In 2006, the poet Jane Liddell-King and photographer Marion Davies together embarked on the Faces in the Void project to uncover the story behind a certain Torah scroll which had once been owned by a synagogue in Pardubice, a city near Prague. In doing so, they travelled to the Czech Republic and encountered the extraordinary stories of Holocaust survivors and their relatives. Marion took photographs of these individuals and the surrounding areas, while Jane turned their interviewees’ testimonies into poetry.
They include Ladislav Novák, whose mother was one of the twins experimented on by the Nazi scientist Mengele; Josef Kraus, whose Jewish father killed himself after his non-Jewish mother divorced him to save their children; Vera Gissing, one of 669 children rescued and taken to the U.K. through the Czech Kindertransport organised by Sir Nicholas Winton; and Alice Sommer-Herz, a pianist who survived internment at Terezin. (You can read ‘Appasionata’, the poem inspired by Alice’s story here, along with the portraits taken of her and Marion’s experience photographing her.)
Marion Davies is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work has been exhibited around the world. Her first exhibition, Absence and Loss was published in book in 2007. Working together with photographer Debra Rapp, she recently co-produced Dispersal, an exhibition that records the businesses community in the Stratford area before many businesses were ejected by the Olympics.
Jane Liddell-King is a poet whose work has been published in Britain, Germany, Australia and the United States. In 2004, she won the Seatonian Prize for Poetry. She is the author of three plays and numerous articles. She has previously collaborated with artist, Nancy Tingey on an exhibition entitled The Golden Calf, which was shown in both Britain and Australia.
We caught up with Jane, who answered some questions about the Faces in the Void project.
For the benefit of readers who have not yet read the book, could you tell us how you came to begin this project?
In December 2005, I heard a sermon given by Professor Melissa Lane at Beth Shalom Reform Synagogue, Cambridge to which I belong. This was the inspiration behind Faces in the Void. For the first time, the Synagogue was using a Torah scroll which originated in Pardubice, a small town 95 kilometres east of Prague. Melissa explained how the entire population had been deported to Terezin in December 1942.*
I determined to go to the town to pursue the story and I decided to ask photographer, Marion Davies to come with me as we had both just finished projects investigating aspects of the Holocaust and Marion’s Synagogue also used a scroll originally from Bohemia.
These two scrolls were among 1,564 put on the black market in 1964 by the Soviet government in Prague. They had inherited a collection of Judaica ranging from buckets to ritual objects, made in 1942 by the Nazis for reasons that remain mysterious. The Soviets acted against the wishes of the Director of the Jewish Museum in Prague and struck a deal with Anglo-Jewish philanthropist, Ralph Yablon who with the support of Chimen Abramsky, an expert in Judaica and art dealer, Eric Estorick had the scrolls taken to the Westminster Synagogue in London where Rabbi Harold Reinhard had agreed to store them. Those that could be restored were gradually distributed to communities across the world including the Cambridge Jewish Residents’ Association who lent it to Beth Shalom.
You end your introduction to the book with the words: ‘Although both our encounters and our research brought us into the closest touch with extreme suffering, these also revealed possibilities of survival and regeneration. And it is this transformative sense that finally resists despair.’ I was wondering whether you made the testimonies into poetry – rather an unusual move perhaps – because of this idea, that transforming memories of such horrors into poems is an act of hope?
This is a good question but I don’t think that writing testimony as poetry has to do with hope. Rather it is the most direct way I can find of communicating the experiences with which I have been entrusted.
I was wondering whether you could tell us about the process of writing these poems. Did you write them immediately after you interviewed the people involved? How did it compare to writing other poems that are not part of these unique circumstances? Did you feel a greater sense of responsibility than usual due to its nature as someone else’s painful memory?
I did not begin to write the poems until months after we’d returned from Prague, in fact just 3 weeks before the first presentation was imminent which was April 2006. I had continued to be in touch with the survivors by e-mail, snail mail and telephone as well as continuing conventional research into Czech history. The eventual process of writing was no more challenging than writing any other poem: the responsibility to “tell the truth” whether it is to follow the logic of the imagination prompted by a lived experience or to present the memory of a known person remains as challenging. That said, it was extremely important to be aware that I was translating from Czech or German and to try to “get” the interiority of the spoken language.
This Sunday is, as you pointed out, Holocaust Memorial Day. As you know, one of the objectives of this day is to raise awareness of the Holocaust and genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur not only for its own sake but also in the hope that this will help us ‘to create a better, safer future’. Do you see your work as part of a similar movement of remembrance and bearing witness?
Firstly, it is crucial to recognise the unique nature of the Holocaust. Other genocides are indubitably appalling but do not involve the industrialised murder of all of those who fail to confirm to the Aryan ideal: Jews, Poles, the disabled, hosmosexuals…
When you say ‘unique’, obviously it is not do with individual suffering since, as you say, the other genocides are ‘indubitably appalling’. Although, being in a different context, the other genocides were not motivated by the idea of an ‘Aryan ideal’, they were all conducted along ethnic or religious lines with the intention to exterminate specific minorities. So I was wondering whether you could clarify what you mean by unique?
Thank you for asking me this which I have regularly to explain as people invariably imagine I am quantifying suffering; far from it. The Holocaust is unique in being the only genocide (let’s be careful about the term and when it was coined)! involving the industrialised murder of 6 million “misfits”.
Do you believe that these efforts to remember radiate such benefits beyond itself?
While I might hope that the directness of my poetry engages with an audience, I have no illusions as to its effecting political change. I had a painful conversation with Sir Nicholas Winton about our failure to learn from the past. But we go on trying…
* Terezin – A former fortress city in what is now the Czech Republic, which was used by the Nazis as a ghetto-labour camp. Over 140,000 Jews were deported there and it served as a transit place to hold prisoners until they were transported once again to extermination camps. Around 90,000 Jews are thought to have been taken from Terezin to other camps in the surrounding area. While Terezin itself was not an extermination camp, the appalling conditions led to around 33,000 people dying inside.