University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
chgs@umn.edu
612-624-0256


CHGS

  • Home >
  • Virtual Museum >
  • Artistic Responses >
  • Guta Tyrangiel Benezra :
  • The Phantom
  • The Phantom

    I was simply amazed. Last week, I have painted this ghost. It was almost my size, stepping out of my body the eyes shut, the mouth closed. White, transparent, mysterious like all of my creations.

    It was pure coincidence which brought me to participate in a conference on bereavement and healing. A friend, who is a professor at the University of Quebec, invited me in the name of the organizers. They wanted to know my opinion on the healing process after the Shoah. Strange proposal...

    I had hardly resumed my mourning. It took me fifty years to simply admit that I had lost so many relatives. Denial was powerful, as wide as my loss and as prolonged as the path to my memory. It was my way of surviving.

    Was it really my memory? Or rather reconstructions full of flaws, vague souvenirs and testimonies full of contradictions, and yet mostly the lack of will to know the truth, find the facts, or delve into the archives. Life absorbed me too much.

    Yet the hollows were too burdensome. Rational explanations were not enough. My vital energy diminished when my daughters became independent and hence the duty to continue my path stopped. A real reason for my apparent detachment from this  horrible tragedy had to be found.

    Everything was starting to fall into place... By their intensity and impact, the extraordinary events of the past two years have swept away all my attempts to rationalize. For a jurist, pragmatic by definition and atheist by conviction, mysteries were not easily digestible.

    Fortunately my chaotic readings in psychology allowed me to envisage a plausible explanation. Thus I distanced myself from my emotions by trying to present my case as interesting from a "scientific" point of view, even if psychology still has trouble being recognized as such in the eyes of many intelligent individuals.

    Unexpectedly, I had the courage to ask my questions in front of two hundred people gathered to hear Professor Anne Ancelin Schdtzenberger, the founder of the transgenerational psychology.

    How could you explain the fact that I can paint without any previous training, write poetry while having hardly read any, and suddenly express the feelings I have not recognized before, and all this in three adopted languages? In the name of whom am I painting? Who is dictating my words? Whose life am I representing? Why fifty years, day after day after the separation from my mother and afterwards, the "anniversary" of her death in flames...?

    The penetrating eyes of Miss Schiitzenberger bewildered me. The most mystical explanations seemed ordinary. And I sighed when the diagnosis of the crypt and the phantom was thrown publicly in my face. It can be explained I almost cried, reassured by the normality of the situation. I've been trying to understand this for two years and now it seems so simple and almost trivial. I spent the following week reading her book on the transgenerational and psychogenealogy therapies and recounting all the pertinent facts.

    I painted my first watercolor on the 26th of October 1992 and the scenes from my life painted themselves during the entire night. I looked at my hands in stupefaction and admiration. I was incapable of drawing even a broom to that day. My daughter seemed a bit worried when she saw me doing this. The feeling of being an impostor invaded me again, but I was euphoric while painting the faces of monsters and assassins. I was accomplishing a mission... "My" mission.

    Indeed, I was no stranger to the need to talk, write, or do something significant. Time had come to remember the graveless dead, the forgotten pain, these empty holes. Moreover, the swollen faces of the terrified children of Bosnia, and the haggard looks of the Somalis moved me so much... My conscience was on the edge. In addition, the tragic and brutal death of my ex-husband reminded me of my own vulnerability.

    Facing these crimes against the innocent children, reminded and awakened my rage of the abandoned child survivor of the Shoah. What could I do? Did I have a role to play? This feeling of helplessness was much too familiar.

    I have resisted "digging among the cadavers" for a long time. Remembering my childhood in the Ghetto and the concentration camp was too painful and too absurd. I repressed any memory I was living for the day. Information on my massacred family, my forever destroyed people was reaching me periodically. My own humiliations as a Jewish child saved from death by the exceptional generosity of Polish christians were dragging me into the horrors of the past, of poverty and injustice.

    Suddenly, my despair was channeled into a creative strength, stronger than my cynicism, more subtle than my usual defenses. The powerful expressive images painted by my inexperienced hands, and most of all the spontaneous words full of pain, anger and sadeness, coming out of nowhere brought a new confrontation with the egotistical, indifferent, violent and intolerant humanity. The poems became a reinforcement of the morbid and terrifying images that were luring from my paintings.

    I, who had never read Beaudelaire, was writing poetry... In French. I, who hardly knew English, was composing rhymes with only few spelling mistakes. On the anniversary of the death of my mother, the 10th of January 1993, I wrote a poem in Polish without even glancing at the dictionary. And this, 32 years after my departure from Poland. Poetry was a terra incognita in my educational and academic path.

    Surprise and pride. The mystery of creation was more obscure for me than for a person versed in arts. I spent my youth in sports camps in Poland. I was busy with law, politics, and sociology in France, Canada, and Israel during my wandering life. Arts and literature were not exactly my forte. That's why this powerful creativity that has possessed me two years ago seemed so mystical.

    Painting more than 100 pictures in a few months, writing around fifty poems in poorly mastered languages, describing the details of events that were consciously ignored... I had, more than ever, the feeling that another person was acting on my behalf since I always paint in a trance, with no plan, nor technical knowledge. The results are surprising by their meaning and beauty.

    Recent readings in art history taught me the existence of surrealist and symbolists movements. Poetry, especially Polish and Yiddish shed some light on the source of my poetic gifts. Describing unknown facts, expressing strong feelings may seem quasi-"normal" in literary circles; it is rather eerie for a Professor of law.

    The impact on my life has been enormous. While I feel rather at ease in my new creative activities it has been fascinating and sometimes disappointing to observe my surroundings : my friendships changed, my interests too.

    After a year of frenzy creativity, I summed up courage and consulted experts in visual arts and literature on the "value" of my artistic activities. My intuition did not betray me, the artistic quality of my work was confirmed. My poems astonish, move, and touch. My paintings are powerful, mystical, and even appeal to non initiated strangers.

    A friend told me that I was an unusual artist because I was satisfied and pleased by my own paintings. I am not an artist, I replied. Because from the first day, I speak of my work as if it were the creation of someone else...

    Schizophrenia perhaps, but assumed with serenity.

    Yet a quasi-rational explanation was essential for me. This is why the opinion of Professor Anne Ancelin Sch├╝tzenberger came right on time.

    She writes in her book1: "In 1978, two classic Freudian psychoanalysts, Parisians of Hungarian origin, Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, published the articles "L'ecorce et le noyau"2 ("the bark and the pit"), introducing the notions of the crypt and the phantom, deduced from their clinical research. They worked on patients who did this and that without any explanation... They behaved like if it were someone else... (They) put forward their hypothesis that everything was happening as if there were an active phantom who talked through people like a ventriloquist and even acted on their behalf. "The phantom could be the "testimony of a dead buried in another, taking its source in the dual unity of motherchild transformed into an internal duelist union between Conscious and Self... The crypt would be like an inclusion in the Self, a sort of an artificial Unconscious that results from the loss of the indispensable narcissistic object..."

    I was quite impressed by the descriptions of the phantom and the crypt, and the dualist unity of the mother-child. It would be quite applicable in my case since the emotions of my mother could have been only transmitted to my Unconscious since my Conscious was less than two years old.

    In fact, I have always asked myself which were the marks and psychological consequences of the first two years of my life spent at the side of my mother (I was born the day after the establishment of the Ghetto of Minsk Mazowiecki in Poland), who was threatened by death at every instant. She was only 23-year-old and my father 26 years-old and they were newlyweds. They had just lost their minimal freedom of movement, before loosing their lives two years later.

    I lived with a mother submitted to extreme moral and material deprivation. Famine, sickness, humiliations, and terror were her daily fate. The birth of my sister, one year after mine, probably added an element of insecurity and fear, especially when the decision had to be taken to separate with the two babies because it was the only way to save their lives.

    The "Aktion" of liquidation of the Ghetto on the 21th of August 1942, was the next step in terror, and the fact of surviving, even for a few extra days, was a superhuman ordeal. I know for a fact that I lived these moments with my mother and father. The search in several archives and some oral testimonies establish my separation with my parents around the 26th-27th of October 1942.

    There were indeed 68 days of escape, hiding, threats, and uncertainties... A portion of this time was "illegally" spent, threatened by the summary executions at the forced labor (concentration) camp called "Kopernik." I was taken out, or rather thrown out of there, above a wall, in a wicker basket in the arms of "Aryans."

    My mother was burnt alive in the camp on the 1Oth of January 1943, with the remaining 400 survivors of the Jewish community of this city. The fate of my younger sister, Esther, six-month old, who was also entrusted to a christian family outside of the camp, has not been discovered since. My father disappeared during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943. All the other members of my family were killed on the spot during the "Aktion," burnt in Kopernik or gassed in Treblinka and Auschwitz.

    I could easily imagine that several ghosts inhabit by body and talk through my mouth. Yet, since i am a rather reasonable person and have also forgotten, repressed or rationalized most of my memory, my case is not clinical. On the contrary, the fact of surviving such an inferno gave me the illusion of invincibility. This is where these incredible ambitions... And sublimations come from.

    All my life I have "felt" the presence-absence of my mother in me. It was my ideal self. I said it to my Friends even before learning the psychological existence of the phantom from Professor Anne Ancelin Schiitzenberger on Saturday, the 9th of September, 1994.

    It seems that the "abnormal" behavior of Rimbaud could be explained, according to Alain De Mijolla3 by transgenerational psychology. And here goes for me an impressive literary paternity.

    However, my scientific mind is uncomfortable in this Body full of angels and ghosts, especially when my Kabbalist friends remind me of the legends of the celestial narrators Maguid,4 and the more evil Ibbur, Dybbuk or Golem.

    Then, I was hardly amused when my photographer, in the utmost serious manner told me that he could not photograph one of my paintings because it contained a ghost. "The thing" was apparently known to art photographers...

    I have already described some kind of a ghost in my poems, especially in the one written on the 29th of July 1994 . It describes one of its psychic mechanisms, this "imaginary link," a kind of intuition of the other's "life".

    Is Thee Before The Wall
    of violence
    of lamentation
    And indifference

    Forbiden to cross
    From the outside to the inside
    And from the inside to it

    The distress of helplessness

    I am evidently looking for logical explanations, because it is my professional (de)formation but my mind is very clear as to my relationship to the past. Yet this acknowledgment has demanded an important reorientation in my professional and personal activities. The inexplicable, in my case, remains the fact that I feel fine and certainly not mentally ill. On the contrary, I am in perfect harmony with my artistic even to the point of contemplating the unknown and doing that for the rest of my life. This newly found passion, with its historical, human, and personal significance is powerful and indescribable at the same time. No direct or indirect victim of the Shoah can feel "normal" unless considering that Humanity is the mirror of atrocity, and that the "normal" understands and accepts the Evil. This proposition is rather revealing my present "Reality principle," especially in the context of the current indifference and collective and individual hypocrisy in dealing with the fate of the populations of Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. These are the most visible symptoms of the moral disgrace of our civilization.

    It is perhaps for this reason, that there hasn't been any emotional shock disturbing my psychic balance or imbalance or any other major aberration. On the contrary, in spite of its sad inspiration, my creative activity delights me, allows me to explore and transmit the memory of my destroyed family and people, unjustly and prematurely erased from the world of the living. The desire of the ghost is in perfect agreement with my own will of Word and Images, expressing my revolt against the injustices committed daily before our eyes that are fixed too much on inert objects, and mystified by mortifying ideologies.

    Translated from French by Patricia Benezra. Ottawa, October 1994


    Oil on canvas 80 x 90, The abyss bulle de survie, Ottawa, October 1993.

    Acrylic on canvas 40 x 50, Dancing for Life, Ottawa, March 1993.

    Broken Silence

    Could we again disturb your mind
    with those horrible stories
    flowing from the past

    I see your resistance
    to the awakening of hearts
    and belated compassion
    for those chickens or lambs
    put into the ovens by heartless scums

    "Schindler Jews" in your eyes
    are trivial dinosaurs of conspiring Spielberg
    and his mobster fans

    Your sudden interest
    in the Armenian genocide
    is served on a silver plate together with
    tortured palestinian child

    I hear you saying and I want to die
    remembering my despair when I was only five

    Thus I see you again falling into the traps
    of antisemitic hatred and parochial lies

    As I started to cry
    Clearing my eyes I purified my heart

    Cherished by my love their music is flotting
    in the graveless air

    1. Anne Ancelin Schiitzenberger Aie, mes aieux, Paris Epi/La Meridienne, 1993 p. 59.
    2. Nicolas Abraham, Maria Torok, L'ecorce et le noyau, Paris, Aubier, Flammarion, 1978.
    3. Alain de Mijolla Visiteurs du Moi, Paris, Belles Lettres 1987.
    4. Gershom Sholem Kabbalah, Meridian book, 1978

    Previous | Next