“….When the trains arrived, at three in the morning, that was the worst time for us. You hear the brakes screeching and you hear the people’s footsteps, and the kapos with the dogs pushing them forward. When the dogs howl, it goes all the way up to the sky…”
“…..every time I come back to Bergen-Belsen, it’s like a party! The dead fly up in a rustling of wings. They come out, they stir, I can feel them, they are singing, and the sky is full of birds…”
– Ceija Stojka, Roma artist and Holocaust survivor
I make a point of communing with other artists and their work when I travel. I’m here in Paris, collaborating with fabulous musicians and composers, learning too many notes until I give up in fatigue to walk outside in a bustling, Parisian Spring.
An extraordinary exhibition just closed at La Maison Rouge (a museum I’m told is itself about to close). The work of Ceija Stojka, an Austrian Lovari Roma artist and survivor of three concentration camps, testifies not only to the past, but also the ongoing oppression of the Roma, and millions of other refugees and prisoners. She died in 2013, with a rich legacy of drawings, paintings, journals, and books, which construct and deconstruct memory through the eyes of her ten year old self. You can feel her tremendous love and unflinching vision as she depicts life before, during and after the concentration camps. Even the birds that feast daily on thousands of corpses are understood – she writes that “…they were our protectors and they were human beings. People we had known. And we weren’t alone because there were so many souls fluttering around us…”
Her work is an eerie echo of some of the images, dreams and symbols that lived inside my head as a ten year old in New Zealand. I was obsessed with horses, birds, sunflowers, the Virgin Mary, and played dress-up in curtains and scarves with hoops over my ears, harboring deep fears I could barely articulate. Still, at that age I was very clear, creating memory palaces, brick by brick. I had recurring nightmares of a cruel, red-faced Nutcracker doll and was struck by Stojka’s images of the camp guards – they are almost exactly the same.
I don’t know why I shared so many symbols with her when I was a child. But it’s common for cultural memories to skip over genetics, generations and geography, with urgent wings, and fly through any willing portal….
“…When you are alone, it enfolds you. Sometimes, the sorrow turns to melancholy. First there is the sorrow, and then it gets so sad that I want to cry. But afterwards, I feel the union with my people, even if we have been separated so much…”
“You have to imagine, we were a people that were always, are still thought of as evil. Migrants, Tzigani who steal, who lie, who smell bad, they are witches who cast spells, and I’ve no idea what else they say about us. But the reality was that we had a family life and any little thing could make us happy….And even if it was a caravan or a little room or a bedroom, it didn’t matter, honouring the mother or the father and grandparents, it was done with such respect that the children would have been unhappy if they hadn’t been able to live like that…” – Ceija Stojka