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Absence and Loss

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2007-05-21

photo by Marion Davies

photo by Marion Davies

As the daughter of German Jewish refugees, fine art photographer Marion Davies has gone back to her roots. Davies has travelled to Berlin to photograph various memorials there to Jews and minority groups eliminated in the Holocaust.

Talking about the images in her exhibition ‘Absence and Loss’ at the London Jewish Cultural Centre, Davies explains she bit the bullet and made the trip because she could see that good would come out of it.

“My hope is that my photographic work will in someway contribute to confronting the dangers of discrimination and extremism,” she says.

The scenes she captured enable visitors to the exhibition to answer that great question of how modern day Germans deal with the atrocities of the Nazi era. They also helped Davies to learn more about her past.

“Like many of my generation I was reluctant to visit Germany. From my visits I derived a deeper understanding of the dilemmas Germans face in dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust,” she says, adding: “these include acknowledging the loss of a significant part of its population and culture through the emigration and annihilation of German Jewry.”

Before seeing the exhibition I had guessed there are large scale Holocaust memorials in prominent places in Germany, but didn’t realise there are also lots of small, innovative tributes as well. Davies explains: “Walking the streets of Berlin you notice a large number of memorials. They appear everywhere, on a street corner, in a market place, even on a bridge overlooking railway lines. They reveal what was a vibrant community.”

One of Davies' photos, ‘The Abandoned Room’, is of a sculpture by Carl Beidermann and Eva Butzmann on permanent display outdoors in a residential area of Berlin. It shows a desk and beside it an upturned chair. Davies describes how the scene evokes Nazis coming to take people away to the camps. “German Jews, and later their European counterparts in occupied countries, lived in constant fear of the sound of boots hammering on the door and subsequent night time arrest by the Gestapo. This memorial hints at the Nazi rule of terror,” she says.

To me, the small memorials tucked away off the beaten track have the same power as the massive memorials like the one in central Berlin created by Peter Eisenman in 2005, which has rows of blocks evoking a cemetery. (Davies shows it in her photo ‘Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe’.) The large sculptures hit home the vast proportions of the genocide, but the small memorials tell you individual stories and make you feel the loss of a specific person, who could have been you if you’d lived there at the time. One of the photos, ‘The Missing House Memorial’ shows a small installation by artist Christian Boltanks permanently on view on an apartment building in Berlin. Boltanks has attached plaques to the outside wall of the building.

Each one is positioned to indicate the flat where one of the Jewish residents used to live, stating his/her name and profession. ‘Absence and Loss’ also looks at memorials to the other minority communities the Nazis persecuted. The image ‘Euthanasia’ shows a sculpture in Berlin by Richard Serra, marking the murders of 200,000 mentally and physically disabled people by the Nazis.

The accompanying commentary states that the Nazis’ Aktion T programme to wipe out this group ended when the German church intervened. It doesn’t refer to the prominent graffiti visible on the sculpture that you can see in the photo, but just by taking the picture Davies is making a judgement on the attitude of some Germans today.

Another photo, ‘Black Victims of Sterilisation’, shows a tree with severed branches standing in a field. The picture gives an overwhelming message about the impact of the sterilisation forced on black Germans. However what is more disturbing is that Davies was forced to photograph the destroyed tree because there were no memorials to black victims for her to snap. Thankfully she is able to show us the memorials for gay, Roma and Sinti victims.

Another area covered by the exhibition is what life was like for the Jews of Berlin before the Nazis removed them from the city. The images are a catalogue of restrictions and destruction; a synagogue which was obliterated except for one pillar, a music society where Jews were banned from performing the works of German composers.

In today’s Berlin there is currently a sculpture acknowledging May 10 1933, when, in prominent sights, the Nazis burnt works by Jewish, Marxist, pacifist and ‘decadent’ writers. In Berlin this took place in the Bebelplatz, now the location of Micha Ullman’s ‘Bibliotek’ memorial. The memorial is underground and visible through a glass ceiling, showing empty white shelves. Davies has included a ghostly image of books, ‘Jewish Science and Scholarship,’ as was unable to snap Ullman’s piece as it was blocked by construction work.

Some of Davies’ images are less bleak as show the resistance that took place in the Nazi era. ‘Sporting Champions’ is a photo which pays tribute to three Austrian swimmers who refused to take part in the 1936 Berlin Olympics because there were signs on display in public places saying ‘Jews and dogs forbidden’. The swimmers were stripped by the Austrians of medals they had won previously and disqualified from all future competitions. The photo ‘Hiding and praying in Weissensee Jewish cemetery’ shows how Jews bravely hid from the Nazis in a miniscule space in the roof of a mausoleum in the cemetery. The image brings it home how the hiding place was cramped and exposed to the elements.

Davies’ picture ‘The Rosenstrasse Protest’ shows a sculpture by Ingeborg Hunzinger marking the only successful mass protest against Nazism. On February 27 1943 the Nazis rounded up 4700 Jews who had previously been ignored for deportation because they were married to non-Jews. They were taken to a detention centre for transportation to Auschwitz. However they were later released after 3000 relatives stood outside the centre in constant protest for over a week. Hunzinger’s work shows large stone women embracing each other.

As I was going round the exhibition I spoke to two octogenarians who both escaped Nazi persecution. Camden resident Alice Franks, 86, originally came from Germany and says ‘Absence and Loss gives “real insight” into what went on there. 89-year-old Liah Weber, from Camden, came to England in 1939 as a teenager on Kindertransport. Weber says that with 'Absence and Loss' Davies succeeds in giving others a rounded picture of what really happened, though added: “I don’t need to see it because I went through it.”

'Absence and Loss' is at the London Jewish Cultural Centre until May 30th.

Admission is free, for more details call 020 8457 5000 or visit www.ljcc.org.uk