Yishay Garbasz re-creates the route of her mother’s footsteps during the Holocaust, based on her mother’s typewritten life-story.
Documented interview by Cristina Burdu’ja
Yishay Garbasz (b. 1970) is a British-Israeli rooted artist, working and living in Berlin where she moved in 2005, ‘when, as she describes it, there were no buildings like this, everything was dirty and everything was cheap and all the streets were full of dog-shit’. She lived so far in Taiwan,Thailand, Japan, Korea, Israel, America and England.
When finally ‘In my Mother’s Footsteps’ was published (a project Garbasz worked on for nine years), it got nominated for the German Photobook Award. Sadly the project has never been shown in Germany. It has been shown in the Busan Biennale, in the Miami Art Fair, in Tokyo (few times), Seoul, Taiwan, Thailand, New York.
‘In my mother’s footsteps’ is not the story of my mother, it’s the story of her daughter in her footsteps and it’s a story about inheritance of post-traumatic memory, cause it’s now my memory, my trauma and I have to take responsibility for it, says Yishay. Her mother died two weeks after seeing the book.’
Did you discover that this was harming you while you were working on the project or…
Also before…I realized that everybody could remember their childhood and I just had swiss cheese around mine. That was when I realized that I have PTSD and that what’s impetuous for the project is to see, to really see my mind. My mother had two role models growing up, abusers and abused. She chose abuser from two options she had available for her as a parent and that’s how I grew up…and I can say that, but it took a long time to be able to say that and to understand that. We all deserve parents that love us, doesn’t mean we get it. Doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t love them but it also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t call out abuse when there is that.
Do you refer to non-physical abuse?
Yes, psychological abuse is much harder to discover because the abuser tries to shape the reality of the victim and it is really hard to hold on to what has happened.
Especially when you’re a child. So, did that help you remember?
Yes, I was able to recover memories. When I came back from this journey, one of the gifts that I’ve got from it, was an increased capacity to love. It maybe sounds corny, but that’s what happened. What was a smaller lake before, came back as a deep ocean. The inheritance of traumatic memory, because trauma is not actually inherited. Might be re-enacted but the memory is inherited because the patterns are repeated and you grow up with the patterns.
We have both selected the photographs from the book. Yishay asked me to pick the ones I like assuring me of great stories behind each one of them. You can imagine how tricky this was. I had a book of a life in my hands and a very intense being in front of me, snuggled under the blankets and noticing precisely my heartbeat. I always felt exposed with her, she gave me that space and from time to time would ask me ‘Any other things you want me to ruin for you? I am really good at dark morbid conversations. I’m awesome at that. You smile too much, I’ll take care of that. ‘ followed by an explosively evil laughter. Beautiful!
Art gives you space to feel. Good art gives you space to feel, but it doesn’t dictate what you feel. Good art changes with your mood, it has capacity for more than one thing, but it doesn’t make you feel anything. The only way that art kind of tries to make you feel something specific is by showing you the mind of the artist and how inadequate they feel to themselves.
‘In my Mother’s Footsteps’
[1st Photo (cover photo of the book)]
So this is Footsteps 48. This is actually three stories underground. This was in Christianstadt, largest munition manufacturing site of the 3rd reich. It’s like 2,5 – 3 hours from Berlin. It’s in Poland. You can’t really tell that this is so deep. This is summer, I’m shivering cause this is so down it’s actually cold, I’m wearing a jacket and shivering. This is an one hour exposure. I couldn’t tell the colours because it was so dark and I didn’t want to walk in because then you could see my footprints in the picture, so…I kind of…had a sense this is the right picture and I took it. You can see the things that are coming from the ceiling, that’s because it is war concrete, it had a special added chemical to harden it against bombing. And with the time the water started to take from that chemical and make these little things.
I was wondering, cause it looks like a cave, stalactites.
The stalactites are actually the chemical.
Wow, it looks like sort of a chandelier, I felt the need to look closer as if ‘what is that? What are these lights?
After a while your eyes get used to the dark, you see this light kind of streaming and I was like: whooooa, this looks so beautiful! (laughs) You kind of stand there in the dark, because you can’t use any light, because that would ruin the picture and you just basically try to stand still not to disturb anything and you just wait (laughs). And it’s very very scary (laughs) because it’s dark and cold and has noises.
Wow, sounds like a horror situation.
It’s a horrible camp, I mean they made bombs and they used slave labour to make the munitions and people died making them.
Do you know what chemical was used?
To make the concrete harder? No, I don’t. But I know that it’s referred to as ‘war concrete’ because of the added chemical.
It looks cold, but this light makes it…it’s a very contradictory feeling when I look at it. On one side you have all this concrete, all these pieces, like this gathering, you feel you’re getting cold just by looking at it but then you look at this light…
Pictures are magical. Just because they become so easy to do doesn’t mean they are not magical. When you can take 10.000 pictures, it’s one thing, but if you can only take one picture: what would you do for that one picture? Because you are there for that picture. It’s not you’re there anyway and take pictures, you’re going to take a picture and you do whatever you have to to get that picture.
It’s quite interesting that you weren’t seeing how it’s going to happen but…
No, but I felt it. I had a tiny flashlight and I didn’t want to walk into it. So I just felt it. In the dark (laughing). In the cold dark.
[2nd photo (pre-last in the book)]
This is Footsteps 61. This is where my mother was taken after the allies rescued them from Bergen-Belsen. They transported them to the former SS quarters. My mother was hallucinating at the time, but she remembered one thing, tall windows. Talking with the historian of the camp we figured out that this is the only place that had tall windows that prisoners were taken to when they were just received from Bergen-Belsen. There were three locations, and this was the only one that had tall windows. After the war ended, this became the largest tank training ground in Western Europe and it’s actually British soil so they have royal mail and everything.
So this is where the german nurse cleaned my mother and kept repeating over and over ‘We didn’t know. You must believe us. We didn’t know. I didn’t know.’ This is a really interesting point because this genocide is happening around you and you don’t know. It is very relevant for us today, because there is horrible war in Syria, there is horrible war and famine all around the world and living here in Germany there’s a lot of privileged people that have a comfortable life and really don’t understand what’s going on because of the limits of their comfort.
I mean, when you look at the political situation now in America, Donald Trump basically said things that are extreme, racist, misogynist, class…horrible in so many ways and you look at it and you have to compare it to Hitler. When Hitler was elected it was like ‘oh, he would not do everything he says because …you know…it’s against the constitution, it’s like too much’ but no…he did that! I mean when somebody says ‘I’m going to kill you’ believe them, they are going to kill you. People don’t just say it. Doesn’t mean you should change your behaviour, but believe what people are telling you. And when Trump says he’s gonna bomb the families of people he thinks are terrorists, I believe he will commit that war crime. When he’s extreme vetting of muslims and kicking out all the muslims, I believe he’s that racist. I believe he’s that antisemitic. I believe he’s that anti-black. I believe what he says. I think people should believe people when they say something. It saves time. And when people think that ‘Oh my God, where did all of this, with Brexit also, where did this all come from?’ It was always here. You were just too privileged to have to experience it. In my communities a daily war to survive is normal. Be thankful you are privileged and not had to experience that but it’s there all the time.
What is the language written here? (Showing to the right side of the photo)
Arabic. This was used for briefing the British troupes about to go to Iraq. This was during the invasion of Iraq, which still hasn’t ended yet (laughs)…seriously, right? This was photographed in 2005 – 2006…ten years ago and we’re still in that war. Ten years and we still haven’t learned anything.
[3rd photo (ladder)]
That one is in Theresienstadt, the nazi show camp. The picture looks really clean, right? There’s so much bird shit on the floor, but somehow the camera makes it all look clean.
So this is an attic, but it’s quite like…what did you see here?
It just worked. It is like it was correct. There is only one rule I know in photography, it has to work. This was really a very interesting time in this project because this was Passover and I was in the place where my family had their last Passover together as a family in this camp. So my mother, her sister and my grandparents.
It’s very interesting that you said it cause now I was thinking that the ladder is down, the distance is so small…it’s like you see the access towards out, towards upstairs, to go to the roof, to go higher.
This was the last picture I took there, before I left. It was the end of the day. I was so tired, you know, I’ve worked the whole day. I was exhausted. Cause it’s day after day and you’re just sooo tired. And you’re fighting your exhaustion and taking the picture because you’ve done it so many times over so many days, you’re just struggling to keep going and all idea is that a good photograph is better, all of it is melted and you’re pushing yourself to keep doing it and you’re tired and that’s a great interesting struggle.
And then you get the feeling: ok, this was it.
You’re too tired. You don’t get a…you just keep doing.
Yeah, but there is a sense of completion.
Yeah, that’s months before the project ends you get a sense that you know how to start it, that’s the sense of completion.
[4th photo (synagogue)]
This is the women section in the synagogue. In orthodox Judaism the women are separated from the men and this is the women section in the synagogue. My mother and her two sisters are almost one percent of the survivors. There were over 120.000 Jews in Holland before the nazis, 5000 after. It’s because of the great bureaucracy. Cause everything was written and registered, so when the Nazis came the Dutch turned over the archives and the Nazis could find all the Jews.
Why didn’t they burn them down?
There was one archive that was burned down in Amsterdam, but most weren’t. Well…but this is a great question. This is a question to ask now in America. Cause if we look at America, you know…with immigrants, with trans people, from January it’s going to be so much harder on everybody that’s marginalized. Trump says he’s gonna deport, he’s gonna deport to the country of origin. So he’s gonna be deporting people that have escaped…America should be looking at compensating the Native Americans for the largest genocide in history, right? But nobody talks about that. I’m thinking of what’s gonna happen to refugees, 3000 refugees or fewer who made it, they gonna deport them to the country of origin which means that they’re gonna be killed. It’s morally repugnant. Trans people will not be able to change their passports or ID documents. I mean, they’re in the most amount of risk because with the bathroom laws in America and repealing the LGBT protections that Trump promised, trans people are not going to be able to go to bathrooms. We’re not joking about this. With the fines and the jail time, trans people are excluded from society. They’re already not included that much but he’s gonna kill them off. Muslims, I mean…they’re gonna round up Muslims, that’s what Trump says he’s gonna do. I believe him.
The bad stuff at least…
The stuff that’s gonna inflame feelings expect him to deliver. He’s gonna double-down on hatred and racism cause that’s the easiest thing for him to do. Fixing economy and stuff, that’s not gonna happen. Especially not with isolationism. But, the thing that he can double-down on is the hate. That’s the easiest thing. We have example of how stuff works. You find your dissidents, you jail them and kill them. You find these others that are the cause of all your evil. That’s what happened with Jews, they were the cause of all evil and all the hatred was towards them instead of working together in an un-glamorous way to make everybody’s life better. You find the other that’s the enemy and generate the hate towards them, while the rich are getting richer and the poor and getting poorer. Black communities are more and more precarious. There was a black American president and yet, black Americans are still killed outside the law by the police without repercussions. How does that work? Somebody should explain that to me.
None of Yishay’s many holocaust-related works that received international exposure and acclaim were exhibited in Germany. She is a resident of this country for more than 8 years.
This is a subject of great frustration for me.
I am really thankful for the opportunity to interview this great woman. She is a true listener and a profound teacher of life. She laughed at me any chance she got:
You never get the answers you want. You want the easy way. I can show you but I can not tell you.
You can find more of Yishay’s works here: