When I was a teenager, growing up without a TV, I spent my free time reading. I am much older. I still don’t have a TV and I still spend much of my free time reading.
Fifty years ago, I immersed myself in Russian literature. I was a very passionate fifteen years old girl.
Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Puschkin and Gogol and Checkhov and so many others. I read and reread their works never getting tired of them.
At present I still remember most characters from those books that held me spellbound. I fell in love with them most probably because their life was so romantic and filled with passion and tragedy. Not really the kind of life I would have enjoyed in reality though. But I was fifteen and a dreamer. I loved to live in a world of romance.
Almost thirty years ago, I was living in Paris where I met a young woman from Poland. She was married to one of our acquaintances. We became friends by force of circumstance, I’d say.
At the time, Poland was still a part of the communist bloc. My friend’s parents were living in Warsaw with their two oldest daughters, both of them married to Poles.
I met them in the early 1990s when it became much easier for Poles to travel to France. (Even though I remember we had to help them out so that the French immigration bureau would let them come and stay in Paris for a few weeks. It was tough. Lots of red tape involved.)
I was very excited to meet my friend’s parents. They were already quite old. Close to their eighties.
My friend's father had been in the Polish diplomatic service before WWII. He looked very upper middle-class with a soupçon of nobility.
Later on, I learned that he had indeed emigrated from Russia with his family in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution, leaving behind them their property and everything else since they truly were nobility. (Which did not help a bit when in 1952, Poland became officially the very communist People’s Republic of Poland.)
Her mother was Polish. She was very elegant and sophisticated. So charming and exquisite.
Both of them spoke a very fluent and cultured French which meant that they really were upper-class in Poland.
Well, anyway, I was utterly under a spell after meeting them. Not because they were upper-class but because they truly were delightful and educated. They had this touch of Slavonic charm that I had so much yearned to exude every time I read one of those Russian novels I loved so much.
One day my friend and I were having a heart-to-heart talk about love and marriage since both of us had barely survived a very hurtful first marriage.
Her mother was listening very intently while we were airing our grievances. Then she smiled very sweetly.
“My dear daughter, you know my story but let me tell your friend what happened to me when I was a very young woman.”
There I was. In one of those Russian novels I had loved so much.
You see, H.'s family was really upper class. Her youth was filled with rides in the countryside from mansion to mansion, with invitations to balls and whatever was fashionable at the time. You think that this life only happens in novels, Russian ones preferably. Well, this was H.’s everyday life besides learning French and English and good manners with her governess.
One day, she was properly introduced to a dashing and handsome officer who met all the desiderata of her family. She agreed to marry him of course.
So there she was. Married to the dapper young officer. She was terribly in love with him or maybe more with her idealized picture of their well-being.
A few months went by. Life became unbearable very quickly. He was madly jealous and he double-locked her in their apartment whenever he had to return to quarters or when he went to his club.
She tried to reason with him. To no avail. Then she implored him. To no avail.
One day he told her that if she dared to leave their apartment without him, he’d shoot himself in the head.
She was frightened but one day, she managed to go out while he was away. She wanted so much to have tea with her girlfriends in a fashionable tearoom not very far from their apartment. She was very young and somewhat frivolous, she said.
So there they were. A group of young women having a good time over a nice cup of tea.
The door opened. He came in and looked at her.
“I warned you that if you were to go out on your own, I’d shoot myself. I did warn you, didn’t I?”
He pulled his gun and fired. Not at her. He shot himself.
“He fell on my lap. This was so ghastly. I never thought he would do it. And I didn’t even have time to reason with him. He came in and it was over in a few seconds.”
Death is always tragic but suicide is even more tragic. And this young man was the classic hero in a Russian novel. A truly classic hero to his eyes and the rules of his brotherhood.
What happened to H.?
She grieved but not for too long because she met A. a few months later. He was a few years older than her, I think. They got married and they had three daughters. And they weathered one war, the destruction of Warsaw and postwar communism.
They grew old very serenely and they died peacefully less than a couple of years apart.
And their death was not a tragedy at all. Their family grieved of course but life went on as it should.
Years went by and I had almost forgotten this story.
My friend and I have chosen different paths and we only meet occasionally. We now talk about our children and not about long gone parents.
Last week, I was in Warsaw and we happened to pass by their old apartment. And the memories came back.
Happy memories of H. And warm memories of quite a few Russian characters still cluttering my mind after so many years even though I no longer take refuge in a world of romance.
*Good Luck, and Good Night*
In 1996, I was invited to exhibit 35 pictures in Radom, about 60 miles south of Warsaw, Poland.
It was our first time in Poland and would probably be the last one so I felt very strongly that Popeye, Swee’Pea and I, we had to go to Auschwitz.
Which we did even though I had to enter into some intense negociations with the organizers of the show. Poles are not too keen to go to Auschwitz probably because it was compulsory for young people (and probably still is).
Besides the fact that in Poland, it is quite hard to broach the topic of the Jewish mass extermination and/or anti-Semitism.
I won. They got my pictures and we went to Auschwitz. Our driver and our interpreter chose to wait for us in the car which was just fine after all.
I have read that nowadays Auschwitz has as many visitors as the Eiffel Tower and that the spirit of the place suffers a lot from the hordes of tourists plus the extensive use of digital cameras (which is nevertheless totally forbidden).
The day we went there, we were completely by ourselves. Alone. Which was great because it turned out to be a profound shattering experience. A very painful ordeal. We needed privacy.
I am a photographer but Auschwitz is the only place in the world where I simply could not and would not take pictures. Not one single picture.
Who wants to take pictures of the unspeakably unbearable?
Do we need to show that we were there? Do we need to exploit this horrifying place? Let the dead and their pitiful material remains rest in peace along with the photographs the Nazis took.
I started to cry the minute I entered the camp. I was still crying a couple of hours later while we were walking on the grounds after visiting the museum.
I still can’t get over this experience even though 17 years have gone by. We felt so devastated there. The day we were there, the place was really a shrine filled with silence. And this silence somehow awakened memories that were not ours, memories beyond words.
The pictures I never took are still so clear in my memory I feel like crying again whenever I let them sweep though my mind.
We went to Auschwitz after the private viewing of my show and from there we took a train to Warsaw to visit some friends and then we flew back home to Paris.
Last week, we went back to Warsaw even though we were not too happy about going back.
But we had no choice. Swee’Pea had been attending a worldwide conference there. Due to a very tight schedule, he just could not come to Paris.
So we flew to Warsaw instead.
Warsaw looks so different from the 1996 Warsaw. Now it is a modern, clean and affluent city.
We spent our first day walking around the ‘Old Town’ which is not this old after all since Warsaw was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis and the historical buildings were rebuilt after the war.
On Sunday, we decided to get to places we had never been to in 1996. It turned out very handy to hire a cab because some of the places we wanted to go to were quite far out.
Our English-speaking driver picked us up at the hotel. A very nice young man, very eager to share Warsaw with us... Actually he was more than nice as soon as he learnt that Swee’Pea is an astronomer.
Why are you in Warsaw?
Because I went to this astonomers’ conference...
Oh! You are an astronaut?
Well, he kept being nice even after Swee’Pea explained that he’s only studying galaxies and not flying around in a space shuttle!
We then drove around to parks and palaces...
But actually I wanted to go through the Warsaw ghetto or what used to be the ghetto. I don’t want to sound ghoulish but I was getting a little bit tired of memorials to WW II and the Warsaw Uprising, of royal palaces, of monuments to popes and kings and poets and of Catholic shrines. You find them everywhere in Warsaw. Each one of them with fresh flowers and candles.
I don’t know what I really wanted though. The ghetto has been levelled in 1943 after the uprising but I had read that you could still find fragments of the wall here and there. Not that fragments of a brick wall would help me to understand what had happened in the ghetto.
I guess I just wanted to walk around through history... Was this some kind of a Gernika syndrome again? Probably.
In 1996, our friends in Warsaw refused to talk about this facet of their history. We had been shown a couple of very beautiful houses though... that used to belong to Jewish families... before the war that is. The perfect demonstration that Jews had been «gorging» on poor Poles hence deserving their fate. A commonly held assertion at least at the time we were in Poland. (I have heard the same argument in France.)
In 2013, things seem to be a lot different. A museum opened last year about Jewish History in Poland and there are lots of official reminders of the Ghetto.
Nowadays plans and steles guide you along an immaterial wall.
I am pretty sure our driver believed that we were Jewish because he decided on his own to drive us to the Grzybowski square (Plac Grzybowskiego). This is the area where you find every fragment of the wall you can possibly find in Warsaw plus several buildings that were enclosed in the Ghetto and survived its levelling in 1943 and the 85% destruction of Warsaw in 1944.
In all of Nazi Europe, the Warsaw Ghetto was the biggest ghetto ever. A brick wall was erected, 3 meters high, 11 miles long enclosing a surface of 1.5 square miles.
The wall cut off 500.000 Jewish people (found in Warsaw and its region) -- 30% of the Warsaw population living in less than 2.4% of the city.
Before the war, the city of Warsaw had one of the most important Jewish community in Europe, about one third of its population actually -- almost 400.000 people. In May 1945, survivors were down to 300.
Most of the Warsaw Jews were gassed in Treblinka. Those who didn’t starve to death or weren’t shot in the Ghetto by the Nazis, that is.
This walk through whatever was left of the ghetto was a very sobering experience. Not as distressing as in Auschwitz though. Well, different.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was a concentration camp, a labor camp and an extermination camp. It has been partially destroyed but things are still extremely concrete there when you walk through the exhibits in the museum and the barracks.
In the ghetto, everything tends to the abstract. The vacuum is unbelievable because it has been somehow filled up. Levelled living quarters were replaced by ‘new’ buildings aeons ago. People are living there along those very streets that used to be part of the ghetto and so close to what’s left of the wall. No Jews there either.
A couple of buildings that were part of the ghetto remain but they are so derelict. Fragments of the wall do exist but what is a brick wall to our collective unconscious?
Therefore it is quite impossible to grasp that 500.000 people disappeared forever from there, never to return even if we have read books or seen movies about them. Even if the little boy "forcibly pulled out of dug-outs» in the ghetto preys in our minds from time to time.
A few pictures from our walk through the immaterial Warsaw Ghetto
The Wall or what's left of it --
Buildings from the ghetto --
|The divide between the two ghettos linked up by footbridges. The streetcar kept running below them throughout the war.|
And... the wall and "new" buildings that were built after the war over the ghetto --
*Good Luck, and Good Night*
I do have to confess that Picasso is not my favorite painter, for many reasons which are not relevant here so I won’t expatiate upon my artistic crazes...
But there is no doubt about one point though. Whenever I plan a trip to Madrid, I make sure I’ll spend a few hours at Museo Reina Sofia. Why? Because there is a painting there that always takes my breath away. Such a violent feel actually. But I have to come back and come back again.
This painting is called “Guernica”. You have heard about it, no doubt but maybe you have never seen it in reality.
The painting is huge (7,87m wide and 3,50m high). Black and white and grey. Like a photograph actually. And it depicts something that is most unbearable and unfortunately quite endless. The horrors of war.
Many painters and artists have depicted wars but as far as I am concerned, no work has ever been as timeless as this one. No work has ever expressed so well human tragedy, unspeakable suffering and death of innocent civilians. No other work is such an absolute manifesto against war.
And yet it also depicts a true event in the style of Pablo Picasso.
In January 1937, Picasso who was living and working in Paris was asked by the Republican government of Spain to paint a mural for the International Exposition in Paris. Spain was then in the throes of a Civil War which had started six months before when the army had rebelled against the government. The painting was to express the scourge of civil war.
Rumor has it that at the time, Picasso did not really know what he’d be painting...
He then read George Speer’s eyewitness account of the bombing of a Basque small town called Guernica which was published in The Times and The New York Times two days after the destruction of the village (April 26, 1937).
And Picasso set to work immediately, actually one week after the bombing, four months after he had been commissioned and three weeks before the official opening of the “Exposition Internationale”.
(If you ever go to the Reina Sofia, don’t forget to look at all the drawings and the preparatory works for the mural. Picasso did not start painting outright. There was a lot of preparation involved besides the fact that this painting would somehow be the summary and the peak of Picasso’s thirty years of previous work.)
So there we are. “Guernica”. Looking more or less like a huge black and white picture from a newspaper...
But what happened in Gernika (its Basque name) on the 26th of April, 1937?
Gernika was and still is a small town in the Basque Country (Euskadi) in Northern Spain. In 1937, the whole region played a very important part in the fight against the rebels (also called the Nationalists) led by Franco. And Gernika is historically the seat of the parliament of the province of Biscay.
It may sound a little bit complicated but in 1937, Franco wanted to overthrow the Basque government and the Spanish Republican government as well... Hence what is now called the Spanish Civil War... when a lawfully elected socialist government in Europe was to be destroyed along with its supporters by a rebellious army essentially led by a general called Francisco Franco.
This Civil War was also to become the testing ground for the new hawkish Nazi German army which was called in by Franco for help (along with the Fascist Italian army).
On April 26, 1937 which was market day in Gernika (then crammed full with neighboring villagers too), the Condor Legion of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe bombed the village... The bombing and shooting lasted for several hours and the small town was almost completely wiped out.
No one will ever know how many people died or were wounded that day. Some say 300. Others, 1700... plus hundreds of wounded who ended up in Bilbao.
No matter what the numbers really were. That day, innocent civilians were bombed and gunned down and killed and maimed, inaugurating some deadly and very dark times for years and centuries to come, from 1937 until this very day and the days to come, I am afraid.
Last Sunday, we were driving from San Sebastian on our way to Bilbao when we decided on the spur of the moment to stop at Gernika. Gernika-Lumo as it is called now.
Well, this year has been the 69th anniversary of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre where almost all the villagers were shot and burned by SS soldiers on their way to Normandy... This happened in France. 642 people. Men, women, children and babies. Ouradour-sur-Glane was never rebuilt. The burned-out ruins and objects have been preserved ever since. Our duty to remember the wantonness of barbarity.
Honestly I don’t know what we expected to find in Gernika. Maybe some “ruins” set up as a memorial? 76 years later?
The "village" looks so modern.
There are a few “surviving” buildings... The school and a couple of churches besides very, very few ancient buildings...
|There is one bell, supposedly the one that tolled the minute the planes got there.|
There is also a very new plate with the names of the men from the village who died in camps before and after Franco won the war.
And then, there is the Peace Memorial. Yes, there is a Peace Park and a Peace Memorial with two sculptures. “Gure Aitaren Etxea” (1988) by Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida and “Large Figure in a Shelter” (1992) by British sculptor Henry Moore. These sculptures are symbolic of Gernika-Lumo as a city of peace.
|"Gure Aitaren Etxea" by Eduardo Chillida|
|"Large Figure in a Shelter" by Henry Moore|
But because I am French and because I grew up with the children of those Republican families who more or less survived only because they had fled their country after Franco’s victory, I think I was expecting a little more “Memory” in Gernika.
There may be a very simple explanation though... Franco won the Civil War and established dictatorship over Spain from April 1, 1939 until his death, in November 20? 1975.
Memories had to be suppressed, especially the ones where his opponents had been so willfully killed and destroyed.
And then time went by. Omertà ruled at least in Spain while Franco was still ruling. And grief became dull I suppose...
And Gernika became the world center for peace. Which is hard for me to accept but quite easy to reason out.
The thing is... how do you survive after living through this kind of hell without any recognition... from 1937 till 1975?
I really don’t have any answer to this question. Is “Guernica” an answer?
Well, I don’t think so. It is too intellectually apocalyptic, isn’t it?
Picasso had “Guernica” sent to the United States where it was exhibited in New York’s MoMA until Franco’s death. Well this is a very short summary...
MoMA finally gave back “Guernica” to Spain after the King Juan Carlos transformed Franco’s dictatorship into a democratic constitutional monarchy.
I remember first seeing “Guernica” in 1984 at the “Casón del Buen Retiro” which is an annex to El Prado Museum. It was protected with bullet-proof glass and machine guns! Quite an experience!
In 1992, it was moved to a special gallery at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia... in a much friendlier environment.)
*Good Luck, and Good Night*
I have been suffering from various phobias all my life long. Who hasn’t? Go check this very interesting website and I am pretty sure you’ll be very surprised how phobic one can be. Even you, my very rational friends!
Last Friday, we flew to Bilbao. We had decided to spend four days in the Spanish Basque Country before Popeye would start a very long week of meetings and seminars in Spain. I had never been to the Spanish part of the Basque Country even though my grandmother on my father’s side was a native of Biarritz and very proud of being Basque.
(By the way, she was called Gaxuxa (Ga-tchu-tcha) which means Gracieuse in French - Graceful in English. And she was a very graceful lady, so I was told since she died when I was a wee baby.)
Well back to phobia!
Popeye had managed to get a much better seat than me... probably because he’s such a frequent traveller. Since he’s very sweet and nice, we swapped our seat reservations which meant that I’d fly to Bilbao with a lot of room for my legs! First row of seats and on the aisle... My dream!
The plane filled up quite fast especially since most of the passengers were Chinese on their European tour. But the front window seat was empty and I kept hoping Popeye would be able to join me for the flight.
Flying is definitely not one of my phobias. It’s just nice to fly close to my husband, I guess.
Everybody was already on board and getting ready for the flight.
It was then one last passenger came aboard. One young woman. The purser was obviously waiting for her. The minute she set foot on the plane, she was taken to the cockpit where she spent quite a few minutes talking to the pilots, which is a very amazing thing to do nowadays.
Then the flight attendant took her by the arm and very sweetly led her to the empty seat by the window. So much for traveling with Popeye. Oh well! Then I overheard a few extremely comforting words that were surprising enough to get me to stare at the girl.
She was crying her heart out.
The flight attendant looked at me and gave me a very weird smile... Like... “You, with the short white hair, you look happy and energetic. Please help me!”
I received her message loud and clear. I turned to the girl and I grinned from ear to ear. The message had to be even more clear so I touched her hand ever so lightly and was rewarded by streams of tears.
She managed to mumble a few words: “I am so scared. I hate flying.”
Great... The plane started to taxi and the hostess went through the usual procedures.
The girl looked at me. “I hate takeoff and I do hate landing too. I let the aircrew know about my problem before departure. But I’ll be fine during the flight. You’ll see,” she said while she was shedding more tears than I ever do in one year!
I was flabbergasted but what could I do? I grabbed firmly her hand and started talking to her. Asking questions about her job and her life... Anything that could get her mind away from takeoff which was getting dangerously closer and closer... The flight attendant was checking on her as much as she could... Then she realized I was taking over and that everything would be fine... hopefully!
Hopefully... because none of us knew whether or not this phobia would find another wilder expression or not or would be dissolved in tears.
I couldn’t help thinking about my phobia of boating which would send me overboard rather that stay (safely) in the boat whenever the sea would get rough...
So I kept holding her hand as tight as I could and I tried soothing her until the plane finally took off... through æons of time... seems like.
She then blew her nose and smiled at me, not quite relaxed but feeling much better obviously...
“See, once takeoff is over, I feel fine. And you have been very helpful. Usually people look at me as if I am crazy. Actually they even avoid looking at me. Thank you so much for taking care of me.”
She then went on telling me that she flies a lot for her job and she goes all over the world and she doesn’t mind long, very long flights which I hate by the way.
She just suffers from this phobia about takeoff and landing.
She once considered quitting her job and flying but then she realized that she’d never get back on a plane, ever...
I thought that she was very brave and I told her so.
I did keep avoiding boats for so many years... Until Popeye found a way to get (and keep) me on board... Taking pictures, that is.
We had a very nice chat while flying over France and part of the Atlantic Ocean, I imagine! The purser told her that Air France held seminars for people like her and she insisted that she’d try to register to one of those classes.
And then came the announcement: “We’ll be shortly landing in Bilbao...”
The crazy scared look came back so did the tears but so much less...
Probably because we had been talking about her life in Santander where she lives with her mom and brother and dog in a house by the sea and I had been telling her about my life in Brittany which was so similar to hers, walking her dog on the beach in all weathers. (I do walk my camera in all weathers!)
So we talked about her walks on the beach with her Bobo all the while the plane was going down towards Bilbao... At landing though, she instinctively stretched out her legs as if she were slamming on the brakes, which I pointed out to her!
And believe it or not, she was laughing while the plane taxied down along the runway.
Then she looked at me then at her wrist quite laden with all sorts of bangles, most of them looking like “grigris”... (I know because I used to wear all sort of charms during the cancer years... most of them given to me by friends.)
She removed one of them, a green plastic bracelet with words written on it.
“It’s from Lourdes,” she said. “I know it will protect you.”
Well, I am not too keen on religious charms but she was such a sweet person that I thanked her profusely. We kissed before parting.
A chauffeur was waiting for her to drive her back home.
And I had to wait for Popeye who had spent the whole flight stuck on a very uncomfortable seat at the rear of the plane. The man loves me, I know.
“En la Gruta Bendita he rezado por ti... ♡LOURDES♡” the bracelet says. (In the Blessed Grotto, I prayed for you...)
I will keep this bracelet with gratitude.
This young woman parted with this obviously dear talisman just because I smiled at her and tried to soothe her fears on account of my own phobias.
Being phobic can help after all! Just kidding!
*Good Luck, and Good Night*