University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
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CHGS

  • Haim Maor :
  • My Pentateuch

    My Pentateuch

    Prologue

    A heavy, transparent glass plate lies on the wooden surface of my desk.
    Like a transparent tombstone, one sees very well who lies underneath.
    Under the glass I place photos, reproductions, postcards and notes, just like in my father's house, where they were called "tzetalach".
    Nowadays, one layer of memories covers its predecessor, hides it and obstructs it, I no longer know what was when, what came before what,  and if at all.
    The memories become ghosts.
    The photos on the desk make a partial, broken mosaic, an incomplete puzzle, that can hardly manage to join together into a story, due to the black holes between the islands of memory.
    The memory islands wander between vast abysses, that swallowed entire chapters. We will not know if they contained the moments of truth, and the major landmarks in the paths of the story.
    I look at a puzzle that was scorched in time, faded, yellowed, grayed, blackened, or crumbled.
    As I write these lines, I seek not the lost details.
    Sometimes it seems to me that it is better to flaunt the broken fragments.
    Like me, right now, they break their silence and come together on the paper between my hands.

    I look at them, and they give me fragmented looks, that echo back and forth in the spaces between the lines, in the fragmented chapters of "My Pentateuch" and "The New Testament".

    My Pentateuch

    All writing is autobiographical; However, one can write 'born in some year in some place' and one can also write 'Once upon a time there was a king, and he had three sons'. - Jorge Louis Borges.

    Genesis

    In the beginning there was the number. Blue digits, faded, tattooed in freckled skin, mottled by brown-yellowish stains and graying hair, bowed toward crackled skin, like ears of corn in the wind. As a child, I'd look at the muscular arm of my father and, again and again, recite the numbers: "seven, eight, four, four, six" . . . at first in a hesitant whisper, like a personal incantation:"seven, eight, four, four, six"… repeating over and over, repeating and shouting in a hacked syllabic rhythm.

    A few years later I was swept by a linguistic-kabbalistic urge. The dictionary I consulted explained the word tattoo as "a drawing or a symbol etched into the skin mainly by puncturing or burning the skin and spreading into these lacerations an indelible paint. Tattoos are very common in various savage tribes, sailors and pilots, who usually engrave tattoos on their arms and chests. 'Nor print any marks upon you' (Leviticus 19,28)." But my father was not a sailor nor did he grow among savage tribes. "Father, is it true that you didn't want a number at all but were forced to have one?"

    Father is silent, his face is sealed. The wrinkles on his brow and cheeks are like the drawings on the tattooed face of the Australian aborigine in the dictionary. Like a Kabbalist or a seer staring at numbers and stars, trying to penetrate beyond what is seen to the eye, I practiced deciphering the signs and secrets of the digits engraved in the flesh, as if they were dates of birth and death on a tombstone, or a code in a riddle.

    I used to play with numbers, like a numerologist, and search for hidden meanings. "Father, are you alive because of the secret combination in blue that bestowed upon you magical powers - an open account in the checkbook of life?"

    In time I became acquainted with additional numbers: in the identity card, in the passport, military ID, home and work phone numbers, bank account, but all of those numbers did not have the same compulsory, super-natural  attraction, as did the "seven, eight, four, four, six" which binded to my father's image like a transparent and impenetratrable celluloid wrapping.

    Exodus

    My parents met on a ship transporting  refugees, Holocaust survivors, from Europe to Israel. They married in Jaffa, and made their home in an abandoned Arab ruin, and there, in April '51, I was born, their first-born Haim-Benyamin, named for Father's father, who was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau in '42. Thus I became, unwillingly, a walking memorial candle, alight on the window-sill, in a well guarded home and showing the way to the ships of the dead approaching the harbor every night.

    When I was a boy I grew up in a young city, between sand dunes and a giant swamp with millions of big frogs. At night, jackals howled at the moon, during the day, a lone raven flew over. I was different from all the children. Silent, shy and a dreamer, painting fairy tales and distant landscapes and taking in fears.

    A hard silence hovered over the house, dark and distressing, confining within it forbidden stories, but - on occasion - almost unseen, the words escaped their prison. But I well knew that if I were to say them, even in jest - they might cause a great disaster to happen: Lynks, Rachtes, Mengale, Selection, Gas, Crematorium. a closed package of words, with a strange unknown smell, like all the words that came from there, suffocated.

    When he was fourteen, my father, David, transported corpses from the gas chambers to the crematorium. That's what he did.  When we crossed the road - my mother and me - and me fourteen years old  - she held my hand. That’s what she did. And my hesitant steps skipped on the stripes, to the sidewalk.

    Word became phantom-images and the question - unanswered.

    Scrolls hanging in the air, the absent ink has dried.
    A blue number filters the light.
    I sit on a black chair, watching the reflections - is it the others or me?
    On the desk there is a Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary.
    Dry definitions: Camp, Hair, Home, Luggage, Skin, Shower, Witness.
    Camouflage cloth shifts its spots. Prettily tattooed.
    Who will define forbidden words?
    Who will collect suffocated stories?
    Who will hold the disqualified scrolls, when the spirits move - and give us no rest? We are the dead.

    Leviticus

    When I was a child my grandfather, my mother’s father, used to tell me how he carved tombstones in his town in  Poland. Simple naked tombstones, and glorious marble tombstones, their gilded letters gold painted, and their epitaphs decorated with lions and flowers. He was a celebrated and sought-after master craftsman. The nobles from the nearby area would sometimes invite him to design stained-glass windows in their mansions and to sculpt tombstones. A Jew among Gentiles. My grandfather, who carved tombstones, was a God-fearing Jew.

    And my grandfather told me how the peace was disrupted. Evening of Rosh Hashana; Jews are at prayer and a cold fear in the town square. Flights of ravens. Greedy finger nails, and a path prematurely broken. And my grandfather deep-seated with faith, loses his eyes by an armed soldier....

    Israel. Dunes of desolation and silence in white. A lone raven in a cloud. The chill of dawn on the porch. He would bring me books to read, illustrated with lovely pictures. "Haim'ke, read the books, read them and describe to me what you see in the pictures..."

    "A - Attic, B - Boy, C - ..."
    "Read it again!"
    "A - Auschwitz, B - Birkenau, C - Cyclone B Gas etc".

    Grandfather had a german-shepherd, she was his eyes, instead of those which were pulled out in the concentration camp.
    Grandfather had a different dog.
    and it bit the cat, that ate the kid that Father bought for two zooz.
    And his two eyes are the sacrificial lamb.

    My grandfather had two cloth handkerchiefs. One he used to clean his nose, with the other he cleans secretions at the sides of his blind eyes.
    I laid the second one out before me. Big eyes opened in it and made holes in my head, the eyes of Jesus, suffering, like on Veronica's handkerchief.

    The contours of my face are inscribed within my blind grandfather's palms.
    The contours of my face, naked and lighted, preserving a thread of longing, to another caress - since he shed his body and became a ray of light.

    My blind grandfather taught me that racism is a disease of people who see with their eyes. "When you are blind, your heart opens to every one, whoever they are".

    No, I was not raised on hate.

    Numbers

    Horrendous city of death, Auschwitz. A cursed place. When I arrived there as a tourist, there was a snow storm striking at me forcefully at my face.
    A stench lingers there and the earth grows nothing. Black ravens rested on the electrified fences. Even though I knew that the fences are not electrified nowadays, I instinctively recoiled from touching them. The most intimate articles express the horror: hair, shoes, tooth-brushes, spectacles, hand-knitted children's clothes. Over all there is another, transparent presence of a ghost-town. A wide plain of millions of people who turned into smoke, earth, cinders and dust...

    In the Auschwitz Crematorium, the devil assumed a form. I physically penetrated the mystery into the mysterious, the unknown and the menacing, it remained mysterious and threatening. The Mother of all abomination and fear.
    40 years ago, a Jew by the name of David Moshkovitz, born in the town of Plonsk in Poland, worked here in the Sonderkommando. 40 years later, his son stands here on the same spot and 'closes a circle'.
    This is the whole story.

    Walking in Birkenau, listening to the hidden messages emanating from the fences and the towers, the huts and the torture rooms, the gas chambers and the crematoriums. Listening, through the silence and the present emptiness, to the call and the demand: "Be yourself! Do not deny! Be modest!"
    And this message is growing louder: "Don’t enstrange me and don't enstrange your own image! Take me, Hold me, embrace me, I am your father! Go in my way! Remember that in the gas chambers I was strong - not less than you, a coward - no more than you! Be modest! Be A Jew of Peace!"

    Birkenau - those most familiar landscapes: The entrance building whose silhouette was with me ever since I first came across it in black & white photos. I look, compare and confirm between the reality and the documentary material, which fed my childhood.
    Ravens are circling over the fences.
    I recall a text I wrote, in one of my works in the exhibition "Blindness":
    "A Raven went to sleep. Over a Van-Goghian unpathable wheat field a bent moon lurks. Blind masses pass enroute to the path prematurely ceased, to the path that in its heart was deceased". Here are the ravens, here are the fields, here is the track-path, and where is the lamb for the sacrifice? 
    On exiting Birkenau, about 500 meters away, I ask the driver to stop the bus. The vehicle stops, and I get off it with two cameras in my hands. Moving quickly, I aim them at the entrance gate to Birkenau and shoot 6 pictures, one after another, holding my breath.

    It's all right to go on now!

    Deuteronomy

    And these are the things that you must know, son, and live by:
    To be ready for a Pogrom. Be prepared for disaster,
    To stitch in time, not to hurry, to suspect and be wary
    and to guard yourself well, because then - only then -
    God will protect you from every trouble and distress.

    Not to show that you are suffering, not to show that you are sick.
    Because the defective ones go straight to the crematorium

    "When I was a little girl" Suzanna told me in a shy voice,
    "I grew up in a village that was hidden in the shadows of a large forest.
    The summer enveloped the village in gray, and winter covered it - with white. I was different from all the girls. 'Red-head', they called me".

    In Suzanna's room, I ask to see the family albums. Suzanna went into the next room and brought out a dusty box laden with yellowish pictures arranged in brown envelopes. "These are photos of my grandfathers and grandmothers", she said.
    I look at the photos and embarrassingly joke about their resemblance to "Jewish Faces". One photo froze my blood: a handsome man in an officer's uniform. "This is my grandfather, my father's father", Suzanna says, embarrassed, "No, he wasn't a Nazi. This is the uniform of a Wermacht officer. The Signal corps. No, no one in my family was a Nazi. I already looked into it. They knew nothing..."
    I held the photo and brought it close to my eyes. The black stain on the chest, looks, up close, like a swastika. I returned the photo and closed the box.

    At first the portrait was created from the front. A frontal portrait, painted from a photo, with oil on rigid paper. My father's painted look ripped the bars of the paper cells and asked-demanded: "What for?" "To understand", the reply echoed inside my head, but didn't pass the threshold of speech.
    Later I critiqued myself: "The painting is bad. It isn't painted right. It doesn't look like my father".
    Second attempt. In profile. A profile portrait, with blue background, and on it the number in yellow. Next to it, on a different paper, I drew my own portrait. Under it, in red, as if engraved on the chest, the well known number.
    The finished painting confronted me and demanded: "Look at the image".
    In the image I created, I noticed that my father's eyes disappeared, for some reason, in the stains of the yellow number.
    Only in the third, or maybe in the fourth, did the number rise above his face, and above my father's face, and hovered in a faded blue cloud, in clear blue skies, painted on pine wood.
    A further look revealed to me that raising the terrible curtain from my father's face uncovered additional curtains: A shirt, striped with white and gray stripes and a deep cleft in the wood, penetrating deep into my father's mind and leaving a black hole in it.
    The format of the wood left no more doubt: the portrait is both an icon and tombstone, and the number - again the number - is a mark of disgrace, holding within it shame, like those letters that decorated the cross of Jesus and designated his crime as King of the Jews. I almost started to calculate whether the sum of the letters in INRI* doesn't happen to be seven, eight, four, four, six...
    The spirit of Christ couldn't save when his image, taken off the cross, blended with my own naked form, the form of Adam in the expulsion from Eden and the images of my father, or my uncle, walking to their deaths at the end of the road that led to the disinfection chambers...
    Eventually the cards were shuffled and fell on each others, like a tower collapsing. The painted wooden plates leaped, as if possessed, like tectonic plates during an earth-quake, and the number pushed aside the heads of my father, my mother and my head, and Suzanna's Aryan head, who escaped from her family's past. We became unstable heads in a man-quake, whose strength goes over the Richter Scale, and its symbol is fixed in blue digits.

    *Latin acronym: Iusus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum (Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews).

    The New Testament

    "Andre Will Clean Up"

    A red steel gate, decorated, opens up in front of us and a young black man produces a big smile, aimed at me, enclosed by white teeth. "Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur", he says to us, gleeful and waving his hands. "This is Michell", Suzanna says and introduces me to him. "I have 4 people working for me: Andre, the cook and in charge of house keeping, Michel, who is in charge of laundry and ironing the clothes, and Iska the gardener. At nights and on Sundays there is a guard named Adma". We enter the garden and the house. Michel takes the suitcases. "Will you have something to drink?" "Yes". Suzanna brings bottles of mango juice and date juice and I enjoy sipping the cold tasty juices. "Come, I'll show you the garden. For two years now I've been caring for it and altering it". Indeed, the garden is well card for, and lovely and inspires peace. Papaya bushes, and bananas, mango trees, orange and lemon, flowers, grass, a swimming pool reeds, and lemon weeds, a bungalow furnished with white chairs and a table. A rock wall 2.5 meters high encircles the garden and the house and the bougainvillea bushes climb it - cuddle within it. A falcon with snipped-off wings is dosing off on one of the trees and a gray parrot leaps around in a big cage. A large black dog, appears from somewhere, and waves his tail hello. "This is good old Max, who likes petting, food and sleep".

    Back to the house. The house is big and roomy and there are enough rooms in it to have several people over. The living room and the dining corner are large, from them one can get to the kitchen rooms and to the refrigerators, the laundry and the ironing room and the staff room. Another door leads to a long and wide corridor. On both its sides there are a closet room, an office, a bedroom, and two-guest room with their own shower and toilet.

    "In Germany I would have never made it to a house like this", Suzanna replies to my comment. The office rents the house, but she put a lot into it and into its garden and now - two years later - it looks wonderful.

    Seating down to eat. Salad, red papaya slices and fresh pineapple and white wine from Germany are set on the table, to celebrate my arrival. Suzanna puts on the disc I brought - songs of Israel - as background to the conversation and dinner. "Make yourself at home". "If you want me to make myself at home, then I wash the dishes". Suzanna laughs. She recalls the differences between the patriarchal German household and the Israeli-Kibbutz household, where the wife can lay back on the couch, after dinner, and the husband washes the dishes. "No, there is no need for you to wash. Andre will clean up...".

    Arrangement of the Dishes as Parable

    At eight thirty breakfast was served, in the shade of the bungalow in the garden, near the pool. When I arrived there I noticed that everything was ready on the table. Fresh orange juice, coffee, tea, milk, baguette covered with a napkin inside a straw basket, butter, mango jam, small sausages and smoked salmon. I sit on one of the plastic chairs. Suzanna notices that her chair has a cushion, and mine doesn't. She calls out "Andre" and when he arrives she asks him to get me a cushion as well. Eventually, when we sit down, she says: "The entire relationship between employer and employee is based on that they know what the boss wants, and act accordingly to satisfy him. I briefed them and told them of your coming and of your gastronomical customs and preferences, as best as I could remember. But since Andre still wasn't sure what you'd prefer to drink and eat, he set the table according to two breakfast patterns - French and German". "In what way does it show?"  "Look at the arrangement of the utensils and the plates and the makeup of the drinks and the food".  I notice nothing special and Suzanna goes on: "The baguette, butter, jam coffee with milk and tea are according to the French pattern, and accordingly so is the big cup, which he placed on the saucer. On the other hand, the sausages, the tea with lemon and the small plate with a knife next to it, are in the German style"...
    "And whose are the slices of smoked salmon?"  "The fish is here for you, since I told him that you do not eat meat, only fish".
    Thus, by a single breakfast plate, I learned about the differences in eating customs, and on local thinking which tends to be considerate and brings different sides together.
    "I learned a lot from them on cooperation, openness and consideration. They solve all the little problems with optimism, gentleness, honor and peace, in long conversations of persuasion, which take much more time than the practical Western rhythm. At the same time, they understand that they can't solve the big, global, problems"....
    "For years you have been living in Africa, ignoring, or evading your culture and your German homeland. Your husband is a Flemish man from Belgium and your common language - French...", I pressure Suzanna to deal with a though that has been bothering me for a long time.

    She thinks and replies: "Here my awareness to my 'Germanness' grew more than elsewhere. In Germany, the German living patterns and behavior (like keeping schedules) were a natural and normal thing for me. I didn't know any other option. Here I encountered a different attitude towards concepts of time, human relations, recreational habits, eating etc. It is here that people draw my attention to the 'German qualities' embedded within me. And still, I notice more things. A French man looks up with admiration to his heritage and can recite poems by Rassin and quotes from plays by Maulierre. On the other hand, a German were to speak with admiration on his 'cultural heritage' (Goethe, Bach, Heinne etc.) will be perceived as 'nationalistic' or even a 'neo-Nazi'... It's complicated".

    Hunting a Giraffe, Shooting a Picture

    Within minutes, the living room has turned into a photography studio. We arranged front and back lighting; we hung various background fabrics; we arranged props, and tried – even - to make old Max lie in the desired spot within the frame. We began shooting. Suzanna changed clothes, hairdos, poses and expressions. I changed angles, lenses and films, trying to translate thoughts into images and ideas into real situations. Background music was playing for hours, while we were taking hundreds of photos, one after the other, bouncing off suggestions and drawing ideas from each other.
    I know, such moments of grace are rare. When the creative spark fires the imagination, there is a chance for good raw materials for new works. Suzanna cooperates. She seems to be enjoying the opportunity to step out of the routine of her life and her work. "It's strange to see myself in your works, so different from my self image, but it flatters me and gives me a lot".

    A book of giraffe cartoons, by the cartoonist Mordillo, placed on a table at the corner of the room. There are three cartoons, which draw my attention. In the first - a white man holds a rope tied to a giraffe. He is looking with surprise at a black man leading a black giraffe with white dots. In the second - a white hunter is looking for a giraffe inside a thicket of trees; he doesn't notice that its four legs are intermingled with the tree trunks. In the third cartoon, 11 photographers, standing on each other's shoulders, are taking a photo of a single giraffe  - standing across from them. 11 segments, which do not add up to a single whole. Slices on analytical information turn the animal into a meaningless body. Four blind men once felt an elephant's body and defined it as a rope, a column or a knife, depending on the body segments they felt.
    Were my cameras, having spread nets to capture Suzanna's image, successful? The camera - Suzanne Sontag wrote - is the photographer's personal weapon, who 'shoots' pictures, instead of bows and arrows.

    To Shoot a Picture. "To Shoot an Elephant" by R. Kipling. "The Jungle Book". The elephant, like the turtle, lives along life and has long term, lucid and continuos memory. Like the trigger. Like the trunk. An unending cable, like a camera's extension cord, sending signals, without really touching. "Extends or contract at will, so are we in thy hand...heed the pact, heed not the passion".

    The Story of the Garden of Eden

    In his article "Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood" (1910), Sigmund Freud writes: "In one of his scientific essays, in an article about the flight of the vulture, Leonardo suddenly stops the lecture and documents an event he recalls, a short story from his early childhood. And this is how he tells it: ‘It seems that it has been predestined for me to deal so meticulously with the hawk, for I recall an event from my early childhood, when I was still lying in a crib - and it so happened that a vulture came down to me, opened my mouth with his tail, and many times did he push that tail of his on my lips’..."

    Suzanna and I are buying exotic fabrics, presented in the central market.
    A strange bird replicates itself in front of us, on one of the fabrics.

    At night, the Nazi Eagle attacks Suzanna’s genitals.

    She defends herself. It disguises itself well and transforms itself into a bird of paradise in the style of 'Jugenteshtil'. In the background - I can clearly hear it - Itzik Manger sings in Yiddish the song about the golden peacock: "The golden peacock flew endlessly/ to the south to look for 'yester days'/ trili, trala/ He sees a black man in the field/ who tried to mend his meagre hut/ The peacock flies down to ask/ Perhaps you've seen..."

    The bird turns its head, opens its beak wide and sticks out at me a wet, forked long , winded tongue, like the smoke of Cain's offering to God. The meandering line slowly wavers and wobbles, weaving symbols of yin and yang, like a prisoner's chains, and whispers venomously like a snake in heat: "su-za-nna,su-za-nna".

    Veronica's Handkerchief

    Veronica treasured
    his face in the folds
    of her handkerchief.
    But he chose
    to bear
    his life's cross
    to his death.

    Veronica treasured
    between the chambers of my heart.
    A lock of her hair snipped
    next to my head.
    As the dust of this earth,
    holy and warm.

    I was crucified for life.
    Gray.
    Buried deep.
    And no handkerchief.
    To absorb my sweat.

    For the next generations.

    The Four Elements

    Memory is male.
    Forgetfulness is female.
    Between me and her - the sea.

    The sea is male.
    Earth is female.
    I and she - the fire.

    The fire - hot.
    The wind - feels cold.
    Sentence broken.

    The sea remembered.
    The earth forgot.
    Her spirit goes up

    In the flame.