On the 70th anniversary of May 8, 1945

The war is over
it’s over
it’s over
Europe is free, they said

Was there a collective exhaling?
The belly of Europe breathing life
back into the soot?

Your cities are gone
Men and women line up to assess
the totality of the loss

Whole families that went up in smoke
a tattooed scar
the scar of hunger
a relative you’ll never meet again
a whole village lies rotting in a ditch
a language has been lost

Someone will hang for this

But first,
scraping through the ash
in the hopes of finding a
golden
Jewish
tooth
with which to buy bread

The soldier’s illegitimate child needs to eat, too

Mothers give birth in the killing fields
Mothers, as fire-scorched ideas in the sky

Have you seen my mother?

It’s over, you’re free, they said

All those things in life that one person holds dear,
gone
multiplied by millions

Keep counting, keep counting
count to quantify the loss
count to calculate the compensation

How much did your mother tongue cost?

Someone will hang for this

Gallows
built in the memory of your mother

A Comparative look at “Modris” and “I’m Beso”

I had the opportunity see both films at the Cottbus Film Festival – a showcase of Eastern European contemporary cinema – on 07 November 2014

Modris 2014. Latvia. Directed by Juris Kursietis

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I’m Beso 2014. Georgia. Directed by Lasha Tskvitinidze

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A Comparative look at “Modris” and “I am Beso” – A search for intimacy in an unforgiving landscape

The frustrations of adolescence compounded in an unforgiving landscape: Modris, a Latvian teenager on the cusp of adulthood wanders the snowy urban terrain under the grey skies of Riga; Beso, not quite a kid, drifts along the open fields and crumbling structures of his Georgian village. The protagonists of Modris and I’m Beso, respectively, affect a similar tone of frustration. Growing pains are constricted in a setting that leaves one nowhere to go but further into oneself.

Modris (Kristers Piksa) lives with his anxious single mom (Rezija Kalnina) in an apartment in a high-rise complex. The usual brushes with boredom and the trouble that arises from them, an essential component of the teenage years, are given a new dimension when any slip-up threatens to shatter an already fragile parent-child relationship. Modris’s mother, a petite woman with searing blue eyes, has woven a story of her husband’s imprisonment, a fate she hangs over her son’s head at any perceived infraction. Modris doesn’t spend much time at home, preferring the slot machines at the local dive bar. In the company of drunken older men, he asks the young waitress to lend him money so he can keep playing. He enters a coin and wins back a great deal more. We hear him whisper to himself, “my formula worked,” as though pulling the handle of the machine were some calculated gesture. Every win brings with it the illusion that he had the skill to make it happen. Playing the slots seems like the only effort that can guarantee gratification, however fleeting. He asks his girlfriend for money, saying it’s for food. He steals from his mother’s wallet. He tries to pawn his phone. He wants only to keep playing. His solution: to take a heater from the apartment and sell it at the pawnshop. A missing heater in the Latvian winter does not go unnoticed. His mother confronts him, incensed, exasperated. The anger in her eyes reveals her opinion of her son: he is his criminal, absent father. To bring this point home, she calls the police and has him arrested off the sofa in the living room.

He is led by the elbow through various bureaucratic avenues by adults who see no potential in him. The judge is unimpressed with his attitude and threatens him with two-years imprisonment for the stolen heater. He is put instead on probation and expected to show up to a juvenile detention center every Saturday for “lectures.” Through all this he has very little to say. He stands stooped over, sits slouching, and his eyes remain cast downwards past his crooked nose. His infractions, though avoidable, are not done in pursuit of thrill or power. He is neither malicious nor aggressive. Rather he has nothing to and no one to turn to. The rules are unclear and seem easily broken. His efforts to keep moving forward, to find something of meaning, or to simply clear his mind of defeat end in some transgression. He doesn’t give off the impression he is trying to be transgressive; it’s the world around him that won’t make space for him. Merely trying to find a place to exist in the freezing, monochrome cityscape signals trouble. He looks for a place to sleep that isn’t at home with his disgruntled mother who sees in him only the husband who left her.

His absent father is not the criminal his mother has painted him to be. He is simply absent. Modris tries to find him, visiting the lumberyard where he works but to no avail. It might be too late for him to seek out a male role model, but it isn’t too late to learn the truth about his absence. If he’s fulfilled any of his father’s characteristics, is not his criminality but rather his non-existence. Modris, like any one, wants to mean something. He adds color to the bleak landscape with his graffiti stencil, a crime, but also a sign of life. However, these pursuits of fleeting pleasure or of illusory significance signal further deviations from what is right. How did this happen? What would have made the difference?

Similar tensions threaten to engulf Beso (Tsotne Barbakadze), the young protagonist of Tskvitinidze’s I’m Beso. Though younger than Modris and placed in a warmer, rural environment, Beso also seems to drift along, passive to the aggressions that come his way. He whiles away the time with a schoolmate, with whom he roams the fields of the Georgian countryside, catching frogs and exploring abandoned buildings. He is also pursuing an artistic path, not as a street artist, but as a rap musician. He sits on a grassy bank making up obscene rhymes and recording them onto a cassette. His buddy swears that his rhymes will make him millions. What will he do with all that money? Beso will buy a house for himself, one for his mother, one for his father, one for his brother, and a car for his friend. It’s a long road to reach that point, but at least it’s a direction. It is a hopeful gesture in a climate that doesn’t seem to support growth and which suggests, at worst, decay and degradation and stagnation, at best.

Beso’s role models are not promising. His schoolteacher/karate instructor pleads with the students to stay behind and to support their village rather than abandon it, like so many seem to have done, for the city or points abroad. But what figures have remained behind? Waiting for Beso at home is his injured and furious father. He had been stationed in Chernobyl during the disaster and now sits at home on the couch in front of the television waiting to erupt at even the slightest provocation. He shouts at Beso to be useful, to make something of himself, to work out, to be strong. Beso, another silent and slouching type, mumbles his replies or disappears again. His mother must now be the sole bread-winner and bear the brunt of his father’s frustration and Beso is witness to their shouting matches on more than one occasion. She otherwise does not figure prominently in this snapshot of Beso’s life, only coming into his room to nag him to get to school or to express her own dissatisfaction. This leaves Beso’s brother, who is much older and living his life behind closed doors. Beso’s few interactions with him involve observing him from a distance, as he gives private dance lessons in his bedroom, or meets with his boyfriend in secret. Beso and his mate follow his brother and his boyfriend around. His friend urges them to get closer and closer, wanting to spy more on these deviant figures carrying on a homosexual relationship in the margins of their small Georgian village.

Both Modris and Beso seldom make eye contact. Glimpses of their faces are few and far between. These are the protagonists, but they are not playing for an audience. The effect is that they seem to be hiding, even when they are the focal point on the screen. Their trouble connecting with the figures in their lives is mirrored in an inability to make a direct connection with the audience. They do not keep us from feeling empathy, but this does not come without frustration on the part of the audience who sees no other options for these characters but to continue on their path, to get stuck and to keep making the same mistakes. We are not given a satisfying conclusion, no glimpse of some alternative future. Beso’s brother is seen leaving for Armenia, but we are left with no clues about what will become of Beso when he’s gone. We leave Modris sitting in jail, the place we half-expected him to end up. Will this be an opportunity for real change, or are the bleak prison settings merely a microcosm of the bleak landscape of dead ends and indifference on the outside?

These films are not simply visual essays on directionless adolescence in transition societies. We are left to question what these protagonists are missing. Can this behavior be reduced to absent or injured father figures? Perhaps, but it goes beyond the importance of simply growing up with a stable male role model. It is seems to be a much more general cry for intimacy. Both young men fill their hours away from home and school wandering empty landscapes that might seem less unforgiving, particularly in the case of the Latvian winterscape, if there was someone to reach across these spaces and offer an embrace. They are not totally without love, but it is clear their difficult fathers have also affected the possibilities of maternal intimacy.

Both directors (Kursietis, Tskvitinidze) drew their inspiration for their protagonists from real-life boys. For Kursietis, it was the story of a wayward kid a lawyer friend was unable to help. [1] And for Tskvitinidze, it was a rap song uploaded by an amateur rapper to YouTube.[2] These are the representations of real kids who find themselves trapped in these very real landscapes. For Modris, whose mother is bitter about being left behind as the sole caretaker of her child, there are too few models of success, thus his desire to seek out immediate but fleeting sources of pleasure. Beso is trapped in an unsustainable community that has been abandoned by the government and its residents and so left to decay around him. These are two cases of emotional stagnancy that ache for someone or something positive to intervene. We see in Modris the very real desire to connect with the father he never knew, a connection his mother seemed to underestimate because of her own pain. The causes of this sort of familial degradation are left to speculation: are these the results of post-Communist frustrations that forced one father to try his luck outside the home and another to return, crippled and angry? Whatever the exact cause, it has left its mark on the spaces and lives of those before us on the screen. These young men are single figures in a much broader arrangement of frustration and defeat. Perhaps it is naïve to assume that greater intimacy at home could solve this problem. However, we can see, however subtly, in the figures in these films a need to connect, to take action in the name of love: Modris’s search for his father is an authentic gesture of longing that suggests he is not as passive or lost as we might initially think. Beso, who is tired of getting pushed around by school bullies, enlists an older cousin to handle the situation. Instead of beating them as Beso had expected, his cousin gives the boys a lecture on the importance of friendship. Indeed, Beso’s relationship with his mate reflects a deep, platonic love that neither can openly admit to. Amidst the bleakness and the suggestion of hopelessness as reflected in the spaces and figures around them, there are these quiet moments of dormant intimacy, which, if given room to grow and find expression, could change the tenor of these stories. Even the unfriendly high-rise apartment block, a prominent feature in both Latvian and Georgian settings, could be a space for growth, love, and self-discovery.

[1] http://variety.com/2014/film/reviews/san-sebastian-film-review-modris-1201316465/

[2] http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&l=en&did=261986

Image from Modris taken from http://modrisfilm.com/

Image from  taken from http://cineuropa.org/nw.aspx?t=newsdetail&l=en&did=261986

Dein Dorf ist nicht Deutschland

 

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I have heard now more times than I can count, during conversations highlighting how special Berlin is, that our beloved city is “not Germany.” This is similar to those people (myself included) who claim New York is “not the United States,” or London is “not Britain.” This statement, as I read it, is meant to highlight the diversity and open-mindedness of large, metropolitan areas. These areas stand in stark contrast to what is perceived as backwards, homogenous, and close-minded village or rural communities. But by claiming that city x is not country y, we are implying that these homogenous and perhaps socially conservative spaces are somehow more representative of the country at large.*

Why do we keep saying this? I have certainly said it of New York, mostly in defense of anti-American sentiments. In an attempt to save my own face I emphasize all the ways New York City is “not America.” But why should all the things I love about New York not be representative of the US as a whole? The same goes for Germany, my adoptive country: why should Berlin – which we have all agreed is special – not offer a particular vision of Germany? Perhaps it is these spaces with their multi-culturalism, multi-lingualism, and malleable identities that should really be the face of the country. What they show us is that the “nation” as represented by village culture – which most urban inhabitants realize is old-school – is not desirable. It is not a sustainable model for the future.

One of the most exciting things about Berlin – besides clubbing – is the fact that it is home to people with a number of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The most predominant minority group, if we are going with that appellation, is the Turkish community. At the present moment, numerous debates and discussions are being fueled (as they have been FOREVER in Germany. Remember Jews?) about what constitutes a “German.” Many individuals with Turkish roots (or those with what the Germans like to call Migrationshintergrund – Migration background – which implies that all non-whities come from somewhere else) are not welcome into the German fold. I know the more radical-minded could and will argue that even the suggestion of national identity is dangerous and unnecessary and that we need to think beyond these borders, but the reality is that we live in a world where people are keen to be part of a group. National identity provides one such opportunity for belonging. The problem lies more with traditional requirements for membership.

What needs to change, however, is this perception that members of a particular country are supposed to look the same, share the same historical memory, have pictures of ancestors wearing one particular funny costume. We don’t all need to be related to cohabitate a country. I think cities like Berlin, which offer a version of Germany that includes migration histories, people with genetic variation, diverse family histories, and different tea-time customs are much richer places with more solutions for long-term global-scale cohabitation. To maintain that the village, where certain families have lived for centuries and where most if not all the faces are white, is somehow representative of the “authentic” country is to uphold the rather racist notion that in this country we are all meant to look like that (white).

Rather than claim that Berlin is not Germany because it is cool, multikulti, and in touch with so many towns and cities across the globe, I would rather consider it a more appropriate representation. This thought came to me when I was thinking about these German villages strewn about the land where many inhabitants have never seen a non-white face before. (Or so they claim) And somehow these people, who’ve supposedly never seen or talked to someone whose family came from Turkey, or Vietnam, or Syria, or what have you, are supposed to be the most German of Germans is an absurd idea. An American who has never met a Jew or Latin@ is not somehow “more American” because they’ve remained in their bubble of forged traditions. Most places are not homogenous. And by half-joking that these rural places populated with white families (as though white people have even remained in one place forever!) are more “pure” is not only a dangerous but also an incredibly silly way of thinking.

* I would like to emphasize that my use of urban v. rural in this context is limited to my understanding of NW-European and North American places. Other distinctions and demands are required for countries that have, for example, found themselves victims of colonial rule. I am focusing here on the “global north.”

A Messy Existential Reflection on Berlin

: or Berlin will not help us find out who we are

Thinking about Berlin gives me a headache. This is the first problem: I think about it way too much. I, perhaps unwisely, found a city to share with me my daily identity crisis. In the morning I peek through my curtain, assess the grayness of the sky, and worry for about 12 or so minutes if I am cool or smart or funny enough to leave the apartment and be seen in public. I consider the repercussions of not getting up, of forgetting where I actually am and creatively transporting myself back to New York, someplace decidedly less stressful. I am fortunate to have commitments, however. So I get up. I imagine though that Berlin (to anthropomorphize the city and further complicate things) has a similar neurotic morning regiment. But Berlin is much worse off than I am because she’s been struggling with this nonsense for centuries. It was once said about the city – early in the last century or late in the one before that, I can’t remember – Berlin wird, wird, wird. Nie zu Ende. Berlin becomes, becomes, becomes. Never to end. A haunting prophecy. And it’s so true! What the hell is this place really? How many articles are printed saying Berlin is this thing or that, arm aber sexy, morbid, hopeful, dying, being reborn, too full, too ausländery, really cheap, getting expensive, not enough flats in Neukölln, too many in Hellersdorf, is it supposed to snow this much in winter? Everyone is trying to put their finger on the pulse of this place. But no one actually knows if blood is really flowing, or if we’re just feeling our own egotistical heartbeats.

The first time I lived in Berlin I was studying abroad with my East-coast hippie college. One of our assignments at the end of our stay was to pen a reflection about our time in Berlin. Part Tripadvisor hotel review, part hallucinogenic soul-searching, jazz-inspired personal narrative (think Allen Ginsburg in San Francisco): this was the academic caliber at which we were expected to perform (it’s actually a really great school). In my reflection I go on for a bit with some academic-y blah-de-blah about the subjunctive tone, which defined my early days in Berlin. I listed all I thought could have been in this city. To quote myself, I had pretentious fantasies of becoming “the scholar; the artist; the fluent expatriate.” Of course I am pretending to make fun of that right now, but honestly, I don’t think I’ve actually deviated much from these conceited ideals. Depending on how much human contact I’ve had or how much I’ve had to drink, I might sincerely think one of those things about myself. (This is, by the way, why no one should read Hemmingway.) On those special days when I find myself being particularly pathetically human, when I don’t get out of bed and watch TV and read online articles about something fucked up someone marginally important said on twitter, I imagine (somewhat arrogantly) that I am the only person in sweatpants, surrounded by various electrical chords, müsli flakes, and empty Club Mate bottles. I think: I do not deserve to be here. I eye the books I bought, my art supplies, the clock, and climb deeper into my duvet.

I do have a number of disparate lives here. I am at once resident, Anglo-expat, university student, tourist, 20-something single female, etc. Each of these categories is steeped in its own set of expectations, none of which I think I am qualified to fill. Some of these identities work well together, others seems to conflict. Any non-comatose person alive today is confronted at some point in their life with their particular role in whichever milieu they happen to have been shoved into. Worrying about who we are, what it means, to which end, who benefits, is very human – so much so that it hovers on the banal. What complicates the situation is the specific backdrop against whatever existential queries are being presented. As I articulated before, Berlin is its own crazy thing. Less a background and more of an agitated piece of scenery, threatening to topple over and kill us all. How are we supposed to figure out who the hell we are, when we are actively trying to shape and define the very context in which we live? How do I come to peace with my various roles when I can’t even imagine what this city means?

The first piece I ever wrote about Berlin concerned the tension between Berlin as historical-city and Berlin as global-city. My attention was turned to the bit spanning from the Reichstag over the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, to Potsdamer Platz. Though lots of other problems and tensions have captured my attention since, this little section is especially fucked up. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s identity crisis has seemed to reach hyper-neurotic heights. They moved the entire capital of the Bundesrepublik from Bonn to Berlin, automatically thrusting this very raw and confused city into the national spotlight as the representative of the newly reunified nation. As if Berlin did not have problems enough with large gaping holes where a death-strip had casually cut its way across the city center, sex shops opening up in deprived East Berlin, U-Bahn lines that had to be reconnected, and various people who spoke the same language having to deal with seeing even more idiots on the street everyday. All at once everyone threw all their hopes and dreams for Germany of the future on this ugly little town, like the only surviving child after an accident. The Reichstag/Memorial/Postdamer Platz line is the trifecta of delusional expectations (meiner Meinung nach).

Despite all the work, the endless construction projects (endless!), groundbreaking events, candle-lightings, public forums, open debate, op-ed editorials, etc. nothing really definitive has happened. The more one tries to make a statement about the city, the more volatile it becomes. On the former site of the East German Palast der Republik they are (re)erecting the Hohenzollern palace. One historical site has been uprooted for another. At face value, the old Hohenzollern dynasty seems less scary than the legacy of the DDR, but that doesn’t mean it deserves memorial preference. This is merely another example of attempting to stamp the face of the city with a declarative statement: this is who we are. Everyone who lives here (everyone!) scoffs at these gestures. But is there an appropriate one? This is exactly the problem, why getting out of bed can be so difficult – there is no “right” way to live here and somehow we fool ourselves into thinking that there is, that we’ll serendipitously come across it and all these identity-crises will slow down to a halt. These crises play out on so many levels: the individual – each of us who came here not sure of what would happen, who we would be; the cultural – what kinds of people live here? How have they shaped the city?; the historical – what memories have been preserved? What does the cityscape want us to remember? What is being forgotten?; the entrepreneurial –the businesses that are opening up shop, linking Berlin to other zones of trade and commerce, turning it into a generic global-city; even the national – what does it mean to be German? Who is a German? Who is the government (based in Berlin) working for? Of course there are even more layers, but this just a taste to show how far we are from resolution. I am happy to live here, happy to be thrown off guard by all of this frantic searching. It’s best not too think to hard about why we’re here, what we’ll get out of it. The city, up to her elbows in her own quandaries, cannot help us make sense of ourselves. I like it that way.

It reminds of Wim Wender’s beautiful film Wings of Desire (Himmel über Berlin) when the angels are listening in on everyone’s thoughts. They wander around the city, into people’s apartments, the Staatsbibliothek, and the field where the wall had been and where Potsdamer Platz would later be (re)constructed. Each person, somehow dealing with this city in transition, is fixated on their on thoughts, worries, fears. The city is changing dramatically around them and no matter what happens, they’ll still be moving amongst each other, concerned with themselves while walls continue to fall down around them and everything physical transforms. Today the city looks quite different from the one in the film, but somehow we know it’s the same place – it is familiar. Despite the shape shifting, we grasp on to something constant. As cliché as it might sounds, perhaps the only stable thing about this place is its inability to take shape.

“Who is Jewish?”

I spent the day with a good friend yesterday who is also interested in navigating the strange terrain that is Jewish history/culture/identity and all the ways that “Jewishness” has been defined, debated, and debased. Both of our family histories contain something “Jewish.” Her relationship to her Jewishness has been very much affected by growing up in Europe and spending the majority of her life so far in Germany. It contrasts starkly to my life, which has – up until my moving to Germany – taken place in very Jewish spaces. We approach our family histories from these differing lenses and have found a point of common frustration in the continuing insensitivity or general ignorance on the part of mainstream white, Christian Germans towards Jewish life in their country before and after the Second World War. Many Germans today seem to locate their knowledge of anything to do with “the Jews” within the constrained space of the Holocaust. Or else they are Israelis. Either way you look at it, what falls under “Jewish” – regardless of who is making the definition – can be painful, political, sacred, ant-Semitic, personal, and so on…

Therefore who is or who is not “Jewish” is not straightforward. And if one begins to explore Jewish-anything one quickly learns that it has never been straightforward. The simple Halachic definition of a Jewish person is an individual with a Jewish mother. Or someone who has converted (but even that is contested). But you will never just hear just this one answer. The simple presence of a Jewish mother cannot begin to contain the complexities of possible Jewish identities. For even to be a Jew as per Halachic rule often contradicts one’s self-identity, trapping an individual into a Jewishness they don’t at all want. Regardless of whether one wants to claim ownership of Jewishness or not, there are so many reasons – theological, historical, cultural, and political – why “Are you Jewish” is not an easy question to answer.

And for people like my friend and me, our Jewishness has come to us with so much silence, shame, fear, pain, and confusion. We are not alone. There are so many individuals with similar stories. So many stories and histories that are determined by silence, by their not having been spoken.

In the last couple of months I have been confronted – very bluntly – on two occasions with this question “Who is Jewish?” 

The first of these two incidences was in Warsaw. I was on a tour of Jewish sites in Warsaw and the guide asked the group who amongst us was Jewish. I was baffled and offended by his question. It did not help of course that we were in Poland where this exact same question was asked not too long ago, but for much different purposes. For some – particularly the Israelis in attendance – the question is irrelevant. Their very language conveys to group who they are. But is that even fair to assume of them? What is that question trying to ascertain? Is he checking to see if he has the green-light to make anti-Semitic jokes? If he wants to know who is familiar with Judaism or not, wouldn’t that have been a more appropriate question?

The second incident was in New York. My mother and I were on a tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum that dealt with poor Jewish immigrants at the turn of last century, many of whom worked in the garment industry. This tour was particularly profound for us as some of our Jewish ancestors found themselves in the same exact setting upon their arrival to America. The tour guide at a certain point at the start of the tour asked the group the same question as the guide in Warsaw: “Who is Jewish?” It being New York, more people raised their hands. Her quick explanation for the question was that she wanted to know if she needed to explain things like Shabbat or challah. But does that question really answer it? Isn’t the real question we should be asking based on familiarity. A “Jew” might not know the first thing about Jewish religious practices or cuisine. A practicing Catholic taking classes on Judaism might know a lot. If the question had to be an identity-based one, why not ask: “Who is not Jewish?” Why, as my friend puts it, must the Jew always be the one who is “outed”?

Abortion Testimonies

There was a lovely Opinion piece in the New York Times this week entitled “My Mother’s Abortion” : http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/08/opinion/my-mothers-abortion.html?src=ISMR_AP_LO_MST_FB

It comes amidst the degrading furor around the legislation of abortion rights in the state of Texas, where governor Rick Perry (amongst other old, male jerks) is hoping to make acquiring an abortion near impossible in his state. Christian rhetoric and sappy appeals to the fetus’s right to life run rampant. His state is unfortunately not alone. This debate is so chilling because to me it sounds unbelievably archaic. We’ve been having it for decades and decades! On top of which, the United States likes to figure itself as a pioneer of sorts in women’s rights. In comparison to “Third World Women,” American feminists and non-feminists alike tend to maintain a rather paternalistic perspective about how much “better” it is to be a woman of the global north. This perspective conveniently forgets that American policy – like our lovely abortion debate – does not respect or care about women. While living in the west has its benefits, it does not make one an expert on feminism or women’s rights.

The likes of Rick Perry and the stooges get off on their particular brand of American exceptionalism, in which the States are held up as a bastion of democratic values, while still passing legislation that harms not just women, but people of color, immigrants, and the working poor. To tie this back to the abortion kerfuffle, anti-abortion politicians (a large swath of white men) would like to see babies born (women babies, poor babies, non-white babies, etc) so that they can later ignore them. How can you respect a fetus’s right to life, when you can’t respect a woman’s right to live?

The article posted above was very moving as it uses real testimony to highlight the impact of abortion on a real woman’s life. It is very clear that the author’s mother – and countless other women who have made this decision – make their choice with a heavy heart. No one ever says that it is easy. These women do not have their abortions and forget about the whole ordeal as they would after an operation for an in-grown toenail.

The author encourages women to tell their stories, to find out from women in their family about their own reproductive histories. Women in the comments section even began sharing. The woman who seeks an abortion is not some abstract body, she is a woman that you know and who you love.

Although I often find such comparisons grotesque, I will draw a parallel to the Eichmann trials in 1961, when, for pretty much the first time, Holocaust survivors began telling their story. This momentous event unleashed a new culture of oral history, in which it was okay to give voice to your trauma and pain. The possibility of hearing these stories completely changed the world’s understanding of the Holocaust. These testimonies are precious. Hearing the stories of women who have received an abortion is also tremendously powerful. [I do not want to give the impression that I equate the experience of a women receiving an abortion with that of a Holocaust survivor] Giving space for testimony, sharing and saving these words is historic. Despite the outcome of whatever bullshit legislation is being passed (I am not optimistic), these testimonies should be remembered and archived. They represent women with diverse backgrounds, of different generations, with different roles, each one of whom has made a difficult and important decision that impacted her life in all sorts of ways – but which ultimately allowed her to take control of her life, to live it as she needed.

Oral history has become a popular tool in history studies. It was poo-pooed for a very long time as many historians did not think personal experiences were of historical merit. The possibility that something could be mis-remembered was considered too risky. (This of course disregards the historian’s power rewrite history to his or her liking – and rewrite they have!) But in the past couple of decades (having much to do with the power of Holocaust testimony), oral history – communicative memory – has earned more and more respect. I want to thank all the women who have come forward to share their abortion testimony – it is not easy for anyone. Shaming women into silence is not to be tolerated. Their stories shape the abortion debate, reminding us why we need to fight for women.

Ha’dira – The Flat

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