70. Jahrestages der Befreiung
ca. 15 Ausgaben der in 2003 publizierten Arbeit sind in Russisch, Polnisch und Französisch verfügbar.
Signatur, Box mit Stempel u. Signatur, 175,-€
s. a. The Photobook Vol. II, Martin Parr/Gerry Badger, Seite 244/245
Photoband Auszug (PDF, ~450Kb)
Texte zum Film
The Birch Meadow
treatment for a film by Marceline Loridan-Ivens
Elisabeth D Prasetyo
Some time around the present, a woman decides to return to Auschwitz-Birkenau where she was interned between the ages of fourteen and fifteen. She has spent most of her life trying not to think about those insidiously formative years. She is headstrong, almost spoilt, a redhead with a streak of showiness. She is also a brave person, a war reporter who has roamed the world swimming through the twentieth century's most lethal reefs. But she's never been back to Auschwitz.
One day then, Myriam - such is her name - decides to attend a reunion of French deportees in the town hall of one Paris' twenty boroughs. The room is packed with women, mainly, laughing and chatting and eating and drinking, really like any college get-together. Except that here and there, a sombre figure sits apart, half-imprisoned, like Shelley's Maniac, in a lonely world of her own, casting the shadow of alienation over others' forced cheeriness.
There is a raffle on. Myriam's face lights up as she catches sight of a friend from the same transport as her. Dutifully, she purchases a clutch of tickets. Now she stumbles upon more and more half-remembered faces: reminders of what she was like as a teenager and of the life she has led since, childless and on the run. Not everyone recognizes her and not everyone who does triggers her own memories; but in that poignant atmosphere a frenzied excitement takes hold of her. She wins a jacket, a hair-dryer, a package tour to Krakow… She can't stop winning and in a spurt of indecent extravagance buys all the remaining tickets, avidly set on a man's bicycle that is way too big for her. Feverishly, one envelope after another is rifled open till the ticket she wants suddenly appears. With a triumphant cry, Myriam scoops up her bike and leaves the party with a young redheaded woman in tow.
Outside the town hall, Myriam persuades her young friend to ride the bike around the square. Her thoughts drift to the plane ticket in her hand: Krakow. The bike seems irrelevant now. She's going to Krakow, where her father was born. That's all she knows. She has to go.
* * *
How can a story, a movie, be both true and fictional? Why fictionalise an obviously true story, which would be obviously indecent if it were not true? Because it cannot be told except as fiction. The constantly shifting gap between truth and fiction is made of memory and the key to The Birch Meadow is the interplay of different memories released by Myriam's journey into the heart of her own private darkness. As she makes her way first to Krakow, then to Birkenau, remembered conversations with her friend Suzanne constantly interrupt the linear flow of the story. Scraps of drawings on a tablecloth, hastily scribbled notes and treasured photographs of long-dead relatives maintain a stream of erupting pasts that disrupt a singular present. In this way, the true story of an elderly Jewish lady's return to the camp so few survived, is made truer for being fictional.
There are other unexpected intrusions into Myriam's present: the reality of modern-day Poland, with its acid-house clubs and tourist industry catering to foreign Jews; the laborious reconstruction by Krakow's sole remaining Jew of the history of all the ghetto families; the constant interruption of other visitors overheard attempting to carve some kind of Auschwitz of their own out of what they see and what they fail to see; a party of Israeli schoolchildren overwhelmed by their own necessarily shallow impressions; an old Hungarian woman who cannot remember why none of what she is seeing seems familiar; a young photographer working on a project about the camps…
One truth about Myriam's Auschwitz is that she is never alone as she hobbles through the long-grass between the block-houses, searching for her own true story. The place is crowded and not just with voices from the past. But the simple fact of nature observed, here as elsewhere, as a living response to human complexities provides Myriam with the key she needs. Auschwitz is a landscape. Tangled steel and collapsing concrete surrender to ever-growing grass. The ever-changing sky kaleidoscopes luminous innocence and menacing shades. A stand of birch trees whispers in the wind (Birkenau, the name of one of Auschwitz' three camps, is the German for a Birch Meadow). Like some elderly entomologist Myriam sifts through her impressions, trying to make sense of what she has been. And time and time again, she returns to the sight of grass growing, of wind in the birch-trees, of pavements crumbling into dust, to steady the fact of place. Nature eliminates invisible horror - a river of haunting voices only Myriam hears - to make life visible.
The young photographer won't leave her alone. He is German, the grandson of an SS colonel. Like Myriam, he needs to knead the paradoxical calm of the visible world in order to extract an invisible sap of horror. Alone of all the visitors Myriam meets, he comes like her without expectation, without rationalization or judgement, to see what is. For that reason, he makes an unexpected companion with whom she can establish lucid peace.
* * *
Outside a town hall in Paris, Myriam jumps into a cab. It deposits her in Kaziemirz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow. She enters a café catering to foreign tourists. The waiter tells her he is Polish and Catholic. If she wants to meet Krakow's remaining Jew, she must go to the other Café Ariel and ask for Mr Leczinski.
Mr Leczinski immediately divines that Myriam is a camp survivor, a Polish Jew. He looks her up in a big book and finds mention of her grandfather, her father, her uncle. Mr Leczinski is reconstituting the genealogy of all the Krakow Jews, 65,000 of whom died in Auschwitz. That is his life, half-canny tactic to haul sorely needed dollars, half-elegiac tribute to a vengeful God.
In her room that night, Myriam compares the photographs in Mr Leczinski's book with her own family album and discovers among the pictures of tradesmen and rabbis decked out in their black caftans portraits of four of her father's sisters. In the first of many calls, she dials Suzanne's number and reports on her progress.
The next day, despite the wariness of the present owners, Mr Leczinski is able to to take Myriam to see the ghetto apartment her father left in 1919. The mantelpiece in the apartment appears in a faded photograph showing her father as a young man. The bells of a local church ring Catholic vespers.
At dawn, the next day, Myriam sits in her room scribbling pages and pages of notes. She rises and puts on three separate pairs of tights, three sweaters and two coats. She passes through the dining-room crowded with Israeli and American tourists and filches a hunk of bread.
A moment later, Myriam walks among the freight-cars. She finds a dust-track and follows it to a barbed wire fence, recalling the night of her arrival, the dogs barking, the instructions in German for old people and children and anyone sick or tired to climb into the cattle-cars. Françoise holds her back. Suddenly, Myriam trips on a rusty rail which brings her back to the present.
Myriam follows the railway-lines up to the edge of the camp. She makes her way round the outer perimeter and comes to a tiny, padlocked door: the side-door to the women's annex. She manages to prise the chain open a fraction and undresses to slip inside, pulling her coats and scarves in after her.
The camp is deserted, a giant field of tall grass. It's a nice day, the beginning of summer.
Myriam clutches her belongings as she goes. She finds a rusty metal object in the long grass: a music-stand. Looking around, she sees dozens of other music-stands, some lying in the tall grass, some upright. Softly, then louder, the sound of a symphony orchestra is heard: it's a march.
Myriam listens to the breeze. She hears cries and footsteps, men and women's voices shouting »Ein, zwei, drei, links und links und links…« The sound swells till it's almost unbearable then suddenly ceases.
Hurriedly, Myriam leaves. She enters a long, concrete shed: the latrines. Again, the sound of voices comes to haunt her, women imagining the meals they could be eating, herrings and soup and long buttered bread.
In Paris, Myriam stands with her friend Suzanne by the Seine, humming. Suzanne recognizes the sound of a song their friend Françoise sang the day she was sent to the gas chamber. Myriam tells Suzanne the story of how she sent Françoise to her death by failing to speak up for her one day. Suzanne is astonished. Nothing in Myriam's story is true. She had nothing to do with Françoise's death.
Back in the camp, Myriam counts out steps, measuring the distance between blocks. She enters her block and names each of the girls in the beds. Then she clambers with difficulty up to her own bunk and peers out at the view, remembering the day she bumped into her father in the camp and fainted. When she awoke, there was food in her pocket and her father was dead.
In Paris, by the Seine, Myriam asks Suzanne if it is true that she used to tell stories in the camp. Neither of them can remember the stories, which leaves them speechless for a moment. Then suddenly a song comes to Myriam which she sings.
In near darkness, in the camp, Myriam huddles over the tin cup of soup she has smuggled in and avidly eats, gathering every crumb of bread that falls.
Outside, it is a luminous day. A breeze blows through the birch-leaves. Myriam treads through tall grass vanishing in the distance behind the blocks of camp B.
The top of Myriam's head as she squats down to pee. In the distance, a young man stands stooped over a long-lens.
Myriam stands and adjusts her clothing. She spots the photographer and hails him. No photographs! Oskar cannot believe his ears. He has just seen this woman peeing in Auschwitz and now she's telling him he can't take pictures. Myriam replies, »This is my home. I'll do as I please."
That night, Myriam again calls Suzanne from her hotel room. She needs to talk. She wants to know if Suzanne can remember Martha, who ran a brothel. »I don't think she came back,« says Suzanne. Myriam does not seem surprised. But a train of thought is started, memories of how whenever anyone used bad language, Martha was always the first to tell them to block their ears, they were too young to hear such things…
The next day, staring blankly at a labyrinth of shattered concrete and rusty steel pointing up into the sky, Myriam discovers a kind of shrine, dozens of oil-lamps burning beside an inscription that reads »Two million people died here, including women, children and the elderly"…
A family of pilgrims appears, an old lady with her son and grandson. The old lady uses Myriam's lighter to ignite her oil-lamp which she places gingerly beside the others. Myriam is moved to ask her her story. She is Hungarian. Oskar watches in the background as Myriam chats to the old lady, remembering the Hungarians, 480,000 of them in lovely summer dress, all killed, except for this old lady who was sent to work in a factory. The old lady is dismayed not to recognize anything she sees, but this is the gas chamber where her father and brothers were killed. She was never here.
Now, Myriam encounters a delegation of schoolchildren from each of the 28 countries that sent Jews to the gas-chambers. Some of the kids were yarmulkes. One of them, a dark girl carrying an Israeli flag takes Myriam in her arms. Tears come to their eyes.
A little later, Oskar pursues Myriam along a railtrack. They fall into conversation. Oskar reveals that he is German and not Jewish. Myriam tells him that she and her friends built this track. It leads into the gas-chamber.
Oskar asks Myriam to let him walk with her. She moves off without replying.
That night, in her hotel room, Myriam remembers…
One night at the Coupole in Paris, drinking vodka with Suzanne. Suzanne is telling her about the mass graves they had to dig with spades that were too heavy. It was after the Sonderkommando mutiny, when camp guards cut the fence to let inmates out.
Unable to sleep, Myriam walks the empty streets of Krakow. She encounters the delegation of youngsters from all over the world, vanishing like rabbits into a cellar. She follows and discovers a night-club, strobe lights and acid house with go-go dancers. Seated in a corner is Oskar. Myriam orders a whole bottle of vodka. One of the go-go dancers pushes her near-naked body closer and closer to her partner, entering a kind of erotic trance. She turns out to be Myriam's friend from the camp, the girl she took in her arms. Her name is Nurith, from Tel Aviv.
Nurith questions Oskar with all the diffidence of an Israeli questioning a German met near Auschwitz. Strangely, Myriam finds herself leaping to Oskar's defence. But when Oskar refers to his request for Myriam's assistance, Myriam grabs her bottle and leaves.
Drinking in her room at night, Myriam remembers how much she felt loved in the camp, remembering the names of her friends, one after the other.
Late in the day, Myriam breakfasts on the main square in Krakow. Surrounded by tourists and Poles going about their business, she scribbles in her notebook. There are people of all ages, junk dealers, musicians, travelling entertainers… Once again, it is a beautiful day.
Oskar accosts Myriam in the square. He reveals his motives for working on Birkenau: his grandfather was the SS colonel in charge of managing the three camps at Auschwitz. For a second, Myriam seems on the brink of madness, her eye unable to settle on any one detail in the cheerful market-square throng. She grabs Oskar's notebook out of his hands and glances through the pages, then makes as if to throw it away, thinks better and slams it down on the table. She heaps abuse on the young man, apologizes, renews her attack and vanishes into the crowd.
A moment later, the crowd parts to reveal a group of men and women dressed in long coats with large hats perched high on their heads. They wear thick white face-pack and yellow stars on their clothes, with large white letters giving names and addresses.
The group comes to a halt and puts down its luggage. The men delve into their pockets and scatter black powder into the air. As it settles, the powder sticks to their make-up.
People disperse in horror.
The group takes up its luggage and moves on. Myriam follows them past the Oskar's table. Her face is blackened. Oskar grabs his camera and takes a picture. Myriam descends on him and tells him she'll show him Birkenau, her Birkenau, when he is fit.
Later that night, Myriam sits at the desk in her hotel room, rereading her notes. On the bed, a scribbled sketch-map is spread out. Myriam goes to the bedside table and dials a number. Waiting for a reply, she opens the drawer and removes a torn paper tablecloth. Suzanne answers. As Myriam examines the map, Suzanne's voice describes in detail exactly where they were made to dig mass graves, by the gypsy camp called Mexico.
The next day, Myriam stands in the camp beside where the gypsy camp used to be. All around, peasants bring in the hay. It is like a Breughel, women raking the mown grass, well-built men sweating as they load a horse-drawn hay-cart. Children play. A redheaded, teenage girl on a bicycle gives Myriam a wave. Lost in her thoughts, she waves back.
A storm threatens. Myriam comes forwards, clutching the paper tablecloth. Her voice guides the camera towards crematoria 4 & 5, now just a dip in the ground beside a chaos of concrete and bricks where the grass grows taller. Myriam remembers Suzanne's description of how they dug the mass graves here.
A man on a motorcycle appears and turns into the birch wood.
Now, Myriam is in the washhouse: rusting pipes above a concrete trough. Her voice explains that the water was not drinkable, thirst was the worst and washing with soap a privilege worth fighting for. As she dissolves into the shadows of the old washhouse, two silhouettes pass by: two young woman talking about how they feel nothing here, no trace of past emotion.
At night, Myriam drifts through the camp. She finds a hunk of bread in her pocket and methodically chews. She comes to the Lagerstrasse, the main artery of the camp. The shadows deform the shapes of the buildings, making them menacing.
It is one a.m. Myriam stands at the reception desk in her hotel. The nightwatchman is asleep. Myriam is exhausted. She wants her key. Oskar is there, waiting for her. He has brought her a book.
Page after page of photographs of each of the blocks: the women's quarantine block, the working women's block, the men's quarantine block, the Czech Jews' block from Theresienstadt, the Hungarian Jews' block, the working men's block, the Tzigeunerlager (Gypsy block), the Hospital, Mexico…
As they glance through the photographs, Oskar and Myriam remember Himmler's voice saying Das Lager selbst machte einen sauberen Eindrusk (The camp itself gives a sense of considerable cleanliness).
The book is a real book made by a young German whom Marceline Loridan met on a visit to Auschwitz. Its pages will form the title sequence. It re-appears here.
* * *
At some point in the darkness, Myriam understands the nature of Oskar's enterprise, which is to focus on concrete fact as a means of underpinning memory. As she understands this, so she understands the nature of her own enterprise, which is to confront the ragged madness of real experience that only she and other survivors have known. Somehow, between these two impossibly complementary vectors lies a solution of sorts: neither to soothe nor deny but to reconcile what has been with what is. From now on, Oskar and Myriam's twin comprehension of what they are doing together, at first unconscious, then conscious, drives the story.
* * *
A crowd of tourists beneath the famous sign that reads »ARBEIT MACHT FREI«.
Myriam and Oskar emerge from a beaten up old Volkswagen. Myriam is desperate for food. They enter the cafeteria, sit across from one another. The cafeteria is converted out of a former SS office building. There is almost no one there. Two members of staff stand behind a self-service counter, with steaming pots of soup. Myriam goes to the counter. One of the women tells her in Polish that there is almost no food left. She opens the pots: unprepossessingly dry potatoes, brownish stew, soup… The other woman helps herself and stamps off, her clogs thudding against the floor. Myriam insists on seeing the insides of all the other pots which are empty. In the end, she says she'll have the soup. She plonks it down in front of Oskar and tells him it's almost as filthy as the camp soup was and that had buttons, human hair, rags, keys, even mice in it. Myriam tastes the soup and announces that in fact it is even worse than the camp soup ever was. She's certain they save the ebst for themselves, she saw that other woman dip into another pot and slunk off into a corner. Myriam returns to the counter and says the soup is no good. Oskar tries to intervene. The serving-woman pleads with him to reason with Myriam. She insists the other pot is empty. Myriam is sure there is food in it. Finally, the woman strides to the back of the kitchen, brings back the pot: there is nothing there. Myriam is humiliated and overcome. What is happening to her?
Munching sandwiches, Myriam and Oskar walk through the camp. She tells him he is going to have see the camp through her eyes. But he is not to take any photographs.
They reach the pond. Myriam squats down and strokes the surface of the water. Oskar's voice talks of water-lilies and still waters… Suddenly, Myriam plunges her hand in and brings up mud. Human ash.
Sitting in the grass by the pond, Oskar asks whether Myriam has ever tried to tell her tale. Myriam says that it is very hard. Now, for the first time, she is writing everything she can, trying to remember everything so that she may attain oblivion. A moment later, walking on, she confesses that she knows this is a hopeless task. Every night of her life, she thinks of what happened here and if perchance she doesn't, she suddenly thinks she is not thinking about it and inevitably starts thinking about it.
Striding beyond the crematoria, Oskar asks Myriam what she is up to. Myriam tells him she is looking for the mass graves which Suzanne says they were made to dig around the time of the Sonderkommando mutiny. They come to a shrine. Gradually, they piece together the story of the mutiny. But then Myriam turns on him, says »You have no right, what if I don't want to remember…?« She runs away.
In the streets of Krakow, late at night, Myriam hears steps behind her. It is Oskar, afraid to lose her.
Midnight in the streets of Kaziemirz, the Jewish ghetto. Myriam tells Oskar the story of her life: how when they came home, they were totally out of control, smuggling gold into England and selling Communist newspapers at the same time; how she eventually made her way to America and joined all the radical causes from Civil Rights to Chile, via the antiwar movement and anti-apartheid…
Sitting on the ground in Seroka Square, they drink. Myriam's confession continues as she explains that for years she thought the only response to violence was violence, Birkenau was a graduate school of evil. One day she met a man who was on the same path and together they were able to change. »I am a scoop,« she tells Oskar, »You are lucky you met me. But the answer is no. Camp survivors don't come here to bear witness, they are sick to the heart. You cannot understand that unless you were in the camps. And if you were, you cannot ever forget«.
It is time for Myriam to return to France.
The next day, Oskar and Myriam sit beneath a watch-tower at Birkenau eating cherries. Myriam is hungover. She says that maybe today he can take a picture.
Oskar and Myriam in the main street of the camp, walking through the ruined block-houses. Lowering clouds fill with sunbursts. There is thunder. Suddenly, a huge hay-cart pulled by a giat horse comes into view, loaded with women and children. The men follow on behind.
The redheaded girl on the bicycle speeds by.
Myriam and Oskar are startled. He drags her into a doorway.
They find themselves in a set of barracks which has remained intact. Myriam is just explaining that this is the men's quarantine block when an elderly man with his wife and daughter asks him how old she was when she was here. »How did you know?« she says. For an answer, he pulls her arm showing the number tattooed into her skin. A ray of sun floods the blockhouse. Suddenly, these Americans are filled with good humour. »God bless you,« the man says, kissing Myriam goodbye - to her utter astonishment.
Beside the watch-tower again, Myriam's eyes fills with tears as she remembers an electrician who brought her a posthumous message from her father. Suddenly, she tells Oskar she won't leave unless she can climb the watch-tower and see the camp from above.
Sunset in the watch-tower. A glorious view of ruined crematoria, rusting wire, trees, fields, Polish farms and gas chambers. The sky fills with birds. Oskar takes Myriam by the shoulders and says he would like to see her again. She gives him a forwarding address, a first name, a hotel in Paris.
Just before leaving, Myriam returns to the Café Ariel to return Mr Leczinski's book.
The station in Krakow is full of tourists. Oskar has come to see Myriam off. He refuses her attempt to return his book of photographs of all the blockhouses. In fact, he wants her to have his viewfinder.
Myriam experiments with the viewfinder. She is interrupted by Mr Leczinski, come to give her a reproduction of the photograph of her father's sisters. She is able to introduce him to Oskar.
And now the train comes into the station. Oskar hands Myriam her bag. She vanishes inside.
In the train, Myriam encounters a French student who asks what her book is about. It is Primo Levi's »The Drowned and the Saved«. As she is telling the student how Primo Levi survived only to commit suicide, suddenly his eye falls on the number on her arm. His friend tells him to apologize for his tactlessness, but Myriam retorts that the student was courteous and perfectly within his rights. Unlike some, he didn't ask her whose telephone number it was…
By the banks of the Seine, the traffic is thick. A small crowd clusters around a platform surrounded by candles. Suzanne stands beside a rabbi. Myriam is there, somewhat apart from the others. Teenagers read out a list of names of the deported. Suzanne signals to Myriam to join the others. Myriam shakes her head. Suzanne comes to her just as the voice reaches their transport. Myriam's name is read out, then her father's… Suddenly, Myriam is revolted. »What's the use?« she bursts out.
Later, beneath the Statue of Liberty, Suzanne and Myriam discuss her trip. Myriam tells her friend that five or six days cannot heal but now she feels incredibly strong. Suzanne gives her a notebook full of transcriptions of their phone conversations whilst she was away. »Keep it,« says Myriam, »Those are your memories.« A tourist-boat comes past on the water, raucous with music and people's cries. Through the noise, Myriam shouts, »I don't care if I die.«