The Everlasting Present
Prague does not let go—either of you or me. This little mother has claws. There is nothing to do but give in. We would have to set her on fire from both sides…only thus could we free ourselves. -Franz Kafka
Return to Germany | 2015
BEFORE MY MOTHER’S DEATH in 2000, I had been doing legal research on slave labor during the war. Because she had been made a part of a class action Holocaust lawsuit, I had to help her decide whether to take the $3,000 payout, or to look for a deeper pocket. She remembered only that she had been in Freiberg, Saxony, working in an airplane factory. Through the young webmaster of the town website, we received a picture of the factory, and then, somehow, were led to Michael Düsing, a Freiberg history teacher. Michael was in the process of publishing a book on the one thousand Czech Jewish women who were sent to Freiberg from Auschwitz in 1944. I provided Michael with some of my mother’s anecdotes about her experience to include in his book, but it did not meet him until 15 years later.
During our 2007 trip to Europe for the Terezín openings, we visited Berlin, stopping in Freiberg (half way to Prague) with my cousin, Peter. We went to the site of the airplane factory, adjacent to the municipal offices, where I left flowers and a note saying, “We are Still Here”. In 2011, I received a new book from Michael, and found that he had included a photo of the note as an epilogue. Unaware of his book, I had been using imagery in my art of my mother’s pre-war home in Kromeriz, overlain with the train route from Freiberg to Mauthausen, and the Kromeriz synagogue (which the Nazis burned), as well as maps of Sobeslau (my father’s birthplace) and the factory.
The primary images in these pieces are of my mother’s house in Kromeriz, in 1939. “Before” there was a synagogue, love, and a family. “After,” in 1945, there were only memories: of the slave factory in Freiberg, and the cattle car trip from Freiberg to Mauthausen. Although there did not seem to be any help from God, my mother recited the Shema as she stood at the barracks window in Mauthausen, watching the Americans come in. When she realized that her husband and family were all dead, she locked the house in Kromeriz, and went to Prague, where she started her “after-life” with my father.
Michael and I (still not having met) started to communicate about an art exhibit in Freiberg, with Helga Weissova (Hoskova) and Stephanie Busch. Helga was a Czech survivor, and an artist in and after Terezín. I had met her in 2007, when she came to my exhibit in Prague. Her son and granddaughter played the music for the vernissage. The music, composed in Terezín, had just been discovered in Israel. In April of 2015, the 70th anniversary of my mother’s evacuation from Freiberg to Mauthausen, we were welcomed in Freiberg.
The exhibit included “Gloves Arado,” a digital collage of my mother’s gloves, and a letter from the airplane factory to Berlin, informing them that the name of the factory would be “Freia GmBh”. I wonder whether the name was meant to disguise the factory from the Allies’ bombing raids; Berlin did not care much that the townsfolk were well aware of the Jewish slave laborers inside. The night of the firebombing of Dresden, the sky over Freiberg turned red. My mother described that as the happiest night of her life, because she knew then that she would survive.
After the trip to Germany, I planned to leave off political activity and go inward. I thought I had completed my duty in respect to my parents’ memories and the losses of the Holocaust. I thought that the exhibition in Freiberg had brought my mother’s story full-circle. And as part of the exhibit, Michael obtained permission from the Prague Museum to show Ritta’s drawings, so my father’s and Ritta’s stories were present, too.
Seeking Home | 2015-2017
I had thought now, at 70, to be refocusing on my search for an elusive spiritual home, exploring the intimate relationship between Judaism and memory. I am intrigued by the observations of Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi in his work, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory: in the ancient world, deities were experienced through nature, but Jews encounter the Divine in time and history (Yerushalmi 8).
Knowing my “place” has always been an issue. I have been unwitting about where I do not or cannot belong. As an immigrant, and without a young, extended family, I was not really part of the established Jewish community in Montreal. Because I am Jew, I was not included in the non-Jewish community, socially, or at school—cheerleaders did not accept Jewish girls. In college, I was nominated on merit to be a member of a women’s honor society, “Las Madronas,” only to be rejected because I was a Jew. I did not understand. I was too dense to even be angry about it. Because I did not enjoy the company of the young Jews of the era, it never occurred to me to join the Jewish sorority. Then came the civil rights and the anti-war movements, and there I found friends among the oddballs.
Because of my deeply ingrained revulsion at party politics and party discipline, I have never done well with a group mentality. I became independent because I did not really belong anywhere.
Kavarna Brandova was the family cafe in Kromeriz, which was run by my mother’s uncle Emil Brand. When my mother was 4 years old her father, was killed in WWI. My grandmother, Elsa (Brandova) Kohnova, and my mother were given a home with Uncle Emil and his family, who supported them. Uncle Emil and his entire family were also killed by the Nazis.
My mother’s allegiance was always to people, not things, or places. She later gave away my ¼ share of the family home in Kromeriz to her nephew, my cousin, Peter. After communism fell, Peter asserted a right to payment for the house, and came away with a substantial sum. Although he promised to use some of the money to create a memorial to the lost Jews of Kromeriz, but he was not able to make it happen.
My artwork surrounding Kromeriz raises questions of the meaning of “home”: structures remaining through time, looking out on different contexts, passing into different ownerships, taking into account past experiences. I suppose that California must be home—the longest duration of my life span—but I still long for Prague.
I compare my feelings about the loss of my family home to Palestinians holding on to the keys of their homes in their old villages, now with Hebrew names, for as many generations, in the hope and expectation that they will return to claim them, as homes, in their homeland. I cared enough about the concept of returning “home” that I reclaimed my Czech citizenship in 2005, even though there is nothing and no one there for me, really. I am no more than a visitor in my native land.
I have returned twice to Sobeslav, where my grandfather’s and father’s home was torn down in the 60’s, and to Kromeriz, where the Kavarna Brandova, is long gone. I have found my own first “home” in Prague, at Skuherskeho #7; the building was a ruin.
So much for how I relate to “place”. How I relate to the times of my life is as confusing.
Today, I do not know how to relate to the segments of time that have passed. Throughout, there has been a rain of history and memory over me. I do not yet feel that I have finished the curriculum of my life. When I read what I have retained of my writings over the decades, I see that I have repeatedly “forgotten” the lessons of each phase. Have I learned the lesson a little better each time, at least? Why does it feel so new each time? Not a story with an arc, but a closed system. A Möbius strip.
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Marzook, Mousa Abu. “Hamas Speaks.” Los Angeles Times, 6 Jan. 2009, www.latimes.com/opinion/la-oe-marzook6-2009jan06-story.html.
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