I have, of course, broken my resolution to write at least once a week. I would like to blame the large project that I have been finishing (plus all those smaller projects!). Yes, I will blame the projects.
I have just returned (about 10 minutes ago!) from viewing a truly excellent film. I was so inspired, that I was thinking up all the things I was going to write about it as I was biking home from the cinema.
Ha’dira – The Flat (2011)- is a documentary film about sifting through family history, both physically and emotionally. Arnon Goldfinger, the director, takes us along his journey to learn more about his recently deceased grandmother. He begins in her flat in Tel Aviv. His grandparents, originally from Berlin, had moved to Palestine around 1933. Though they had spent over 50 years in their adopted country, they remained deeply connected to Germany. His grandmother never learned Hebrew and her apartment was filled with German-language books (she collected all of the appropriate Bildung classics – Goethe, Schiller, Nietzsche), clothing, and trinkets from Germany. The whole family gathers to sort through her vast assortment of stuff and to begin the process of selling off and throwing away most of it. Goldfinger, however, comes across a series of Nazi newspapers (“Der Angriff”) with a story about a Nazi who goes to visit Palestine (for propaganda purposes, it seems) and is accompanied by a Jewish couple – Goldfinger’s grandparents.
He becomes increasingly curious about his grandparent’s journey with this Nazi couple. He digs further and further through her apartment, unearthing photographs and letters which depict the time his grandparents had spent with the von Mildensteins. To his great shock, he learns that his grandparents and the von Mildensteins developed an intimate relationship that carried on after his grandparents had relocated to Palestine, and even after the war.
Goldfinger, who doesn’t speak a word of German, is determined to find out more about this mysterious liaison. He turns to his mother, who was born in Berlin and moved as a small child to Palestine. She admits she knows nothing about her parents’ relationship with the von Mildensteins. She never asked. People in her generation didn’t do that, she claims.
He reaches out to the von Mildenstein’s daughter, who lives with her husband in Wuppertal. Goldfinger takes a few trips to Germany to visit them. The first he takes alone in order to hear from her about his grandparents. She shares her memories of having met them, of how her parents had spoken so fondly of them. He then returns with his mother, much more determined to learn about what Mr. von Mildenstein had actually been up to during the war. Despite the daugther’s enthusiasm over connecting with Goldfinger and his mother, she is curiously unaware about her father’s role in the Nazi party. A few tense moments between them indicate that she is unwilling to confront the truth about her father, wishing instead to whitewash his past. She seems to use his fondness for a Jewish couple as grounds for absolution.
I don’t wish to recap all of the events in the film – if it is being screened near you or you can get a copy of it, I highly recommend it – but I will mention a few aspects that I find particularly worth commenting on:
– Interest/disinterest in family history: As Goldfinger begins to pursue the unspoken details of his grandparent’s past, it becomes all the more apparent to him that he is virtually alone in his zeal. Family members with whom he speaks know little to nothing about the grandparents. Becoming intimate with their worldly possessions does not even seem to inspire an urge to know.
While confronting the past/searching for traces/online genealogy has become a popular pastime, it is not for everyone. Particularly when the family history in question is painful. Not everyone wants to know excruciating details: whether of being persecuted or doing the persecuting. Cultures of silence quickly become the status quo.
However, I empathize with Goldfinger’s frustration. I often wish I could turn to the next logical person in the hereditary line – my mother, for instance – and ask her to tell me the details of our family story, as her parents should have told her, and their parents them, and so on. She has, instead, offered me a wall that she herself did not build. A wall that I have been desperately trying to mount in order to gain access to the other side – to learn something. I wonder if this is a particular phenomenon amongst people with Jewish roots. There is often much pain involved. So much so that many have tried to deny this aspect of their history altogether. People uncovering their Jewish roots later in life is a relatively frequent happenstance (coincidentally I read today that the President of Princeton recently found out about his Jewish heritage because of a genealogy assignment his son was doing for school).
Obviously Goldfinger is aware that he is Jewish, but even so, this knowledge does not presume an economy of information. His quest to find out why the hell his Jewish grandparents would be cavorting with a Nazi couple -even after the Shoah – leads him to a woman who appears to have come to terms with her father’s “loose” Nazi associations, but who, at the insinuation that he was much more involved in National Socialism than she had previously thought, refuses to even entertain the idea of his culpability.
– German-Jewish Relations: Watching Goldfinger’s relationship with the von Mildenstein daughter is fascinating. He is absolutely giddy when he first makes contact with her and finds out that she knew his grandparents. His first trip to Germany is rather harmless. She confirms that even after the war, Goldfinger’s grandparents made frequent trips to Germany, during which time they visited the von Mildensteins. She shows him a necklace that his grandmother had given her. He attempts to probe further about her father, but takes away nothing especially incriminating. But her conviction that her father was “abroad” throughout the war does not convince him.
He and his mother return bearing gifts from Israel – bath salts from the Dead Sea, a collection of Israeli folk songs. But the meeting between the offspring of Nazis and those of Jews who had fled Nazi persecution is tense. At a birthday party, Goldfinger tries to ask von Mildenstein’s neighbor – a man who is presented as an expert on history – about the father’s exact position in the Nazi party. He admits to knowing nothing and the daughter, clearly agitated by this line of questioning, attempts to change the subject, playing it off as simple case of information deficit.
Goldfinger heads to the archives to find his answers, and uncovers more about von Mildenstein’s Nazi activities. He goes to the daughter with this information. Although she was quick to tell him that his great-grandmother had been deported and killed, she is not willing to listen to the evidence he has brought with him. She immediately attempts to deny his findings. He suggests she go to the archive herself. She says that he might, but it is very clear that she won’t.
The rapid deterioration of a German-Jewish “friendship” strikes me as an apt portrayal of the general issue of German-Jewish relations. Goldfinger’s initial contact with the von Mildenstein daughter is one filled with hope. It seems to suggest that an open German-Jewish dialogue about the past is possible. They are, of course, speaking not only across borders, but across generations as well. These differences in socialization do not dismiss the fact that this rise and fall of German-Jewish communication is rather typical.
The proliferation of Holocaust memorials in Germany would suggest that Germans are open to confronting their past, talking about Nazi crimes, and commemorating murdered Jews. Yet these conversations remain abstract. In so many of these attempts to address the past, Jews are eternally dead. It is one thing to erect a memorial to an abstract community, but it is another to try to learn more about the communities that were and that are, to recognize where prejudice still exists (within), and to listen to stories from those affected by anti-Semitism. There is obviously no cure-all formula to ease relations (I am highly skeptical that it is even within the realm of possibility). But it is exactly the impersonal gestures – discussing history in general, with an emphasis on fact telling that does not question the hierarchies inherent in history writing- that aggravate any remaining rifts.
This brings me to my final reflection/point
– Encountering spaces: Goldfinger and his mother go to Berlin, the city of her birth. They see the apartment from where her grandmother was deported to Riga, and where she herself lived as a small child. Her home remains an apartment building inhabited by other people who have no clue. It is a very moving moment when the mother realizes she is standing in the place where she had once lived as a child. Goldfinger shows pictures of his mother and grandmother at the location to emphasize the connection. For those simply witnessing this moment, the connection between a story, an individual, and a place can also be a powerful experience.
His mother was born in the Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg, right around the Bayrisches Viertel (Bavarian Quarter). This was a popular neighborhood for middle-class Jews. Today there is a memorial in the Bavarian Quarter: In 1993 German artists Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock erected their “Orte des Erinnerns” (Places of Memory). The project consists of a number of signs, each one printed with a National Socialist law banning Jews from various practices, such as owning pets, or playing with Aryan children, for example. They are hung on lampposts in front of corresponding locations. The sign declaring that Jews can only buy bread between certain hours is displayed in front of the bakery. Their project reminds visitors of the process of marginalization, degradation, and eventually deportation of the Berlin Jewish community.
Although it is a very thought-provoking project, it too succeeds in regurgitating fact. Though I am not against memorials per se, I am convinced of the power of personal narrative/history. Unfortunately so many stories cannot be heard. But those that are possible to tell should be told.
I am very thankful to Goldfinger for making this film. I think this inter-generational approach to history telling is a very powerful way to address the past. Even somwhat kitschy examples, like Sarah’s Key, offer an engaging point of confrontation. This method of weaving in and out of temporalities allows us to not only learn, but also to discuss the ways that knowledge about the past gets transmitted and used in the present.
Here is a link to more info about the film: http://www.ruthfilms.com/the-flat.html