portraits

NewYork Day 6

In On the Road in NY on June 23, 2010 at 2:44 am

I write this now back in Manhattan after a long day from New City through New Jersey to finally Manhattan. I am alone in the apartment which is slightly eery (Yael warned me) but also a great relief to be back ‘home’ with my belongings and in a space that feels familiar. I also love Manhattan. Just seeing her from the distance as we drove alongside from NJ made me smile. I remember as a child having this sense of safety when thinking of being surrounded by tall buildings. It’s strange because i really do love nature and the outback and don’t like Sydney’s city at all. But Manhattan is another thing… I remember when i lived here that i just felt at home immediately. I still feel this strong connection. Here is Manhattan in the rain tonight on our way home:

Today has yet again been a day where it feels like the morning was three days ago and we have been on a long journey. We spent most of the day in New Jersey and Harry was on the look out for Tony, Pauly or Sal’s but surprisingly they weren’t hanging out in the Jewish quarters. By this stage you would think we would be more punctual and better equipped at keeping the schedule moving accordingly, but actually we are still arriving late and then all of a sudden the afternoon arrives and we have to check if we have eaten lunch. Like I have said, the hardest part is saying no to survivors who want to participate and we can’t fit in. Equally, we are learning that it is also hard to simply leave someone.

Our first stop (an hour late!) was at Jerome’s. Jerome is married to an Israeli woman which immediately makes our visit more familiar to me. (They also have fantastic Danish furniture in their home which I certainly appreciate).  Jerome was 9 years old when the war ended and he says that being this age possibly helped him as even though the memories are there they are probably buried deeper inside more on an unconscious level. He says his family complains that he doesn’t like to talk about his experience. He responds – Perhaps this is because in a way it diminishes you in your own eyes that you were subjected to something like that. He says when he does talk, sometimes he feels like it happened to somebody else. “The memories are there but sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether almost if i had read about it or if it really happened to me.”

When we arrive at Rose’s place her husband Howard, dressed in his tennis gear greets us warmly at the door and asks if he will be in the project too. Are you a survivor we ask? He says he spent the war years as a refugee in Shanghai. To be honest, I have never thought of these people as Holocaust survivors but according to Harry’s definition of a survivor – someone whose life has been irrevocably changed due to the Nazi regime – Howard fits in. If i think about it, Howard and his family lived a compromised life in Shanghai because they fled from Nazi Germany. Though Howard himself does not consider himself a survivor, we included Howard and he delayed his tennis match to participate. we then sat down to a spread of biscuits, coffee and water and learnt more of Rosa’s war experience. As a child survivor, Rosa had to deal with things that no 7 year old should even have to contemplate. When she recalls her story to us, i can feel the terror and anxiety and i wonder how this lives now in her body. Many child survivors had to deal with responsibilities way beyond their years. The fear of giving up your parent to authorities just because you said the wrong thing or walking to the ghetto alone on the streets – the fear of being picked up and taken to the concentration camps. When talking to Rosa, this fear was palpable. We had to leave her quite abruptly because of our schedule and this is the first time on this journey that i felt uncomfortable for leaving too early. I discussed this with Harry in the car – I felt like Rosa had opened up her old wounds and we left prematurely. I can reconcile this as for the good of the greater project but the discomfort i felt after we had left was not a good feeling at all and I hope we don’t repeat this.

A bright yellow front door marks 87 year old Arno’s house and this is the first indication that we are entering a special home. Arno’s home is filled with beautiful art and furniture – most of it hailing from Europe where Arno was born. Arno’s home is very much a reflection of his love of Europe, his connection to his past and his appreciation of the finer things in life. At 87, he lives alone but has a partner who lives in Israel and Switzerland that he speaks to regularly and visits when he can. After being liberated in Holland at age 21, Arno joined the British army till the end of the war in May 1945 and then after some time joined his father in the US despite being happy in Holland. Arno’s father had gotten out of Berlin in 1942 via Portugal. When I ask him how made these decisions – he said you just keep going  – subconscious that you do what comes next, one step after the other. Arno was hidden in Holland for two years in an attic. Though Arno did not have therapy to deal with his traumatic past and loss of youth, in hindsight he says he wished he had. Arno has never really felt at home in America, a true base, he feels very European, different. “I have a hole in my coming of age, a void that just cannot be filled anywhere else.” Throughout the interview, Arno challenged my questions and really contemplated what I was asking. As an interviewer, this was a breath of fresh air and kept me on my toes more than usual. When i asked him what has brought him the most joy in his life he said meeting his partner very late in life (15 years ago). He says – “we are so close, we are fitted to each other and it’s very unusual and very wonderful.” His soulmate. He just wishes it had happened decades ago.

Our next stop in West  New York NJ gave us the opportunity to drive alongside the Hudson River overlooking Manhattan – now this is a view! 70 year old Aviva had an appointment in Manhattan so we literally spent about half an hour with her at her home. Given this time constraint I didn’t get a chance to interview her but it was lovely meeting with her and learning about her life.

Yesterday we were meant to meet up with another hidden child Robert but timing and lack of daylight prevented us from getting there. With a short window of opportunity Harry and I trekked backwards into NJ and made another quick stop to photograph Robert. Again, no time for interview but now Robert is able to participate in the project. Robert’s wife Marcia asks me where we were before. When i tell her at Aviva’s she laughs and says that Aviva introduced her and Robert. It’s a small world in NJ! (just no Sopranos in sight)

Our final stop for the day was back in Manhattan – right near where i used to work 10 years ago. Lea’s sister participated in the project in the UK – before i came on board. when I ask her how she managed to live her life after such an extraordinary experience, she says “actually the way to do it is certainly at least in our early years here in this country was to forget about the past.” Lea has hardly any memories of the war despite being 10 years old when the war finished. but she remembers when her family first arrived in America she was very insistent that everybody speaks english. “I wanted nothing more than to become Americanised.” Lea says that for almost all her life she has simply not talked about the past – which has been easy because she has so few memories of that time. “so when people meet me they just see a woman, very similar to the other women walking around in the streets of NY and they have no idea and in a way i like it, i have this little secret thing that you guys don’t know.”

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