1993 travel journals, vol. 2
The second in a series of excerpts from my 1993 Scandinavian-European travel journals, visit a museum that exhibits children’s drawings of life in concentration camps.
Old Jewish Cemetary and Museum, Prague, 24 September 1993
The museum was disturbing. I find myself getting ‘choked up’ sometimes. During a certain piece of music, my sinuses open up, I breathe in deeply, and my eyes begin to water. It is not because of something sad, for example, in the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony or of Adams’ ‘Harmonielehre’, but because of sound that makes me realize the power of music. It is sometimes memory and sometimes abstract feelings: grandeur power complexity humility awe. In the museum it was different. My eyes watered completely uncontrolled. I began to notice when I was reading a plaque about artists that showed life in the Prague ghetto on canvas, paper, cut-outs, etc.
Last night when… [the] bag with the camera and sketchbook was stolen, I felt uncontrollably angry. Last night I felt like lashing out blindly at someone. Walking back to the hotel that night I whistled part of Shostakovish’s Seventh Symphony. From the liner notes of a recording a ‘banal Nazi marching tune’ is sounded and repeated over and over against a snare drum. Representing the approach of the Germans toward Leningrad during winter in World War II, this tune is developed and twisted as the proud fighting machine encounters the Russian winter and the unyielding city. That night, no one could steal anything… as long as I whistled this tune and stayed alert.
At the museum, how could you deny the Holocaust? Impossible. It couldn’t be denied, but like Shostakovich using the German song as a victory song for the Russian people, the Jewish artists of the ghettoes used images produced by situations the Nazis created to condemn and bring testimony. There was nothing to whistle here, but to see the spirit of an entire people could never be broken was nothing short of justice.