When Trauma meets Art, Part 4

Fragments of Intergenerational Trauma

Black Milk

“We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world.” — Gabor Mate

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

Driving our daughter Rae to UC Berkeley for her freshman year in 2019 was a trip filled with emotions; the comings and goings were at full blast. While she and her mother were running errands, I had a few hours to burn. What better way to burn than a visit to the Modern Art Museum? I thought Andy Warhol’s retrospective would be the main attraction, but I was wrong.

I had to climb up to the sixth floor and enter the halls dedicated to Post-WWII German Art to find a jewel. There was a headphone device next to Anselm Kiefer’s painting Shulamit. I picked it up, placed it on my ears, and got ready for the painting’s story to expand me. I was expanded, and much more than that, but not the way I expected. What I heard was a poem. What I heard was hypnotizing. It flooded me at the core with a visceral sensation, nothing rational, nothing I could articulate. I’d heard the poet’s name before, but I never read him. And what is the connection between the poem and this particular painting? It sent me on a search and a profound discovery.

Paul Celan wrote “Death Fugue” in a Nazi labor camp a few months before the war ended. A fugue is a state of amnesia, where you wander away for hours, days, or even weeks. After you recover, you can remember what happened before the fugue, but everything during is lost. Fugue is also a musical term in which one or two themes are repeated. The poem incorporates both definitions.

Paul Celan (1920–1970)
Paul Celan (1920–1970)

The poem’s narrator talks about what was going in his mind while living in the Nazi concentration camp. I felt struck by the cadence and imagery of the repeated phrase “Black milk of morning” and “We drink and we drink” I thought, “I saw this dark mushy color before, but where and when, if at all.” It took a minute to locate it in my memory bank, and then it hit me; this was my father’s description of the food in the labor camp.

Imagine a queue of men dressed in black and white striped outfits that resemble pajamas. They are skinny; their cheekbones stick out from their pale yellowish skin. Their shirts look as if they are hung on a clothes hanger rather than on a human body. They are stooped and quiet. Everything about them screams submissiveness. They wear wooden shoes reminiscent of Dutch clogs and on their head is a dark headpiece like a beret. My father, Baruch, is fourth in line; his father, David, is behind him. The queue moves towards a platform; the men are, surprisingly, pretty energetic and eager to reach their turn. On the scaffold stands a prisoner next to a big soup bucket and a pile of bread loaves. A couple of minutes later, after their turn arrived, they stand next to each other, examining their daily ration. Black Milk is poison. Milk brings to mind the biblical description of “land of milk and honey,” a land of plenty. Adding the dark-colored, watery, and tasteless soup to the image of milk and it becomes a starved man’s hypnotic fantasy. In addition, the rhythmic weight of the repetition holds the poem’s structure and intensifies the narrator’s sense of hunger and anger. My grandfather finds a piece of potato in his cup. He slices it and gives half to my father.

Death Fugue, translated by Pierre Joris

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings

we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes

he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete

he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come

he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth

he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night

we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes

he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease

He calls jab deeper into the earth you there and you other men sing and play

he grabs the gun in his belt he draws it his eyes are blue

jab deeper your spades you there and you other men continue to play for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night

we drink you at noon we drink you evenings

we drink you and drink

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes

He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland

he calls scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland

we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink

death is a master from Deutschland his eye is blue

he strikes you with lead bullets his aim is true

a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete

he sets his dogs on us he gifts us a grave in the air

he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Deutschland

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamit

The poem depicts two characters, ‘a man lives in a house, and he plays with snake’ — this is the German butcher, the other is the Jewish narrator, forced to dig graves and also to ‘play up for the dance.’ As an analogy, Paul Celan conjures up two female figures, Margarete, the Aryan with golden hair; she is the idealized symbol of womanhood in Goethe’s play, Faust. The other figure is Shulamit, the Jewish with ash, burnt-out hair; she is King Solomon’s dark-haired beloved in the Song of Songs. In many of his most unsettling paintings, Anselm Kiefer has inscribed Margrete and Shulamit’s names and even complete phrases from the poem, like encoded signals. He said: ‘In my painting, I tell stories to show what lies behind history.’

In Shulamit, the dark brown brick structure that fills the canvas from rim to rim carries a sense of void and silence. Kiefer used a photograph of a memorial crypt dedicated to the German soldier. At its center is the internal flame, a reference to the ovens in the death camps. On the top left is the word Shulamit. It’s a disturbing play between imagery and title, between silence and a scream.

Shulamite, 1983, Anselm Kiefer
Shulamite, 1983, Anselm Kiefer

Paul Celan committed suicide in 1970 by jumping, late at night, from a bridge into the Seine River to drown himself. Some believe that he could not stand the rumor mill claims that he appropriated imagery from other poets. Others think that he dreaded the medical treatment for his ongoing depression. Many survivors said implicitly or explicitly that they ‘died in Auschwitz.’ Many of them could not hold the so-called survivor guilt and the incurable wounds; quite a few committed suicide. In doing so, they gave the ultimate answer to whether the pain of living has been worthwhile. Both Primo Levi’s and Paul Celan’s suicides need to be seen in this context. Anselm Kiefer is alive and prolific. However, in the last couple of decades, his artworks seem to have moved on to new subjects, primarily exploring decay as a starting point for renewal.

Trauma is painful; it made me want to escape into an inner world and isolate myself. Trauma made it hard for me to trust and ask for help; thus, I had to be self-reliant. As the years go by, I am becoming more aware of its effects and slowly changing my perspective. Rather than seeing it as a curse, I see it as a source of wisdom and profound teachings. Trauma has given me the gift of my introspective self and the powers of creativity. It gently yet doggedly pushes me to lay aside the internal violence and embrace connection with forgiveness, compassion, and love. Healing requires a community; it’s ongoing, never-ending, with ups and downs; it will never be perfect. Regardless, recovery can begin again and again as many times as it takes.

Picture this memorable moment. My friend Giora and I stood on top of a crematorium in Birkenau, a bit above the flat green grassland. A forest far in the background. There were no other visitors but us. It was late in the autumn season. The dark gray clouds hid the sun, but a silver lining of brightness was at the edge. The green pastures gave no clue to the mounds of ashes scattered all around. Given our mutual background as children of Holocaust survivors, it seemed appropriate to tell Giora about General Douglas MacArthur, evidently a Freudian moment. I mimicked the General’s pathos saying to the Philippines: ‘I shall be back!’ as he evacuated to Australia. Suddenly, something caught our eye, and we had to stop our conversation. A young girl was walking across the field, not far from us. We were mesmerized; it looked so romantic and pastoral. The girl was wearing a white skirt, a light yellow sweater, and a backpack. Probably on her way home from school. Everything around us seemed like a black and white movie, but for the little girl. ‘Surreal,’ Giora muttered. The strange thing is that it’s simply there, detached and distant. Same sky, same colors, just the way it was and will be. There was nothing to say, yet I was in a bubble of screaming silence.

Reflecting on that moment from 1999, it’s becoming apparent that I can choose how to view it, which reflects how I see myself and the world. Anger and a sense of victimization are one reaction. That scene is in the category of the unbearable lightness of life. After all, it’s a sacrilege to use this sacred burial ground as a shortcut. But, on the other hand, the girl was young, pure, and innocent. She was wearing colors amid melancholy; she symbolizes hope; she is the future.

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