When Trauma meets Art, Part 2

Shoah — Fragments of Intergenerational Trauma

“Trauma is hell on earth. Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.” — Peter Levine

“If you bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will be your salvation. If you do not bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will destroy you.” — Peter Levine

I was 26 when Shoah first screened in Israel. The screening was divided into two evenings due to the film’s length. I remember arriving at the intimate Tel Aviv Museum auditorium, a bit anxious, scanning the crowd, sensing the temperature, looking for someone familiar. I was by far the youngest person in the crowd of elderly, respectfully dressed attendees. I recognized one person, Professor Gabriel Moked, standing on the side talking to a good-looking dark-haired woman in a light blue knee-length dress and a white blouse. Professor Moked is a Holocaust survivor and a well-known figure in the Israeli literature milieu. I attended his class, Philosophy of Aesthetics, the previous semester. The class discussions were about Beauty and its objective evaluation. I remember that Professor Moked’s theory centered on the notion that an objective assessment of Beauty exists. To this date, I think it’s a provocative idea, especially in today’s media proliferation where everything is so subjective. A purple handkerchief had a prominent spot on my Professor’s gray jacket. He always had the manners of a gentleman.

I walked over to him and said: “Good evening Profesor Moked. My name is David. I attended your class last semester.” He recognized me, and we shook hands. I remember the look of surprise, maybe astonishment expressed in his big almond-shaped eyes, which became even bigger as he saw me there, a kid in that crowd. Sometimes, it’s the slight nod that can lift a spirit.

In the opening scene of Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, a man in his 50s, with curly hair and a handsome round face, is rowing a boat on a river. He sings as the dinghy eases through calm waters. A dark green-grayish forest is in the background. The man’s gaze is melancholy and distant. I imagine he is in a different place, in memories of images and sounds from the times he rowed on this river during the war. He sings in Polish, the language of a country that betrayed millions of its Jewish citizens. Nevertheless, his singing rolls out with a deep sense of longing and a soft-hearted soul.

Later in the film, as Lanzmann converses with this gentleman, his miraculous survival story comes to light, and we learn how his melodic voice helped him stay alive. Simon Srebnik was one of only two survivors of Chełmno, where the Nazis gassed 400,000 Polish Jews, the first camp where Jews were gassed. Srebnik was 13 when he was put to work by the Nazis, collecting the remains of his fellow Jews and dumping sacks of human ashes in the calm river. During his captivity, he was taught and compelled to sing for his captors’ entertainment. Two days before Chelmno was liberated by Soviet troops, the remaining prisoners were shot in the head. Srebnik was among them, but he survived.

Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018)
Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018)

Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust; it means a catastrophe. Lanzmann’s film is a magnum opus documentary, but he insisted on calling it “a fiction of the real.” He gathered 230 hours of location filming and interviews with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders, which he condensed into a 9½-hour film. It took him eleven years to complete. I imagine the grip of madness going to sleep and waking up day after day with the thought: this part must stay, and this needs to be cut. It’s like the famous doctor’s hand gesture on the train platform in Birkenau.

Lanzmann refused to use any historical documentary footage. Instead, he toured the world, looking for eyewitnesses to Hitler’s Final Solution and conducting interviews. At that time, many Holocaust survivors were still alive, with intensely strong memories. Also still alive were many German and Polish, who played a part in the killing machine or were in a position to observe what happened. There is a lot of talk in the movie; it’s all talk, and it’s all mesmerizing and agonizing at the same time. Sporadically the interviews are interrupted by images of locomotives, train tracks, and pastoral scenes of the places where the killing took place. Common to all that imagery is the accompanying silence, no voice-overs, a complete stillness.

Lanzmann is an incredible interviewer; it’s his mastery. He is patient, and his questions are about the little details. In this way, he draws out some chilling, harrowing accounts. Most unsettling, for me, is that of Abraham Bomba, the former Treblinka barber. The interview took place at a barbershop in Tel Aviv as Bomba cuts a client’s hair. In Treblinka, he cut women’s hair minutes before they went into the gas chamber. At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum library archive, I found the entire script of their conversation. These are some of Lanzmann’s questions and a couple of Bomba’s answers:

Lanzmann: “You said that you didn’t shave them.”

Lanzmann: “You cut it with what? With Scissors?”

Lanzmann: “There were no mirrors?”

Lanzmann: “Can you imitate now what you did?”

During the conversation, Bomba frantically moves his scissors, cutting his client’s hair fast, as if the movement and the scissors will shield him from the flood of internal torments.

Lanzmann: “With big movements?”

Lanzmann: “You say you were about 16 barbers.”

Lanzmann: “This means you cut the hair of how many women in one batch?”

Lanzmann: “And after that, the doors of the gas chamber were closed?”

Lanzmann: “Where did you wait?”

Lanzmann: “I asked you, and you didn’t answer. What was your impression the first time you saw these naked women with children arriving? What did you feel?”

Bomba: “I’ll tell you something. Over there, it was very hard to have any feelings. Working there, day and night, among those people, those bodies, men and women, your feelings disappeared. You were dead to your feelings — you had no feelings at all. As a matter of fact, when I was chosen to work as a barber in the gas chambers, some women came in off a transport from my town, from Czestochowa. I knew a lot of those women.”

Lanzmann: “You knew them?”

Bomba: “I knew them. I lived with them in my town, in my street, and some of them were my close friends. When they saw me, they started hugging me. What are you doing here? What is going to happen to us? What could you tell them? What could I tell them? A friend of mine, who also worked as a barber — a good barber — in my hometown, when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber…”

At this point, Bomba goes silent. You can see the wave of emotions going through his mind. He struggles to hold it together.

Lanzmann: “Go on, Abe. You must go on. You have to.”

Bomba: “It’s too hard.”

Lanzmann: “Please, we have to do it, you know we do.”

Bomba: “I am not able to do it.”

Lanzmann: “You have to do it. I know it’s very hard. I know, and I apologize.”

Bomba relents, and the rest of the story unfolds.

My hair is prickling; I am experiencing powerful emotions as I see the visual image of the barber cutting his wife and sister’s hair a few minutes before their final separation.

Some critics said that Lanzmann was too forceful in pushing the survivors hard to recall their experiences, even at the cost of reopening old wounds. He explained to reporter Howie Movshovitz in 2011, “No one history book may give you the emotions, the strengths of a human face when the people are paying the highest price in order to revive what they went through.” Lanzmann also said, “And I think that the only way to answer the ‘why’ is to go into the most extreme details of the ‘how.’”

In 1991, my father, newly retired from a lifelong military career, invited my brother Israel and me to join him on a trip to Poland and Germany, following the route he shared with his father, David, from 1939 till the end of the war in 1945, when they were separated forever. The veil of Communism had just been lifted, and Eastern European countries opened up. We met at Warsaw airport; my father and brother arrived from Israel, and I from Los Angeles. Warsaw looked gray, old, filled with a sense of decay and gloom. We traveled to Lodz; it was even more grayish and dilapidated. We found the house where my father grew up, and for the first time, I heard him speak Polish as if it was only yesterday when he last spoke it and not over 45 years ago. From there, we continued through four different concentration camps, all the way to his liberation in Dachau. My brother and I equipped ourselves with the best camcorders; they were big and heavy in those days. We knew nothing about sound recording, and it shows in the many hours of footage we collected. Nevertheless, we were enthusiastic. I thought, ‘this is my chance to role-play Claud Lanzmann.’ I hoped to draw out of my dad the stories he never told and the emotional tones he never used. It did not work! At the time, I was 31 years old and far from having the mastery and the emotional maturity required for such a task. I am not sure if I was even ready to hear it all and probably even too afraid.

From a young age, I wondered about the things my father did not speak. To start with, he was not a big talker but more of a task-oriented master. Like many of his generation, he was busy creating and defending the young state of Israel. He partook in managing the Israeli military food logistics; thus, his mindset was focused on doing rather than being. Still, as a child growing up in the shadow of the horrors, I was curious. I wanted to know about the emotional state of mind, the fear, the violence, the sounds, and the abuse. I wanted to learn more about his special bond with his father and his sense of grief and loss. Anything that could fill up the detached way by which he told his story. He stuck to the names and dates; everything in between was dry, colorless like that of a reluctant storyteller. I had clues that there was much more to it. I heard things, sometimes from my mother, but mostly from my intuition.

There was an implicit message in my father’s inability or will to divulge more of his past. I understood from an early age that there are things you don’t ask. It had to do with respecting his space and the way he carried himself. It was an early lesson on boundaries. But, on the other hand, there were things that any child, even the ones less sensitive than me, would have picked on. To start with, his height — my father was a short man. He never grew above his height at 14, when the war started. The blue number tattooed on his wrist was always visible. His quietness followed him almost always, interrupted sporadically with uncontrolled rage. He was easy to raise voice, which I suspected had something to do with the camp guard shouts he withstood. I also suspected that he received physical beatings and maybe was sexually abused. But I knew, instinctively, that I am not allowed to breach any of those subjects. It left me in a place of void and calling to fill the open spaces with my imagination.

The train motif in the Holocaust saga is prime. The logistics behind transporting the Jews from all corners of the European continent and delivering them to the concentration camps’ gas chambers, all in Poland, was an immense logistical operation controlled by Adolf Eichmann. The trains play a central role in a series of artworks I spent years creating. Behind the façade of colorful glass-made fused tiles laid horizontally on fabricated plexiglass is a conceptual vision of a landscape. One of my repeated fantasies was being in my father’s place inside a cattle train, smooshed tightly with other bodies. The train is on its way to Auschwitz. I am standing next to the interior wooden panel, and I find a tiny crack that I can see through. I picked and saw a beautiful landscape of heavenly creation, green, blue, and red, all in movement. I get lost in the view outside; it comforts me, I escape from my body and emotions, I am free.

I created a film for an art exhibition at the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Museum in Queens, NY. Imagine a video camera mounted on a train engine filming a ride through stunning Norway. The geography is monotonous, with endless white snowfields and blue, grayish sky. The image is meditative, conveying a calm serenity, which breaks every time the train enters a tunnel. The darkness engulfs the screen; it’s a portal to images that conjure memories of a different train ride — cattle trains and train station signposts from Lanzmann’s movie Shoah. The audio track accentuates the contrast between the magnificent Norwegian scenery and the tunnel’s dark memories — the music shifts from a meditative soundscape to agonizing cries. The film is four hours long and goes with endless loops because the journey away from the memories never ends. I named the installation “The Train from Auschwitz; A Journey from Shame to Self — Realization.”

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