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Mothers, Murderers, and Memories
An International Holocaust Remembrance Day special, featuring Etgar Keret's mom.
Way back on the 22nd of November,wrote a post about the Inside Out exhibition he’d created for the Jewish Museum Berlin. The entire thing was devoted to his mother. My immediate thought was, Hey, I’m an ethnic Jew, who lives in Berlin, and writes about motherhood. I should really go check this out.
However, because I am a mother, wanting to do a thing, and actually being able to, are two different things. My son’s daycare was closed half that week, for some kind of training. Then my son came down with the mega-flu, which subsequently brutalised both myself and my husband. A couple weeks later, I was finally just about fit to go out in public again, and I was literally in the middle of packing my bag to go to the museum, when my son woke up sick again (this time just with a cold, thankfully). And then there was the rush to catch up on work and errands in the few remaining days before the Christmas break, and then his daycare was closed through the New Year…
And so it was January by the time I finally made it to the museum; nearly two months, it ended up taking me. Although, looked at another way, it had taken a lot longer; years and years. Because I have been living in Berlin for five years straight, and visiting the city for over a decade before that. And I had never once thought about going to the Jewish Museum. No, that’s not right; I probably had thought about it, and decided: That sounds terrible. Because I knew there was no way that a massive, well-funded museum about Jews, a stone’s throw from the flipping Reichstag, wasn’t going to be all about the Holocaust, and present a detailed cataloguing of some of the worst atrocities against humanity that we have yet invented.
Not that I don’t care about such things. I do. Last month I actually dreamt I was having an argument withover whether or not I took the Holocaust seriously enough. I told her about the years I spent at university researching and writing papers on the wave after wave of mass terrors that comprise so much of modern European history. I told her that I had lost family to the Nazis. (My grandfather, in New York, used to exchange letters with his grandmother, who wrote to him in Yiddish from Poland. And then… the letters stopped coming. And that was it.) I told Bari that the only reason more of my family weren’t killed was that so many had already bailed the fuck out of Eastern Europe back when Russia was the main actor going around murdering and terrorising Europe’s Jews.
I have also watched films, and read books and poems, and been to other museums that address the persecution and genocide of Jews and other ethnicities. I have sat breastfeeding my baby in what remains of Sachsenhausen, of all places. And I get plenty of little reminders of the Shoah just going about my day to day life of Berlin, with its many statues and Stolpersteine and still shot-up building facades. The plaques and paintings and other public works that declare, “Yes. We know. We really fucked that up. What we have broken can never be fixed.”
But I like Keret’s writing, and I am supremely (and personally) interested in the way mothers both help form and live on in their children’s memories. And anyhow, there’s free admission. So, small son blessedly settled into daycare for the morning, I zip up my raincoat, fortify myself with a vegetarian kebap the size of my own head, and trudge through the disorienting concrete bowels of the JMB, until I finally find this:
As the banner explains, the exhibit is about heritage, and about understanding the experience of WWII through the eyes and mind of a child:
This mosaic of ‘experience-fragments’ suits Keret’s writing style - he’s best known for very short, striking, and often surreal stories. And it is exactly such stories that form the basis of this exhibit. You follow a series of large dots along the floor, and each one has a QR code on it. If you stop to listen, each one will play a recording of Keret reading a different story. Each is around two minutes long, three at most. They alternate between his own memories of his mother, and her childhood memories of the war as she relayed them to him - often as she was putting him to bed. Scattered around these story-dots are a range of works of modern art, a few archive photographs, and a handful of old everyday objects like forks and razors that relate to the stories in some way.
Counter to what you might expect at a museum, there are no signs or cards or brochures offering you any other facts or context, or trying to tell you what it all ‘means’. No dates or timelines or maps. Apart from the blurry baby photo on the banner at the entrance, there are no photos of his mother, or of any other family members. There isn’t even any mention of what name the woman at the heart of the exhibit had; she is only ever identified as ‘Mom’. You are just given the little memory stories, which aren’t even told in any kind of chronological order, and are left to puzzle the pieces together yourself.
What you come up with - or what I came up with, anyhow - is the story of a little girl. Who is born in Poland. Whose parents are loving, and brave, and do their best to give her the skills needed to survive a war that they and their infant son will not. This little girl sees her mother and brother spared by one German soldier, and later brutally killed by others. After enduring such a war, the girl then has to endure an orphanage where she is treated so badly, she takes to keeping a razor blade lodged to the palm of her hand with a piece of chewing gum. She eventually grows up, immigrates to Israel, gets married. This woman, who is fluent in four languages, enjoys a thriving career in advertising, but gives it up to spend as much time with her own children as possible. She opens a fabric shop, where she can bring her babies to work with her, and is regarded as a kind of local fashion authority. She is a very loving, affectionate mother, and very direct with her children about the world’s capacity for both beauty and savagery. And her final words, well over half a century after watching her mother’s murder, are, “I’m going to see my mom.”
This story about her death, which reveals the details of her mother’s death, is called The First Angel You See. The other stories in the exhibit, I’d had to download onto my phone to hear. But this one had a listening station, tucked aside in an alcove. There was a large headset, which you had to sit down to use. The window overhead was blackened out, with one large feather-shaped opening cut out of it, showing the bleak winter sky beyond. As I approached, I saw a middle-aged man listening, and openly crying. And when he was done, I sat, and listened, and cried as well. Then I played it a second time, and cried some more.
My favourite film is Der Himmel über Berlin, which made standing in the middle of Berlin, thinking about angels, feel extra poignant. I imagine I’m not the only visitor who made that association. Though I am sure everyone who visited the exhibit took something different away from it. Metaphorically, but also quite literally; in the middle of the exhibit was a gumball machine, filled with stories that hadn’t been finished, or were otherwise deemed unusable for the final cut. I got one about Asthma, and how the struggle to breathe, and associated struggle to speak, “gives you respect for every word.” So, not as whimsical a treat as it first seemed, but still a pleasant surprise to have a tactile interaction in what is normally a strictly ‘do not touch’ environment.
Beyond a heartbreaking reminder of the devastating effects of wars, in general, and of this war that systematically killed off women and children, in particular, what I take from this exhibit is a meditation on childhood, and on legacy. Legacy, and what we tell our children is, as the entry banner stated, an ongoing preoccupation for the Jewish diaspora - a concern which precedes the Shoah by thousands of years, but of course has been forever redefined by it. It only occurred to me as I was writing this post that International Holocaust Remembrance Day is upon us. We have come to a time when all but the very last of the people who could actually remember the Holocaust are gone. Soon all that will be left for us to go by are what they told us. Which, thankfully, was quite a lot. In a time so keen to become ‘post-truth’ that many people seem to want to try denying the veracity of an event as monumental as the Holocaust, I can’t imagine where we would be without this immense archive of evidence and testimony. Though perhaps it is inevitable that our collective memory will weaken as the memories of loved ones are lost, and the words of strangers are all that remain.
But the real lesson on childhood and legacy that I take from the Inside Out exhibit is something entirely beyond this one ethnicity; something shared evenly across humanity. It’s about how the choices of individuals have very real and lasting consequences for their descendants. How the actions of people whose faces we may never have seen, whose names we might not even know, in decades and terrains far removed, can shape our own lives in ways that are little, and even big; are often due credit for the fact that we were born at all. And how, however important one’s sense of self may seem at this moment, each of us will one day be remembered to the world pretty much only as ‘Mom’. Or ‘Dad’. Or ‘Grandma’. Or some other term connoting an even vaguer connection. And that is if you are are lucky. Apart from the most exceptionally famous amongst us, everything else - achievements, dreams, birthdays, and even names - will be lost from memory. And it is the way we conduct ourselves, in life’s most urgent moments, and most mundane, that will leave the only lasting impression of our existence.
Mostly, it is our children who bother even trying to keep such memories alive. I would not be sitting here, admiring the extraordinary presence of mind Etgar Keret’s grandfather and grandmother each displayed on separate occasions, were it not for the chain of childhoods relaying their stories across time and space. You would not be wondering where in rural Poland my grandmother’s remains might have been dumped, or burnt, were it not for a separate chain of childhoods that relayed that story to me. And there are unknowable numbers of other grandparents and would-be grandparents whose stories have never been relayed, because their children didn’t survive to tell them.
There are many reasons these story-chains are important. But one I’d like to hold up above all others is one that it took me a long time to come around to. If you are reading this, you most likely grew up in a culture, like I did, that teaches us that the most important thing in our lives is how we show up every day for our jobs. And I’m not here to claim that is unimportant. But I will claim, here, that it is wildly less important than how we show up every day for our children. If I have taken one thing from this odd installation of arty memoir, it is a reaffirmation that how I am with my son is more important than any other way I spend my energy - vital as some of those other activities may be to me. It is a lesson in the way that really, we are responsible for the choices that make up our lives, but it is our kids who decide what the stories of our lives will be. And their kids. And so on. And so on. Should we be so lucky.
Inside Out runs through the 19th of March. It’s certainly worth checking out if you find yourself in Berlin, and feel like some good laughing and crying and Holocaust remembering. For a more in depth account of Keret’s memories of his mother, Orna, that you can listen to anywhere, I highly recommend the conversation with his friend Ira Glass on This American Life (though, fair warning, I did weep towards the end, and you might, too).