A sketch for the centenary

My paternal grandfather Mikhail Gefter was a historian, philosopher, intellectual.
As an adult, years after his death
I learned of his pupils throughout the world, 
of his philosophical and historical writings, 
and of the www.gefter.ru platform for social sciences and intellectual thought named after him.
Many called him МЯ (Михаил Яковлевич – Mikhail Yakovlevich).
I called him Misha.  I kept a couple letters from him and a couple of recollections of our time together.
 
I never asked about his childhood when I was little, when I had a chance.
When the question popped up in my head, he was long gone.
I asked my father and my uncle.
 
They never asked either, and МЯ never talked to his two sons
about his pre-war childhood in multi-cultured Crimea,
about his grandmother who adored him,
about growing up without a father,
about losing his mother and cousin in the Holocaust, and his uncle in Stalin’s purges.
 
I knew none of it when in April 2015, out of the blue, an email from my uncle popped up.  Attached were the scans of four postcards sent by my great-grandmother shortly before she was killed in the mass-murder of Jewish population in Crimea in 1941.
It was the first time I heard about her. She had a name. She was a piano teacher.

Two days later at a friend’s birthday party in London I met Olesya Zdorovetska, a musician and composer from Southern Ukraine who now lived in Dublin. We talked about families, politics, arts, languages. Crimea had been annexed in 2014. The war was on between Ukraine and Russia. Many sensitive subjects came up.
 
Olesya invited me to visit her in Dublin in September. 
When September came, Olesya suggested I came with her to Lviv, to the annual Book Forum.  I agreed without a slight hesitation. Those postcards were on my mind, even though Lviv and Crimea are 1000 km apart.  I also felt the urge to revisit my childhood places in the Carpathian Mountains, near Lviv. But most importantly, after years of wanderings, I felt like I was getting closer to finding the right doors.
 
With Olesya and alone,
I explored the cobble streets,         
peeped into Lviv courtyards,     
climbed onto the roofs,
wandered in the cemeteries.
 
At the Book Forum Olesya bought a collection of poetry by Debora Vogel, a female writer, art critic and intellectual, who perished in Lviv ghetto in 1942 and remained in obscurity for a long time. We learned that between the two wars Lviv was this inspiring metropolis for modernist thought in philosophy, mathematics, literary theory and arts, as well as a place of social and ethnic conflicts. It was among Lviv intellectuals and artists, during the period of rising chauvinism and anti-semitism, that the idea of an inclusive and open culture was formed. This redemptive and progressive vision was brutally squashed in the Holocaust, and yet not entirely extinguished. Fragments of it survive to be discovered through scavenging, collecting and juxtaposing.

What emerged was a patchwork of fragments, leads, innuendos and images in my lost and elusive family stories. Fragments of Memory brought me back to those postcards from 75 years ago. Lviv prompted me to recognise similar patterns centering around the figure of my grandfather, a scholar whose life was largely impacted by war, revolution and genocide, the details of which were suppressed. 
 
МЯ was born 100 years ago in Crimea, where he grew up before travelling to Moscow to study History in 1936 and where he met my grandmother, born also in 1918 in Mariupol on the Azov Sea in Southern Ukraine. Neither did she talk to her sons and granddaughters about her childhood. 
 
What about their families? Who were their parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins? Where and how did they live? What did they do during those cataclismic times of Enlightenment, Zionism, Pogroms, Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, World War I, Russian Civil War, raise of Communism, World War II?
 
The online search took me to Kerch and Simferopol in Crimea; Odessa, Kherson, Kharkiv, Zhitomir and Rivne in Ukraine; Moscow, St Petersburg, Vologda, Tomsk and Irkutsk in Russia; Lublin in Poland; Berlin in Germany; Lausanne in Switzerland; Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington in the US. 
 

In this piece made for my grandfather’s centenary on 24 August 2018, I reflect on the intergenerational connections, inherited silence, on life and living in places of extinction and mass murder. The original text in Russian is below. 

My grandfather’s voice in the video is an excerpt from the interview recorded by Lorenzo Scaccabarozzi in January 1989: “We aim to learn seemingly everything about the lives of people who lived before us, or about our own lives. But we do not know beforehand, that we would not be able to find out everything. Either way we are making a selection. And this selection is not an artifical selection, at the same time this is our choice: by choosing from what was before us, what entered us as ‘past’, we choose who we are. And by choosing ourselves, we choose our future, consciously or subconsciously.”

“Мы стремимся узнать как будто бы все о жизни людей, которые существовали до нас, или о нашей собственной жизни. Но мы не знаем наперед, что все мы не можем узнать. Мы все равно производим отбор. И этот отбор есть не просто искусственный отбор, это вместе с тем выбор: отбирая из того, что было, что входит в нас в качестве прошлого, мы выбираемых самих себя. А выбирая самих себя, мы сознательно или бессознательно выбираем будущее.”

Эти слова 30-летней давности моего деда историка Михаила Яковлевича Гефтера врезались в память и сопровождали в 2015-2017 пока я работала над Львовским проектом Пазли Пам’ятi / Fragments of Memory. Они же и привели меня в Одессу, Мариуполь, Херсон, Симферополь, Керчь и Москву. В ночь на 24 августа 2018-го, когда исполнялось сто лет с его рождения, видео ряд из этой поездки по следам предков подстроился под его голос, его слова о прошлом, отборе и выборе.

Одесса
В Одесском архиве, в студенческом деле Давида Блюменфельда (Мишиного дяди, младшего брата моей прабабушки Натальи) нахожу его диплом 1916 года – “Призовое право и великая война”. Заключение: «Пока война будет существовать, до тех пор будут существовать и стремления к неограниченному использованию средств уничтожения и разрушения. Но война, по моему, категория историческая; она исчезнет, как появилась. Государства будущего найдут более разумные способы борьбы.»

По прошествию двадцати лет юридической и дипломатической работы в Одессе, Берлине, Вене и Москве, 23 ноября 1937 года Давида арестуют и обвинят в шпионаже. Миша, студент 2-го курса истфака МГУ, отделается выговором со стандартной формулировкой: «за утрату бдительности, выразившейся в неразоблачении дяди, врага народа». 8 апреля 1938 Военная коллегия Верховного суда СССР приговорит Давида к высшей мере уголовного наказания – расстрелу с конфискацией имущества. Место захоронения – Коммунарка. База данных “расстрельные списка – Коммунарка” сообщает, что 8 апреля расстреляли еще 85 человек. 28 апреля его жену Фриду арестуют и сошлют в лагерь сроком на восемь лет как члена семьи изменника родины. Их сына Володю отправят в детдом. О муже сообщат в 1940 году, что он находится в дальних лагерях без права переписки, а в 1947, что он умер 18 марта 1942 года. После окончания 7-летней детдомовской школы в июне 1941 Володю отправят к тёте Наталье. Она будет преподавать в музучилище пока его не закроют. В первые дни сентября Володя поступит в техникум. Вместе их расстреляют в Симферопольском Рве в декабре 1941. Фрида переживет лагеря. С Мишей они потеряют друг друга из вида на 40 лет. В 1976 они встретятся в Одессе. В 1984 Фрида уйдет из жизни и Миша установит табличку с тремя именами – Фриды, Давида и Володи. Ни Фрида, ни Миша так и не узнают, что Давида расстреляли в 1938.

Одесское Таировское кладбище. Никак не могу найти могилу Фриды. Администратор кладбища рисует схему близлежащих могил. Нахожу. Со всех сторон она заросла грецким орехом. Орех прорвался и внутрь арматуры трех бетонных кубов. Живое дерево, прорастающее сквозь камень.

Симферополь
Получаю специальное разрешение на въезд в Крым от украинских властей, перехожу пешком границу и на закате въезжаю в Симферополь. Двор дома, в котором вырос Миша. Форма треугольника – улицы Одесская и углом Большевистская. Окна комнаты выходили на Греческую церковь. Об этом он писал. А еще писал о чистом, сладком, крымском воздухе. Хожу по старым улочкам Симферополя, виноград еще не поспел, а черешня и вишня повсюду, сладкая сладкая. Симферопольский Ров: “Всем поколениям всем временам” написано на одной гране памятника. Бесконечные поля пшеницы. Сижу, брожу, снимаю, плачу, в блокнот кладу колосок пшеницы. Теперь я знаю, что Давида и Наталью близкие и родные звали Дудя и Тиля. Их маму – Софiя. Возвращение имен.

Москва
Жизнь в Коммунарке. Осенние запахи памяти. 80 лет спустя. Место, где устроили расстрельные ямы, тогда было просекой. Когда закончились расстрелы, между ямами посадили деревья. Улеи, дым, желуди, детская площадка, дача Ягоды, церковные пристройки, колючая проволока на зеленом заборе по периметру территории. Самодельные таблички на деревьях в память о расстрелянных предках. Нет ничего более постоянного чем временное – спонтанность такой памяти в таком месте кажется тем самым способом помнить. Сделаю для следующего приезда и для нашего Дуди.

My Europe

The end of the era perhaps? A new chapter? Of history. Of my history.

I spent my twenties struggling and fighting to get the European passport. I finally did, just weeks after I turned 30. Inner drive to be at home in Europe was huge – would not have had the energy and the resources now. London happened to become my adopted home. Not just for my love of bricks, but for its extraordinary diversity of people from all possible walks of life, of all ethnicities, beliefs, ways of thinking, seeing, listening, feeling.

Over the years, I have discovered lots of peculiarities about this fascinating island. I loved this particular joke – “Gales in Channel. Continent isolated.”  Will we able to keep on joking about being an island and not being part of the EU? Of Europe?

I have recently watched a wonderful film ‘Play me something’ by Timothy Neat and John Berger. Here is what John Berger said in the interview for ‘Scotland on Sunday’ in October 1988:

“I think this film would have been impossible to make in England. People won’t sit and listen to a story because they happen to find themselves together like that.” The Scots, he said,  are different in many ways – less complacent, less parochial. “Most importantly maybe for storytelling, the dead are present to them. Not just their personal dead, father or wife. I mean the living experience of the past. In England as in some other consumer-rich societies they have come to believe that although they are part of history they are exempt from it. What connects them to all other people who have lived is lessened”.

I felt the same all these 14 years I lived in the UK. I always wanted to prove myself wrong.

Acacias Bloom

Last year I have been awarded an Asylum Arts Grant to collaborate with a Ukrainian musician Olesya Zdorovetska to research Debora Vogel, an overlooked Polish Yiddish writer of poetry, prose, literary and art criticism from the 1930s avant-garde Lviv.

And so in July 2016, supported by the Asylum Arts (US) and a-n Travel Bursary  (UK) off we went on our audio-visual journey to Galicia of Debora Vogel. The time has flown by fast – it has been an enriching and wonderful experience that we hope to build upon by making a film next year.

In the meantime, I will be sharing the various steps of our research process in the A-n blog and on my vimeo channel.

Acacias Bloom collage1 Acacias Bloom collage2 Acacias Bloom collage3 Acacias Bloom collage4

Impromptu from the Carpathians

Last month I reconnected with the places of my childhood holidays – Lviv and the Carpathian mountains in Western Ukraine. This area (former Galicia) was for centuries on the crossroads between Middle and Eastern Europe, and so it is small wonder that it has become a melting pot of people and cultures – Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, Armenian, Belorussian, Lithuanian, Romanian, German.

The outbound trip started with an early flight from Stansted to Rzeszow (the most south-eastern Ryanair destination town of Poland) followed by a 2hour bus journey to Przemyśl. There I found a cozy little cafe with the titles of dishes scribbled on the wall (in Polish only) and after a few minutes of hesitated multi-lingual interaction I was presented with some superb soup followed by a much needed delicious coffee. Next leg of the journey involved a mini-bus to the Polish-Ukranian border that I crossed by foot. All that was rather emotional for me – as a 14-year old I crossed the border of Ukraine and Slovakia on my first Russian passport (Soviet template actually). It was my first ever time travelling to *Europe* and the excitement was overwhelming. Now, 20 years later, I was travelling the opposite direction on my British passport reliving childhood memories in the light of two decades of wanderings. I boarded another mini-bus on the Ukrainian side and was told that in an hour and a half I would arrive in Lviv where I was to join my friend Olesya, the very one who prompted me to come here and now.

To follow were days of peeping into courtyards of old Lviv, walking the cobble streets, climbing onto the roofs opposite the former Golden Rose synagogue in Staroyevreyska street, wandering in the Lychakivskiy Cemetery reading mournful tributes inscribed in Ukrainian, Russian, German, Polish, Armenian, Latin. And of course there were poetry readings, music and late night discussions. Olesya bought a newly printed Ukrainian edition of Debora Vogel poetry with illustrations and that was the start of our collaboration, our voyage to explore text, images and sounds of Vogel’s work and life.

Work sample 4-6290  Work sample 4-6310  Work sample 4-6336

Debora Vogel was born in 1902 in Burshtyn (Galicia) in a non-observant, Polish-speaking home. During WWI the family fled to Vienna and later moved to Lviv. She traveled extensively in Europe and was part of the vibrant Polish modernist scene of the interwar period. It was in Lviv where Vogel wrote poems in Yiddish in the 1930s that reflected the radical and minimalistic outlook that all art aspired toward during this period in history. Her experiment in poetry was mostly about fusing poetry and art. She called this technique ‘white words’ and described it as an attempt to “create a new lyric poetry of the urban condition”. Together with her husband and son, Vogel was killed in the Lviv ghetto in 1942.

Around 1930 Debora Vogel became acquainted with the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz who was as yet unpublished. The two developed a close relationship and carried on an intensive correspondence. It was Fogel who encouraged Schulz to develop the lyrical postscripts to his letters, passages that became the basis for his first publication “Cinnamon Shops” (1934), published in English as “Street of the Crocodiles.” Half a century later brothers Quay created a stop-motion animation based on this short novel. Ironically, Vogel is better known today for her connection with Schulz than for her own unique and innovative poetic vision. Very little of her work has been translated into Russian and Ukrainian, none into English.

The first letter (survived and translated into Russian by Dana Pinczewska) Vogel sent to Schulz starts like this:

21.V.1938 Бруно! Декорация этого письма – Сколе.

Bruno! The background scenery of this letter is Skole.

And here I am, on the early morning train from Lviv to the Carpathian mountains, not yet knowing of this letter, following my own story reconnecting with the places of my childhood. I doze off and when I open my eyes I am blinded by the sun breaking through the clouds, next what I see is the station building with ‘Skole’ on it exactly how I remember it when I was a kid.

The letter continues:

Твое последнее письмо вернуло мне давний образ осеннего ландо, на котором мы должны были вместе уехать в красочную страну. Запах путешествия обладает неотразимым очарованием и странным образом всегда ассоциируется с образом кого-то другого, спутника. Затем оказывается, что хорошо быть одному, совсем хорошо быть более чем одному — быть одиноким, оставленным, безнадежно отданным на милость оставленности и бездомности. Тогда «видится» хорошо.

Your last letter brought back the distant image of the autumnal landau which should have taken us to a beautiful far away land. The smell of the journey has an irresistible charm, and strangely, it makes me think of someone else, of a companion. But then it turns out that it is so good to be on my own, and what is even better is to be alone, deserted, left at the mercy of abandonment and homelessness. Then one can ‘see’ well.

collage

They grow up far too fast

The analogue black & white earlier series turned to digital colour in the summer smells, tastes and tones of a Russian countryside house. My nephews and niece are growing up far too fast for my camera to fix those rare fleeting moments when I am around.


© Asya Gefter