Wednesday, 27 January 2016

We carry scars

For Holocaust Memorial Day 2016

In 2007 Lois and I started a project that worried us both. We were to work with holocaust survivors at The Morris Feinmann Home, a home for older Jewish people in Manchester. We had met with many war veterans, but this was different. Some of these people had been witness to continual atrocity, for years.

The things that stay in your mind. A woman described leaving Berlin, getting onboard the kindertransport train. Her mother waving goodbye with a sandwich that she'd forgotten to give her daughter. The mother died in Germany, they did not see one another again. Another day. A conversation with a woman who'd survived Auschwitz. She wanted to tell us about the experience, but each time she began to speak, the memories would self-erase - she described them melting away. Perhaps the amnesia protected her. Another. A quiet man sitting with two talkative companions. He had managed to get out of one of the camps, but had a memento - a gouge in his skull, left by a blow with an iron bar from an SS man. He gently put my fingers onto the wound - "See?"

Because the weight of the subject was so vast, we needed to give people the option to enter it only if they wished. We decided to talk about little things, rather than the horrific or vast. We chatted about small domestic moments. Family recipes, holidays, travel. From the travel stories a series of tiny collaborative poems were made. They described train journeys, some to the camps in cattle wagons, others journeys of escape.

onscreen, Piccadilly Railway Station 2009

The poems were made into 30 second films and on 27 January 2009 they were shown on a huge screen at Piccadilly Station. Approximately 60, 000 people saw the films that day. Among them were a little group of survivors, who came with us to sit in the cafe near the screen and watch their words being shared. It was a strange tea party; none of us knew whether to say hurrah, or to weep. But everyone wanted to stay.

For the last 5 years we have worked with homeless people, in the UK and elsewhere, who are often the victims of hate crimes. We have met people who've been humiliated, beaten, raped, stabbed, shot, set on fire. I've seen a good many more scars since that quiet conversation in the Morris Feinmann Home.

Now is not 1939. We are elsewhere in history. A completely different time, completely different circumstances. But still we carry scars.

onscreen, Piccadilly Railway Station 2009

These text animations were part of the Kindness project run by arthur+martha at the Morris Feinmann Home 2007-9. They were exhibited on HMD 2009 at Piccadilly Railway Station, Manchester; then on HMD 2011 on the BBC Big Screen in Manchester. We would like to offer our most heartfelt thanks to all participants (names withheld here). We would also like to thank Maria Turner, Becky Guest, Jeremy Buxton, the BBC and Titan signs for various and sometimes courageous support.

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