It's playful. But serious. Tragic. And hopeful. There was a feeling attached to the experience of buying the photographs. It was a compound feeling, with many elements. One, a feeling of encountering photographs on their own, objects encased in clear frames, their innocence captured in stabile time. Two, the fact that they were not just toys but recovered toys, damaged once, yet brought back to life, resurrected by an artist, cleaned, arranged, and then shot, on film, to be shared, played with in a new way, by a wider circle of children than originally conceived by their maker. Three, my own act of buying them--"supporting an artist"--who was Russian and Israeli and American, a triptych of her own identity, peddling her depictions of Tel Aviv refuse in a fashionable spot square where a hundred years ago immigrants fought for fair wages, humane work hours and conditions. And finally, I was aware of the planned obsolescence, as it were, of the sentimentality attached to raising kids. Their own dolls and toys already being memorialized, captured by the inevitability of the aging process, of maturation, of growing out of serving as playthings and becoming play objects. Here the brilliance of the art seemed to really shine through.
I paid the money, put them in a bag, and hustled home.
I occasionally dust them, set them in order, even play with their arrangement. I marvel at their durability. But I hadn't really thought about them very deeply until today, when back through Union Square I took a quick turn over to the Strand. A found ten minutes had me digging through the stacks for a pleasant surprise, the first English edition of Nelly Sachs' O the Chimneys, a work of poetry I have always wanted to work through and never quite found the time. But when news came through over the weekend that Gerda Lerner had died, I was so conscious of that loss of voice, that loss of yet another one who had triumphed over fascism, Nazism, the incomprehensible sense of Jewish dislocation of the twentieth century, that the thick volumed collection, published in 1967 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, called from the bottom shelf in the poetry section. Like the photos from ten years ago: Buy me. Own me. Leave me for someone else one day when you die.
Emails have been flying back and forth for the last few days since Gerda died. Countless students she taught; others who swam in her wake; distant fans who marveled at the enormity of her resilience, her bravery, her tireless insistence on justice and equality. And all that Jewish Viennese dignity. We used to kid one of our kids that if she was a boy we'd have named her George for George L. Mosse of Berlin, via London, New York, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Madison and Jerusalem. To keep the name, the connection back to a Jewry that will never again exist, to the giants who came before us, like Gerda, like George.
It feels important to capture a time, to try to get it right. Doing so uncovers truths that often and regrettably get buried beneath the refuse of violence, oppression, or even quiet, long-suffering indignity. So you dig them up, dust them off, and present them.
While jostling with other citizens on the train platform at Union Square before heading home, several compatriots prepared their kitbags for the journey to Brooklyn. Papers, magazines, iPads, laptops, phones and books were unsheathed, their informational edges gleaming like steel, ready for battle. I sat on a 4 train next to a guy playing a car racing game on his iPhone. While he banged and crashed his car against virtual walls in hot pursuit of the ever-elusive algorithmic finish line in the mind of his all-powerful Gaming Conceiver, I muttered to myself a prayer that in some geek's room, somewhere in the future, is an app in development where the game is so real that when the car crashes against a wall, the player has to stop playing, get out of the car, call for a tow, bargain with the tow-truck, call his insurance agent, file a police report, check his bank account to cover the costs of repair, and then wait, several weeks, for things to be resolved before getting behind the wheel, only to joyfully smash it up all over again.
It's just too damn easy to do whatever we want with our objects--our pads, our phones, our guns. Where the hell are the consequences! The book in my mind, its bricked cover, called out.
Nelly Sachs wrote:
O the night of the weeping children!
O the night of the children branded for death!
Sleep may not enter here.
Have usurped the place of mothers,
Have tautened their tendons with the false death,
Sow it onto the walls and into the beams--
Everywhere it is hatched in the nests of horror.
Instead of mother's milk, panic suckles the little ones.
Yesterday Mother still drew
Sleep toward them like a white moon,
There was the doll with cheeks derouged by kisses
In one arm,
The stuffed pet, already
Brought to life by love,
In the other--
Now blows the wind of dying,
Blows the shifts over the hair
That no one will comb again.
We are the generation that knew both the giants who conquered fascists and their grandchildren who rescued toys from the garbage. "Dolls with cheeks derouged by kisses." And we weep, on trains speeding through tunnels, "over the hair that no one will comb again."