The Interview: What the German organizers wanted to know…and the background to this exhibit.
1) Ihr Vater, Ihre Schwester und viele Verwandte sind in der Shoah umgekommen. 2007 haben Sie in Freiberg einen Zettel mit den Worten “We are still here!” hinterlegt. Welche Gedanken verbinden sich damit für Sie?
Your father, your sister and many of your relatives died in the Shoah. In 2007 you left a piece of paper in Freiberg saying “We are still here!”. Which thoughts do you have about this?
1. ( First, a correction to this question, please: My father, Josef Zimmer, survived. His first wife, Katerina Thieben and my half sister, Marketa (Ritta) died in Auschwitz. He married my mother, Klara Loff–( who was one of the Jewish slave laborers in Freiberg, and was liberated with the Czech women from Mauthausen,) after the war, in Prague in 1946).
“We are still here”. I have complicated feelings about the note, which have changed over time, thanks to the reaction of the people in Freiberg.. When I had my art exhibitions in Prague and in Terezin in 2007, my cousin, Peter, who was a survivor of Terezin, asked us to meet him in Berlin, and to go to Freiberg together to find the factory. Peter’s wife was also a daughter of survivors. We visited the synagogue in Dresden, but did not feel at all comfortable in the city, where all attention to history was on the suffering of the people there in the bombings. It was very different from Berlin, where acts of commemoration of the Shoah were in evidence everywhere.
We came to the Freiberg memorial on a Sunday, and no one was anywhere around. The taxi driver who brought us there from the train station appeared suspicious of our motives. I brought the roses from Dresden, because my mother loved roses, and added the note on an impulse at the last minute. When I left the note, it was with feelings of anger and defiance. I felt invisible in Dresden, and wanted to show some evidence that we were not completely destroyed, that this small piece of my family still exists. We thought at the time that whoever found the note and flowers on Monday morning would just put them in the trash. Later, I was very surprised to find this note reproduced in Dr. Duesing’s book, which he sent to me. I was extremely moved, and this has helped to release my bitterness about the indifference of people during the war.
2) Bitte erzählen Sie uns von Ihrer Schwester, dem Mädchen, das in Auschwitz ermordet worden ist.
Please tell of your sister, the girl, who was killed in Auschwitz.
2. Margarethe/Marketa/Ritta: I know very little of the facts of Ritta’s life. What I know is from my father’s life story, which he wrote in about 1980: she was born in Prague, 1932. She was a good student, as we have her report cards from 1939-41 where she was marked Excellent/”Vyborny” in all subjects. (I used this report card in the image, “Spazier 4”). I think she was a typical middle class child in a secular Jewish family. Innocent. My father wrote that she was excited to sew the yellow star with the “J” on her jacket, as she thought it was a special gift. She was deported to Terezin at age 10, presumed gassed in Auschwitz with her mother at age 12. I have one postcard that was allowed to be written from Terezin showing a return address of Hamburger Kaserne No. 119, and with her transport number W921, dated on November 25, 1942, to an uncle in Prague. It concludes, “Grusse Meine Freunde und Freundinen und Denkt manchmal an mich. Euere, Ritta”. Ritta was in one of the art classes organized by Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, and the Prague Jewish Museum has several of her drawings. I have a long relationship to these drawings, which I saw for the first time in 1979.
My relationship to Ritta is about my feeling since early on that I have a responsibility to replace her in the world. My father was emotionally very damaged by having failed to save her, or the rest of his family. My mother also had told me that when she came ‘home’ in June of 1945 and learned that no one else in her immediate family survived, she decided she would either kill herself, or have a child. So, I am the child she had. My parents did not tell me anything about Ritta (or the Shoah) when I was a child. I found a photo of her when I was about eight, and asked my mother who she was. My mother always protected my father, so she insisted that I never speak to him about Ritta. He had a weak heart, and I was terrified that it would literally kill him if I tried to talk to him about the war.
When I was about twenty five, I wrote a poem about Terezin, and Ritta. But I wrote it in French, so great were the psychological obstacles to speaking directly about the experience. When it was published in a literary magazine, I sent it to my parents. The next time I visited them, my father didn’t say a word, but brought me the same picture of Ritta I had found as a child and handed it to me. Then he left the room in tears. And that was all.
When I visited Prague in 1979, I found one of Ritta’s drawings from Terezin at the Jewish Museum, photographed it and gave it to my parents. Again, they said nothing, but kept the photograph on their wall in a cheap frame until my father died. So I don’t really know anything about this child, nothing about her personality. I study her drawings and to try to get glimpses of her, but it is impossible. I sometimes still catch myself fantasizing that I will find her. It is strange to know that I only exist because she doesn’t.
3) Ihre Mutter gehörte zu den aus Auschwitz nach Freiberg deportierten Zwangsarbeiterinnen. Welche Gedanken und Gefühle verbinden sich für Sie mit dem Namen “Freiberg”?
Your mother is one of the forced laborers, who were deported from Auschwitz to Freiberg. Which thought and feelings do you have about the name “Freiberg”?
3. Thoughts about Freiberg The first ‘contact’ I had with Freiberg was when my mother had to decide whether to accept some small amount of reparations money for her time as a slave laborer, or try to sue as an individual to get compensation for her losses that actually was more than symbolic. She knew nothing about the factory other than it was in Freiberg, Sachsen. I did research. On line I found the webmaster of Freiberg (this was about 1999) and inquired about the factory. He was a young man, and wrote that he knew nothing of such a factory. Sometime later I received another e mail from this man, Holger Gross, saying he had talked with his father in law, who did remember it. He went on his own and found it and sent me a photograph of the ruin. So this was the first feeling I had that people were willing to acknowledge and take responsibility for remembering what happened there. My mother’s anger about the denial of history, and of responsibility, is shown in my repetitive use in my art work of her phrase “They didn’t know about it”.
My mother wrote about her experience in Freiberg, all the facts, but not much about her emotions. She always referred to Freiberg as “the factory”, not as a concentration camp. It was worse than Terezin, but not as bad as Auschwitz. She commented that the townspeople complained that the sound of wooden shoes on the cobblestones awoke them as the laborers were marched through the streets from the barracks to the factory at 4:00 a.m. (Diese Schuhe Machten Eine Menge Larm). On the other hand she also noted when someone was decent to her, such as the Freiberg dentist she was allowed to see in January, 1945. She and the other ‘Czech girls’- her friends Anka, Marta, Irma, Hedy, did their best to support and protect each other, and to be as incompetent as possible in their “jobs” working on the airplanes.
4) Was hat Sie dazu gebracht, die Shoah, die Leiden Ihres Vaters, Ihrer Schwester, Ihrer Mutter in künstlerischen Werken zu verarbeiten? Welche Rolle spielt Kunst heute in Ihrem Leben?
How did it come that you involve the Shoah and the sufferings of your father, your sister and your mother in your works of art? What is the role of art in your life today?
4. I never had any formal art training, but always had a strong desire to create. Because it was so difficult to talk about the past, even after my father died, I turned to art as a way of communicating with my mother. I did it through the poetry that I wrote when I was young, and the collages I started to make after my mother came to live with me in her last years.
Even though she is gone, I still need to mark her story, and other, similar stories about memory, exile, and responsibility. It is a complement to seeking justice through the law, right brain to left brain. I think this need for narrative is why I find it difficult to make images that are purely abstract– I continue to need to try to tell a specific story that might touch the heart or spirit of another person. As I get older I find I am more attached to the process of making art, how I feel when I am absorbed in it, and the moment when I decide that an image ‘works’.
5. Sie zeigen Ihre Kunstwerke zum ersten Mal in Freiberg. Was möchten Sie den Besuchern der Ausstellung vermitteln? Welche Botschaft verbinden Sie damit?
You exhibit your works of art in Freiberg for the first time. What is your message to the visitors of the exhibition?
5. I am most grateful to each person who chooses to come to this event and look at my art work as part of this exhibition. I have great admiration for the continued effort in Germany to teach about the past. I think that it must be difficult to be young and to carry the burden of remembering what someone’s grandparents did or did not do. I just can say for myself that this whole experience of my relationship to Freiberg, which began fifteen years ago as part of a search for reparations for my mother, has helped me to move out of my own bitterness and grief and toward compassion and peace. When I was young I could not comprehend how an entire population could be indifferent to the evil of the Nazis. Now I find myself focusing my attention on the small acts of decency, of individuals doing what they could. I would like to think that somewhere in Freiberg is the son or granddaughter of the dentist who treated my mother’s tooth infection in January, 1945. I wish I could say thank you for disobeying the order of the Lagerkommandant not to waste anesthetic on her, and for letting her sit in a warm room for an extra hour. This act of kindness restored her human dignity, and might have saved her life. The Talmud says: “Whoever saves one life, is considered to have saved the world.” I have to believe this is true.
6) Die Anschläge in Paris haben auch jüdische Opfer gefordert. Sie sind einzig und allein wegen ihres jüdischen Glaubens ermordet worden. Keine Karrikatur, keine politische Äußerung hat sie ins Visier der Mörder gebracht. Was denken Sie über den gegenwärtigen Antisemitismus?
The attacks in Paris also claimed Jewish victims. They have been killed only for the reason of being Jewish, but no caricature or political statement put them in the crosshairs of the murderers. What do you think about the current anti-semitism?
6. When I was younger, I believed that the Shoah was so horrible, that nothing like that could be allowed to happen again, to anyone. The current state of affairs in the world generally is quite terrifying, and in Europe it is especially complicated because the anti semitism appears to be a new mutation of an old virus, now all mixed up with anti-zionism. There is always anti semitism- in some generations it is in remission, and in some places it is less virulent, but the virus remains. As Sartre said, “If Jews did not exist, anti-semites would invent them.” For myself, I must admit that feeling drawn back to Europe, as part of a completion of my own personal work on this topic, just at this time when the arc of history seems to be bending backwards, makes me wonder. My family tried unsuccessfully to escape from Europe in 1939, and now I am coming back, voluntarily, and to Dresden of all places? My twin grandchildren chose, last year, with my encouragement to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah. They are the first in four generations in my family to affirmatively and publicly identify as Jews. I think my father, who was a cynic, and an atheist, would say I am an idiot. But my mother always held, even in her constant state of anxiety, to optimism, and always pushed me into the world to stand up for what is decent and right. So, we are still here.
7) Was bewegt Sie angesichts der Tatsache, dass die Ausstellung in Freiberg Werke von Künstlerinnen aus drei Generationen und aus drei Länder, einer Überlebenden des Freiberger Lagers, der Tochter einer Überlebenden und einer jungen Deutschen zeigt? Was kann Kunst bewirken?
What are your feelings about the fact, that the exhibition in Freiberg shows works of art of artists of three generations and from three countries, among them a survivor of the Freiberg camp, a survivor’s daughter and a young German? What can be achieved by art?
7. I am so honored to be part of this, especially with Mrs. Hoskova and Ms. Busch. I feel very much part of a ‘bridge’ generation, between the survivors, and the future. Art is very powerful. It can sustain us and heal us. It helps us make sense of our memories. My mother, like me, had no talent for drawing. Once I took her to an “art therapy” workshop when she was about 85, where we both did simple tracings of our hands, and colored them with water colors. She looked at mine, which was shades of brown, and said, “That reminds me of the glove worn by the SS man in Freiberg who slapped me.” Later, she said about hers, which was the color of dawn, “I wouldn’t say this in front of them, but mine reminds me of the color of the sky over Dresden during the firebombing. I knew when I saw that sky that I would survive. It was the happiest day of my life since the war began.”