Visual memory

December 24, 2007

Visual memory

Daniel Terna, our son, graduated from the Middle School in June 2001. Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah. I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

At this writing Daniel is a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem as part of his studies of journalism and photography. Daniel is in his junior year of college, and this is his semester abroad. He will return to Bard College early next year.

Earlier this month Daniel wrote in an e-mail:  “ …I have a paper to write…Towards the end of the class we were focusing on ideas of memory and collective memory, with an emphasis (of course) on the ways in which the Holocaust is remembered and revisited and reinterpreted over time…” Daniel continued with additional details.

While there is a specific set of notes about memory I feel that my answer to Daniel could be another one. The sum of all the notes is memory.

To Daniel:

More notes on memory and visual representation.

It is difficult for me to comment on specific points of your assignment. I did not see any of the films you mentioned, not Lanzmann’s “Shoah”, nor the 1978 NBC “Holocaust”, “Schindler’s List”, or any other film dealing with the Shoah. When listening to or watching such films in my mind another movie is running, reels of visual memory that leave me upset for a long time. I have learned my limits, and the degrees of my tolerance. This is not criticism of the movies, they are probably quite important. For better or worse they are the current record, and I’m not able to judge them.

Visual history of the Shoah is subject to the general criteria of history. Where do we find the evidence of an event? How do we pick the data, and who decides on what to pick? Is the evidence valid? Is it the original source? These, and a great number of other questions should be clarified before proceeding with a historical project. Volumes have been written about this in preceding centuries. Historiography, the study and method of the writing of history, has become a critical and separate subject.

Historiography itself must respect areas of philosophy. What is a fact? What is evidence? What is reality? The entire range of these basic questions comes into play. While they may seem remote from matters of visual history of the Shoah they are ingredients that cannot be ignored.

You know that memory and visual representation is on my mind, that it is the subject of a good part of my work. My earliest drawings made immediately after liberation in 1945 dealt with imagery of the preceding years. Looking then at these early attempts I realized that my body had survived but that my mind was still in the camps. Later I would see landscapes from my hospital window and changed to this new subject. It was not long before I noticed the many walls and fences in these landscapes. I accepted the fact that my past experience would not go away, and that I would have to live with my memories.

The preceding is a simplification, the abbreviation of a slower growth. The years following liberation demanded attention to the mechanics of life in new countries and new communities. Contemplation and scrutiny came later.

Considering all the above I’m not sure how to tell or show the events of the Shoah. A movie director picks images and scenes. It is his or her choice, a choice made generations after the events. No matter how sincere or wise the director may be it is but a two-hour version of lives then. The Shoah lasted about six years, and happened in all areas then under German rule. I doubt whether there is any medium or method that can encompass more than a very small part of it.

It may be possible to tell about one place, event or another. There were thousands of destroyed communities, and millions of lost lives. The feelings and thoughts of this or that person may be brought back. Even a book about this single life would be filtered through the mind of a writer, an editor, and a publisher.

I don’t know how to communicate the element of time. How can one describe the impact of one painfully long day following the next one? The logical expectation was more deprivation, suffering, hunger, and the expectation of a violent death. Seeing the next day promised more of the same.

It was only in the 1960’s that the world at large started dealing with the subject. Before that there was avoidance and denial. A few books had been written, and only few studies existed. Later accumulation of information may allow future generations to have more and better data. Today, fortunately, there are institutes; there are museums and libraries there are departments in universities. The visual record went through similar stages. Earliest paintings after the war dealt mostly with the macabre, the gory and the melodramatic.

The mention of some other visual expressions of the Shoah is omitted here: Sculpture, monuments, dance, also music and architecture.

Other angles have to find their expression in a different form, in a different medium. I’m not qualified to discuss the place of the Shoah in theology, psychology, and sociology and many other areas.

The history of the Shoah is changing. This definite set of events within the specific area and time is being transformed into a symbol, manipulated by political consideration. Iran’s president Ahmadinejad uses it as a political bludgeon, Joerg Haider in Austria uses it as campaign element, Kurt Waldheim, a Wehrmacht officer who supervised the deportation of Jews from Saloniki became president of Austria. That Austria, the birthplace of political anti-Semitism, and also the cradle of Nazism, vigorously denies responsibility for its enthusiastic support of Nazi actions.

As there are fewer and fewer survivors the image and the impact of the Shoah will

change. While we survivors are still around we can verify feelings and descriptions. Later years will have books, photos and movies, and taped interviews as sources of information. Past events and ideologies will be measured with a different set of values.

Eventually we will have the memory of memory.

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