Performing Jewish Memory in Germany

by Abigail Akavia

Stolpersteine for murdered schoolboys in Thessaloniki.

November 9th was the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. In Leipzig, where I live, as all over Germany, a series of events took place to commemorate the victims of that night of Nazi-led pogroms.

The western part of Leipzig is a former industrial wasteland. Now rapidly gentrifying, it is still home to those who wear their counter-culture cred on their sleeve, sometimes literally—punks, students, artists, and dreadlocked parents walking the streets barefoot with toddlers strapped on their backs. Here, on the trendy Karl-Heine boulevard, on the night of November 9th, “Stolpersteine” became little ground-level shrines. Stolpersteine are small square brass plates inscribed with the names and life-dates of victims of Nazi extermination or prosecution, installed on the sidewalk where these victims last lived or worked. To raise public awareness of Kristallnacht, flowers and candles were placed on the Stolpersteine, drawing attention to their presence as memorials, their normally subdued existence. A private initiative led by German artist Gunter Demnig since 1992, Stolpersteine can be found in towns throughout Germany and Europe.

Some in the Jewish community have objected to this form of commemoration, viewing as disrespectful the notion that remembrance plaques are placed where they can be treaded on—indeed, the reality and explicit purpose of Stolpersteine. The long grid in Thessaloniki shown above seems the exception rather than the rule, for in most cases, Stolpersteine are not aesthetically prominent. On regular days here in Leipzig, Stolpersteine do not command much attention. This kind of incessant yet unobtrusive, subliminal reminder of the horrors of the Nazi regime seems like an apt counterpoint to the way many Israelis (such as myself) view their relationship with Germany. In the last two decades or so, more and more Israeli Jews have moved to Germany, to work or permanently live here, including those whose ancestors were direct victims of the Nazis. Our relationship with the past seems reflected in the kind of commemoration the Stolpersteine enact: the Holocaust is a fact. It happened right here. Sometimes, we pause, the mere thought of it knocking the wind out of us. But most of the time, we move on.

Earlier that week, a friend told me that her ten year old son experienced racism directed personally at him for the first time. He and his friends, an English-speaking group, were playing in the park, when they were approached by a few kids just slightly older than they. “Go back to Turkey!” they shouted at the sole black-haired kid in the group, and fled, not before punching him too. Coming to his defense, his fair skinned friends retorted “He’s not even Turkish, he’s from Israel!”. The irony was certainly lost on the children from both sides of this altercation, perhaps with the exception of the target of violence himself. I don’t know to what extent he is aware of the history and present reality of antisemitism in Germany, and whether he carries a sense of the danger of living as a Jewish person in Germany today, or a sense of triumph at it. Or maybe he’s developing an attitude closer to that of the thousands of liberal Israelis currently living in Berlin, who profess a wholly post-survivor and post-victim consciousness: not seeking revenge, not seeking an explicit coming to terms with Germans their age, simply letting the past be the past. At least, they yearn for it—whether or not the heart, the gut, can truly let go of the inter-generational trauma when the rational mind decrees it. In any case, this young person, having lived almost his entire life in Germany, has been spared the indoctrination he would have gotten growing up in Israel, especially through the public school-system, where a sense of the everlasting victimhood of the Jewish people is constantly fed into young minds, and continues to shape internal and international policy. By age, he belongs to what in Israeli colloquialism could be called “fourth generation.” In this colloquialism, there is never a need to spell out generation-of-what: “second generation”, the most common term, are those direct descendants of Holocaust survivors. To us, the third generation, those who thought we could raise our multiracial, multi-cultural children anywhere in the world—and those of us who chose to leave Israel, disappointed and disillusioned by its increasingly fascist politics—the current resurgence of white supremacism and explicit neo-Nazi practices in Germany, Europe, and around the world is a slap in the face—or a reaffirmation of our deepest anxieties.

Leipzig is an important cultural hub in East Germany, former GDR, and the largest city in the federal state of Saxony. In Saxony, the far-right party AfD (Alternativ für Deutschland) is gaining more and more popularity. Correspondingly, the area is receiving increasingly more attention, in an attempt to understand what underlies the seething anti-immigrant sentiment here and the rage of locals (especially men) against the West. Leipzig is much like a “blue” city in the middle of a “red state”—though, ask any person of color living in this liberal but still overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous city, and you will hear tell of daily acts of micro- and not-so-micro- xenophobic aggression. Still, it is a center of artistic creation and exchange, the pillars of cultural tolerance. This year, I found myself unintentionally commemorating Kristallnacht right here on Karl-Heine Strasse, aided by two unrelated theater pieces I viewed within the week. The two pieces, though similar in subject-matter, were utterly different in tone. And so they became an illuminating foil for thinking about remembrance in Germany.

Remnants, by Patrick Eakin Young’s Compagnie ERRATICA from London, was presented at the Schaubühne Lindenfels, a theater-house, cinema, and cultural institution whose opening in 1993 pioneered the revival of Leipzig’s west. Inspired by the memoir “The Stone Fields” by Croatian-American author Courtney Angela Brkic, the piece portrays the history of her family through music and dance-theater. The performance is framed by the author’s narrative in her own voice, heard through one-sided snippets of a recorded interview. Brkic tells of her return to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996 as a volunteer on a forensic team tasked with excavating the mass-graves at Srebrenica. As she recounts her journey to the region where her father grew up and the work she performed there, she weaves in the life-stories of her grandmother and four sisters decades earlier. Personal memories and family histories dissolve into each other; there unfold, with an astonishing sense of inevitability, some of the greatest atrocities of the previous century combined into the tale of one European family. Onstage, the grandmother and her sisters are represented by one dancer and four singers. The singers perform something like a modern opera, which at times sounds like literal renditions of traditional Balkan music. Their voices, occasionally breaking up into solo singing but for the most part remaining in four-part harmony, carry the weight of the performance. Through them the piece coheres, allowing the fragmentary bits of information and chards of characters that emerge from the interview to have more than a journalistic effect on the audience. Musically, the piece is stunningly beautiful.

While Brkic’s English narration had a German translation projected in surtitles, the songs remained untranslated, unmediated from their foreign language. They radiated in their evocation of a culture distant in time and in land, encapsulated as an aesthetically mesmerizing remnant. They offered an intrinsically different experience than Brkic’s pre-recorded speaking voice, whose words had a graspable concreteness. The juxtaposition of speech and song (and dance, though that was the weakest aspect of the performance) provided different modes of remembrance and processing, perhaps even sublimation, of past trauma. The performers onstage balanced the literalness of Brkic’s first-person narrative with their representation, which was by necessity more of a removed interpretation of history than its retelling. The contrast between the recorded voice and the onstage singing voices was the axis around which the piece negotiated the tension between past and present. The effect of this contrast became clearest precisely when it was blurred; when the performers sang in English, their words were also accompanied by projected translation, thus gaining more of the literal quality of Brkic’s story. In one of the few instances where this happens, they echo the narrator’s words, as she described the relation between her widowed grandmother and her lover. The vocalists, embodying the grandmother, repeatedly sing: “Yes, I knew that he was Jewish”, providing the context in which she helped him hide during the war. The audience had already learned from the narrator that this man was a Jew, when she told us of the first meeting between him and her grandmother; that he would later fall victim to Nazi persecution was, then, to be more or less expected. For the most part, the piece managed to remain effective and didn’t tip into voyeurism by virtue of its nuanced intertwining of narrative, music, gesture and dance. But I wonder if perhaps the allusion to the Jewish genocide was more explicit than other details precisely because it was not the story that was being told, but rather a story tangent to it, a subplot whose appearance in the bigger picture of the Bosnian family and people was even more fragmentary than the rest of the ghosts and “remnants” the piece brought to life.

My experience of Remnants was undoubtedly influenced by the piece I saw earlier in the week, Dust Staub אבק, followed by the conversation I had with one of its creators, Ari Teperberg. Dust is a collaboration between the duo Golden Delicious, Israeli theater artists Teperberg and Inbal Yomtovian, and the Leipzig-based duo Wilde & Vogel, musician Charlotte Wilde and puppeteer Michael Vogel. Like Remnants, Dust takes the audience on a personal journey, unearthing family stories and weaving its fragmentary pieces into a bigger picture that offers us a slice of 20th century history. Dust is also a multi-media performance, though here there is no separation between narrators, singers and musicians. And it too explores what Teberberg calls “inherited trauma”—or the way we remember, absorb and embody trauma(s) that happened to our ancestors. Even more precisely, Dust is interested in the way these different modes of experience of trauma are hard to tell apart. Dust Staub אבק (as its full trilingual title bespeaks) is a cultural encounter, and hence is also a work about the very possibility of such an encounter, between Israelis and Germans of the “third generation.” They come together to share a space, to share stories, and to listen. Not, however, for the sake of confrontation or reconciliation.

The emphasis in Dust Staub אבק remains on the anecdotal, on specific characters in specific families, and on the act of recounting them. As the work unfolds, the scope of storytelling from within the shared space—the space of listening and of shared creative process—expands to include translating, miming, and ventriloquizing, so that the voice or body of one performer tells the story of another. History with its atrocities is made present in glimpses, providing the obvious and rarely-made-explicit backdrop for the personal histories performed. “Concentration camp” is mentioned as incidentally as the suicide of Vogel’s grandmother (a detail which is more shocking because it is unexpected). Trauma is never lingered on: it is fact, its constancy and power over the present taken for granted. This allows the piece to be surprisingly entertaining, at times even funny. Teperberg tells me that it was deliberately made to feel “light” (perhaps the most glaring difference between Dust and Remnants is the former’s playfulness). Deliberate, too, were the choices to avoid a direct treatment of the Holocaust. The creators decided not to include materials that presented themselves as relevant—concrete historical evidence in its “raw” form, such as the Yad VaShem recording of the testimony of Yomtovian’s grandmother, or quotes from the journal of Wilde’s uncle, a Wehrmacht pilot. In developing the piece, Yomtovian and Teperberg were reluctant to have the Holocaust become an explicit theme, and they felt that they had to resist their German partners’ desire to handle these materials, to touch them precisely in their rawness. For Israelis of this generation, the rawness has already been processed: if we have moved on from the trauma, it is not because we think it is no longer important to deal with or remember the past, but because we no longer want the trauma to be the main defining element in our identity. To play the part of the victim feels at once indulgent and reductive; this duality is at the base of the very problematic use of victimhood in mainstream Israeli politics. Teperberg and Yomtovian actively seek to distance themselves from this dangerous political abuse of history, rather than feed it. This is not to say that Germans of the third generation—or of any generation that is willing to do so—should not delve into the raw material, listen to it, seek to understand it, accept it. But it is, perhaps, not something for which they need Jewish partners, specifically not Israeli partners.

Viewing Remnants and Dust Staub אבק in the same week vividly brought to my awareness the broad spectrum on which lie different forms of memory and commemoration. And of the possibility of strength that arises from letting go of the literal, from allowing that place from which we spring to simply lie under our feet. Our trauma—what we grew up with, what we inherited, what haunts us in dreams, what each of us has made our own through a continual performance of remembrance—is not going anywhere. There is no need for straightforwardly horrifying words or gestures to make it present. What is needed, is a willingness to meet: a space, in all senses of the word, for an encounter. Within Leipzig’s theaters, such spaces exist. But on its streets, on its sidewalks?