Traces of a Vanishing World

2011 / 2012

The Kolvenburg Museum, Germany / The On-Off Gallery, Hamburg, Germany

Curator: Yaniv Shapira

Text by Haim Omer

The present event is the first of its kind:  the stories of two families, one Jewish and one German, which survived the Second World War on opposite sides of the cleft are here presented side by side.  Their paths cross each other in the meeting and friendship of two sons of the survivors (Haim Omer and Arist von Schlippe) and are summoned up before our eyes in the work of a young artist (Noam Omer), the grandchild of the Jewish survivors, who grew up in Israel, under the shadow and the light of the family story. 

 

The painting "Pietá" alludes to the stories of two people, who were "absurdly" rescued by men that were activated by unexpected compassion.  Noam's great-uncle, Jechiel Kuperman, was caught stealing a lamp from the ammunition factory in which he worked in the concentration camp of Skargisko in Poland.  The German commander ordered the Kapo to beat him to death.  The Kapo, a childhood acquaintance of Jechiel's, approached his appointed victim gingerly, but the uncle asked him to hit him hard, otherwise the German commander would execute him on the spot.  The kapo hit Jechiel very hard, leaving him unconscious, with wounds on the head, shoulders and chest, lying in the snow in a temperature of ten below zero. He would never have made it to the barracks that were more than two kilometers away. After a while, the kapo succeeded in leaving the barracks unnoticed and coming back to Jechiel.  He lifted him on his shoulder and took him back to the barracks and to a chance of survival. The second story tells of Gunnar von Schlippe, who was recruited to the Wehrmacht near the end of the war, when he was 17.  He was sent with 200 youngsters (he was one of the eldest in the group) to stop the advance of the Russian tanks in Poland.  Only two of the kids survived.  Gunnar received three bullet wounds in his head – only his helmet saved him from inevitable death.  A Polish peasant (Franz, who is shown here nestling a bird in his hands), whose house neighbored the killing field, noticed that one of the young bodies showed signs of life.  Surprisingly, after over five years of the worst imaginable German occupation, Franz saw in him only the suffering child and not the enemy soldier.  He took off his German uniform and carried him to the hospital.  After he was operated, Franz hid him in his house.  The traditional "Pietá" conveys a message of compassion towards humans as such.  The lifting of a suffering human being on one's arms in a mixture of pity and offering, though basically a Christian icon, has always moved Noam deeply.  He found himself depicting again and again a man carrying a man, a monkey carrying a monkey, or a man carrying a fish (all of which he called "Pietá").  The present picture is Noam's homage to all those who, moved by brotherly feelings, bore the suffering, the wounded and the dead on their arms.  The painting is based on a photo of a Muslim demonstration in which one of the activists was wounded in the head and carried on the arms of two companions.  The photo and the painting allowed Noam to transcend his own limitations and identify with those on the opposite side of the cleft.

Memories and ruins:  The stories of Haim Omer and Arist von Schlippe

 

Haim Omer: "I never felt that being the child of hollocaust survivors has weakened me or hurt my development in any wise. The history of the hollocaust and of my family, in particular, have always intrigued me, sometimes becoming a veritable obsession.  But when I remember my parents and the other survivors (I grew up among a number of families who came from the same shtetl as my parents, most of whom were also survivors from the Skargisko concentration camp), I don't feel at all that I lived among people who could be characterized as "post-traumatic".  These people were very active, with a huge appetite for life and lots of enthusias. There were of course sensitive spots: my mother, who lost her parents and all seven siblings (six of them as well as her parents were sent to Treblinka in the same day.  Her remaining brother was shot to death in Skargisko a few weeks later, because he could not complete his working quota on account of an infection in his eye), never mentioned the war or even her life before the war, and if she happened upon a reminder of it she could not sleep and would remain in a depressive fog for days.  My parents did not tell me where they came from.  When I was on the third grade I asked my mother what was her native land (I had just learned the word "native land" at school) and she answered with a disgusted grimace: "Poland!" It has always intrigued me that among all the survivors in my surroundings (and as I later found out, among the great majority of Polish Jews), the hostility toward the Poles was no less than their hostility toward the Germans.  I once asked my mother why I didn't have any grandparents, and she answered, as if choking on her words: "They were killed in the gas chamber!" The expression "gas chamber" ("câmara de gás") was totally unfamiliar for me, I had never heard that word before, what the hell was a "câmara"?  Everything about the war seemed to occur in a secret and mysterious land, totally foreign to anything I knew.  When Arist told me he had grown up among the ruins, I was struck by the deep difference: he had passed his childhood among the physical reminders of the destruction, whereas I had been raised among whispered secret stories.  As I gradually became aware of what my parents had gone through, I started to think of them as heroes, who succeeded in escaping all attempts to exterminate them.  If I ask myself how I would have fared in similar circumstances, I doubt that I could have survived.  I don't believe I had the necessary strength and courage (I was a very fearful child, terribly afraid of supenatural monsters – who knows, maybe this was a residue of untold horrors?).  But I felt a great pride in my parents' survivorship.  My father and uncle, and also some of the other Skargisko survivors, were fortunately much more open than my mother.  When I asked, they answered.  There were tragic stories and there were moments of ironical vindication.  My uncle told me of his sadistic Polish headman, who would often taunt him: "What do you need that soup for?  You will be a rotten corpse before the end of the month!"  When Skargisko was bombed, the headman was burried under the ruins, but my uncle went on to build a new life.  My father, like my uncle, came out of the concentration camp unbroken and unbowed.  If anything, the major influence that war and captivity had over him, was to give him an insatiable hunger for life.  He wanted everything: food, travels, success, women.  He wanted to swallow just about everything.  His appetite was legendary.  My uncle told me that he and my father once invited a tax inspector for lunch "to soften him up".  They took him to a restaurant called "Ferramenta" where they served the richest "feijoada" (a heavy traditional Brazillian meal). Such a meal would suffice to knock out the usual Brazillian patron for the day.  After the meal he told my father he had to go home for a couple of hours for a small nap.  When he returned to the store a couple of hours later he drove past "Ferramenta" and saw my father coming down the restaurants' steps with an acquaintance, whom he had taken there for a few additional tidbits.  My father wanted so much to live, that he had a number of careers in parallel: He was not satisfied with selling watches, he also wanted to build houses, to be a farmer, to raise chickens, to trade with tobacco.  In these ventures, however, he lost most of the money that he earned with the watches.

 

Smuggling was a vital factor in the camp's survival. In her study of Skargisko "The yellow death", the historian Felicia Karay relates how the inmates succeeded (some of the time) in amassing enough food for surviving.  They would supplement the starving rations that were doled out to them by the SS managment by smuggling bread from the Polish villages in the surroundings.  They would pay the Polish workers, who worked in the camp on a daily basis, with valuables, and these would smuggle bread into the camp.  Payment was carried out with small bits and pieces of silver or gold from the valuables that some of the Jews had succeeded to smuggle upon their bodies on their arrival. The problem, however, was how to break down the bigger pieces into small units, so that they wouldn't be wasted all at once.  In Felicia Karay's book I stumbled on the solution, which gave me enormous pride: "There were two smiths from Zwollen that performed this service for the inmates, breaking down their valuables into practicable small pieces."  These two were my father and my uncle!  I had known from their stories that this was their "side job" in the camp, but I didn't know that their work played a vital role in the camp's survival. After they were liberated by the advancing Soviet Army, my parents and my uncle went back to Zwollen to check if there were relatives or friends who had survived.  However, they soon had to run away, because the Poles staged a pogrom against the returning Jews, to prevent their making demands on their abandoned houses.  My parents and uncle crossed the borders of five countries before arriving in Italy, where they settled down for a year and a half.  To earn their bread they traded with hard currencies and smuggled goods.  The two brothers made connexions with a number of well placed American soldiers who supplied them with the goods.  A few months later my brother was born in Bari.  My parents, however, registered him as if he was born in Brazil, so that he is officially eleven months younger than he really is.  I was already born in Brazil, but my parents registered me as if I had bee born one month after my birth: apparently the idea that one should be registered at the date in which he was born didn't crossed my parents' minds.  We appear to be a strange kind of people, who are never in the right place at the right time.

 

Smuggling continued to play a role in their slow transition from refugees to immigrants.  Already at a very young age we knew what we should never, under any circumstances, mention my father's business outside the home. Interestingly, we were never told not to talk about the war, or even about the fights between my parents. But we knew we should never talk about money.  At the age of ten I was taken to the airport to receive my father who was returning from a trip abroad.  I saw him through the arrivals' window and cried out: "Daddy got fat!" I immediately got cuffed on the head.  When we were in the car on the way home, my father looked warily to the right and to the left, took off his coat, and, lo, he hadn't got fat at all.  But lest I sin against his memory, let me add that he contributed to innumerable Brazillian families who made a living in his store and his farm.

 

The family triangle of father-mother-uncle wandered together and lived together under the same roof until my uncle's marriage in 1952. My mother could never forgive my uncle's "betrayal", in leaving her house in order to build a family of his own.  A deep rift, from which I suffered all through my early childhood, opened up between the two families.  In the end I created a bridge between them on my own: I learned the lengthy bus route to his house and began to visit my uncle regularly. Only years later, one of my cousins told me that my father had never kept the ban decreed by my mother, and visited them clandestinely every week!  What a pity, if he had made use of his smuggling skills to smuggle me as well in these visits he would have  made me very happy.  Stories that I later came to hear had it that my mother had actually loved my uncle, but as he was not interested, she made do with my father as a consolation prize.  Their marriage was very bad. 

 

Maybe the war left an additional trace on my father's character:  his continuous restlessness.  He always gave the impression that he was late and should be already somewhere else.  He was seventeen when the war started.  He was a very promising young man, deemed a phenomenal scholar in the yeshivah, and with a fantastic talent for languages.  For instance, he was the only one among the survivors who spoke modern Hebrew fluently (the others spoke "only" Yidish, Polish and Portuguese).  He once went to France for three months and came back speaking French! Later on, however, I was to find out that he had also had the benefit of a secret French woman-teacher, who was his lover for twenty years.  His promising life-path was cut short by the war. The years of the war were spent in forced labor and the business of survival.  For another few additional years he had to be in flight and live as a refugee, until he found a steady place for him and his family. These wasted years might have instilled in him the feeling that he was already late and had to run fast to make up for lost time.  Maybe for this reason he felt the need to live many lives at once.  He thus had both a wife and a lover, a store and a farm, he staid in Brazil and traveled abroad, all at once or in abrupt transitions.  There was a saying about him in the survivors' community: "There are two ways to lose your money: you can either buy a farm or get a French mistress.  Abraham Kuperman did both!"  I must confess, however, that my restless father, with his French mistress (when I later came to know this amazing person, I could understand why my father stayed with her for over 20 years), his riskiness, his impatience and impulsiveness, arouses in me to this very day a deep loving yearning.  I miss him terribly.  He died of heart failure at the age of fifty five (the only consolation is that he didn't grow old: this was his most awful fear).  Unfortunately, my children missed this fantastic grandfather.  The picture "Grandpa Abraham" shows him holding my brother's eldest son. 

 

My mother, Sonia, was a totally different kind of survivor.  She was subliminally depressed most of the time.  She was a constant worrier, anything signalling for her a potential catastrophe.  She was permanently anxious that something might happen to me or my brother and felt an urgent, almost hysterical, need to be in control over our lives.  She was a very generous woman, she loved to help and give, but did not find an acceptable way to do this with her unruly husband and autonomous sons.  I was told by people who knew her from the concentration camp that she was the kind of legendary person who is willing to share her bread with others even in extreme hunger.  The happiest period in her life were the eleven years (from the age of sixty to seventy one) that she dedicated to work in a poor people's kitchen in São Paulo. Her meals became one of the institution's glories.  For me, however, it was close to impossible to be near her.  Not for lack of love on her part, on the contrary!  But she couldn't  accept the fact that I made choices that were different from hers.  She couldn't stand my friends, my wife, or even my intellectual interests and professional choices.  She would react to all these as a personal betrayal: she had not deserved to have these things done to her!  After all she had gone through and had sacrificed for us!  This is of course true, she did not deserve it, but my task in life did not become any less impossible on that account.  I simply could not compensate her for her lost youth, her murdered family, her unfaithful husband and her bleak future.  My mother's  miserable life had engendered a black hole that would never be filled in.  You could either be sucked into it or break out of its orbit.  My choice was to build my life at a maximum possible distance from her: 10.000 km. and the ocean between us gave me the feeling that I could breathe.  One of the important aspects of the present event for me is the opportunity it has given me to digest the lump in the throat that my dealings with my mother have left me with.

 

For years I was obsessed with the hollocaust.  Every year I would spend at least a couple of months reading books of history, biography, and fiction on Nazi Germany and the destruction of the Jews.  This almost chronic preoccupation ended in an unexpected manner.  Twelve years ago I started to learn German.  I have probably inherited my father's talent for languages.  As I advanced in my ability to speak and read German, I felt in me a strong desire to lecture in Germany, in the German language.  I contacted a number of institutes for family therapy and almost immediately received an invitation by Arist von Schlippe to give a workshop in Osnabrueck.  Arist also arranged me two additional invitations (to Dresden and Hanover).  I was invited for the Congress of the German Association of Family Therapy in Dresden and had my "baptism of fire" before a large professional audience in German and in Germany in October 2.000.  I opened my lecture by telling that I am the child of hollocaust survivors and that his was the main reason why it had been so important for me to come and lecture in Germany.  It was not easy to overcome the choking tears and start my professional delivery.  Fortunately, I got used, and lecturing in Germany stopped being an emotional ordeal for me.  My acquaintance with Arist quickly became a close friendship that grew more and more intimate and meaningful with the years.  Arist helped me to overcome an additional inner obstacle in my "hollocaust-complex": he tried to convince me to visit Poland and, after a few failed attempts (I kept delaying, because I was afraid of the trip), Arist accompanied me to Posnan and Krakow, almost literally "holding my hand" to help me cope with the emotional difficulty.  The highpoint of the trip  was our visit to Franz, the peasant who had saved the life of Arist's father, with whom I could not communicate verbally, but whose presence radiated a magnificent aura of mildness and warmth.  Franz's wife, Genia, who spoke German (she had been in Germany as forced labor during the war), had prepared herself for my visit: she showed me a memoir of a Jew who had been the founder of the largest printing house in the region, and probably the only one that printed books both in Polish and in Hebrew.  Genia's grandfather had been the chief printer in the house!  Interestingly, Poland presented for me a more difficult emotional challenge than Germany!  Maybe the language barrier has something to do with it, or perhaps, I was still under the influence of the deep wound that my parents and other people in our surroundings carried within them regarding everything Polish.  But at least in what regards Germany, Germans, and the German language, a big change occurred within me.  It is as if a clear place opened up in my soul instead of the festering wound that had been there before.  In my German studies I made use of materials from the Goethe Institute in Tel-Aviv.  There was a video-cassette in the library of a documentary about the expulsion and persecution of Germans and Germans descendants ("Volksdeutsch") in Eastern Europe.  At first, I simply could not take out that cassette and watch it.  I took it from the shelf a couple of times, but could not bring myself to borrow it.  I still wasn't able to view the suffering of Germans as on a par with the suffering of other people.  That should be a "different suffering", not really deserving compassion!  After my first visit to Germany, I took the plunge and watched the film.  I was deeply moved.  It was a liberation for me.  I was delivered from the compulsion to suspend my human feelings regarding Germans.  My visits to Germany became more and more frequent.  My books were publishd in Germany, my professional methods and ideas became influential, and the personal dialogue with German colleagues and friends deepened.  Gradually, I found out that I had stopped looking for books about the hollocaust: I even skip those shelves in my visits to bookstores.  My capacity to look at the war also from the perspective of German suffering widened.  I read the amazing book by Sebald on the traces of the war and the air-bombings in German postwar literature.  I have recently read Fallada's book "Everyone dies for himself alone", which was a very meaningful experience for me.  The present event gives me a special opportunity to go further along the path of overcoming my survivor's onesidedness.

 

Noam was the only one of my five children, whose interest in the hollocaust was already evident from an early age.  He visited Poland and the extermination camps at the age of sixteen, a visit that left an indelible impression on his mind.  He always wanted to hear the stories of our family and tried again and again to understand what cannot be understood.  The fact that Noam, the grandchild of Avraham and Sonia Kuperman, created the present artistic synthesis that includes members of his family, of the Schlippe family, as well as Franz, the Polish peasant, who saved the life of Arist's father (Noam depicted him as St. Franz, holding a bird ever so gently in his callous hands), in addition to a series of liminal scenes presenting people under the shadow of loss and destruction, is to my mind a very appropriate closure to the labyrinthine story of these three generations."

Noam Omer: Vulnerability, Compassion and Style

 

Noam became an artist in the wake of a deep personal crisis. Noam's experiences and peculiar perception may help understand how such a young artist can capture the inner processes and life predicament of old people that underwent enormous suffering and are faced with illness, loss and imminent death.  One of the mental difficulties with which Noam has to cope is a continuous barrage of unfiltered sensory (especially visual) stimuli.  Noam has a cognitive problem consisting in a malfunction of the perceptual filters that help us separate signal from noise, and distinguish the essential from the peripheral.  This makes him into a highly vulnerable young person, who is often on the verge of perceptual and emotional innundation.  Stimuli that for most of us would remain inane or undetected, may ignite in him a feeling of total threat.  In the text "Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: Noam's way into art and my way to becoming his shieldbearer" I have described how he comes to terms with these liabilities, among others, by a very strict working routine and rigorous stratification of tasks.  Noam's perceptual and emotional permeability is one of the central characteristics of his artistic style.  Thus, the usual separation of figure and ground is almost suspended in Noam's paintings. Instead, the background becomes an emmanation of the figure, or the figure a crystallization of the background.  The background is depicted as if it were the figure's inner personal world, being made out of its perceptions, thoughts, feelings, body texture, fears or dreams.  The figure, in its turn, is born out of the ground: it is its product, or at times, its antithesis.  The experience that is conveyed is one of inprisonment and penetrability: the ground invades and transforms the figure; the figure is enmeshed within the ground it itself created.    

 

This experience of unprotectedness, though a source of constant anxiety enables also a peculiar openess to impressions.  Noam sees people differently, in an unfiltered, as if pre-categorial way.  Also stories seem to echo in his mind differently, remaining fresh also when they re-emerge years after they were first told.  When he looks at the people he paints he sees in their wrinkles, eyes or convolutions of their skin a kind of living mass that is not rendered tame by the organizing processes of normal perception.  Interestingly, as he paints, he does not identify with them.  He expressly declares he doesn't feel compassion towards them, or any other particular feeling.  He says he is only driven by a yearning for exactness: those are the lines he sees in their faces and skins, so that's what should appear on the canvas!  If the pictures evoke feelings of compassion in the viewer, they do that on account of their emotional accuracy, rather than because of the painter's feelings. And yet, there is also a process of identification at work in this artistic process, though one that is very different than what we usually connect with the concept of "empathy".  It seems that Noam perceives what he sees almost like bodily vibrations, and these are translated into movements of his hand and brush.  Thus, the identification occurs at a more immediate level, like a process of sensory-motor contagion.  

Grandma Sonia's Via Dolorosa

 

My mother was a figure of almost mythical proportions for Noam.  She was the only family member who survived the hollocaust with whom Noam had a close personal relation.  The stories about her intrigued him, probably because she was the most tragic figure in his surroundings, always at odds with her fate, her husband, her children, and sometimes, even with her grandchildren.  Noam talked with me at length about my relationship with her, about my need to live as far as possible from her, about her hysterical fits, about her being impossible not only to me, but also to my brother, my father and even my uncle (whom she loved in body and soul till the very end of his life).  Noam also knew about her generosity and the gratitude and admiration that she aroused in the many people she had helped.  One of the main reasons for Noam's deep interest in her (he painted her dozens of times)  was that my "business" with her was totally unfinished.  I ruminated about her non-stop, in anger, in guilt and in pity.  I tried to do her justice, and to finally accept and recognize her positive role in my life (I think my mother instilled in me much of my self-belief: for her I was a Nobel laureate; the announcement of the prize was only delayed because of bureaucratic problems).  However, though I tried to come to terms with her all through the years of her final illness and in the months after her death, I could not achieve peace or even a state of reasonable quiet.  Even during her "Shivah", the ritual week of mourning for her death (I and my brother were alone in her house in São Paulo, nobody came because all the acquaintances were either dead or ill) we were shocked to find ourselves innundated by painful memories about her.  We felt compelled to tell those stories, as if competing with each other, who could put more vinegar to the wounds, who had more bitter complaints, who could display the more injurious scars.  What kind of person was Sonia, couldn't we let her go even after her death?  And yet we couldn't remember even one single bad action on her part.  All she did to us came of out of care and devotion, but it was impossible for us to accept this love and devotion, which had always threatened to twist us and to choke us.  Even her maid, who nursed her with love during the seven years of her final illness, (Neide said about her: "She was a mother for me during the first years, I was a mother for her in the last years...")  could not go on with her own life, so long as she lived by my mother's side.  All the intimate relations Neide entered would break up abruptly.  However, right after my mother's death, she established a close relationship with a man, got married, and is now the proud mother of a son. 

 

Out of Noam's numerous paintings of my mother and the conversations we held about her the "stations" of her Via Dolorosa became to crystalize themselves.  The first station was entitled "Sonia against the stream" – my mother is shown with a bulldog, bitter expression, against a flowing background that caresses her body as if in the attempt to soften her anger and protest.  The second station "Hitler's marriage" based on a photo taken on the day of my parents' marriage shows them prematurely aged under a cloud of ashes.  In the third station "The stroke and the fury" my mother is viewed screaming and fighting against her imprisonment in her paralytic's wheelchair.  In the fourth station "The good nurse" she is seen leaning or collapsing on Neide's arms, who seems to try to hold her own but to be about to collapse as well.  In the fifth station, "The bad nurse" she is supported by a figure who laughs, half encouragingly, half spitefully, while Sonia looks ahead in total shock and disorientation.  At this time Sonia used to complain that the women who nursed her persecuted and tortured her unceasingly.  The sixth station "Surrender" shows her in defeat and humiliation: she gingerly tries to feed herself with a spoon, the last weapon left to her.  The seventh station "Sermon to the fishes" depicts my mother in her last attempt to teach the world how to behave, but without the capacity to join words into sentences.  Noam named the picture "Sermon to the fishes" on account of the story of St. Antony, who finding the churches empty of men, went down to the river to preach to the fishes.  The titles of the three last stations "Sonia's last visitor", "Rest" and "Ascension" require no further explanation.  "Grandma Sonia's Via Dolorosa" did for me what all my previous attempts had failed to achieve: it digested her figure for me, making it acceptable to my refractory soul. My son became a kind of "emotional liver" for me, metabolizing my mother's figure, which all my life had been stuck in my throat as an impossible lump.  The picture "Sonia's last visitor" is now hanging in my living room.  When I decided to put it there, Rina (my wife) asked me if I was sure that I wanted my mother so close.  I find myself frequently looking at the picture from my armchair and meditating.  Finally, with a measure of calm and acceptance. 

 

The series "Grandma Sonia's Via Dolorosa" is one of the elements in the present exhibition, which includes also the other members in the Kuperman and the von Schlippe family, mostly in their old age, sometimes days or moments before their death.  The series of portraits are joined to a a number of larger paintings, showing small groups of people in situations of utter threat, destruction, abandonment and loss.  This combination creates a mutual reflection of personal and historical, Jewish and German, the personally intimate and the universally human. 

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