When Trauma meets Art

Fragments of Intergenerational Trauma

“Art is not just ornamental, an enhancement of life.  It is a path in itself, a way out of the predictable and conventional… a map to self-discovery.” – Gabrielle Roth

“Our task is to listen to the news that is always arriving out of silence.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Time and time again, I discover how I can’t know what I don’t know, and I can’t see what I don’t see until, one day, I do.  Socrates tells us, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”  It’s a journey that requires curiosity, honesty, and a load of courage.  The journey’s essence is the process of peeling the onion of self. 

I am interested in Intergenerational Trauma intersection with Art.  Both are mysterious.  Intergenerational Trauma is elusive, filled with secrets and un-named shame, and Art is a sphere beyond words and explanations.  Yet, something about their essence felt magical when I encountered their intersection.  I am fascinated by how trauma transforms itself.  Does it change, evolve and lessen with time?

The stories and reflections I share here are not about triumphant moments of great insight; they are not about a solution or a how-to guide.  Instead, the act of writing this essay is about the wounded eagle inside my soul that wants to spread its wings.  It wants to fly, to get distance, to observe with detachment, and to find compassion and love.  It is not an easy process.  It forces me to reconnect with dark memories, but I don’t know if there is a better way to strengthen the healing muscle.  The poet Ingeborg Bachmann said, “I am writing with my burnt hand about the nature of fire.” 

Scorched Earth

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.  Visceral warning signs constantly bombard their bodies.  In an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and numbing awareness of what is played out inside.  They learn to hide from their selves.” – Bessel van der Kolk

The year is 1951.  It’s a typical summer afternoon in Donaueschingen, a small town in southern Germany near the Danube River.  The town is devastated, like the rest of the country.  The Allied carpet bombs left a thick trail of destruction and death.  Six years since the surrender, Germany is licking its wounds, the visible ones, and the unseen ones.  Mounds of rubble and ruined structures are all around.  A few big trees stand at the town outskirts alongside a one-lane road that leads to the town center.  There’s a large concrete structure with multiple sections, some destroyed and others intact.  It was a German Army bunker not so long ago.  The field around the bunker is dotted with craters of various sizes from the bombs.  The day is warm, and the blue sky is cloudless.  A light wind whistles as it flows through the grass and the tree leaves.  Lone engine noise in the background from a car on the road.  Beige, green, and blue dominate the scenery.  A few old break houses with gray shingles are nearby.  Two kids are playing hide and seek.  They are about 6 years old and in school uniforms, short gray pants, white shirts.  One of them, a blonde with rosy cheeks, crouches behind a big block of fallen, tilted concrete slabs with protruding reinforcement bars.  The kid does not move.  He tries to make himself small – in his mind, invisible.  He notices that one of his shoelaces is untied; it will have to wait, he thinks.  Soon though, the other kid will see his stooped shoulders behind the slab.  A big scream of discovery, surprise, and joy will break the silence.

Years later, one of these kids will become famous for his monumental artworks.  They’ll depict the desolate scenes and scorched earth he’ll remember from his childhood.  Some will call him the greatest artist of his generation.  His name is Anselm Kiefer.  He’ll say, “Bunkers are for me the most beautiful art-for-art’s-sake architecture.”

In the book In Conversation with Klaus Dermutz, Anselm Kiefer tells about his early childhood, “The war was still going in March ’45.  Bombs fell on Donaueschingen, a railway junction where I grew up.  The French were advancing.  I was born in the basement of the hospital.  My parents stuck wax in my ears, like Odysseus did to his companions, so I wouldn’t hear the bombs.  The bombs were the sirens of my childhood.”  To another question, he said, “Aside from the fact that I almost starved as an infant, everything went along normally.  The rubble was always in sight.  The house next to us was completely bombed out.  I never experienced this rubble as something negative.  It’s a state of transition, of reversal, of change.  I built houses with the stones scavenged in the big cities by the so-called rubble women-who are today an almost mythological concept.  The rubble was always a starting point for the construction of something new.” (Rubble-Woman is the name for women who helped clear and reconstruct the bombed cities of Germany and Austria in the aftermath of World War II.  This monumental task fell to a large degree on women because many men died or were prisoners of war).

I did not know any of that when I accidentally first saw Keifer’s works.  In 1988, new to Los Angeles, I ventured downtown and walked into the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art); I always loved museums.  I stepped into an exhibit hall.  No other visitors were present but for a guard standing in the corner of the room.  She was heavy-set and dark-skinned with wavy black hair; her hands were in her pockets.  The guard was wearing a navy blazer with an AIDS ribbon lapel pin.  I wondered if she lost someone to the disease.  The space was ample with high ceilings and white walls that end with a clean edge.  The room was cold and dead silent.  I looked up.  On the wall in front of me was a large piece.  If my memory is correct, the painting was Nigredo (Blackness).  That was my first sighting of Anselm Kiefer’s art.  It felt like I was punched in the stomach; I wanted to vomit.  So visceral was my repulsion that I knew right there that I am standing in front of great art. 

Anselm Kiefer is the most famous artist addressing the painful chapter of 20th-century German history.  His works are monumental, both in size and in the search for the world’s inner truth.  He makes art from a mix of rubble and mythology.  He combines extreme, unusual materials, such as straw, dirt, lead, charcoal, tar, sand, epoxy, and gold leaf.  His color tonalities are on the scale’s grim side.  Landscapes are never just that; the land is heavy and sad; it smells of burnt-out remains; it’s loaded with tragic aspects.  He is accused of having no regard for the permanence of the materials he uses.  The straw will not remain intact in 50 years, but it does not discourage collectors.

It’s easy to see how Kiefer’s paintings are drawn from the imagery he witnessed in childhood.  But I think there is more to that than just the visual destruction that moved him to create the gloom and devastation of German soil.  Yes, Kiefer is also exceptionally educated and versed in mythology, theology, and literature, but it’s even more than that.

The people who have experienced the horror of the Holocaust often wanted to protect the young from their past.  Yet, the horrors slip through the cracks of their being.  We, the second generation of survivors or German perpetrators, intuitively knew more of our parents’ past than we were told.  They may have thought that the unspoken was buried in the confines of their minds and memories, but we knew.  Sometimes we just sniffed the elusive signs.  At other times, the trauma was clear and loud, as straightforward as it could get. 

Growing up, I felt that my parents never entirely left the concentration camps.  The camp stayed in them even though they lived in Israel.  Some part of their mind was still there.  They were always tense and quiet.  I don’t remember much laughter in the house.  The apartment was always spotlessly clean; everything was in its place as if otherwise, the Nazis would be knocking at the door at any moment, ready to snatch them away.  I wonder what kind of experiences, little conversations, and human behaviors Anselm Kiefer and his generation witnessed that gave them clues to their elders’ past?  How did the trauma pass on to them?

In the memoir, The Pendelum, Julie Lindahl describes her journey to uncover her grandparents’ role in the Third Reich.  She writes, “When a generation responsible for evil deeds rejects its own guilt, it creeps insidiously into the hearts and minds of the next generation and transforms itself into shame; an evil deed in itself, because it unjustly condemns the bearer to carry the burden of crimes they did not commit.  

To agree to live in this dark room without signposts and believe that you must stay there to protect those who came before you is an astoundingly common and counterproductive instinct.  Isolation breeds mistrust, which, in tum, asphyxiates the family relationships we prize most.  Shame will unrepentantly creep into the next generation and, like a chameleon, take new forms unless someone breaks the dictate and looks back.”

I wonder, did Anselm’s next-door neighbor came back from the battlefield with the war’s fire in his belly, the one that never goes away?  Did he witness that belly’s fire blasting from time to time with uncontrolled rage?   Or maybe, he partook in similar conversations Julie Lindahl tells about in her book.  Here are excerpts of one such conversation she had with her granny – Oma in German.

Oma:   “My dearest Julchen.  Well?”

“You are looking very slim these days.  Very slim indeed.”

“I have made some warm lunch – trout with potatoes and steamed vegetables, and your favorite berry soup with vanilla sauce for dessert.”

Oma:   “Now, make sure you take enough.”

“You’re young-my word, just twenty-one years old-you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, and you must eat.  Do you menstruate normally?”

Julie:   “Yes, Oma, everything is fine.”

Oma:   “Oh, let’s talk about something else.”

“Have you noticed all of the wonderful spring buds opening outside?”

“Nature is the strangest and most wonderful thing.  It clears out the weak and supports everything strong and vital.  We humans haven’t respected that principle, and Nature is punishing us for it.  Just look around!  We offend her laws all the time!” 

Julie:   “Yes, I have seen the tree.”

“What is it that should not be alive?  What laws do you mean we have offended?”

Oma:   “Well, that is quite plain.”

“Just look at the AIDS epidemic.  You don’t think that is a coincidence, do you?  Those people are bound to die, because what they are doing is unnatural.  In any case, the world’s population is growing far too fast, and AIDS is Nature’s way of correcting the situation.”

Oma:   “Now, tell me, what are you studying?”

Julie:   “International affairs.  We’re studying the Cold War.”

Oma:   “War, war … people will never stop fighting.  Man has evil inside of him that he will never be freed of.  There will always be wars.”

Oma:   “You can read all about it in here.”

Oma points to a copy of War and Peace.

Oma:   “Bloodthirsty princes battled with one another for no better purpose than the ridiculous glory of spilling blood.  How many young men believed them and returned, if they did at all, without arms and legs!  Terrible, ter-ri-blel!  But no one speaks about that anymore.  It’s all about us and the so-called awful things that we Germans did.  But, let me tell you, it was nothing compared to what people did to one another back then!”

Julie:   “I have some great news at the university.”

Oma:   “And what do they say about that business with the Jews at your university?  I am sure they tell you all sorts of lies.  Let me tell you straight, from someone who was there, that nothing like this ever happened.  It was all a lie by the media, so that we Germans would feel that we had to keep our heads down.”

Oma:   “Germans were responsible for everything bad, but no one ever talks about the good that we did, and doesn’t everyone seem to want to come and live here!”

At this point, Oma’s eyelids suddenly began to flicker uncontrollably, and she leans back on the headrest of her armchair.

Oma:   “Oh, my eyes!  I have tried everything – inoculation from the doctor and all manner of treatments, but nothing helps.  It’s an illness of the nerves, you understand; to do with everything we have been through.  It was all too much.”

Oma:   “But the Holocaust, I can assure you, did not happen.”

Oma:   “It’s all just invented nonsense.”

“We had beautiful times, you know.”

This conversation cracks my heart open with a deep sense of sympathy and compassion for Julie.

I remember attending a lecture at LACMA (Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art) in 2009; it was in honor of an exhibition opening, Art of Two Germanys/Cold War Culture.  Artists, academics, and the show’s curators reflected on the exhibition.  The German artists talked about their anguish living in a divided country, separated between east and west.  The academics talked about the two political systems and the distinctive versions of postmodern art.  As the talk progressed, I started feeling upset; the fire in my chest was ragging.  I thought, “there is an elephant in the auditorium, right there at the front row, and nobody mentions it.”  They either chose or could not talk about the Holocaust, as if the brightness of the sun is forcing them to look away.  Were the guilt and shame so deep, or was it intentional?  I would never know.  At the end of the event, I happen to see the German curator and LACMA’s curator, Stephanie Barron, walking across the courtyard by the iconic Chris Burden’s Urban Light.  I gained my courage, approached them, introduced myself, and expressed my impression and sentiment.  I was polite, though my emotions were probably visible.  They looked at me and said nothing.  I felt bare and perplexed.

It takes guts to break the veil of silence around intergeneration’s shame and guilt.  Anselm Kiefer was not the first artist to do so.  There were others, mostly poets and writers, but he was one of the first visual artists to do it.  He came out with his paintings in the early 1980s, quite sometime after the war.  Why did it take that long?  Indeed, Germany lost the war, but what about the ideology?  Many ex-nazis and sympathizers were all around.  Or perhaps Germans tried to forget and move on.  It’s complicated.  I know this: shame creeps through and stains the human’s soul in mysterious ways.  

Kiefer’s art is a loud and clear voice that says to his fellow Germans: this is our land, this is our history and mythology, look at it, get disgusted, vomit if you want, but know this: there is no way to make it nice, there is no way but to learn how to live with it and try, the best we can, to repent.  This sentiment was voiced by those who had to wrestle with the heritage dumped on their shoulders.  A generation forced to forge ways out from rubbles, ruins, and ghosts of guilt and shame.

I always sensed that my body is keeping a score of intergenerational trauma, a sense of being hunted by ghosts, by memories that though I did not experience firsthand, felt like I did.  The feelings were not processed, the vocabulary was not present nor encouraged; if anything, feelings were belittled.  Imagine a warehouse packed with shelves, stocked up high with boxes labeled: anger, violence, shame, etc.  The sensations locked in the packages were dormant, but sometimes one package would fall, or a complete set of shelves brokedown, and once or twice, the entire warehouse was in flames.  Feelings had no healthy way out.  So, it’s not an enigma why trauma occupied a central theme of my art.  I choose not to use the grim, dark colors to describe the unimaginable tragedy realistically.  Instead, I tried to seek beauty through abstract shapes and vivid colors.  I focused on a voyage away from Auschwitz, of going out from the camp, as oppos to the journey into Auschwitz’s gas chambers, with one common core theme – the trains.  I used stunning flowing molten-colored fused glass to melt with one another and to transmit light.  Making art became analogous to a journey from horror into a new light.  It’s meditation in action dedicated to healing.

I am feeling grateful and lucky to have had a few encounters with art that felt like a transcendental moment, not the one of seeing or hearing God, as the word transcendental usually refers to, but as close as it can get.  Moments with a mystical dimension.  Moments that are forever curved crisp clear in my memory bank.  They stayed and impacted my thinking, my worldview and helped me understand who I am.  These moments helped me develop the language that penetrated my inner incoherent screaming silence.  These moments of soul impact also showed me that I am not alone in my pain and search for meaning and recovery.  

Shoah

“Trauma is hell on earth.  Trauma resolved is a gift from the gods.” – Peter Levine

“If you bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will be your salvation.  If you do not bring forth that which is within you, Then that which is within you Will destroy you.” – Peter Levine

I was 26 when Shoah first screened in Israel.  The screening was divided into two evenings due to the film’s length.  I remember arriving at the intimate Tel Aviv Museum auditorium, a bit anxious, scanning the crowd, sensing the temperature, looking for someone familiar.  I was by far the youngest person in the crowd of elderly, respectfully dressed attendees.  I recognized one person, Professor Gabriel Moked, standing on the side talking to a good-looking dark-haired woman in a light blue knee-length dress and a white blouse.  Professor Moked is a Holocaust survivor and a well-known figure in the Israeli literature milieu.  I attended his class, Philosophy of Aesthetics, the previous semester.  The class discussions were about Beauty and its objective evaluation.  I remember that Professor Moked’s theory centered on the notion that an objective assessment of Beauty exists.  To this date, I think it’s a provocative idea, especially in today’s media proliferation where everything is so subjective.  A purple handkerchief had a prominent spot on my Professor’s gray jacket.  He always had the manners of a gentleman. 

I walked over to him and said: “Good evening Profesor Moked.  My name is David.  I attended your class last semester.”  He recognized me, and we shook hands.  I remember the look of surprise, maybe astonishment expressed in his big almond-shaped eyes, which became even bigger as he saw me there, a kid in that crowd.  Sometimes, it’s the slight nod that can lift a spirit. 

In the opening scene of Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, a man in his 50s, with curly hair and a handsome round face, is rowing a boat on a river.  He sings as the dinghy eases through calm waters.  A dark green-grayish forest is in the background.  The man’s gaze is melancholy and distant.  I imagine he is in a different place, in memories of images and sounds from the times he rowed on this river during the war.  He sings in Polish, the language of a country that betrayed millions of its Jewish citizens.  Nevertheless, his singing rolls out with a deep sense of longing and a soft-hearted soul.

Later in the film, as Lanzmann converses with this gentleman, his miraculous survival story comes to light, and we learn how his melodic voice helped him stay alive.  Simon Srebnik was one of only two survivors of Chełmno, where the Nazis gassed 400,000 Polish Jews, the first camp where Jews were gassed.  Srebnik was 13 when he was put to work by the Nazis, collecting the remains of his fellow Jews and dumping sacks of human ashes in the calm river.  During his captivity, he was taught and compelled to sing for his captors’ entertainment.  Two days before Chelmno was liberated by Soviet troops, the remaining prisoners were shot in the head.  Srebnik was among them,  but he survived.

Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust;  it means a catastrophe.  Lanzmann’s film is a magnum opus documentary, but he insisted on calling it “a fiction of the real.”  He gathered 230 hours of location filming and interviews with Jewish victims, German perpetrators, and Polish bystanders, which he condensed into a 9½-hour film.  It took him eleven years to complete.  I imagine the grip of madness going to sleep and waking up day after day with the thought: this part must stay, and this needs to be cut.  It’s like the famous doctor’s hand gesture on the train platform in Birkenau.  

Lanzmann refused to use any historical documentary footage.  Instead, he toured the world, looking for eyewitnesses to Hitler’s Final Solution and conducting interviews.  At that time, many Holocaust survivors were still alive, with intensely strong memories.  Also still alive were many German and Polish, who played a part in the killing machine or were in a position to observe what happened.  There is a lot of talk in the movie; it’s all talk, and it’s all mesmerizing and agonizing at the same time.  Sporadically the interviews are interrupted by images of locomotives, train tracks, and pastoral scenes of the places where the killing took place.  Common to all that imagery is the accompanying silence, no voice-overs, a complete stillness.

Lanzmann is an incredible interviewer; it’s his mastery.  He is patient, and his questions are about the little details. In this way, he draws out some chilling, harrowing accounts.  Most unsettling, for me, is that of Abraham Bomba, the former Treblinka barber.  The interview took place at a barbershop in Tel Aviv as Bomba cuts a client’s hair.  In Treblinka, he cut women’s hair minutes before they went into the gas chamber.  At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum library archive, I found the entire script of their conversation.  These are some of Lanzmann’s questions and a couple of Bomba’s answers:

Lanzmann:       “You said that you didn’t shave them.”

Lanzmann:       “You cut it with what? With Scissors?”

Lanzmann:       “There were no mirrors?”

Lanzmann:       “Can you imitate now what you did?”

During the conversation, Bomba frantically moves his scissors, cutting his client’s hair fast, as if the movement and the scissors will shield him from the flood of internal torments.

Lanzmann:       “With big movements?”

Lanzmann:       “You say you were about 16 barbers.”

Lanzmann:       “This means you cut the hair of how many women in one batch?”

Lanzmann:       “And after that, the doors of the gas chamber were closed?”

Lanzmann:       “Where did you wait?”

Lanzmann:       “I asked you, and you didn’t answer.  What was your impression the first time you saw these naked women with children arriving?  What did you feel?”

Bomba:              “I’ll tell you something.  Over there, it was very hard to have any feelings.  Working there, day and night, among those people, those bodies, men and women, your feelings disappeared.  You were dead to your feelings – you had no feelings at all.  As a matter of fact, when I was chosen to work as a barber in the gas chambers, some women came in off a transport from my town, from Czestochowa.  I knew a lot of those women.”

Lanzmann:       “You knew them?”

Bomba:              “I knew them.  I lived with them in my town, in my street, and some of them were my close friends.  When they saw me, they started hugging me.  What are you doing here?  What is going to happen to us?  What could you tell them?  What could I tell them?  A friend of mine, who also worked as a barber – a good barber – in my hometown, when his wife and his sister came into the gas chamber…”

At this point, Bomba goes silent.  You can see the wave of emotions going through his mind.  He struggles to hold it together.

Lanzmann:       “Go on, Abe.  You must go on.  You have to.”

Bomba:              “It’s too hard.”

Lanzmann:       “Please, we have to do it, you know we do.”

Bomba:              “I am not able to do it.”

Lanzmann:       “You have to do it.  I know it’s very hard.  I know, and I apologize.”

Bomba relents, and the rest of the story unfolds. 

My hair is prickling; I am experiencing powerful emotions as I see the visual image of the barber cutting his wife and sister’s hair a few minutes before their final separation.

Some critics said that Lanzmann was too forceful in pushing the survivors hard to recall their experiences, even at the cost of reopening old wounds.  He explained to reporter Howie Movshovitz in 2011, “No one history book may give you the emotions, the strengths of a human face when the people are paying the highest price in order to revive what they went through.”  Lanzmann also said, “And I think that the only way to answer the ‘why’ is to go into the most extreme details of the ‘how.'”

In 1991, my father, newly retired from a lifelong military career, invited my brother Israel and me to join him on a trip to Poland and Germany, following the route he shared with his father, David, from 1939 till the end of the war in 1945, when they were separated forever.  The veil of Communism had just been lifted, and Eastern European countries opened up.  We met at Warsaw airport; my father and brother arrived from Israel, and I from Los Angeles.  Warsaw looked gray, old, filled with a sense of decay and gloom.  We traveled to Lodz; it was even more grayish and dilapidated.  We found the house where my father grew up, and for the first time, I heard him speak Polish as if it was only yesterday when he last spoke it and not over 45 years ago.  From there, we continued through four different concentration camps, all the way to his liberation in Dachau.  My brother and I equipped ourselves with the best camcorders; they were big and heavy in those days.  We knew nothing about sound recording, and it shows in the many hours of footage we collected.  Nevertheless, we were enthusiastic.  I thought, ‘this is my chance to role-play Claud Lanzmann.’  I hoped to draw out of my dad the stories he never told and the emotional tones he never used.  It did not work!  At the time, I was 31 years old and far from having the mastery and the emotional maturity required for such a task.  I am not sure if I was even ready to hear it all and probably even too afraid.

From a young age, I wondered about the things my father did not speak.  To start with, he was not a big talker but more of a task-oriented master.  Like many of his generation, he was busy creating and defending the young state of Israel.  He partook in managing the Israeli military food logistics; thus, his mindset was focused on doing rather than being.  Still, as a child growing up in the shadow of the horrors, I was curious.  I wanted to know about the emotional state of mind, the fear, the violence, the sounds, and the abuse.  I wanted to learn more about his special bond with his father and his sense of grief and loss.  Anything that could fill up the detached way by which he told his story.  He stuck to the names and dates; everything in between was dry, colorless like that of a reluctant storyteller.  I had clues that there was much more to it.  I heard things, sometimes from my mother, but mostly from my intuition. 

There was an implicit message in my father’s inability or will to divulge more of his past.  I understood from an early age that there are things you don’t ask.  It had to do with respecting his space and the way he carried himself.  It was an early lesson on boundaries.  But, on the other hand, there were things that any child, even the ones less sensitive than me, would have picked on.  To start with, his height – my father was a short man.  He never grew above his height at 14, when the war started.  The blue number tattooed on his wrist was always visible.  His quietness followed him almost always, interrupted sporadically with uncontrolled rage.  He was easy to raise voice, which I suspected had something to do with the camp guard shouts he withstood.  I also suspected that he received physical beatings and maybe was sexually abused.  But I knew, instinctively, that I am not allowed to breach any of those subjects.  It left me in a place of void and calling to fill the open spaces with my imagination.

The train motif in the Holocaust saga is prime.  The logistics behind transporting the Jews from all corners of the European continent and delivering them to the concentration camps’ gas chambers, all in Poland, was an immense logistical operation controlled by Adolf Eichmann.  The trains play a central role in a series of artworks I spent years creating.  Behind the façade of colorful glass-made fused tiles laid horizontally on fabricated plexiglass is a conceptual vision of a landscape.  One of my repeated fantasies was being in my father’s place inside a cattle train, smooshed tightly with other bodies.  The train is on its way to Auschwitz.  I am standing next to the interior wooden panel, and I find a tiny crack that I can see through.  I picked and saw a beautiful landscape of heavenly creation, green, blue, and red, all in movement.  I get lost in the view outside; it comforts me, I escape from my body and emotions, I am free.  More about that in my blog, ‘Materials and Process.’

I created a film for an art exhibition at the Harriet and Kenneth Kupferberg Holocaust Museum in Queens, NY.  Imagine a video camera mounted on a train engine filming a ride through stunning Norway.  The geography is monotonous, with endless white snowfields and blue, grayish sky.  The image is meditative, conveying a calm serenity, which breaks every time the train enters a tunnel.  The darkness engulfs the screen; it’s a portal to images that conjure memories of a different train ride – cattle trains and train station signposts from Lanzmann’s movie Shoah.  The audio track accentuates the contrast between the magnificent Norwegian scenery and the tunnel’s dark memories – the music shifts from a meditative soundscape to agonizing cries.  The film is four hours long and goes with endless loops because the journey away from the memories never ends.  I named the installation “The Train from Auschwitz; A Journey from Shame to Self – Realization.”

The Whirling Dervishes

“Movement is my medicine, my meditation, my metaphor and my method, a living language we can rely upon to tell us the truth about who we are, who we are with, and where we are going.  There is no dogma in the dance.” – Gabrielle Roth

“To sweat is to pray, to make an offering of your innermost self.  Sweat is holy water, prayer beads, pearls of liquid that release your past.  The more you dance… the more you sweat, the more you pray.  The more you pray, the closer you are to ecstasy.” – Gabrielle Roth

“The dance is not where we lose ourselves.  But where we find ourselves.” – Gabrielle Roth

I am a dancer.  At times, my energies, my body, my muse, and the music moves me into a swirling motion.  I open my arms, tilt my head, keep my eyes open just enough to avoid colliding with other dancers.  And I swirl. My focus is heightened.  My legs are strong, my muscles and bones tense, yet my spirit is light as a feather.  I am floating, sweat dripping, flying like a bird, empty of thoughts.  There are other dancers around, but I am alone in my space – one with no worries or fears.  In those moments, I am not only connected with the oneness; I am the oneness.

Once a year, in December, thousands of Sufis make the pilgrimage to Konya, in Turkey, to celebrate the life of the poet Rumi.  He is the great thirteen-century philosopher and mystic of Islam.  In 2014 Danna and I joined the crowd.

Our hotel room window faced Rumi’s shrine with its many blue-colored spires.  Opposite the wrought iron bed was a wall clock that puzzled us – its dials rotated counterclockwise.  Although Konya is a center of the Mevlevi Sufi order, it’s not an overly religious place.  On the contrary, we felt welcomed, maybe in the spirit of Rumi’s famous line: “Come, come whoever you are, a believer or non-believer, a Muslim, a Christian or a Pagan, just come however you are.” 

I felt a sense of hopefulness being in Konya and having the experiences we had.  The Sufis are a persecuted sect of Muslim mystics that advocates unlimited tolerance and awareness through love.  The splendor of the breakfast buffet was second to none.  We roamed the city streets, listened to lectures, and in the evenings attended the Sema ceremony. 

A group of forty Dervishes stands along the perimeter of a circular court.  They stand in attention with arms crossed over their chest.  They are wearing white robes – symbolizing their ego’s shrouds, and black hats – symbolizing their ego’s tombstones.  It’s the center stage of an auditorium, resembling an ice hockey rink.  A crowd of Sufi devotees and spectators is silent as a live band plays traditional Mevlevi music.  One by one, the Dervishes step into the court in a slow counterclockwise swirling motion.  Their arms raised open, holding the right palm upward toward the sky and the left palm down toward the earth.  The dancers don’t do much but spin around at a fixed speed; their skirts open up like flower petals, their heads tilted to the right.  The dancer’s skirts change colors as the stage lights alternate from white to green, blue, and red.  Everything is turning in the universe. The world turns, the sun turns, the human blood under the skin turns, and so do the Dervish dancers.  It’s a dance ceremony in honor of their great teacher, Rumi, but it’s much more than just a dance.

There is a growing body of research and interest in the relationship between trauma and physical ailments such as cancer and ALS.  Yet, the emotions’ physiological impact is still far from being fully appreciated.  The argument is pretty straightforward – when we shut down emotions, we also affect our immune system and nervous system.  Thus, the repression of emotions, which served us well as a survival mechanism, becomes the root cause of our bodily illness.

That year I watched the dervishes dance, I was surprised to be diagnosed with prostate cancer.  I was 54, relatively young for the outburst, yet it becomes less surprising when reviewing my history.  Cancer is a word that arose a sense of danger, fear, and death.  Fear, in particular, is an elegant weapon.  It hovered above me like a drone, engulfed my psyche with the buzzing sound of anxiety.  It came just as I embarked on a new chapter of my life, recently divorced after twenty-five years of marriage, and with a growing intuition that something is missing in my healing journey.  I felt I had done lots of therapy and processing from the chest up but not from the chest down. 

“David,” my friend Andre, a doctor and a therapist, suggested as gently as he could: “Have you considered that the cause of the cancer is your deeply-rooted anger that had no healthy outlet?”  It was upsetting to hear, but the truth stings.  The somatic component of my healing was missing.  I decided to reconnect with yoga and dance, two disciplines I knew well from my teen years.  In the words of Martha Graham, “the body says what words cannot.”

I had two Focal Laser Ablation procedures to remove the cancer cells, one time in New York and the second time in Miami, a cutting edge procedure not yet entirely accepted.  I remember laying face down inside an MRI tube, fully awake, aside from local anesthesia, listening to music by Enya, focusing on my breath while my mind was holding to the images of loved ones waiting outside the room and farther away.  Roni, my platoon buddy, leaned over and whispered in my ear, “it will be alright.”

The table wheeled out of the machine, and the doctor adjusted the tiny optical fiber to the tumor’s precise location.  Mind you, the entire prostate is the size of an almond.  The doctors wheeled the table back in, the position accuracy rechecked by the imaging machine, and if all was okay, a heatwave was sent via the fiber probe to burn the cancer cell.  Back and forth, it went for a couple of hours.  Every time I felt the burning sensation, I took a deeper breath.  The procedure was not as difficult as the long recovery that followed.  It took quite a few months, a process I sum up with one word, bloody.

On a Sunday morning, a week after the second cancer removal procedure, I went to a dance class.  I was still in discomfort and low energy.  There was no cheerfulness in me.  I positioned myself near a window, close to the bright sun rays.  My dance was pretty static.  I closed my eyes and rattled my wrists, touching whatever energies I could bring up and make them move.  I wanted to dance inside my body where no one would see me.  On that day, that was all I had.  As the weeks and months moved on, I found myself, at times, dancing with the cancer, as if it was a fellow dancer, synchronizing our steps and energies with gentleness and love.  At other times, my dance mimicked a Tai Chi master, moving in slow motion, with grace and intensity as if I was trained in that martial art.  The one thing I could not do was to swirl.  I did not have in me the lightness it requires. 

It took a few years before swirling came back, and it did.  I coined a term to describe my attitude towards my ailment, “surrender, without giving up,” by which I meant, to relinquish with grace that which I couldn’t control and at the same time to move forward.  The critical challenge was to stop the fight and to accept that surrender is the ultimate act of freedom.  This was a key turning point in my journey.  In 2017 my doctors declared me cancer-free.  Around that same time, a new dance teacher came into my life, Kate Shela, and her husband, Tim Booth. 

I am a practitioner of a dance methodology that calls for personal interpretation and freedom of exploration while following a teacher’s instructions.  The teacher leads the class through five rhythms of energies: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, and Stillness.  There is no choreography, but the soundtrack builds the structure.  Kate and Tim thrive in Chaos; it’s the tempo that takes me into my primal state of being and the depth of my sadness.  Often in Chaos, I connect with other dancers.  I let their energies take me deeper and higher all at the same time.  It’s the rhythm where I find my release and freedom.  Dancing opened doors to locked rooms, some I never visited or did not know existed.  It’s a somatic healing experience I have yet to find anything better.  As the class progresses, the other rhythms lead me back towards integration with the oneness, which makes me who I am.

Black Milk

“We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world.” – Gabor Mate

“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Driving our daughter Rae to UC Berkeley for her freshman year in 2019 was a trip filled with emotions; the comings and goings were at full blast.  While she and her mother were running errands, I had a few hours to burn.  What better way to burn than a visit to the Modern Art Museum?  I thought Andy Warhol’s retrospective would be the main attraction, but I was wrong.

I had to climb up to the sixth floor and enter the halls dedicated to Post-WWII German Art to find a jewel.  There was a headphone device next to Anselm Kiefer’s painting Shulamit.  I picked it up, placed it on my ears, and got ready for the painting’s story to expand me.  I was expanded, and much more than that, but not the way I expected. What I heard was a poem.  What I heard was hypnotizing.  It flooded me at the core with a visceral sensation, nothing rational, nothing I could articulate.  I’d heard the poet’s name before, but I never read him.  And what is the connection between the poem and this particular painting?  It sent me on a search and a profound discovery.   

Paul Celan wrote “Death Fugue” in a Nazi labor camp a few months before the war ended.  A fugue is a state of amnesia, where you wander away for hours, days, or even weeks.  After you recover, you can remember what happened before the fugue, but everything during is lost.  Fugue is also a musical term in which one or two themes are repeated.  The poem incorporates both definitions. 

The poem’s narrator talks about what was going in his mind while living in the Nazi concentration camp.  I felt struck by the cadence and imagery of the repeated phrase “Black milk of morning” and “We drink and we drink” I thought, “I saw this dark mushy color before, but where and when, if at all.”  It took a minute to locate it in my memory bank, and then it hit me; this was my father’s description of the food in the labor camp. 

Imagine a queue of men dressed in black and white striped outfits that resemble pajamas.  They are skinny; their cheekbones stick out from their pale yellowish skin.  Their shirts look as if they are hung on a clothes hanger rather than on a human body.  They are stooped and quiet.  Everything about them screams submissiveness.  They wear wooden shoes reminiscent of Dutch clogs and on their head is a dark headpiece like a beret.  My father, Baruch, is fourth in line; his father, David, is behind him.   The queue moves towards a platform; the men are, surprisingly, pretty energetic and eager to reach their turn.  On the scaffold stands a prisoner next to a big soup bucket and a pile of bread loaves.  A couple of minutes later, after their turn arrived, they stand next to each other, examining their daily ration.  Black Milk is poison.  Milk brings to mind the biblical description of “land of milk and honey,” a land of plenty.  Adding the dark-colored, watery, and tasteless soup to the image of milk and it becomes a starved man’s hypnotic fantasy.  In addition, the rhythmic weight of the repetition holds the poem’s structure and intensifies the narrator’s sense of hunger and anger.  My grandfather finds a piece of potato in his cup.  He slices it and gives half to my father.

Death Fugue, translated by Pierre Joris

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease

He calls jab deeper into the earth you there and you other men sing and play
he grabs the gun in his belt he draws it his eyes are blue
jab deeper your spades you there and you other men continue to play for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes

He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland
he calls scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland
we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink
death is a master from Deutschland his eye is blue
he strikes you with lead bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his dogs on us he gifts us a grave in the air
he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Deutschland

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit

The poem depicts two characters, ‘a man lives in a house, and he plays with snake’ – this is the German butcher, the other is the Jewish narrator, forced to dig graves and also to ‘play up for the dance.’ As an analogy, Paul Celan conjures up two female figures, Margarete, the Aryan with golden hair; she is the idealized symbol of womanhood in Goethe’s play, Faust.  The other figure is Shulamit, the Jewish with ash, burnt-out hair; she is King Solomon’s dark-haired beloved in the Song of Songs.  In many of his most unsettling paintings, Anselm Kiefer has inscribed Margrete and Shulamit’s names and even complete phrases from the poem, like encoded signals.  He said: ‘In my painting, I tell stories to show what lies behind history.’  

In Shulamit, the dark brown brick structure that fills the canvas from rim to rim carries a sense of void and silence.  Kiefer used a photograph of a memorial crypt dedicated to the German soldier.  At its center is the internal flame, a reference to the ovens in the death camps.  On the top left is the word Shulamit.  It’s a disturbing play between imagery and title, between silence and a scream. 

Paul Celan committed suicide in 1970 by jumping, late at night, from a bridge into the Seine River to drown himself.  Some believe that he could not stand the rumor mill claims that he appropriated imagery from other poets.  Others think that he dreaded the medical treatment for his ongoing depression.  Many survivors said implicitly or explicitly that they ‘died in Auschwitz.’  Many of them could not hold the so-called survivor guilt and the incurable wounds; quite a few committed suicide.  In doing so, they gave the ultimate answer to whether the pain of living has been worthwhile.  Both Primo Levi’s and Paul Celan’s suicides need to be seen in this context.  Anselm Kiefer is alive and prolific.  However, in the last couple of decades, his artworks seem to have moved on to new subjects, primarily exploring decay as a starting point for renewal.

My grandfather and father left their home in Lodz, Poland, in 1939, when the German Army invaded.  Their goal was to locate and prepare a safe place in the east for my father’s mother and three sisters.  The family reunion had to wait till 1948 in Israel.  Together, my father and grandfather endured four different concentration camps, starvation, cold, hard labor, cattle train rides, and the Death March from Auschwitz during the war.  They were separated into different workgroups just two weeks before the war ended.  My father was liberated in Dachau by the American Army; he weighed 60 pounds (27 Kg).  After a few weeks of recovery in a monastery hospital, he searched for his father until one day he met someone who told him that his father died from typhus a couple of days before the end.  I have heard my father share only bits and pieces about this unbearable loss after all they had gone through together.  It sometimes makes me wonder how much of it loomed over my experiences as a father?

Trauma is painful; it made me want to escape into an inner world and isolate myself.  Trauma made it hard for me to trust and ask for help; thus, I had to be self-reliant.  As the years go by, I am becoming more aware of its effects and slowly changing my perspective.  Rather than seeing it as a curse, I see it as a source of wisdom and profound teachings.  Trauma has given me the gift of my introspective self and the powers of creativity.  It gently yet doggedly pushes me to lay aside the internal violence and embrace connection with forgiveness, compassion, and love.  Healing requires a community; it’s ongoing, never-ending, with ups and downs; it will never be perfect.  Regardless, recovery can begin again and again as many times as it takes.

Picture this memorable moment.  My friend Giora and I stood on top of a crematorium in Birkenau, a bit above the flat green grassland.  A forest far in the background.  There were no other visitors but us.  It was late in the autumn season.  The dark gray clouds hid the sun, but a silver lining of brightness was at the edge.  The green pastures gave no clue to the mounds of ashes scattered all around.  Given our mutual background as children of Holocaust survivors, it seemed appropriate to tell Giora about General Douglas MacArthur, evidently a Freudian moment.  I mimicked the General’s pathos saying to the Philippines: “I shall be back!” as he evacuated to Australia.  Suddenly, something caught our eye, and we had to stop our conversation.  A young girl was walking across the field, not far from us.  We were mesmerized; it looked so romantic and pastoral.  The girl was wearing a white skirt, a light yellow sweater, and a backpack.  Probably on her way home from school.  Everything around us seemed like a black and white movie, but for the little girl.    “Surreal,” Giora muttered.  The strange thing is that it’s simply there, detached and distant.  Same sky, same colors, just the way it was and will be.  There was nothing to say, yet I was in a bubble of screaming silence.

Reflecting on that moment from 1999, it’s becoming apparent that I can choose how to view it, which reflects how I see myself and the world.  Anger and a sense of victimization are one reaction.  That scene is in the category of the unbearable lightness of life.  After all, it’s a sacrilege to use this sacred burial ground as a shortcut.  But, on the other hand, the girl was young, pure, and innocent.  She was wearing colors amid melancholy; she symbolizes hope; she is the future.