborhood and where I first lived when I moved to Manhattan in 1967 I came across a pictorial book on Dachau. It was strange to find this book as I had just finished reading on the subway this very day W.G. Sebald’s arresting and moving novel “Austerlitz” in which the main character takes a voyage both literally and figuratively to the past looking for evidence of his parents who perished during the holocaust. Now this is a very basic and superficial description of this very deep and multi-layered book and my feelings and opinions about this novel could be a post all unto itself. I of course bought the book on Dachau. I carry the holocaust around with me like a folded note in my wallet. It comes to me at odd moments when I least expect it, like riding the subway which turns into one of the cattle cars that takes me to my death in one of the Nazi concentration camps. Or sometimes I conjure up images of my own family or dear friends in the camps. These images can come to me easily and casually sometimes as I walk down a street, or wait in line to go see a movie. I don’t go looking for these deadly and depressing fantasies and images they just come. I first became aware of the holocaust as a young boy watching a documentary about Hitler on television. Why would the Germans want to kill all those Jewish people? Why would they want to kill me? Luckily my father’s family left Europe in the 1920’s, but I’m sure distant relatives of ours must have perished. I knew a survivor of the camps, my childhood friend Marco’s father whose fading crude number tattoo I would sometimes see on his wrist as he worked in his laundry. Marco would tell me horrible stories about what his father and other relatives of his went through and sometimes his stories would give me nightmares. I once seriously asked Marco “Where were the Israelis when all this was happening” He laughed and said they were being butched. When I was 12 the film version of The Diary of Anne Frank opened at the Palace Theatre in Times Square and my uncle took me to see it. I had read the diary a year or so before and was both dreading and looking forward to seeing the film. Unfortunately the film as the saying goes does not stand the test of time, and upon a recent viewing I turned it off. The main problem I had was with the young lead actress Millie Perkins with her flat New Jersey accent and her stiff unappealing acting. The more recent 2001 TV. film version of the diary was a much better treatment and follows the Franks to the camps, which was graphic, harrowing and extremely disturbing. The other film from my youth that I recall, but not with much fondness is Judgment at Nuremberg with its all star Hollywood cast. Stagnant and dull the most moving part of this overlong self important film was the actual footage of the death camps that was used as evidence against the Nazi defendants. I don’t have many books on the holocaust, and the ones that I do have are visual records or books of drawings and art done by the inmates, such as “I Never Saw Another Butterfly which is a lovely (if that is the right word to use for such a horrible experience) book of children’s drawings and poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, The 2 vol graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman, the incredible book of Alfred Kantor’s concentration camp drawings, and Helga Weissova’s book of beautiful drawings “Draw What You See A Child’s Drawings From Theresienstadt.”

Sometimes I do part time work for a book dealer who specializes in the holocaust and when I go there I literally drown in the books that document this horrible period in world history. I don’t know how she does it. Maybe being so close to the subject allows her to remove herself so that she is able to be objective. You see her and her family barely got out of Germany in 1941 when she was just a child and she now devotes her life to selling books on the holocaust and Judaica. Some of the books that she has are so disturbing to me that I cannot bear to look at them. The piled up bodies, the thousands of pairs of shoes and eyeglasses and other personal belongings, its just too heartbreaking for me to look at. I have not yet gone to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and I can’t even bring myself to go to the Holocaust Museum in downtown Manhattan. I keep telling myself to go, and someday I will, when I can find someone to go with me. I couldn’t bear doing it by myself.

I Go To Germany

In January of 1971 I went to Germany to install an exhibition of my sculpture at a gallery in Cologne. It was a long plane trip to Luxemburg, and then a long bus ride to Germany, where M and me were taken off the bus at the border and our bags searched. We both had long hair and beards and this immediately was a red flag to the German border guards that we might be carrying drugs. I nearly freaked and you can imagine the images that went through my mind. I’m a Jew in Germany and I’m about to be interrogated by the German police who to me looked no different than the S.S. We were taken to a room and the bastards had big smiles on their faces as they went through our luggage. I had brought with me small bags of dyed sawdust to use in case I had to make repairs to my sculptures and the fools actually tested them to see if they were drugs. M kept saying “kunst kunst (art, art) but the pigs did not listen. Meanwhile back on the bus the good Germans were laughing as they were the ones with the contraband liquor, perfume and what not. I wanted to spit in their fat faces. A great beginning I thought as the police finally realized that I was not a drug courier and let us get back on the bus. I hated Germany the minute I arrived and could not wait to get the fuck out of there. But I had to install the show, and put myself through the rituals of being an artist. I was interviewed by a German art critic who actually had the audacity to ask me if I was Jewish. I was so appalled that I couldn’t react fast enough to tell him to go fuck himself, so all I said was yes. Cologne is an ugly city, that was mostly destroyed during the war, and except for the ugly black restored cathedral that looms over the place it could have been anywhere U.S.A. Here and there one could still see some of the old buildings that escaped our bombs, and you could see bullet marks and scars along the facades of some of them. I just knew I shouldn’t have come, I hated the Germans and had trouble hiding my contempt and disgust for them even though they loved my art, and were buying it left and right. Never underestimate the ego of an artist. However to my credit I was not an easy guest and tried to be as difficult and demanding as I possibly could. The evening of my opening the gallery was full of people and after I had a little too much wine I bellowed out for all to hear “Isn’t this interesting, 30 years ago you would have put me in your ovens, now you’re putting me in your museums.” The gallery suddenly got very still, and I could hear M giggle nervously. The Germans who were speaking English suddenly started to speak German; I had really upset them. M loved it, and years later I would sometimes overhear him telling people at drunken parties about what I had said at my German art opening. But even though I got out of Germany, I had trouble getting my art out. The gallery owner kept the pieces for nearly four years, and I finally had to get German lawyers to get my work back and some money owed to me for pieces sold. I documented the whole sorry mess in a special issue of TriQuarterly 32, which was devoted to conceptual, and idea art. This issue is around on line and can be had for around 50 bucks or less. Looking back on this unpleasant experience I suddenly realized that in a way my art and me were put into a German concentration camp of the mind.

Illustrations used in this post are from the top left,One of the heartbreaking photos from my book on Dachau. page from TriQuarterly showing some of my missing work. Piles of shoes discovered after the war at Auschwitz, The cathedral in Cologne and a drawing by a child from Terezin concentration camp.


Blogger Ramona said...

"I Will Bear Witness" by Victor Klemperer is an extraordinary book. He was married to an Aryan woman, & lived & wrote his diary in Dresden through, I think, 1945 or so.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Ramona said...

By the way, Ira, I'm Amy Lynn Lewis from FB.

8:28 PM  

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