Tuesday, 2 December 2008

‘Now I think in English’

(Holocaust survivor, Morris Feinmann Home Nov 2008)

The first holocaust survivor I met was a man called Meyer – he had been in Auschwitz – showed me the tattoo on his wrist – I was interviewing him for a newspaper several years ago and we talked for hours – he told stories that were so cruel I sank back into a kind of dream – the voice stayed with me for weeks after, little mirror fragments of someone else’s terror – in the last few weeks Lois and I have interviewed several survivors, including a man who was interned in Buchenwald – each time I slip into the same familiar uneasy half-here state of self-anaesthesia.

Over the nine years that Lois and I have worked together we have talked with several thousand older people about their life stories – in some ways I wonder if I’ve lived my life too much through them, because I love these accounts so much – have I become a hollow vessel for other people’s lives? - I wonder if you can really learn through other’s experiences or if, like reading a book, that is only part of the story – you have to find out the rest by being fully within your own history?

When I visited Berlin recently I was struck by how energetic the city is and yet how haunted – as I rushed between the u-bahn stations or walked around Prinzlauerberg on my way to meet artists and poets I felt as though I was being stepped through by ghosts – I’d spoken to so many older Jewish people who’d left nazi Berlin (and lost whole families there) that it was difficult to separate my now from their memories.

I feel extremely privileged to have spoken with the survivors I have met (oh how insufficient these words!) – but the accounts divide me – I have shied away from reading very much about the nazi holocaust – it seems so unremittingly hopeless - and yet like every human who has curiosity I also contain a terrible need to know just what happened – although I can find no overarching sense there.

Work on the text pieces for Piccadilly Station is close to done and none of this is any more resolved – perhaps one of the things that we are bearing witness to is our own struggle to understand.

'The German I talk is not the same as the language the German people are talking here'. (Paul Celan, letter)

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