Outside The Frame Arts blog for their latest Arts Council funded project called ‘Tremors.’
‘Tremors’ is a research and development project to produce a script, over the next year, about Jewish identity in the context of Israel/Palestine, while uncovering some of the lesser known stories of 1968 anti-Semitism in Poland.
The first phase was at The Jewish Museum last February 2020, here is a reflection on the process by Nikki Mailer, Outside the Frame Arts co-director.
‘A butterfly gathers fragments of bones on the beach and rests for a moment in the sand’
During a visit to Poland with my family, in April 2019, we visited Treblinka, the second largest Nazi extermination camp just outside of Warsaw where the Nazi’s murdered (between 1942 and 1943) between 700,000 and 900,000 Jews.
The death camp is now a memorial site. Unlike Auschwitz the Nazis destroyed the camp before the Allies arrived, instead what stands is a memorial site. Very still and silent surrounded by beautiful trees.
I wrote a poem as a reflection on the huge impact the camp had had on me. I walked around it, I was thinking about the amount of people who had perished and suffered in one place and what this meant for my own Polish Jewish history.
As part of my residency with the Jewish Museum, I developed the poem I began writing at Treblinka. I also spent time listening to the oral history of a Holocaust survivor called Helen Teichner. Almost seven hours of recorded interviews from the Jewish museum archival material. When you listen so intensely to one person’s oral history, you start to feel connected to the person as if I knew her. Her Polish Jewish accent made me think about my grandmother. Maybe that’s why I decided to focus on her. Something in her voice made me feel closer to my grandparents.
The main piece I wrote was a collection of research and memories that I weaved together.
My grandmother who was part of the underground resistance in Belgium, who was given poison in case she was caught by a Nazi only to find out it was a placebo pill after the war ended.
My Grandad’s love letter to my grandmother in 1948 who wrote about starting again as though he was a mummy rising from the ashes who had lost everyone including all of his 6 brothers and his first wife.
My maternal grandmother who went back to her village after hiding in East Russia to find no one left,
My parents’ exile from Poland to Israel in 1968 during an anti-semitic campaign forcing 20, 000 Jews out.
All these fragments, (like bones) are pieced together and bring me to my connections with Palestine. Where I see Palestinians now experiencing the Tremors of the Holocaust, because of this I was drawn to the imagery of earthquakes, Tsunami and The Butterfly Effect .
At the end of the residency I shared my work informally with the wonderful, Jerusalem born, Avital Raz who is a talented singer, songwriter and performer.
Here is a short video of the reading:
Feedback from Laura Seddon (Creative Producer at The Jewish Museum)
“It was fascinating to see Nikki’s approach for our second Research and Scratch residency at Manchester Jewish Museum. The process of honing in on one particular story from our oral history collection, as opposed to taking a broader scope, was thoughtful, intense and extremely moving.
This was particularly fruitful as Helen’s story is one that we are going to tell on gallery when the new museum re-opens after our development project. At the scratch session it was rewarding to see how the audience engaged with this story, finding parallels in their own work and giving suggestions for how we might do justice to Helen’s experience. The process of using family and museum archives in arts practice was picked apart and made me realise that there is considerable discussion to be had around this issue.
We couldn’t quite believe the amount of material that Nikki and Avital had created together over a day’s work and I feel there is huge potential for musical storytelling in the development of Nikki’s work. I’m excited to see what happens next!”
I also wrote a separate piece Called ‘The Banality of Kindness’ which draws on Helen Teichner’s recording. I thought about all the people she had encountered and how many times she missed death. However, there was so much to her story I will never feel that I could do it justice.
The Banality of Kindness
Helen’s near misses with death, each one random. Their kindness is an offering, during war time, even the smallest of actions could save a life.
Her child, almost not born. but her doctor says, “keep this child, it is made from love.” Her new-born, nearly called Maria is not allowed to take a Christian name. Instead she is named, Marila. Two months in, Helen has no more milk and there is no time to mourn Marila’s passing to Colitis
She hides with Bron for three nights, sleeping anywhere they can, in bushes, on slopes. No food, nowhere to sleep. Would it be safer to split up, to survive? They think so and yet neither of them could have predicted the letter that would arrive “Bronislaw Guttman Husband of Helen Guttman, nee Rosenberg, of 312 Waterloo Rd, Manchester, perished in Lemberg in 1943”
On her own now, Helen begins her dance with death.
A German man and his son walk through a graveyard almost tripping over a frightened sleeping woman. He says nothing. This man, visiting a Jewish cemetery, he keeps her secret and she in turn his.
She skips death.
A lady on the first pew, bible in hand and rosary around her neck notices a woman with dark hair. The uneasy and fright in her suffering eyes gives her away. she wonders if the sadness in her eyes are Jewish. And yet, this dark haired Helen holds a rosary between her finger and her thumb and recites the prayers one by one. One day Helen tells her: that Virgin Mary came to her in a dream. Helen reminds her of her regrets, not helping to hide her Jewish friend Ora and small children. Each time she sees Helen re-appearing for the service. She breathes a sigh of relief.
She deceived death
A detective looks at Rachel Rosenberg and flicks his eyes over the fake documents. His eyes deep waves of blue, pale skin and wrinkled lines, next to his lips, show an imprint of a time he would have smiled. Most days he would follow the banality of evil. This time he was reminded of his humanity. She looks like an old school friend. The woman, holds her mouth tightly together, her hands unmoved as if trying to stop them from quivering. Her heart does not beat faster but just stopped, completely. Everything stops, stands still. His lips move. ‘Helen, your papers are fine,’
She misses death.
Barbara shows Helen where to hide. She knows this is the right thing to do, she has space in the cellar. It’s only one woman, the building won’t mind – surely. One night she sneaks in to give Helen some soup, sees her wearing all the clothes she owns, sleeping on a pile of paper. Barbara prays at night to wipe away the image of the whole building being punished and hung; because she helped her .
She dodges death
An elderly woman sells Helen bread on the street. Spies her socks infested with lice, each night. Helen lights a paraffin lamp to burn the huge insects. She manages to walk away holding her loaf of bread to last for a week as she sneaks back to hide in a cold cellar.
She evades death
Some people make decisions they regret for the rest of their lives and others die knowing they did everything they could.
Helen as an old woman says;
“I took it quite well, I don’t ever want to forget, some people just don’t want to know. I want to appreciate what I have now.”
(Thank you to the Jewish Museum for this opportunity and to Afshan D’souza-lodhi for her ongoing mentoring.)