portraits

NewYork Day 7

In On the Road in NY on June 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm

I write now from a cafe in Brooklyn on Decalb Ave. We have just photographed our first person for the day and there is a window now for us to have a break – this is the first time in the whole week that i have sat for lunch in a cafe alone (Harry is watching the GAME)  and i can just breathe a little slower, watch the world as I like to do, John Lennon playing in the background and take a moment on this intense journey. Not that I am complaining – because really this is how i like to live – to be engaged and moving and doing projects like this one. I feel very lucky to be in the position  that i am in to be able to travel and meet with people all over the world. Professionally and in a sense spiritually, this is the kind of journey I enjoy. Moving Trains Productions – that is my business name, decided in a moment – because it is really part of my essence to be moving both physically and also spiritually – a progression – a movement. Meeting with Holocaust survivors is quite apt as they too speak of moving forward and as wandering Jews, culturally we are on the go.

I feel i should take this time to write about my feelings about the project. Harry and I are working well together – we do make a good team and have a lot of laughs in the car as we drive from home to home. It is an intense schedule and we are engaging with people on subject matter that is generally quite serious and often emotional. Having our time in the car is important – the radio provides an outlet and Harry and I can talk about anything really, from our childhood experiences to becoming parents (Harry’s partner is also pregnant, though he has 3 children already) to our observations about America to how toilets work (the plumbing went in my bathroom this morning). For those of you readers who have worked on projects like this, a shoot or 14 hour day – you will be able to empathise with the kind of relationship you can build within this structure.

In terms of the project we both feel it is creatively evolving for each of us. My interview questions have changed somewhat since Israel and i feel i am becoming more confident in asking the more difficult questions. I realise that what most interests me in  the world is the human spirit and how we live and feel and breathe and relate to one another. I have also been speaking with my friend Jax about taking all this footage and presenting it as  multimedia installation of sorts – rather than a linear documentary. I have always wanted to do this but talking with Jax and fleshing it out has been most helpful and has brought some clarity to my vision. Harry is very supportive of this and is keen to have this accompany the exhibition of photos on their travels around the globe. I feel like my part of the project brings another dimension to the photos and as someone who values seeing behind the scenes – it meets that curiosity.

Harry is here now – both of us sitting and typing along with the 10 or so other laptop users. This is reality of cafes today.

 

Today was our designated day in Brooklyn. 87 year old artist and survivor Frederick led us through his beautiful home and showed us some of his paintings, one of which was Kabbala inspired. Fred’s home is exactly the design and style that i like, high ceilings, old but renovated keeping the charm intact. Fred’s son was also home and we all got into some great conversations about film and photography. I interviewed Fred in his studio which was very organised, and Fred being an artist and German reminded me of my nana. Everything had its place and was labeled and this sense of order and creativity felt familiar. When I asked Fred about making the leap from the extraordinary circumstances of war to living an ordinary life – he responded – “well it wasn’t an ordinary life”. At 23 years old he weighed 35 kilos at the end of the war and was hospitalised and then returned to Prague. He married another survivor in 1946 and life was challenging in those years straight after the war. “Survival alone was a job.” He says looking back he was very much in denial – “the world didn’t want to know and you were a nuisance to most people.” He says they suppressed the ‘expression’ of the past – “it was there, the memory was there, the past was there but i did not dwell on it.” It was more of what do you do with your life, rather than what happened, the questioning started much later. Before the war, Fred’s father was an amateur sociologist and had taught Fred well – “to step and look back what is going on here, trying to analyse it, looking at it not only look what they’re doing to me, but what is it that these guys are doing.’ Fred says this gave him a stance – “that was looking at myself somewhat from the outside.” He says all that he is saying now is somehow tainted by that distance – can’t say exactly what he felt then. Fred began drawing in Terezinstadt. He says his paintings have become more than just an activity – “a tool for myself – a psychological tool – I painted what I call toilet paintings – all the anger and anguish that goes into a painting so I had an outlet.” when his wife would see him painting a sweet landscape she would ask him, what’s bothering you, because she knew he was escaping into a never never land.

After a short break for lunch at Tillies cafe (thinking of you Tan!) we made our way deeper into Brooklyn to meet with Ruth and Jack. Ruth was a hidden child during the war and Jack survived 10 concentration camps and then fought in the Korean war. Ruth has written a book about her experiences in “Destined to Live” and is very committed to teaching people about the Holocaust through her own experience of surviving. Jack and Ruth travel from school to school around America, speaking with children and adults about the war. Jack has also written his story and is looking for a publisher. When Ruth was 17 and in highschool she wrote about her experiences in the war. Her english teacher wanted to include it in the yearbook but the principal said that although it was a very good story, “it is too sad for our children.” After this Ruth decided not to talk about it, “nobody wanted to know.”

89 year old John nearly missed out on participating in the project because he was out when we were due to visit him. But hs daughter Shirley and I who had set up the time stayed in touch and we were able to quickly stop by and tak his photograph. It is a shame we didn’t have longer because i think John would have been an excellent interviewee – sharp and funny – John reminded me of Herschel Balter – a Holocaust survivor I grew up with who is a very good friend of the family. John was in Buchenwald and when I mentioned the name Balter – he said he knew a Balter in the camp. I always find it strange and kind of eery to remember someone from the camp and then find them – there is something wonderful about rediscovering something someone from your past but also strange to ask, ‘oh do you remember so-and-so from the camp?’ It wasn’t school camp, a social event or even school.

Still in Brooklyn, we meet with 75 year old Helen, a hidden child from France. Helen is a very gentle, soft spoken woman and her sensitivity is immediately apparent. When asked how she managed to live an ordinary life, Helen refers to the ‘The myth of silence’ – “we did not talk about it.” she says she has friends that till this day she does not know where they were during the war. “We just simply made believe it hadn’t happened – i think this is what helped us get through it.” Not until Helen went to a hidden child meeting, many years later, did she know that this was a common experience. “at which point I was able to kind of forgive myself, like it’s ok, it’s alright not to talk about it.” Holding back the tears, Helen says though she doesnt feel the shame anymore, she still finds it hard to talk about it. She says remembers everything. The big thing for Helen was the feeling that she could be proud of being Jewish in America, that it was ok, that was very helpful.

When 77 year old Toby opens the door to her Brooklyn home, I am shocked because throughout our email exchange, I have imagined that Toby is a male. She laughs when I tell her this. Her daughter is named Miriam and her late husband Harry so immediately there is a sense of the familiar. (Harry and I often joke that our names are for older people and that’s why people are surprised we are SO young when we arrive) Toby is a striking woman, full of life, joy. She immediately goes in the kitchen to make us something to eat – cottage cheese, toast, salad … an ideal 6pm meal on a very hot day. (not sure i have mentioned in the blog but it has been VERY hot throughout our trip). Toby is what I consider an evolved person – she has done a lot of work on herself to learn who she is and I have the utmost respect for her. She says she thinks she came out of the war ok, but when she looks at her children, she is not so sure she was so ok. “was i the right mother, did i do the right thing …”  She has done some therapy in her life and says she has learned not to beat herself up – “i have learned to say I did what i did at the time what it was that i understood. I understand better now. I can’t correct it.” I ask her how did therapy help – “By me having to be honest. You can’t lie to yourself.” Toby now meditates on her couch and talks to herself the truth – this image will last with me.

Our last stop for the night was to meet with Tova who lives in NJ but offered to meet us in Manhattan at her son’s place so she could participate as we couldn’t fit her in on the NJ day. Tova and I spoke to each other numerous times during the day today as we could not commit to meeting with her in case we were delayed and the sun set before we would get there. Luckily we made just in time. Harry managed to take a fantastic photo of Tova standing outside a handball court. The sun was setting, kids were playing ball in the next court and Manhattan was winding down for another day. I didn’t get to interview Tova properly but we did go to a diner across the road with her son for a quick dinner. Tova is a therapist and counsels people of all ages from morning till night. She loves her work, is ‘in love with people’ and is very much in the world. After our meeting she was going to get the train back to NJ on her own late at night.

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  1. nice to read where you are at – Brooklyn hey! Maybe you should change you business name to moving planes- ha ha! enjoy the ride and thanks for posting!

  2. all of the interviews and pictures are very moving. I’m glad my cousin Tova could participate in this experience. It’s unfortunate that you didn’t have enough time to interview her since her story is fascinating. She travels the country educating adults and youngsters about the Holocaust.

  3. The Balter you mention is my father, Edward Balter, Hershels cousin, now living in Montreal. He was in Buchenwald.

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