History in the Margins
Ravensbrück concentration camp: 70 years after liberation
If you’re looking for heroines – real women who performed deeds of great daring and bravery – Ravensbrück Memorial is a good place to go. It stands on the site of Ravensbrück concentration camp, the only camp the Nazis set up exclusively for women. The surrounding landscape of Brandenburg in northeastern Germany close to the Polish border is flat and empty, an expanse of woods interspersed with beautiful lakes. Berlin is only 50 miles to the south, but a world away.
British journalist Sarah Helm was looking for heroines when she first discovered the story of Ravensbrück camp. She was researching for a biography about Vera Atkins, an officer in the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the British military intelligence network that fought secretly against the Nazis in the Second World War. The SOE parachuted many women agents into Nazi-occupied France where they worked with the Résistance, often as radio operators and couriers. Although Atkins never worked actively in the field, she was the commanding officer of a number of SOE agents who operated in France and were later arrested and deported to Nazi concentration camps. Among those agents, Denise Bloch, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo were executed at Ravensbrück on 5 February 1945 and Cecily Lefort was murdered in the gas chamber at Uckermark Youth Camp close to Ravensbrück sometime in that month as well.
A barn in Vera Atkins’ garden in southwest England housed the archive of her wartime intelligence work. There, Sarah Helm learned with shock and disbelief about Ravensbrück, one of the greatest crimes ever committed collectively against women. Slave labour, horrific medical experiments, murder of newborn babes, forced prostitution, the cruelty of women guards to women prisoners … from 1939 to 1945 this was hell on earth for more than 130,000 women and children, 20,000 men and 1,000 teenage girls and young women. 40 subcamps made up a network for slave labour that spread right across the region and beyond.
Women prisoners “shamed by humiliation”
By the time Sarah Helm read these stories, more than 50 years had already passed. She was amazed she knew so little about Ravensbrück. Why was there such ignorance about it? The more she met and talked to survivors of the camp, the more she realised how many had kept quiet. “Women felt particularly shamed by the humiliation they suffered from the Nazis,” she said. French survivors told her the first question they often faced when they returned home after liberation was, ‘Were you raped?’ Although the answer was usually ‘No’, the women felt their experiences in Nazi captivity had made them victims of collective violation.
In an interview several years ago, Yvonne Baseden, a former SOE agent who survived Ravensbrück, urged Sarah Helm not to write the story of the camp for women. “You have two young daughters,” she said. “Perhaps it is just too horrible for them.” But Sarah Helm wasn’t just interested in rescuing Ravensbrück from its obscurity “stubbornly in the margins of history”. She wanted to discover what made a women’s camp different. She went on to write her recently published book, If This is a Woman, the biography of the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück. The title refers to Primo Levi’s masterpiece, If This is a Man, one of the greatest works of literature by a Holocaust survivor.
Inhumanity and slave labour
At the ceremony on 19 April 2015 to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the prisoners of Ravensbrück, Sarah Helm stood on the stage on the former assembly ground and pointed over the heads of the crowds of guests and spectators to the treetops beyond. The chief guard of Ravensbrück, Dorothea Binz, was a simple woman, Helm said, a forester’s daughter who came from those woods just over there. What made her into a monster of legendary cruelty who tortured and murdered women, men and children in her charge? Why were so few of the camp guards prosecuted or sentenced after the war? Why, above all, were many of the slave labour bosses never been called to account? Helm particularly mentioned the thousands of women did slave labour at Ravensbrück external camps for Siemens (and Mercedes Benz, I might add). – Why have those women never been adequately compensated while the companies profited hugely from their toil? Many of them literally worked to death. Shame on Siemens, said Sarah Helm, speaking loudly enough for Germany’s industry bosses and politicians to hear. Even after the thorough cleansing and reparations of the past 70 years there are still some pockets of injustice left to sew up in today’s new Germany.
But Sarah Helm wasn’t merely interested in exposing inhumanity or redressing the victims. She wanted to pay tribute to all the brave women who defied the Nazis and helped each other and remained human despite everything. She singled out Elsa King, the prostitute from Düsseldorf who was renowned for her courage and kindness and was gassed in the Nazis’ ‘euthanasia’ programme in Bernberg. Or the women who wrote letters using their urine as invisible ink to try and publicise their plight and the crimes in the camp. Or the doctors who saved patients in many ingenious and risky ways. She pleaded, too, for us not to forget the Communist women who remained faithful to their country and cause all through the Nazi captivity, only to be arrested and persecuted back in Stalin’s Soviet Union for having been caught by the enemy. Not forgetting the brave Polish women who resisted German occupation in Warsaw and fought in the uprising that was so brutally crushed by the Nazis in 1944. Many of those women were sent straight to Ravensbrück on arrest.
And what about the Jewish women who had often lost all their family and had been through an odyssey in the various camps of the Nazi Reich? – as part of the group that suffered the most from the Nazis, they have a well developed structure to defend and preserve their memory. Mindful of what it means for the dwindling number of remaining survivors, the Israeli delegation to Ravensbrück this year was particularly large and accompanied by many young assistants and volunteers. Polish and Ukrainian visitors stood out as well. The grounds of the former camp were vividly populated by several groups of nuns wearing embroidered Polish emblems and carrying their national flag on their way to wreath laying at the wall of remembrance. There was an air of class reunions, of a big day carefully planned ahead in the lives of each visitor old enough to remember what this assembly ground looked like when the SS held the roll call in the early mornings that always seemed to cold or too hot, while the women guards cracked whips, waved truncheons and held their vicious dogs on the leash.
But what of the unsung sufferers, the German women and men labeled ‘asocial’ and sent to Ravensbrück just because they were poor or defiant or wouldn’t conform to fascist ideas? They have been erased from history, says Sarah Helm – they don’t even have the status of victims.
The joy of liberation
Ravensbrück was the capital of the crimes against women just as Auschwitz was the capital of the crimes against the Jews. Sarah Helm believes we have much to learn from this unique camp, and is encouraged by the interest in her book especially among the younger generation. Perhaps the story is indeed too terrible to be told, she says. But it’s still worth telling. In the end it shows the triumph over death and evil.
After liberation, the Red Cross took some of the women to Sweden. Sarah Helm quotes the astonished reaction of diplomat George Clutton who welcomed the survivors in Malmö. He had never seen seen people so full of the joy of life. Now that’s a story worth telling, over and again.
Heroines – Secret Agents
One of the most terrible sights at Ravensbrück memorial is the ‘execution corridor’, a passage between two buildings where the condemned women prisoners were forced to walk through and were shot from the back. Three women SOE agents and several radio operators from the French Résistance were executed here. Accounts by other prisoners testify to their extreme bravery in the face of death. They are still revered and remembered today in the UK and in France.
Heroines – survivors – eyewitnesses
It’s hard to imagine the courage it takes to come back to the place of pain and talk to the descendants of mass murderers and try to spread the word that each human life is precious and fascism must never happen again… The remaining eyewitnesses of the Nazi atrocities bear precious testimony, and the media crowded around to hear their stories.
Heroines – A Plaque for Milena Jesenská
The Czech Ravensbrück Committee was responsible for one of the most touching moments of the liberation anniversary day. It sponsored a plaque for the Czech journalist Milena Jesenská who is known to the world as the woman immortalised in Franz Kafka’s Letters to Milena. After her relationship with Kafka she became a prominent left wing political journalist and later wrote on issues important for women. Sent to Ravensbrück as a political prisoner, she was welcomed into the elite Block 1 and much loved and respected by many other prisoners. Doctors in the infirmary fought hard to save her life but she died of kidney failure in Ravensbrück in May 1944, aged 48.
“She was a mediator between the Czech, Jewish and German spheres. She helped victims of persecution to escape into exile. After being detained in Prague and Dresden she was deported to Ravensbrück in October 1940, where she perished in May 1944.
She was one of over 2,200 Czech women imprisoned in Ravensbrück.”
It felt good to throw flowers into the lake. It has become a tradition on memorial days at Ravensbrück.
My small tribute to all the Hungarian victims and prisoners at Ravensbrück – the picture shows the Hungarian section of the Wall of Nations.
Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015
Worth reading: Sarah Helm, If This Is A Woman, New York: Little, Brown, 2015
This is dedicated to my friend Edita from Bratislava who lost her parents and sister in Auschwitz, was imprisoned as a young girl in Ravensbrück and worked as a slave labourer making aircraft parts in the Mercedes-Benz work detail in Genshagen, south of Berlin. Despite a long campaign, she and the other women labourers there, many of them from Hungary, have never received compensation. Edita was liberated by American soldiers and later fed and helped by Red Army soldiers to return home.
Posted 20 April 2015
In Berlin. This haiku does not directly mention the weather.
Berlin mood haiku (spring version)
City in waiting
Always after and before
Never in the now
Poem & pictures @ Karen Margolis 2015
Posted 29 March 2015
It’s not what’s on your head, it’s what in it that counts
Headscarves are in the news again this week in Germany. The Constitutional Court just overturned a previous ruling banning teachers from wearing headscarves in school. Specifically, this relates to headscarves worn by Muslim women for religious reasons. Depending on how you look at it, the lifting of the ban has been hailed as a victory for freedom of religious expression or an abandonment of the principle of keeping religion out of state institutions. It’s actually amazing how a relatively minor issue compared with the miserable state of much of the world has received so much media commentary. The headscarf issue has become invested with an enormous symbolism. Why?
Ideology of style
In an age where you are how you look, not least in the lens of your own mobile phone, outward appearance has become a statement with ideological impact. You assert your individualism against mass consumption by managing to look different at the same time as conforming . This acrobatic trick allows you to claim freedom of choice while slavishly following the dictates of fashion, religion, and private and public power relations. The discussion on the headscarf issue in the German press is laden with so many contradictions and weird cultural assumptions that it’s suffocating under its own weight. First and foremost, it has been hailed as a victory for religious expression, although nobody has been able to find any binding requirement on Muslim women to wear head covering. But the media are full of Muslim women telling us how relieved they are to be able to show their piety without censure, and if it makes them feel good I certainly have no objection. However, the argumentation that society as a whole will benefit from this decision is rather shaky. It’s hard to argue that general acceptance of dress codes for women is a step forward. But if Muslim women feel more confident in public when headscarves are permitted, so be it.
The main reason why it was necessary to lift the ban is that it was based on totally false assumptions. Germany, in common with most European countries, is not a paradise of laicity threatened by Muslim religiosity. On the contrary, most European countries are still deeply Christian in many respects, so deeply that we hardly notice how embedded Christianity is in daily life and especially in the calendar, from the day of rest to the major public holidays. As long as the Christian cross and pictures of Jesus or the Virgin Mary adorn walls in German classrooms (and they are still there in many places, particularly in the more Catholic south of Germany), there can be no talk of laicity and no ban on public display of any other religious garb or insignia. So it’s only fair to let headscarved Muslim teachers into the classroom, and Jewish men with kipas, Buddhist monks with their special hairdos, Sikhs with turbans etc.
On a practical level, head covering is unlikely to interfere with teaching. The burqah and other extreme forms of clothing, especially ones that prevent children seeing the teachers’ face, obviously pose much greater tolerance problems. The headscarf, in fact, is a borderline case that has become mainstream. It embodies a successful product unity of style and ideology in modern societies.
A feminist triumph?
The revised headscarf ruling has been welcomed generally by religious leaders of most faiths because they see it as strengthening the role of religion in general. That’s not good news for atheists, who have a difficult and relatively unprotected legal position in comparison with the religious, and certainly a far less effective lobby. Sharp criticism has come from women with Muslim backgrounds who are trying to fight for more laicity and less religion for Muslim women. And from some organisations who work with young women trying to escape the strictures of traditional families including Islamic faith being used as a reason not to let girls join in social life, swimming lessons, etc. or to choose their own partners and generally join in the wider society. The headscarf ruling may strengthen the hand of conservative mullahs in Germany who want to control women’s bodies and minds. That’s a battle for women within Muslim communities, and I wish them luck.
The oddest argument I’ve seen so far is from a left-wing newspaper columnist who hailed the new headscarf ruling as a triumph for feminism. Why? – because the overturned ruling had discriminated against Muslimas who wanted to wear headscarves as teachers, whereas no law had objected to the luxuriant facial hair sported by many ultra-religious Muslim men. Once again, the columnist wrote, women had been the victims of ideological battles between Muslims and the state. The trouble is, ideology or not, beards are in vogue nowadays and it’s often hard to distinguish between young religious Muslims and fashionistos.
Religion can make even simple things seem terribly important. But who knows? – maybe the headscarf will see a revival as a fashion item and the whole issue will lose its loaded religious quality and fade into the insignificance it deserves.
Those of us who grew up in the West in the 1950s remember headscarves as a staple item of female outdoor wear, not to mention the war widows. My encounters with the headscarf are narrated in detail in a chapter of my book, A Renegade Jewess. It is reproduced below for the occasion of the revised headscarf ruling.
A Renegade Jewess Part 3 Ch. 1 © Karen Margolis 2015
A Renegade Jewess
PART THREE: A Feminist Jewess
Faith, Fashion and Choice
how odd of God
to choose the Jews
Verse & Worse, Faber&Faber 1958, p. 256
The woman in the headscarf sat at the back of the ladies’ gallery, following the
service intently in the prayer book. From where she sat she could hardly see the
action below, but that didn’t seem to bother her. She scarcely looked up at all. Her
lips moved with the songs and prayers, her eyes fixed on the Hebrew words
before her. She never spoke to her neighbours in the gallery, and she frowned
when the chatter around her grew too loud. My sisters and I dubbed her ‘The
Mouse’ because she always wore grey or brown skirts and beige twin sets. No
jewellery, no make-up, no decoration of any kind, not even the hint of a smile
relieved the drab, solitary appearance of The Mouse. She first appeared in the
Hampstead synagogue one spring Saturday morning, and from then on she sat in
her back seat every Shabbat and holy day until she became a fixture.
The Mouse’s most remarkable feature was her headscarf. Most of the women in
the ladies’ gallery wore hats, and those hats were something special. A new hat
for the high holy days was a talking point from the time it was sought on shopping
expeditions to the moment it was unpacked from its hatbox, unwrapped from the
tissue paper and donned for its premiere outing. During the service the hat served
as a beacon for the men folk looking up at their women and children in the gallery;
the more elaborate and striking the headgear, the easier for husbands and sons
below to spot their family above. Most of all, the hat was a status symbol that
declared whether its wearer shopped at posh West End department stores or had
to make do with the local milliner.
The headscarf, on the other hand, was an everyday item for charwomen, school
dinner ladies, factory workers and housewives hiding their curlers. In the 1950s it
enjoyed a brief fashion heyday inspired by pictures of Hollywood glamour girls like
Marilyn Monroe at home on the ranch, but by the Sixties, when we sat in the
synagogue, it had been relegated back to its origins — as folk costume or
functional headwear for women workers. For us, The Mouse’s headscarf was not a
religious, but a class statement.
On social occasions when the congregation crowded into the back room for
Kiddush, or gathered under the hanging fruit when the roof was slid back to
transform the room into the sukkah for the harvest festival, The Mouse remained
on the fringes. If we passed her in the crowd, we would murmur polite greeting
before sweeping past to grab niblets and fish canapés from the trays doing the
rounds. She would nod silently in reply and lower her eyes. We never saw her
eating the snacks or speaking to anybody except Reverend Bronsky.
Our mother rebuked us for our rude comments on The Mouse. “She’s a convert,”
she explained. “You have to treat her with respect. It’s not easy being a convert.”
Pressed to explain, my mother elucidated some of the hurdles that had to be
jumped to join Us, the Chosen People. Aside from learning Hebrew, studying the
Torah and being able to learning about Jewish practices and traditions, you had to
keep a kosher kitchen. The rabbi would come to check up whether you were doing
it properly. As our mother had given up the time-consuming rituals of a kosher
kitchen when we moved to London, where we had no domestic help, she was
reluctant to elaborate on the topic. If the rabbi had dropped in to check on her
larder, aside from non-kosher food he would have found forbidden goodies like
tinned shellfish. Our mother had a ready and rational argument for that: the dietary
laws had evolved in ancient times to preserve food hygiene and health in the hot
Oriental climate, hence the emphasis on clean slaughter, purifying of foodstuffs
and hand washing. Muslims, who originated from the same region, kept the same
laws for similar reasons. But nowadays, with humane and hygienic slaughter
methods, and fridges and sterile packaging, the old laws were obsolete. From our
mother’s viewpoint, selectively ignoring them was a sign of modern Judaism.
While we were curious about The Mouse in her charwoman’s headscarf, keeping
her kitchen kosher-clean, salting and soaking the raw meat before cooking, and
separating the cutlery and crockery for meat and milk dishes, the theme of
conversion and religious law unsettled my mother. Her mother-in-law had objected
to her as a bride for my father because she couldn’t be trusted to keep a kosher
kitchen, the primary test for a prospective Jewish wife. As children my sisters and I
had observed our parents preparing nervously for visits from the paternal in-laws.
Everything had to be double-checked to ensure that my grandmother’s sharp eyes
didn’t uncover any transgressions, dietary or otherwise.
My paternal grandmother was practically the antithesis of the modern woman my
mother aspired to. Under her headscarf was a wig. According to Jewish custom in
Lithuania, where she grew up, the bride’s head was shaved on her wedding night,
and remained covered from the world for the rest of her days. The custom
persisted into the modern age in some parts of Eastern Europe.
Among the Jews of the shtetl, as in Islam, the woman’s headscarf was a hands-off
warning to any other man except her lawful husband. Its secondary function of
concealing a primary element of woman’s beauty, her hair, also served to keep
male predators at bay. The headscarf was part of ancient strictures on female
modesty: the Hebrew Bible contains injunctions to women not to display their
attractions too openly, and warns of dire punishment for those who
disobey. In this sense, The Mouse’s outfit was quite religiously correct.
My mother, who had a talent for fashion drawing and loved fine clothes, was proud
of her emancipated style and contemptuous of women who obeyed religious dress
codes. The Mouse didn’t fit into her world. But there were other reasons, not
merely aesthetic, for my mother’s distaste of conversion — reasons shared
discreetly by most of our Jewish circle. In the first place, we were born Jewish. We
were born into the Chosen People, and that was an act of God, not a matter of
choice. Although it was never said openly, our Judaism was defined in terms of
ethnicity and tradition, not religion. My parents never distinguished between
apostate and practising Jews: the line they drew was between those born as
Chosen People and those destined to a life outside the fold.
This was no matter for pride or self-satisfaction, because being Jewish meant
suffering. Being one of the Chosen meant carrying the burden of six million
corpses all through your life, and reproaching yourself for surviving and enjoying
life, and having to be eternally grateful to the God that spared you on a daily basis.
It meant being ever watchful, fearful that the Terrible Event would come to pass
again. It wasn’t easy being chosen without any choice in the matter. It was more
like a duty imposed by an external power, or a tribute exacted for privilege and
There was another reason why we viewed female converts with pity mingled with
contempt. As my mother explained, the final stage of conversion for both men and
women involves immersion in the mikveh, the ritual bath — a precursor of
Christian baptism rites. Orthodox women are required to visit the mikveh for
purification on many different occasions, especially after menstruation and giving
birth, and before their wedding. In some Orthodox communities the woman
convert is accompanied by the rabbi’s wife or other respected female community
members. (Nowadays the rabbi’s wife is often replaced by a woman attendant, the
mikveh lady.) When the convert enters the shallow pool, the attendant women
duck her head under water until she is completely immersed. (Modern variations
include dipping alone or using a shower to ensure that head and body are thoroughly soaked.
My mother found this orthodox ritual bath repellent. Many strands of Judaism today,
including the Reform movement in the USA, have renounced the mikveh as
irrelevant, obsolete or incompatible with modern religious practice. Others have
developed completely new functions and meaning for it. But in Orthodox
communities the mikveh is still so important that construction of a synagogue can’t
begin before this ritual bath has been built, usually in the basement. Modern
mikvehs look like spa immersion pools, more sanitary than sacral, but the
ceremony is still reminiscent of biblical times. Much has been written about mikveh
rituals; some novels and memoirs by modern Israeli women testify to humiliation
and degradation suffered by women forced to go to the mikveh.
To many people in my parents’ generation who grew up immediately after the
Second World War and the Holocaust, being Jewish meant defiant rejection of the
persecution that had nearly wiped out their people. As young adults, my parents
embraced Zionism and dreamed of joining the kibbutz pioneers to build a new
society in Palestine. Many of their contemporaries took this path, often inspired by
socialist dreams. Young Jews rebelled against their parents and discarded ancient
customs and rites. They felt that no kind of piety or adherence to religious ritual
could have saved their murdered relatives from extermination. The image of a line
of Jews walking toward the gas chambers murmuring the shema in chorus was
ingrained in their consciousness: hardly an encouraging picture for the Jewish
youth of the future. Whether fighting for and building a new society in Israel, or
facing the consequences of adjustment to the post-Holocaust world in the
Diaspora — including emigration and adaptation to unfamiliar host societies —
many young Ashkenazi Jews of that period did not want to be weighed down by
the past. The ghettos of Eastern Europe that had housed their forefathers were
associated with the memory of Nazi ghettos and concentration camps of the
immediate past. The further my parents departed from this, the more they could
hope to ward off the shadow of extermination. Assimilation promised the benefits
of security in anonymity.
Our emigration in the 1960s from South Africa to London, just as the city was
becoming the swinging hub of the western world, intensified my parents’ dilemmas
over their Jewish heritage. However hard they tried to hang on to familiar patterns
based on religion and the family, their budding teenage daughters strained against
tradition and dragged them forcibly into the world outside. On Saturday mornings,
girls in miniskirts and boys with long hair strolled past the synagogue in noisy,
confident groups while we sat isolated in the service. Around us in the Ladies’
Gallery, women worshippers exchanged cosmetic and diet tips while the men
below keened and sang and swapped business gossip. We sisters sat there,
unwilling captives, searching for arguments to avoid synagogue. Religion was out.
Not for The Mouse: she obviously wanted in. Every Saturday morning she sat
frowning over her prayer book, a solitary reminder of a world other people had lost.
Why did she choose to join what we were struggling so hard to leave behind?
“Judaism,” Reverend Bronsky informed us at cheder, the Hebrew Sunday school,
“is not a religion of conversion.” My sisters and I exchanged glances, thinking of
The Mouse but unsure whether to broach the delicate subject. Converts had to be
respected, our parents said; but they also seemed to be despised, or at least
avoided. Reverend Bronsky confined his remarks on conversion to the present
day. He didn’t refer to the time when Jews forcibly converted other peoples or
carried off their women and forced them to submit to Jewish law and customs. He
sidestepped discussion about biblical founding fathers born to heathen
concubines. As far as Reverend Bronsky was concerned, the rule was that you
were Jewish if your mother was Jewish. Converts were accepted, but not actively
However, he concluded firmly, converts cast off their previous existence when they
became Jewish, and once they were accepted into the Jewish community they
were to be regarded as Jewish like the rest of us.
This was a sophisticated argument for school children to grasp. We are the
Chosen People and therefore different to the rest of the world. We don’t really
want them to join Us, but if they knock on the gates convincingly and persistently
enough, We’ll let them in after they have passed stringent tests not required of Us,
and from then on they will be full members and everybody has to forget that they
once lived beyond the gates in the realm of The Others.
This is a question of faith, not logic, and you can’t expect a child to understand
The issue of conversion to Judaism is not resolved by the rules. It is hard to
suppress the knowledge that somebody is a convert and act as if they are ‘really’
Jewish. As I lived my early social life largely among Jews, I have an instinctive
antenna for ‘Jewishness’, even in strangers — in the same way people from
similar ethnic backgrounds often identify each other in a wider society. I
sometimes felt this Jewishness about people I met in Eastern Europe, even before
the end of the communist era. Subsequently they actually discovered they were
Jews — their families had kept it hidden for decades. If I sense Jewishness
missing in somebody who calls themselves a Jew, the image of The Mouse
nibbles at a corner of my mind, raising the suspicion of conversion.
There can be no argument against the Jewish community’s definition of converts
as bona fide Jews. Every organised community sets its own entrance
requirements and membership tests. Yet if I had not been born Jewish, I certainly
wouldn’t knock at the gates of organised Jewry and ask to be taken in. People who
do so are operating on a religious basis that has little in common with my life or
perspectives as a Jew. My attitude to converts to Judaism is similar to how an
atheist regards converts to any organised religion.
From a sociological perspective, converts to Judaism are historical newcomers to
a group whose ethnicity has determined a particular fate over the centuries.
Converts come from families who have neither experienced the joy and pride, nor
suffered the pain and penalty of being Jewish through the ages.
The Mouse lay dormant for many years in her little dark hole in my subconscious
— until the signs of a growing conversion trend in Berlin’s Jewish community from
the early 2000s. At a conference of Jewish feminists in Berlin in 2003, I spotted
several versions of The Mouse clad in long-sleeved dresses despite the warm
spring weather, and adorned with religiously correct headwear, from a simple scarf
or beret to the colourful embroidered caps often worn by Middle Eastern men.
Some of the women in this attire were converts. My conference workshop on women artists’
expressions of Jewish themes was unforgettably dominated by a
German civil servant who explained at length how she had converted to Judaism
and asserted her new Jewish self by wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, under the
jacket of her work uniform. (The shawls are traditionally for prayer, but Orthodox
men often wear them in daily life as well.) This was the first time I had encountered
a woman in street wear with a tallit, its knotted white fringes peeping out from
under the hem of her jacket.
That woman civil servant was no Mouse. She radically shook up my image of
Jewish converts. Breathing righteous fervour, she embarked on a lengthy account
of her struggle with the German bureaucracy to be allowed to wear religious garb
on duty, and her efforts to persuade her co-workers to accept her explicit
‘Jewishness’. The monologue concluded with effulgent praise for her husband,
who had not converted but had loyally supported her decision and her battle for
religious freedom in the workplace.
There is no difference between her arguments and those of Muslim women in
public service campaigning for the right to wear headscarves. It is an imposition of
private belief in the public domain, and has no place in a secular society. For most
acculturated Jews in Europe and America today, religious dress code is a non-
issue. They feel nothing in common with the ultra-religious sects and their ghetto-
throwback outfits of black hats and suits, beards and side locks. One of the
benefits of free religious practice in modern secular societies is that you don’t have
to be outwardly identifiable. If you choose to be, it may be a short step to a political
The misplaced fervour of religious converts has become a serious political issue
with the recruitment of people who become Muslims, join radical Islamist sects and
end up as fanatics and sometimes willing suicide bombers. As Judaism is not a
proselytising religion, discussion about the role of converts within the Jewish world
is less open. Jewish communities generally don’t publish statistics on conversion,
but it seems to be on the rise in Germany. In 2007 a well-known German Jewish
journalist, Henryk Broder, wrote a satirical article about Germans converting to
Judaism and then trying to tell all the others how to be good or better Jews. Broder
was particularly scathing about the fact that German converts do not share the
terrible history of the Shoah with the other members of the Jewish community. You
can’t take on centuries of suffering and persecution by proxy.
Around the same time as Broder’s article appeared, some long-standing members
of Berlin’s Jewish community were complaining sotto voce about the ‘convert
takeover’ of one of Berlin’s synagogues. The general opinion was that converts
should be seen but not heard. Meanwhile, more than a few converts, encouraged
by growing liberalism in other quarters of the community, took up studying for
By the summer of 2007, Sonja, a Jewish friend whose family history in Berlin goes
back several generations, was complaining about a female convert who had
become a rabbi and was now criticising other Jews for not knowing the holy texts.
The new rabbi’s attitude smacks of Protestant bible fetishism. Strictures on
studying the scriptures, with their overtones of intellectual superiority, merely
alienate people who attend synagogue for its social side, to get away from the
daily grind and relax among friends within their community.
But if you’re not born into it, where does that sense of community come from? The
question is doubly important in Germany. Since the Shoah, there have been deep
divisions in society between victims and perpetrators, between people who
resisted and those who kept their heads down in the Nazi era. More than 60 years
later, the divisions are still there, transported by family histories that continue to
defy explanation, demand constant re-examination and inspire anger and sorrow.
A person who has grown up on the ‘other side’ can’t know what it’s like to light a
row of candles on Holocaust Memorial Day and watch them burn, often without
even knowing exactly how their murdered relatives died.
“When a converted German woman stands up as a rabbi to read from the list of
Shoah victims, how do we know it wasn’t her grandfather who murdered them?”
Sonja asks. There’s no answer. Born a generation after the war, the German
woman can’t be held responsible for her grandfather’s actions. Yet here in
Germany, conversion to Judaism inevitably raises the issue of blood, inherited
guilt and complicity. There is no rational answer because there is no rationality
possible in the face of the Shoah — or any other genocide. In the end, people
follow their feelings (and ingrown prejudices).
Hanging over all this is the big question mark of inherited guilt. Germans who
convert to Judaism often display the exaggerated philo-Semitism of descendants
atoning for the sins of their forefathers. Maybe they hope that if they chant the
prayers and blessings often enough and keep a kosher kitchen, they will be able to
expunge the collective or individual guilt with which history has burdened them.
This kind of thinking belongs to the general (predominantly Christian) perception of
atonement in western religious culture: it has much in common with penance,
charitable works and donating money to the poor.
However genuinely some German converts embrace their new Jewish faith, the
suspicion remains that they are trying to cast off a burdensome identity. You can
sense this in the fervour of new converts who broadcast each stage in the process
of their entry into Judaism. Some emergent Jews can talk inexhaustibly about the
theory and practice of the religion, the wit and wisdom of their rabbi, and the
salutary effects of daily prayer, honouring the Sabbath, and Torah study. I have
attended celebrations to mark the circumcisions of middle-aged male converts
where details of the Operation circulate in whispers while the happy celebrant,
dressed in his Saturday best, bathes in the aura of belonging to the Chosen
People at last.
It is not comfortable to be there for the purpose of giving somebody else the sense
of identity and community you haven’t found yourself. The phenomenon of
conversion in western societies may be interesting from a psychosocial viewpoint,
but I can hardly cheer on new recruits when The Mouse is peeking over my
shoulder — and I am pulled back to the teenage frustration of sitting in the dimly-lit
synagogue with my family on Saturday mornings and festivals, while beyond the
closed doors Sixties London is swinging in the bright sunshine of a summer of
love. The memory revives my teenage rejection of religion and the joyful, liberating
dive into anonymous apostasy and universal political causes. Harking back to the
critical spirit of those times, I wonder at today’s converts voluntarily jumping the
hurdles to join an anachronistic and largely patriarchal set-up whose current trend
is towards a split between ultra-religious orthodoxy and New Age adaptations. But
maybe I can’t understand converts to Judaism because they believe in God, and
not just any god, but the Jewish God.
Conversion takes us back to the mystery of religion, and why people believe. It
brings us slap up against the borderline between religion and atheism, spirituality
and rationalism, and right up to date with the atheist crusade that has occupied so
much media space since the mid-2000s. On a global scale, the issue of
conversion has gradually shifted from personal matters like contacts, convenience
and life phases to political issues of head-counting and fanaticism, splinter groups
and sects. In some parts of the world, the 20th century left a gaping hole in belief
systems and a mass of individual and collective identity problems, and religion is
being used as a way to fill the gap. In this process, the number of proselytes in
Judaism is minuscule compared with the conversions or changes of faith taking
place in other religions.
The days are gone when self-preservation or the desire for assimilation forced or
prompted Jews to convert to other religions. Since the Holocaust, it has been
impossible to believe that renouncing Judaism offers any protection against anti-
Semitism and, ultimately, genocide. At least in western countries, Jews, like other
religious minorities, live in relative peace and security (and enjoy state protection
against racists and anti-Semites); there are constitutional guarantees on freedom
of religious faith and practice, and religion has become (formally, at any rate) a
private issue. Atheism and agnosticism are socially acceptable. In the circles I
move in there is no external pressure to profess or practice religion. This means
converts to Judaism are usually making a purely personal choice.
Leaving aside the question of faith, and the social or economic advantages that
may prompt religious conversion, many people are simply looking for a sense of
community in a world where secular faiths and ideologies have failed. Religious
communities are usually quite happy to welcome these strays into the fold. And as
I learned in my schooldays, the Jews, like many other closed groups, can attract
outsiders looking for identification. At our girls’ high school in London in the 1960s,
the pupils met every morning in the big hall for assembly. Every day except
Wednesday, after the headmistress’ greeting a large minority of the girls would file
out to a separate room for Jewish prayers, while the majority stayed for the
Christian version. Wednesday was the day of United Prayers, when Christ was
carefully kept off the agenda. Nobody ever asked how the school body divided
neatly into just two religious groups when there were so many other religions in the
world. There seemed to be a tacit arrangement that any Muslims or Hindus among
us stayed quietly with the Christians.
Now and then, out of curiosity or to cheat the teachers, a Christian girl would join
the line of Jewish ones and smuggle herself into ‘our’ prayers. Since most of us
didn’t take religion seriously, we never gave the game away. We also kept it quiet
throughout our school years that one girl in our class, Gilly, technically shouldn’t
have attended Jewish prayers at all. Her father was Jewish, but not her mother;
and we all knew it was the mother that counted. But we weren’t inclined to apply
rules; many of us came from non-religious families, and credentials weren’t
important. Instinctively we felt that being Jewish and having our own prayers made
us privileged over the rest of the school; it was understandable that Gilly joined us
out of choice. The morning prayers together united the Jewish girls and gave us a
sense of kinship that certainly wouldn’t have existed otherwise. They shaped us
into a definable community, and we were quite willing to welcome non-Jewish girls
who wanted to identify with us. This was an early experience of how a closed
group based on religion (or ethnicity) can exercise a powerful pull over people
close to it, yet excluded. This is the lure of belonging that plays such a big role in
Having grown up breathing the ’60s zeitgeist, my classmates continued in step
with our generation. In the New Age haze of the 1980s and ’90s, quite a few of the
girls who had attended Jewish prayers with me at school — including Gilly —
followed the changing fashion and became Buddhists. Gilly once invited me to a meeting
in London where a group of people sat in a circle on floor mats in front of a small
Buddha shrine, chanting a Japanese prayer over and over again. I joined in, but
nothing happened. It was as remote as watching a movie. Meanwhile Gilly, flushed
and happy, swept along by the rhythm of the chanting, was obviously enjoying
some kind of high.
Trying to imagine embracing a different religion, I recalled the years of my youth
reciting the shema and singing psalms. Faced with the alien cadences of the
Japanese chant, and the toy-like Buddha statuette in the little shrine, I suddenly
felt a yen for Jewish kitsch. The memory of the Hebrew incantations, the Torah
scroll with its embroidered velvet cover, and the scent of treacly red wine in
chased silver kiddush goblets seemed comfortingly familiar. They had been part of
my life as far back as I could remember. They would still be there even if I never
again entered a synagogue or sat at a Passover table.
With the Buddhist chant ringing around me, the image of The Mouse slowly
resurfaced — and I finally realised why she was so intriguing. It was not just the
headscarf or the tight-lipped piety. It was the sight of a grown woman consciously
and willingly submitting to what I had absorbed subliminally and involuntarily from
an early age, and begun to resist as a teenager: indoctrination, the process by
which religion is passed on from one generation to the next and new recruits are
won. The Mouse has become my personal symbol of the conflict between
individualism (the outside world) and organised religion (the family). While my
sisters and I were struggling for our own identity, our Jewish family and its
community were striving to keep their grip, constantly reining us in with an
insidious bond, forcing us to conform. Many people can only sever that bond by
deserting the family and community that binds them with religion. Western society
offers the opportunity to merge into secularism. In most of today’s world, Jews are
able to assimilate but still retain their cultural identity while openly professing
atheism or apostasy. The Canadian bard Leonard Cohen summed it up when he
explained that sometimes he enjoyed living in retreat as a Buddhist monk, but felt
no need to convert to Buddhism. He said he was quite happy with his own religion
In the marketplace of religions there is plenty on offer, and a constant stream of
new products. The major world religions all have their media empires, PR agents,
sports and fashion departments, culture committees, kindergartens, schools,
academies and universities. All are trying to resolve the modern contradiction
between secular individualism and religious adherence. A wannabe shopping for
conversion opportunities in the Jewish segment of the market can choose between
a variety of ‘heavy’ or ‘light’ versions, between stringent orthodoxy and egalitarian
liberalism, headscarves or beards, designer-dressed women cantors or surfing
rabbis, Sephardi or Ashkenazi dialects and customs, and three-times-a-year
worship or daily prayers. Even if you don’t want to go the whole way, you can sign
up for membership of a cabbala centre and drop by for spiritual counselling.
For all that choice, secularity seems to be winning out in most western countries.
In the 40 years since I was a teenager, synagogue attendance has fallen
drastically in many parts of the world. Whereas converting in order to marry a Jew
has declined, ‘marrying out’ has become inevitable and is now tolerated by many
assimilated western Jews (if not explicitly welcomed). Judaism is being forced to
adapt to new generations of people with only one Jewish parent, some demanding
a share of Jewish identity (and their Christmas tree as well). Because they would
probably have been persecuted as Jews under Hitler’s Nuremberg racial laws, it is
hard to refuse them. One of the bitter ironies of the Holocaust is that the Nazis’
definition of racial membership has become a kind of benchmark for claims to
Still, in common with major religious trends in most western countries, the number
of Jews drifting away from organised religion is far greater than the numbers
converting to Judaism or switching to other religions. The time is past when Jews
had to adopt other religions to get out of the ghetto or evade persecution. Yet the
embrace of Judaism is not easy to escape. Jews who deny or ignore their origins
are often still seen or described as Jewish by the outside world — and not
infrequently attacked as self-hating by other Jews.
As for The Mouse, she has multiplied, and can be seen on the streets of almost
every big city the world over in modesty garb and headscarf. Today the lone
Mouse figure that once symbolised a vanishing past has multiplied into a future
crowded with religious women for whom the clock has been turned back to the
Middle Ages. For many of them, freedom has become limited to the 21st century’s
versions of consumer choice: Orthodox Jewish women can select their wigs from
glossy New York catalogues, while Paris fashion houses compete for the
worldwide luxury trade in Muslim headscarves. The dress code that The Mouse
adopted by choice along with her new religion has become a statement of religious
conformity that signifies its wearer as a member of a chosen people. Faith has
moved out of the private sphere and become publicly identifiable; and conversion
is often no longer a personal, but a social and political issue.
© Karen Margolis 2015
posted 15 March 2015
Entitlement & Empowerment
So far, not so good. 114 years ago the first International Women’s Day was celebrated by small groups, mostly from the Communist and labour movements, in a handful of European countries. Considering how much the world has changed since then, the situation of women hasn’t got very far. We still live in male-dominated societies with deeply patriarchal attitudes and the few women who have got to the top have only got to male levels. They haven’t created anything new.
Things will only change if we stop asking men for the right to do what we want. If we stop trying to please people by sacrificing and denigrating ourselves. If we start redefining our own goals, beginning with the power to choose what we do with our own bodies and lives.
We women have been doormats far too long. What will happen if we define ourselves as goddesses? As the epitome of creation instead of a second-best always straining to be better? As the rightful inheritors of the riches of the world?
We have nothing to lose but our own ideology of inferiority. We have a world to gain – a world we can shape ourselves.
Goddesses and Doormats
“Women are either goddesses or doormats.” This neat maxim was attributed to Pablo Picasso by his erstwhile lover, Françoise Gilot, in her kiss-and-tell memoir of life with the famous painter. That was back in the mid-20th century when the myth of the male genius was at its height and great artists were assumed to be equally skilled in the ars amandi. Unsurpassable whether wielding a paintbrush at the canvas or a penis on the chaise longue during afternoon sessions with female models in the intimacy of their studio. Surrounded by portraits of other ladies in various artistic phases and poses. This was the very ambience that could lead a connoisseur of female flesh like Picasso to pronounce on women’s status as goddesses or doormats.
The reality, of course, has long since been deconstructed like those shifting perspectives in Cubist paintings. By now we know that apparent opposites are only different ends of a continuous spectrum, especially when it comes to sex and related emotional minefields. Women are both divine and abject. Simultaneously, in some cases. We are capable of rising above men and kneeling at their feet at one and the same moment.
In the tradition of the mythical heroines of ancient times, we’re practising the daily art of apotheosis. I first became intensely aware of this around a quarter of a century ago, at a time when personal and political worlds were in upheaval at the end of the Cold War. Male poets who saw themselves as embodying the genius of the age arrogated the exclusive right to pronounce on love, just as Picasso had felt able to pronounce on the status of women a generation earlier. But meanwhile there had been a kind of revolution in women’s consciousness and we weren’t prepared to take things lying down any more.
Enter the poem as a gauntlet, thrown down in challenge:
(song für Bea)
hey I’m the moon goddess
since I stopped hammering
on your sickle
hey I’m the silver huntress
since I stopped spiking myself
on your arrow
hey I’m the black princess
since I stopped choking
on your sword
hey I’m the purple songstress
since I opened my legs
drank my juices
I’m the moon goddess
since I came with a candle
melting your axe
Poem © Karen Margolis 2015
HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY to all my readers.
Posted 8 March 2015
The theme of this year’s Carnaval de Nice was Roi de la Musique -King of Music. The Carnaval des Fleurs procession picked up the tune in an incredible display of floats, costumes and spring blossoms. More photos of the Carnaval des Fleurs procession on 28 February 2015 at the special page of the same name on this website: http://wp.me/PVSmN-1aJ
Photos © Karen Margolis 2015
Posted 1 March 2015
In the eventful year 1995 I started a project that still lingers on, waiting to be finished. It has been constantly interrupted by the ceaseless demands of the 21st century sweatshop where I grind the writings of others in the mental mill for my daily bread. The idea was to write a cycle of 13 poems, one for each month of the lunar calendar, based on an ancient chant called the Song of Amergin.
Each poem is written for the birth month of a particular person. The poem below, I am a Wind on the Deep Waters, is related to the end of the month of February, the only remaining 28-day month in the Roman calendar we now use.
The Song of Amergin
I AM A HILL OF POETRY
a 13-poem cycle in progress since 1995
The title of this cycle is taken from The Song of Amergin:
“said to have been chanted by the chief bard of the Milesian invaders as he set foot on the soil of Ireland in the year of the world 2376 (1268 B.C.E)”.
Written originally in Old Goidelic, the only surviving versions are in colloquial Irish translation.
The phrase ‘I am a hill of poetry‘ represents knowledge and is assigned to the month of September, which has the vine as its tree and is the month of the titmouse and the poet “the least abashed of men as the titmouse is the least easily abashed of birds. Both band together in companies in this month and go on circuit in search of a liberal hand; and as the titmouse climbs spirally up a tree, so the poet also spirals to immortality. And Variegated is the colour of the titmouse, and of the Master-poet’s dress.”
— Robert Graves, The White Goddess
Note: This cycle of 13 poems is based on the lunar calendar Robert Graves describes in The White Goddess. Each month is associated with specific natural/mystical characteristics and a particular tree.
I am a Wind on the Deep Waters
for S. M.
born 28 February 1973
Countless fingers raised across the centuries
have asked me for my speed and where I’m bound.
My face is beckoned by the hands of mariners
hungry for the feel of earth beneath their feet.
My arms can carry ships to welcome harbours
or cast them on the rocks of hostile shores;
my breath will stir the waves to monstrous fury
whipping the jagged edges of forgotten continents.
When all the world is quivering with expectant energy
I coax up towers for the sea god’s palace
and white-maned horses for his mighty chariot.
I am a wind on the deep waters
my voice resounds in the bows of sunken wrecks,
echoing in the ears of curious fish
as they nibble at skulls and spoons and strings of pearls.
My eyes in changing shadows of reflection
scavenge the seabed for the sailors’ charms
clutched vainly against drowning.
Amid old bones I find pale ashwood carvings
by generous dispensation of the Triple Goddess:
oars and slats of coracles for adventurers,
wands for poets to wave at immortality.
I am a wind on the deep waters.
The skies grow lighter, I sweep across the land
roaring in like a lion to dry the floods.
Close tight the doors, batten fast against me,
forgive the harsh impatience of my biting tongue.
The birds are listening closely to my composition:
my pipes are playing the overture to spring.
© Karen Margolis 2015
Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015
The photos reproduced here were taken in Cap d’Antibes and Nice Côte d’Azur.
Posted 26 February 2015.
Berlinale retrospective: 20 years back
February was the most hectic month of the year back in the 1980s and ’90s when I worked at the Berlin Film Festival. There wasn’t much time for sleep between producing the daily festival paper, reunions with fellow film critics, partying and meeting all kinds of film biz people from all over the world. During the ten days of the festival there was no time for watching movies — we either saw them at previews beforehand or caught up afterwards.
The past is always on the programme
Today, 20 years since I last worked as a film journalist at the Berlinale, even though the city has changed almost beyond recognition, and the festival has grown to a megamedia event, I can still feel traces of that February rhythm. Seeing the reviews and press reports, hearing the comments of friends involved, seeing photos of shivering stars braving the icy climate on the red carpet brings back the heady sensation of being at the centre of the cinematic world for a brief moment.
Twenty years ago, the centre of Berlin was Europe’s biggest building site as the debris and wasteland left by the Wall were cleared to make way for the urban redevelopment at Potsdamer Platz where the Film Festival and Film Museum would be permanently housed in shiny modern blocks between shopping malls and prestige buildings designed by star architects. Like the present year, 1995 was a year of anniversaries, headed by 50 years since the end of the Second World War, followed by five years since German reunification, and all the births, deaths and sundry events the memorial and nostalgia machines churn out to keep history alive.
With history always peering over my shoulder I wrote a series of poems about that year of anniversaries that began with the Berlinale. Now they seem to mark the point at which Berlin let go of its walled past and began seriously to embrace the post-Cold War reality. The magical transformation in that special year was an unforgettable work of art, the Wrapped Reichstag by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. That is another story with a ballad of its own.
from the poem cycle A YEAR OF ANNIVERSARIES:
100 Years of Cinema
Waking to a radiant dawn
on the city’s widest screen
I hear a bird oblivious of Dolby sound
chirping on the roof above my attic window
and know, even though it’s still
February, winter’s troops are in retreat.
In the night the Berlinale
(sponsored — may we remind you —
by generous donation from a brewery)
played out its celluloid finale
& sent its audiences reeling home
from black & white reconstructions
salvaged from the archives of a century
Today we read the last reviews, exchanging
technicoloured worlds for medial reality.
The grey of chimney smoke is giving way
to sunny intervals with showers
Glühwein vanishes from the menus
diet magazines sell like hot pretzels &
streetgirls pack away their thermal underwear.
If you can wait a little longer
in the foyer of nature’s moviehouse
curbing your channelhopping urban urge
to be served right on the spot —
even if they rudely refused you
entry to the closing jamboree
where, after the awards are handed over
the jury confesses it was swung
senators rush for the buffet
press officers preen their feathers
as if they’ve won the tarnished prizes
and artists are conspicuous by absence —
If you can wait just a little longer
you’ll see for free, no tickets for this party
the moving picture that your heart has craved
all through this lustreless cinema centennial:
crocuses will open on the midways while
chestnut trees put out fresh buds of victory
regardless of the claims of history
and soon, transcending
our two-dimensional imagining
will stage a happening
for all six senses in slow motion
13 February 1995
February meant not only the Berlinale. The Week of Brotherhood, one of Berlin’s contributions to interreligious dialogue, had been a February fixture for some years. 1995 was memorable because of the arrival of my cousin Bernie with his mates from the Jerusalem Synagogue Choir. All male, as one might expect from an Orthodox synagogue, and befitting the Woche der Brüderlichkeit, the Brotherhood Week’s original German name. Cousin Bernie loved Berlin. He truly appreciated the big Wiener schnitzels he ate at every opportunity, he slept like a dream in my comfy sofa bed, he sang wonderfully with his choir and was feted enthusiastically by the local Jewish community and lots of philo-Semites. What was not to enjoy about post-Wall Berlin?
The rest of the story is told in a kind of talking blues.
The Week of Brotherhood
They called it the week of brotherhood
to make us remember the time when man ate man;
they prepared the celebration on the Christian sabbath
by closing off the roads around the synagogue.
Driving past the black-clad clientele of local street cafés:
big boots, paltry purses, crazy haircuts, languid limbs
stretched out to the first spring Sunday sunshine,
the Jerusalem choir arrived for the evening concert
under police escort, with special parking licence
while the audience, a thousand upstanding citizens
entered the temple through an electronic gateway
This is the week of brotherhood and goodwill
each day life looks more like airport routine
we are all passengers monitored ceaselessly
on the transit highway between birth and death
and when we reach the heavenly portals
the Angel Gabriel, eternally watchful
will check our pockets for explosives too.
Even in paradise there are subversive forces
trying to undermine the patriarchal order.
The choir was showered with welcome greetings
and deeply affected by moving experiences
playing to packed houses all over Germany
from west to east and yes, they saw the difference:
Wednesday Mainz (complete with TV coverage)
Thursday Chemnitz, Monday Cottbus, in between
the day of rest laid down by God and then
Berlin, the former fascist capital — forgive
but never forget, and constantly remind ourselves
of past destruction and other people’s guilt.
The Jewish elders & ex-communists & children’s
children of victims and aggressors
turned out in force, it was a family occasion;
the concert began under the sign of peace
and proceeded without incident. The famous cantor
sang his part with vigour; the jovial conductor
read the message of reconciliation
(his halting German all the more touching);
the audience was moved to tears and cheers
as it joined in Jerusalem the Gold. Everybody
made the best of his appointed role
and dutifully paid regards to history
with fear or sorrow or simple curiosity:
Ronnie the Tel Aviv banker recalled a photo
of this shul here in the Rykestrasse
in his mother’s prewar album; almost all
were driven from what they knew as home
to exile or extinction — we call ourselves survivors
even unto the third generation;
the conductor’s wife settled an old score
by blaming the poverty of Prenzlauer Berg
on the Russians; cousin Bernie from Capetown
who spent Shabbat in the temple of consumption
west of the Brandenburg Gate, had compensated
with a Sunday stroll round Checkpoint Charlie
before the roll call for the night’s performance;
the tour bus chauffeur eyed the girls down the aisles
as he sold the CD, reckoned his percentage
and flourished his adopted Frenchness. He too
was a childhood refugee from this extraordinary city.
In the draughty foyer, kosher wine, sesame-coated
date biscuits and soft white breadrolls with lax
added a final touch of gastronomic kitsch.
Three Russian women appeared on the bus
back to the hotel. Even an orthodox choir needs
female accompaniment, offstage.
The singers loosened their bowties.
Later the lucky few dined on gefilte fish
at richly laden buffet tables in the Berlin Hilton
while plainclothes cops kept vigil in the hallways.
They locked up our coats to be doubly sure.
The week of brotherhood gave way seamlessly
to the next anniversary. The sheets Cousin Bernie slept in
are washed, dried and waiting for the next visitor.
His thankyou fax lies in a scroll on the sofa
next to the handpainted Hebrew poster he brought
from Auntie Etta. She won’t forget. She escaped
the slaughter further to the east; now she nurses
her prejudices and recovers the tongue
of her youth in Memel at Yiddish lessons
in the modern Jewish state.
while reading Katzenelson’s epic song
of resistance and extermination,
a shred of conversation dangles
at my mind’s edge: “What’s it like
to be Jewish in Germany?”
Who asked me?
Was it the tubby composer with glasses
and that familiar South African drawl?
Or the young Canadian chorister whose cold
(caught in Strasbourg) put paid
to his debut solo in Braunschweig? — he confessed
he couldn’t help being fascinated by the Nazis.
are not meant to be answered honestly.
I trod the line of least resistance.
But if you ask me now what I have salvaged
from the week of brotherhood: Tuesday:
Anthony the black jazz poet from New York
giving me a red rose wrapped in flowered paper
And Lina’s voice out of the blue Wednesday evening
wishing me happy Women’s Day, reviving memories
of marches round Nelson’s Column. Speeches
in sisterhood. Praise of neglected heroines.
In Berlin’s once & future city centre
amid the debris of the new prosperity
there’s still a street named after Clara Zetkin.
Should we be thankful or cynical?
I’m forty-two-and-a-half years old exactly
and Quila Lulu Anastasia completes
her second month on earth.
Who or what decides which anniversaries
we make our own?
14 March 1995
Brave new Germany
“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death”
round and round on sprockets in the brain
a never ending loop
the past repeats its old refrain
we jump through ever smaller hoops
fifty years of turmoil
fifty years of peace
fifty years of conquest
fifty years of rue
fifty years of slavery
fifty years of freedom
fifty years of arrogance
fifty years of muddling through
forty years of occupation
forty years of rock ’n roll
forty years of separation
two halves don’t quite make a whole
thirty years of Beatles songs
thirty years of moon flights
thirty years of women’s lib
thirty years of wrongs & rights
twenty years of work & play
twenty years of wandering
twenty years of buds in May
twenty years philandering
ten years forging sacred bonds
ten years of untangling knots
ten years scrubbing burned out pots
ten years isn’t such a lot
five years brave new Germany
five years, the century’s grown old
five years trying to master history
makes the blood run cold
money money money money
money money money money
Berlin’s a cabaret old chum
the past is always on the programme
Spring equinox, 21 March 1995
Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015
posted 12 February 2015
IF YOU WANT TO BE SURE AUSCHWITZ NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN
IF YOU WANT TO BE SURE AUSCHWITZ NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN
take a moment for the past today
don’t look away
those heaps of death belong to all of us
give shelter to the living
a hand to the poor and lame
hear the voice of the young
if you have to fight indifference,
intolerance or fanaticism
every human has a name
70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp
© Karen Margolis 2015
Note: The pictures above date to April 2014 at the Yom Ha’Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day) reading of names of Jewish Holocaust victims by school students outside the synagogue in Fasanenstrasse, Berlin. The portal relic in the background of the top picture is part of the ruins of the old synagogue on this site that was destroyed by the Nazi Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews on 9/10 November 1938.
Posted 27 January 2015
If you’re not Charlie, who are you?
The woman in the faded red coat stood on the edge of the crowd reading the cartoons pinned on the tree trunk. ‘Look, do you remember that one?’ she chuckled, grabbing my arm and pointing. ‘Oh! and that one! – there was a real fuss when that came out!’ She perused all the Charlie Hebdo covers on display intently, from top down. Her eyes came to rest on the piles of tea lights, candles, crayons, felt pens and paper rolls lying on the ground waiting for takers. She took out a paper hanky and wiped her eyes. ‘Terrible,’ she murmured, shaking her head. Then she looked at me, her face brightening, and said, ‘But what a demo that was this morning! Forty-two years I’ve lived in Nice and never seen anything like it. The Promenade – full of people as far as the eye could see. You couldn’t move for the crowds. I felt so proud. As if we gave those poor murdered people a good send-off.’
She fingered the sticker on my coat. Je suis Charlie. White on black, familiar now from TV screens, posters, banners, and newsstands. After four days you could almost believe it. Nice is Charlie. France is Charlie. And here we are, after marching with tens of thousands in the morning, spending our afternoon at a Charlie space.
There are some moments when you suspend disbelief and let your feelings take you to the next step, where you meet the people who share the feelings.
By the time I meet the red-coated Niçoise I have already been on the spot for over an hour and watched the man with the frazzled grey hair plant the sign in the low-walled plot around the huge tree roots. ESPACE CHARLIE. A place of remembrance on Place Garibaldi, a central square in the old city of Nice. One of the thousands of spontaneous local memorials all over France this weekend for the victims of the terrorist attacks in Paris in the past week. On arrival I was greeted by a group of mainly young parents. Their children were already at work at a drawing table. Plenty of hearts and messages of love for the Charlies who lost their lives. Lots of patient explaining. Words that keep recurring: murder, violence, barbarism, have to be balanced by words that comfort. Which words comfort: liberty, equality, fraternity? Freedom? Security? Love? – When a society is traumatised the children need extra attention. It’s impossible to stop them seeing images that cause nightmares. I’m still shaky from the murderous events myself.
The Niçoise in the worn red coat says, ‘You’re not from here, are you?’
‘No. I’m English.’
She nods. ‘I’m Lys,’ she replies, adding comfortably, ‘We have all nationalities here in Nice. My children can speak English. But I’m happy with French. It’s such a beautiful language – the deeper you go, the more full of nuances. I taught my children to love the language. I’ve got a son and a daughter. The son lives in Vence. The daughter still lives here. I’ve got three grandchildren. One of the boys is called Gabriel. I call him my little angel.’ She coughs, a hacking smoker’s cough that shakes her whole body, then continues, ‘My other grandson is called Ismael. Some people didn’t like that. Why did you give him a name like that? they asked my son.’ She smiles. ‘But I think it’s a lovely name.’
We’re constantly interrupted by people asking us where to get the Charlie stickers. Lys enjoys playing host. She tells me the square is her living room since she retired. She worked hard all her life. She rubs the cracked, calloused skin of her knuckles. Whatever work she did, her hands will never recover. She is still sprightly for her 65 years but she feels it in her back, she says. Then she turns to talk to the man next to her about the morning’s mass silent demonstration. Tonight we will see it on the national news. Tomorrow, Sunday, the republican rally in Paris will show the world what France stands for. Yes, they agree, this is a signal historical moment. Unforgettable.
The man’s daughter has the glazed teenage look that dismisses all the talk around her. She moves away, spreads out a piece of paper, takes up a felt pen and starts drawing. Let’s not forget. Members of Charlie Hebdo were murdered as artists and journalists. Drawing and writing become acts of resistance.
Lys points out the police contingent that has just arrived in squad cars. Six officers stand aside on the edge of the Espace Charlie, chatting with people, trying to look unobtrusive but reassuring. As they are armed to the hilt, the effort doesn’t really come off. Several people go up to talk to them and commiserate on the deaths of police officers in the attacks.
At lunchtime, Lys tells me, the police exceptionally allowed a building workers’ van to park on the square. She watched the building workers take out a big ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign. ‘It needed four of them to carry it,’ she said. They went down towards the heart of the old town, she wasn’t sure where. They must have put it up on a building because she saw them come back empty-handed and drive away.
Nous sommes tous Charlie. Nous somme tous juifs.
The square is filling up fast now. Smart ladies with dogs, shoppers with carrier bags from the sales, young people on inline skates and skateboards, elderly men with grey hair in ponytails and homemade signs for Charlie on their jackets or on placards, old couples holding hands, and ever more parents with children. Around the other side I meet a group of Amnesty members. Well-organised, practiced campaigners with banners and placards and signs and a sense of purpose. They radiate more security than the police. For a moment I bathe in the familiar yellow glow. A young man arrives with a placard, Nous sommes tous Charlie. Nous sommes tous juifs. Others have printed pages from internet with the names of the dead police officers, and the victims of the attack yesterday in the kosher supermarket. Nobody is forgotten. But Charlie is the rallying call, Charlie is the wake up call that should suspend doubt and skepticism for long enough to feel grief and sorrow.
Something has changed and will never be the same again, and the people have gathered here to mark this moment and show their children, their fellow citizens and the world that life will go on through and beyond mourning and remembrance.
Back on the other side of the square I meet Lys again. ‘Shall we look for the building worker’s banner?’ she asks. Maybe she has intuited that I used to be a journalist and am naturally curious. We walk past the policemen, who nod as she greets them, and out onto the broad road with the tramway that goes down toward the sea. There is a perfect view of a stunning sunset. Lys watches me take a photo. The sun is setting on a Shabbat of sadness and loss. We walk down the wide road until we reach the square with the shrouded building. ‘Here!’ she says. The sign is there, placed proudly on the scaffolding by the building workers after the morning’s mass rally.
A tale of false terror
Lys turns to look at the smart restaurant on the opposite corner. There used to be a jewellery store here, about 20 years ago, she says. And I’m telling you that for a reason. It’s all connected, she says.
She grasps my arm. I once knew a man, she says. He lived in a nice little apartment in the old town. He had a job, a wife, a child. Then one night he got drunk or whatever, I don’t know exactly, and drove his car into the jewellery shop. The whole shop went up in flames. Of course the insurance paid… But the man who caused the accident? – He was completely burned, all down his side.
She strokes my arm, my waist, that’s where he was burned. Months in hospital. And then – they arrested him as a terrorist. It took three years before they let him out of jail. Just imagine. THREE YEARS. They just wouldn’t believe it was a car accident. He just drove badly and caused an accident.
She releases my arm to cough again. That was many years ago, she said. He lost his job, his home, his wife, his child. He’s still trying to get compensation.
She shrugs. I keep telling him to move on, she says. But he can’t forget.
She turns back to look at the building workers’ sign. JE SUIS CHARLIE.
We are all Charlie in a world of infinite differences and similarities. We are all Charlie in languages of endless nuances. If the slogan Je suis Charlie helps to unite the French against hate crime, it will serve a purpose.
If you are not Charlie, who are you? – perhaps you are somebody who refuses to identify with a mass movement in a moment of extreme emotion. It is your right to remain detached, critical, skeptical, undecided. It is your right to question. Are you able, even questioning, to condemn the acts of jihad terror that claimed 17 lives in Paris last week? If not, why not?
If you are not Charlie, perhaps you support the gunmen who murder artists and journalists whose work they don’t like. Perhaps you support the idea of persecuting Jews in the name of liberating other people. Then I don’t understand you and I don’t want to enter your world. Nothing I can do will change your view. For that we need a new society everywhere and I’m not adequate to the task.
But whether you are Charlie or not, whether you want to debate about freedom of speech or expression and its limits in a democracy or whether you are afraid of being manipulated by the media, politicians, or capitalism – there is still one question you have to ask, one question everybody has to ask:
How has it come to be accepted once again in this continent of Europe that Jews are a target? What did Jews have to do with any of the terrorist gunmen? Why has it become seemingly normal or natural for Jews to be victims when people have grievances against the system or feel targeted by discrimination?
When I heard the news of the terrible attack on Charlie Hebdo, the first thought that occurred to me was:
I HOPE THEY DON’T PICK ON THE JEWS.
They did. Last week, Jews died in Paris for being Jews. And afterwards many of my fellow Jews admitted their fear. I, too, am afraid. That is why je suis Charlie – because I won’t let my fear stop me doing and writing what I believe in.
The second thought was:
I HOPE THE MUSLIMS DON’T SUFFER FOR THIS.
That is why, whether you are Charlie or not, I want you to think about who you are and what you stand for. There are no sides anymore. No more comfort zones, either. Something has changed fundamentally. The signs are pointing in one direction and we have to change that. If we don’t, Jews in many parts of the world will soon be living in fortresses. Muslims will be fearing for their freedoms and existence in some countries, too. And all of us, in all the nations we call democracies, are going to wake up one morning in the foreseeable future in a police state.
Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015
Posted 13 January 2015
Mourning all the victims of the terrorist attacks of 7, 8 and 9 January in France.
Posted 10 January 2015
“If you take a closer look, the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language.” — Joseph Brodsky
HOW MANY CENSORED POEMS SPOKE OF TORTURE?
Guantanamo — from shock and awe to guilt and shame
Censored poems from the ‘lawless zone’
Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak is a volume of poems written by prisoners at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo attorney and Northern Illinois law school professor Marc Falkoff helped compile the book, which was published in 2007.
A lament written by a prisoner alerted Falkoff to the fact that many Guantanamo captives were expressing their pain and anger in the form of poetry. Falkoff explained the book was meant to show the men as human. He hoped it would provoke discussion in the U.S. about what Guantanamo was, what it became, and “what it means for us as a country, to keep this lawless zone active.”
The book, which contains eighty-four pages, should have been much longer. Military censors barred thousands of lines of poetry from being released.
Most of the poems are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Not satisfied with imprisoning the authors, the Pentagon refused to declassify many of their words, arguing that poetry ‘presents a special risk’ to national security because of its ‘content and format’. In a memo sent on September 18, 2006, the Pentagon team assigned to deal with communications between lawyers and their clients in Guantanamo admitted they did not have enough expertise to judge the subject matter, and said the poems ‘should continue to be considered presumptively classified.’
The following poem by Guantanamo prisoner Sami al Hajj was printed in the Independent newspaper on 21 June 2007.
Humiliated In The Shackles
by Sami al Hajj
When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,
Hot tears covered my face.
When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed
A message for my son.
Mohammad, I am afflicted.
In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.
The oppressors are playing with me,
As they move freely around the world.
They ask me to spy on my countrymen,
Claiming it would be a good deed.
They offer me money and land,
And freedom to go where I please.
Their temptations seize
My attention like lightning in the sky.
But their gift is an empty snake,
Carrying hypocrisy in its mouth like venom,
They have monuments to liberty
And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.
But I explained to them that
Architecture is not justice.
America, you ride on the backs of orphans,
And terrorize them daily.
The world recognizes an arrogant liar.
To Allah I direct my grievance and my tears.
I am homesick and oppressed.
Mohammad, do not forget me.
Support the cause of your father, a God-fearing man.
I was humiliated in the shackles.
How can I now compose verses? How can I now write?
After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears,
How can I write poetry?
My soul is like a roiling sea, stirred by anguish,
Violent with passion.
I am a captive, but the crimes are my captors’.
I am overwhelmed with apprehension.
Lord, unite me with my son Mohammad.
Lord, grant success to the righteous.
Sudanese journalist Sami al Hajj was working as a cameraman for Al Jazeera when he was arrested in 2001 on his way to an assignment in Afghanistan. Held in Guantanamo Bay detainment camp for over six years, he was finally released without charge in 2008. After visiting him in Guantanamo, his lawyer said he had endured “horrendous abuse – sexual abuse and religious persecution” and his face bore visible scars from beating.
Al Hajj’s case was the subject of a documentary, Prisoner 345, made by Al Jazeera producer Ahmad Ibrahim.
Traitors to civilisation
Seventy years ago troops from the United States Army entered Germany and began destroying the grip of fascism and liberating the survivors in the concentration camps. All through the postwar period, the US Americans were heroes for many people in Europe. They flew the banner of freedom, justice, international law, democracy. Everything we understood as ‘civilisation’.
Today they stand accused as torturers. They are no better than the enemies they accuse of barbarism. The people who lie, cheat, wage war and torture in the name of democracy stand accused as traitors. They are betraying all of us who stand for humanity.
My poem, Poetry is Dangerous was written in 2007 as a response to the Pentagon’s censorship of Guantanamo prisoners’ poetry.
On 9 December 2014 the US Senate released a report on the CIA’s post 9/11 interrogation and torture. Now we can ask: how many of the censored poems told of torture? One day maybe we will be allowed to read them all. They will surely stand as an indictment of this shameful chapter in the USA’s history.
POETRY IS DANGEROUS
This is the new age of sobriety
sterile consensus and covert censorship:
state-funded poets sing praises to the status quo,
the aging avantgarde fades out
suffering cirrhosis of the liver
and raging existential despair;
correctness is preferred to inspiration
and the latest edition
of many a slim volume
with verses rhymed or free
is stamped on the spine
with a government warning:
POETRY CAN BE HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH
the small print beneath the capitals elucidates
the nature of the threat between the covers
Reading a poem can result in:
hot flushes and cold sweats
tingling toes & fingers
hair standing on end
dry mouth, chattering teeth
twitching nose, and
shivers down the spine
BEWARE! POETRY IS ALLURING
Shakespeare will grab you by the shoulder
the world’s a stage, he’s watching from the wings.
Malory will fire you with the spirit of chivalry
to join the quest for matchless purity.
Goethe will lure you into sweet temptation
sowing doubt in the depths of hungry souls.
With Chaucer you can take a pilgrimage
to the shrine of the white goddess,
or let Rimbaud steer you in a drunken boat
past rocks where sirens wail and wait for shipwrecks.
A wooden horse is Homer’s chosen vehicle
filled with impatient warriors in clashing armour.
a moonbeam on the white wing of a swan
lures you to read Euripides again
while Catullus promises a thousand kisses
and then a thousand more.
Byron invites you to brawl and womanise
with luscious orgies in ottava rima
spilling over to Sappho’s other shore.
Shelley submerges you in shades of immortality,
and Brecht, disturbing the dust of interrupted dreams
will slip a little book into your pocket
to read in the bus on the way to work.
WARNING: POETRY IS SUBVERSIVE
It can stir you to rebellion
turn you inside out
steal the pennies from your pockets
shower you with insights
foster bold conspiracies
make spies change sides
open innocent eyes to dark & dirty deals
expose the interlock of cog and wheel
put a spanner in the works
or forge the hammers to break our chains
breeding revolutions in basement kitchens.
WARNING: POETRY IS ALL-CONSUMING
Just one drop of this potent distillation
a shred of meaning, a casual half-rhyme
an oxymoron skilfully interwoven
a fleeting metaphor, a full-blown pentameter
can infiltrate the plastic mortal shell,
sound out buried wishes
drop a plumbline to the basic instincts
travel to the brain with lightning speed
& explode in highly-coloured flashes
sending splinters of intensity
through every artery, sweeping you along
with the flow of ancient mystery
to what they call the borders of insanity.
WARNING: POETRY IS CATCHING
When images reach out to bite you
or rhythms grab you by the throat
there’s nothing you can do —
too late, no anti-toxin can save you
from this insidious infection,
resistance is futile: so relax & enjoy it
surrender to the music of the word
passed down by the bards & troubadors of ages.
WARNING: POETRY IS INDESTRUCTIBLE
After many resurrections
following countless declarations of final demise:
now in the age of mechanical reproduction
alliteration, incantation & reprise
reclaim their audience appeal
defying electronic imagination
& minimal post-modernism.
WARNING: POETRY IS IRRESISTIBLE
when we were young we chased rhythms like butterflies
to catch our childhood fantasies
now we are grown but not immune:
in dark times we take comfort from remembered rhymes
and when our ship comes in
its hold is filled with treasures
from the troves of centuries —
words worked as precious jewels
in polished settings,
necklets of opalescent ballads
lapis lazuli and lustrous pearls
strung in shimmering phrases
heart-shaped rubies glowing with the blood of passion
emeralds flashing dragon eyes of jealousy
& jet-black pendants hanging in the moonless night,
while overhead a dome of many-coloured glass
casts light upon our beauty though our youth is gone.
WARNING: POETRY IS DANGEROUS
a toxic distillation of concentrate emotion
without the claims of politics or patent medicine
with no pretence to answers or conclusions
poetry can’t cause or cure
cancer AIDS malaria or pollution
can’t engineer immaculate conception
can’t put the snow back on the tip of Kilimanjaro
nor fill the Aral Sea’s cracked bed with water
— can’t even make green vegetables taste better;
its strength resides in inutility
pointblank refusal of reality
its miracles are modest
its ambitions plain
its weapons wit & satire
its message clear
and therein lies the danger:
poetry is only love
of words; its source is human feeling.
Come to the spring, fill up the silvered chalice
drink deep, it tastes of nectar
the drug is in the dregs
and lingers on the tongue
like a delicate aperitif
awaking appetite for experience
POETRY IS DANGEROUS
IF YOU’RE AFRAID OF CHANGE
The survivors of the CIA’s torture deserve compensation and support for the future. The torturers should be publicly put on trial, not only the US citizens responsible but also their leaders (according to the time-honoured principle of the Nuremberg Trials against the Nazi war criminals after the Second World War). The people responsible in other countries including Germany, Hungary, the UK and Poland who facilitated illegal kidnappings and torture as part of the ‘war against terror’ should also face prosecution. And it is time, at last, for Barack Obama to honour his election pledge of 2008 and shut down the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 18 December 2014
Looking up, looking out
Season of empty shops
A bubble of fragile truth
floating on a puddle of lies
refusing to be blown away
and trying not to burst
Credibility a flash game
while the present is downloaded
as a crisis scenario
on flickering displays
Elena, age 7, fires a question
through the baubles and tinsel
of adult illusion: “Why all the fuss
about a baby being born?”
A season of empty shops
dwindling faith and hollow sentiment
weighs ahead, sinking the year
we’ve already written off as loss
from Credit Crunch poem cycle, 2008-9
Recently somebody in Berlin offered me translation work at less than the rate I got 30 years ago in the mid-1980s when I started subsidising my writer’s life with translations from German into English. The work was supposed to be done over the Christmas and New Year holidays. The person offering it understood why I refused. Don’t worry, he said, there are plenty of other people willing to share the job.
There are many ways to eke out a living and many modes of self-persuasion that will assure us we are free even as we rush to serve people who will not give a thought to those working for them while they celebrate in seasonal spirit.
Sometime in 2008, soon after the credit crunch began to bite, I threw off illusory heroism and the serf mentality and started looking for compensation. If not money, at least creativity again. Most of the poems that later formed the Credit Crunch cycle were written in Nice, Côte d’Azur, in 2008-9. Five years on, the economy hasn’t got better and workers everywhere are still paying for a “crisis” they didn’t make.
these days money matters
are tougher, harder & fraught with pitfalls:
I buried the envelope marked EasyCredit
in the dump bin for unsolicited mail
under the letterboxes in the dingy hall
we are the people Barclays batters
with harassment tactics
(homeworking wife has to take the calls)
we are the breadline trekkers
light years from the market,
next-to-nil budget artists
fallen from the middle class
dodging the poverty trap
ever wary of the grabbing claws
of the monster of the conjuncture
they used to call it a squeeze
(at least the comfort of a boa embrace
before submersion in the mire of debt)
now it’s come to the crunch
you can feel teeth chewing
on human gristle, bones
cracking in anguish, broken homes.
Hungry to blow up bonds
in the tunnel of conformity
thirsting after talk of liquidity
searching desperately for a bolt hole
& ignoring the stars warning me
not to live beyond my means
I snatch my future
from the jaws of the credit crunch
abandon the servile life in Berlin
and pawn my rotten pension
for a sunshine studio rented virtually
a room I don’t own, red rooftops and gulls
waves on the doorstep, shells underfoot,
at last a lone track by water
Footnote for AJAR Trustees & Co.:
clutch your pounds tightly, avoid fair shares
exploit loopholes to evade the tax crunch
strive to control the will beyond the grave —
your futures a stake in a perimeter cemetery
Credit Crunch Conjunctural Rap
or Hit Back with Poetry
They tell us to spend
they tell us to save
their speech has a frown
the conjuncture’s grave
they ask famous experts
why things went wrong
and forecast much worse
before too long
They bail out the culprits
and prop up the banks
convene crisis summits
and set up think tanks
they promise relief
for the poor and homeless
and donate rescue funds
for firms in distress
They issue new dress codes
in style with the times
grey is the colour
discreet are the lines
they tell us to swap
excess for rigour:
tightening our belts
is good for the figure
Who are they anyway?
The powers that be?
watching politics on stage
from seats in the gallery
they were there before leaders came
and still there when they went again
the spectre of revolution
robs their sleep of late
Marx back on the book lists
the masters urge moderation
offer games to amuse
but deep down we serfs know
there’s nothing to lose
How many times
must we repeat history?
How many must suffer
the ills of society?
How long will it take
till we seize our own fate
and dispose of a system
that’s past its expiry date?
The afternoon strolls on the Promenade des Anglais and down the Rue de la Liberté mean sunshine, health, real life in real time beyond the small screen. It’s the interim individual solution that compensates for the lack of collective will to change.
Imagining another life is more than an escape. It sends a lifeline into the future. It puts the past where it belongs: behind us.
With the dream comes change. It’s up to us to inscribe the human right to joy and pleasure in the constitution of our lives.
CREDIT CRUNCH will be published as an illustrated poetry book with drawings in 2015.
Text & pictures © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 14 December 2014
Only here for the clouds
A poem of the promenade in pictures
with thanks to Michael Murray
Photos © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 3 December 2014
Danger of sea spray showers.
Life is hard on the rocks.
Still the cloud knows its natural place.
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 2 December 2014
Beauties in the bestiary
November in Berlin is turning out much better than expected. The usual gloom, doom and pre or post stress has been lightened by some sunshine days
and relief that another year of memorial celebrations is almost over.
We can spare ourselves the poems of dark foreboding and move already into celebration mode.
This is perhaps the moment for medieval bestiaries. Something rich and strange.
And an old poem that rejoices in the end of a long cold war.
bring out my dragon
leave your unicorn lying in the laps of damsels
chase your chimaeras home to the land of the brave
watch the centaurs march past with their flagtails waving
and smile at the sphinx till her facemask cracks
there are beauties in the bestiary
I’ve had my term in purgatory
the moon fills out the equinox
the dragon stirs inside me
bring out my dragon!
bring out my dragon
© Karen Margolis 1991
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 20 November 2014
9 November haiku
remember the wall
never forget kristallnacht
think past tomorrow
Genuine fake nostalgia show
Once there was a wall and now there is a wall memorial. Let’s write that again:
Once there was a Wall and now there is a Wall Memorial.
That doesn’t make it any clearer. Even today, nobody really understands why a wall was built to divide a nation because the whole nation was being punished anyway for starting a world war. Or maybe two world wars. And nobody really understands — although an entire branch of study and many libraries are devoted to the question — nobody has really explained why the wars began and why millions and millions of people had to die.
Then came the Cold War (that’s where my own memories start). As a child I thought it referred to the frozen grief and emotions of the refugees and survivors around me. Most of them were Jewish and came from Central or Eastern Europe. When I was 10 years old I emigrated with my family. I arrived in Europe from South Africa in 1961, the year the Berlin Wall was built. Now the Cold War meant the cold continent of Europe. We settled in London, a city pitted with craters and bombed sites. Psychologically and culturally uprooted, geographically we were somewhere between Russia and America, the global powers that were sending people into space and assembling arsenals of nuclear weapons to kill us all. Having inherited persecution from Eastern Europe, my family sided with the West.
In the early 1980s I came to live in Berlin. On the western side the Wall was there keeping property prices low and providing gainful employment for military personnel and spies. From the eastern side life could seem like a double dose of frustration and misery, and sometimes persecution, or even death for those who tried to resist or escape. At times, the whole of Berlin seemed like a prison. The city was isolated, forlorn and mouldering in parts. I lived surrounded by the Wall in various occupied sectors of West Berlin that were called the “free zone”. A peculiar language was invented to describe all the anomalies. The division of Germany was the status quo and few people talked about the Wall, aside from seemingly obsessed East German expatriates, artists dreaming of graffiti raids, curious children and tourist guides.
Calendar of anniversaries
The Wall was mainly present in an unremitting propaganda battle about freedom and the occasional dramatic escape attempt by desperate, often ingenious East Germans. Otherwise there was life on both sides and plenty of mutual ignorance and prejudice across artificial borderlines.
To make up for the Wall deficits, there was lots of partying, sex, drugs, great music, wild art and state-funded culture on the western side, and much of the same but with more inventiveness born of necessity on the eastern side. The whole city thrived on a cult of weirdness. Yet underlying that was always a pervasive climate of fear that only really became noticeable by its absence after the Wall was gone.
Then the Wall fell — not of its own accord, of course, but the causes are still disputed and teams of analysts are busy working on that. After all, that was only 25 years ago (that long ago?!) and we still haven’t really worked out what caused the mass slaughters of the 20th century. Most experts agree about the obvious connection of the “Velvet Revolution” with opposition movements inside East Germany and in other Central and East European countries, reforms in the Soviet Union, and rapprochement between the global powers.
We don’t have to understand to commemorate. One major bequest of the 20th century is enough multimedia evidence to review the past on convenient timelines. Berlin follows a regular calendar of anniversaries, and the city’s local action groups contribute with their own street plaques, sculptures and paving stones dedicated to the victims of Nazi Germany and the East German regime.
The age of memorial culture
Not only in Berlin, but in many other places we live today in a world of public mourning about events that happened before many of us were born or old enough to remember.
In the 21st century we have moved into the age of memorial culture, the era of constant commemoration. We haven’t eliminated war, in fact we can watch real live wars every day on our home screens. But we can dip back into the past if we choose. Event culture has teamed up with history to create huge multimedia spectacles for the masses and global audiences, whether for sports events or episodes of catastrophes and mass slaughter in the past. Maybe it’s time to ask what we’re learning or losing with all these impressive public shows.
Back in the Cold War days, West Berlin used to be called the showcase of Western democracy. Today’s united Berlin is a showcase for memorials. History is its biggest tourist attraction. And as the border between East and West is erased by time and property deals, the history of the Wall is beginning to fade. Or being rewritten into unrecognition.
Will the Wall and its story be comprehensible to the coming generations in twenty-five years, or fifty? Or could the memory be erased with the passing of the last people who lived with the Wall as a daily reality?
I wrote the following poem five years ago, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It still applies. I can’t think of anything new to say.
In 2009 the poem was illustrated by photos of the remains of the Berlin Wall. By now those images have lost their impact, at least for me. The skeleton of a wall seems meaningless when new walls and bigger walls, actual, political and psychological, are being erected every day.
Once there was a wall
that stood for world war
mass slaughter, genocide
and the cynical ideological
division of a continent
The wall fell
the world watched the party
before switching channels
change always looks good
garnished with handouts & promises
but tarnishes quickly
dulled by the business of living
the magnifying glass of history
makes dictators more fearsome
and walls higher
the past is packaged
for present consumption
concrete chips in bottles
maps of vanished border zones
memoirs of neighbourhood spies
photos of faded graffiti
obsolete car models
recipes for scarcity —
all the stuff that feeds archives
& museum shops
nostalgia repeats itself
turns to depression
still, there’s no going back
the hole the wall left
has grown to a global chasm
with millions teetering
on the edge of existence
freedom fenced in
threats on all fronts
and devalued promises
sold as rescue packages
with the call to build new walls
Each of us has a wall story
a tale buried in the debris
of a time that keeps returning
For German readers: The story of my encounters with women’s groups in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall is out of print but available secondhand through online booksellers:
Karen Margolis, Der Springende Spiegel. Begegnungen mit Frauen zwischen Oder und Elbe. Luchterhand Verlag, 1991.
Berlin is so much better without a wall. And that’s a good history lesson.
Text & photos ©Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 5 November 2014
Sugar peas for one and all!
Paradise on earth in London, Paris or Berlin
Recently an old friend from London got in touch. We have known each other long enough, and have been living at a distance for so many years that it seemed natural to swap ideas about current life philosophies. One thing we agreed on immediately – we want as much out of life as we can get. Paradise on earth.
What we mean is more than a new age acronym, You Only Live Once, doing the rounds of the social media before vanishing into a digital black hole. It’s the justified demand of people who have lived and worked for long enough to want something more out of life than scraping through the next financial crisis. The sentiment is not new at all, it has been a theme of philosophy and literature since ancient times, and of politics and economics as well in the modern age. That doesn’t make it any easier to define or achieve. We’re still far from any idea of how to achieve real human happiness, and already some people are jumping ahead and talking about post-utopias.
One of my favourite poets, Heinrich Heine, was much abused in his time for advocating paradise on earth, attacking the status quo that prevents fulfilment in life rather than in the afterlife, and supporting revolutionary attempts to achieve it. Today, like many other former rebels, he is a classic in Germany, the homeland that once drove him to flee. His epic poem, Deutschland: Ein Wintermärchen (Germany, A Winter’s Tale) tells the story of his return from 12 years of expatriate life in Paris and his contradictory feelings towards the German people and their country. Heine is at his most passionate when writing about living life to the full, and most witty and biting when it comes to mocking or attacking the forces that stifle true happiness on earth.
Possessed by our ideas
Translation of the quotation on the Heinrich Heine statue by Waldemar Grzimek:
We do not take possession of our ideas
But are possessed by them.
They master us and force us into the arena
Where, like gladiators, we must fight for them.
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)
It took over a century after Heine’s death for him to receive the tribute of a national memorial in Berlin. The statue commissioned in the 1950s by the communist regime of East Germany was intended for a location in central Berlin close to the main boulevard, Unter den Linden. Sculptor Waldemar Grzimek finished it in 1954, but an ideological campaign immediately began against it for its lack of “heroism”, and it was shoved off to an inaccessible site, in disgrace, you could say, until finally being installed in 1958 at its present site, the edge of the park at Weinbergweg in the Mitte district. The story of the statue only proves Heine’s words once again: we are possessed by our ideas. In the case, the idea that he should look heroic in a memorial – although he never claimed heroism in life, and often laughed at the notion.
It’s hard to see what the fuss was about back then in the 1950s. Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of state art in the service of the communist ideal, the arguments about the proper function of a memorial have moved on. Now the statue looks rather like many other conventional sculptures of dead poets and philosophers. Heine is depicted looking pensive (but not depressed, note the upturned chin!), waving his arms around. The seated poet as a man of thought and action.
“A new song, and a better one”
Today Heine still lives on in his own words, which are far more powerful than any image of his person. He is remembered as a man who attacked hypocrisy, wasn’t afraid or ashamed of changing his mind or admitting weakness – and a dreamer who imagined a better world.
In the sad month of November
The days were dark too early,
The wind was stripping down the trees
As I crossed into Germany
And as I came to the border
My heart started to race
Tears began to prick my eyes
When I finally reached the place
Hearing the German language
I felt strangely full of cheer
As if my heart were bleeding
But joyfully, not in fear
A girl was singing with a harp
She sang with true devotion
Her voice was off but I was touched
Deeply by her emotion
She sang of love and its torment,
Sweet sacrifice and reunion
In the better place above the clouds
Where sorrow is unknown
She sang of earthly troubles,
Of joys fled with the night
And of the realm beyond where souls
Wallow in pure delight
She sang the song of austerity
The old ditty of the skies
That soothes the poor and simple folk
In their complaints and cries
I know the words, I know the tune
I know the gentlemen authors,
I know they secretly drank wine
And publicly preached water
My friends, I’ll write a song for you —
A new song and a better one
Here and now on earth we want
To build the heavenly kingdom
We want our happiness on earth
Let’s put an end to miseries
And stop the fruits of workers’ toil
Filling greedy moguls’ bellies
There’s corn for bread in plenty
To feed humankind with ease
And roses, myrrh, desire and beauty
And no lack of sugar peas
Yes, sugar peas for one and all
As soon as the ripe pods burst! —
We’re happy to leave the sky above
To angels and sparrows at first
And after death if we grow wings
We’ll visit you in heaven
And sit down to a cup of tea
With holy cakes and muffins
A new song, a better song!
Sung to violin and flute!
Gone is the sad lament, the bells
That tolled for the dead are mute
Virgin Europa is now betrothed
To freedom, true spirit of bliss
They lie entwined in each other’s arms
Pleasuring in their first kiss
Though it has no priestly blessing
The marriage is right and fair —
Long live the happy bridal couple
And the children they shall bear!
A wedding song is my ditty
The better song, a new creation!
The stars arising in my soul
Shine out in consecration
Joyous stars, glowing so wild
Scattered in flame and flurry —
I feel a wondrous strength in me
I could almost split an oak tree!
Since I set foot on German soil
Magic has flowed in my veins —
The giant has touched his mother again
And felt his power unchained
from Heinrich Heine, Germany: A Winter’s Tale, 1844
(English translation © Karen Margolis 2014)
Let’s go for the sugar peas and everything else that is delicious and beautiful that life has to offer.
Text and photos © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 31 October 2014
For some things there is no answer
Reviewing an old spy story
Twenty-five years is a long time. Long enough for time to sift facts and feelings and make a fresh picture of bygone events. It’s astonishing how perspectives can alter if you let the memories rest for a while and then retrieve them again.
The Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago. By then I was a Berliner and knew the Wall from both sides. More importantly, l knew people in East and West Berlin and in Central Eastern Europe whose lives changed dramatically through the political events. It was a major transition and for some it was a complete reversal of fortune. A few people I knew got rich and famous as Wall graffiti artists or civil rights leaders. Some built literary or journalistic careers on being good with words in the right place at the right time. Some got key jobs in government, media or academia. Some people lost their livelihoods. And others were exposed as spies for the East German secret police or espionage service.
That’s all old history now and most of it would have been buried and forgotten long ago were it not for a law enacted in Germany in 1990 after strong pressure by civil rights campaigners and people who had suffered directly from the Stasi, the East German secret police. Access to the Stasi files has empowered victims and kept alive the debate about personal behaviour in a dictatorship. This is a rare kind of case study in human trust and betrayal, and some aspects of it have been aired extensively over the past quarter century.
A case for Jane Austen
One of the best-known spy cases involved Sascha A., an East German poet with a talent for self-publicity and a big appetite for power and attention. Since the revelation in 1991 that he had spied on all his friends and acquaintances while posing as a prominent avant-garde dissident in East and West Berlin, he has been the subject of books, anthologies, sociological and literary essays, films, radio & TV programmes and other media productions and events. A documentary film about him premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February this year, and opened recently in Berlin art house cinemas. He is said to be fascinating and charismatic and this is supposed to explain why he is still a source of controversy 25 years after he stopped being a neighbourhood sneak. Perhaps one reason he remains interesting is that he has stubbornly refused to give a coherent account of his Stasi activities, preferring to speak in aphorisms or seemingly weighty abstractions.
Sascha A’s activities were not harmless. He arguably destroyed or deformed some people’s lives by his spying. He willingly served a dictatorial system. He betrayed intimate secrets of people nearest to him, interfered with other people’s relationships and cast a cruel shadow over their lives. Many of his friends were deeply hurt by his breach of trust. They still are.
All the same, something has changed in these past 25 years. Most of the people who knew Sascha A. back then have moved from youth into age. They have quite different lives by now. Meanwhile he moved away from Berlin, joined a West German elite and lives in a prosperous area of south-western Germany. In a Jane Austen novel they would say he has done well for himself. A more moral German Bildungsroman might portray him as a flawed character, a high flyer who fell with the masters he served so faithfully – and came bouncing back again like a shiny false penny. Just when you thought he was forgotten. He offers the old persona in a new outfit and insists (of course!) on privileged protection for his private life today. No wonder so many of his former comrades and victims fear and resent his periodic reappearances.
Eat, drink and cheat
Still, the personal memories have faded and if there was ever a political angle it has got lost in the suffocating consensus of present-day Germany where perpetrators and victims compete for sympathy. Talking to people affected by Sascha A.’s spying and looking at their art works, writings or films that try to grapple with it, the overwhelming impression is a gaping hole where trust once resided, and a bewildering sense of being cheated. After all this time, psychology, the art of exploring human feelings, seems to offer the best chance of understanding. Anyway, for some things there is no answer.
Picture a slimy trail, the path of betrayal, leading to a table in an empty room. On the table is a big cupcake with the word Opportunity written in lemon icing, stuck with a little flag bearing the legend “Eat me”. Beside it stands a corked glass flask with the label Ambition and the words “Drink me” on a tag around its neck. Under the table is a wastebasket half full of shredded papers. The scene is no more or less revealing than anything else said about this sorry tale.
Below is one of the few poems I have written in German. It was written in 1991 about Sascha A., whom I knew briefly around that time. (But long enough for him to report on me to the Stasi.)
Der Durchschnittsdichter und -denker durch die vier Jahreszeiten
Wenn es warm wird
Verrät er seinen Nächsten;
Wenn es heiß wird
Haut er ab. (Reisetagebuch)
Während die Blätter fallen
Lobt er die Täter:
Wenn es wieder kalt wird
Klagt er, dass er Opfer ist
The so-so poet and philosopher through the four seasons
When it gets warm
He betrays his nearest & dearest
When it gets hot
He takes off. (Travel diary.)
While the leaves are falling
He praises the culprits
When it gets cold again
He complains he’s a victim.
Twenty-five years later, some memories have become like strangers that once stayed for a short time and were never seen in my space again. Feelings have aged and ripened. Betrayal is a lesson in self-protection. Some secrets are safely locked and to be sure I have thrown away the key.
The photos reproduced here were taken in Berlin-Mitte on a golden autumn Sunday, October 2014.
For three remarkable women: Wilfriede, Swanhild and Quila Maaß.
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 20 October 2014
Fast and Past
Cheating, eating, truancy and apostasy
The shofar has sounded. The fast is broken. Now we can leave behind the uneasy solemnity of Yom Kippur, wipe the page clean in the book of life and start a new chapter. Like all the Jewish festivals, the Day of Atonement is a bag of mixed feelings. Most of the others have food rituals, sweet wine and joyful songs to make the religious duty palatable for the less devout. Yom Kippur is different: it stands for denial, fasting, prayers for the dead, long hours of chanting and silent supplication in the synagogue. And remembrance of past Yom Kippurs.
Going back to the child I was almost 50 years ago in the London synagogue, I think of Yom Kippur and rediscover guilt. A truant’s guilt because my sisters and I had to miss school for the Jewish holidays. A glutton’s guilt because we sometimes broke the fast by eating secretly, more out of boredom than hunger. An apostate’s guilt because we couldn’t be modern girls and believe in a male god. Especially not from the heights of the ladies’ gallery. Yom Kippur: cheating, eating, sneaking, truancy, apostasy, and loathing in the ladies’ gallery.
Even the memories are becoming age-tinted. What persists is an idea of light and dark. In my imagination the sun always shone on Yom Kippur. The sky was always clear blue and the trees glowed with leaves of every hue. Inside the synagogue, it seemed, all were in shadow and the dead held sway. Outside, the city was resplendent in autumn glory. The most serious and sombre day inside ourselves is surrounded by the season of most beautiful colours. Whether we believe or not, the contrast is reason itself for celebration.
May you, my readers, be inscribed forever in the Book of Autumn Colours.
The following is an extract from my novel, The Floating Castle. Available on Kindle.
Breaking the fast
The story so far: Davida, Sarah and Alicia are teenage sisters from a Jewish family in London. With their father, Isaac and mother, Verena, they are spending Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, fasting and attending prayers in their local synagogue. Davida and Sarah have slipped out for a break.
“Five and a half hours to go,” Davida said.
Sarah surveyed the street. Across the other side, two women with carrier bags were walking wrapped in conversation. “Do you think they know it’s Yom Kippur?” she asked. Davida shrugged. Probably not. Strange that this day which meant so much to the chosen few was an ordinary shopping day for housewives. There was a world outside the shul where people were walking around unconscious of their sins. She felt again that dead weight upon her.
“Want to go for a walk?” — and together the sisters slipped around the corner, breathing freely. As they came to the bakery, Sarah inhaled deeply to capture the aroma of fresh bread.
“No, just bored. After a while of fasting I don’t feel hungry anymore.”
Despite this declaration, Davida pressed her nose to the shop window, eyeing the cakes behind the glass.
“If you could eat, which one would you choose?”
Sarah contemplated the array of cream pastries and doughnuts, sweating stickily in the sun.
“Danish pastry,” she said. “That one with custard on it.”
“Chocolate slice for me,” said Davida. “Thinking about it is making me want one.”
“Me too.” Sarah couldn’t take her eyes off the cakes. “Supposing we were to eat them? Just one cake each. What would happen?”
“God would strike us down,” Davida joked. “No, seriously, nothing would happen. Look at David. He eats pork and drives on Yom Kippur and nothing happens to him.”
“Well, he’s not happy,” argued Sarah. “His wife left him. Verena says he’s impossible: no woman would put up with him.”
“But that’s nothing to do with whether he’s fromm.” Her twin was sure of that. “If you look at all these laws and customs rationally, it’s clear that you won’t suffer from breaking them. How do we know anyway that God wants us to fast and keep kosher? — only because it says so in the Bible, and that was written not by God but by men. Not even women — only men.”
“But if I ate a cake everybody would know.”
“Is that a reason not to? Because of what other people would think? That’s not religion — that’s convention.”
“But I would feel guilty.” Sarah felt pained. She longed for relief from the pressure of her sister’s constant search for the right answers. Davida was always invoking logic and rationality, always overriding Sarah’s instinct and intuition.
The early autumn sunshine carried a chill, a foretaste of winter, the melancholy of inexorable seasonal transition from joy to sorrow. Davida shuddered slightly.
“Guilt,” she enunciated slowly. “Guilt is the reason why we don’t do what we want. Guilt is what keeps the family together, each afraid of hurting the others by finding our own freedom. Guilt is what binds us to this religion. With the Catholics it’s fear of hell-fire. Our priests don’t need to threaten us with that: they have only to remind us once again that abandoning Judaism means denying our history, leaving our people to the inquisitions, the pogroms, the gas chambers, the extermination camps. What a burden to carry! The guilt of being born Jewish!”
She spoke perhaps more fiercely than she realised. The spell of persuasion was upon her, driving her to force out those feelings. The stifling air of the shul had disturbed her today as never before. If there were one day to strike for freedom, it was this holiest of days, the turning point of years, seasons, perhaps even lives.
Still they stood staring into the window where the cakes lay temptingly in colourful profusion. It’s a sin to eat a cream cake, their aunt Masha used to say, pinching the spare flesh around her hips before taking up her fork. “It’s a sin: but sometimes it’s so lovely to be wicked.” And she would fill her mouth with a forkful of cream and sugar and pastry, and keep the taste melting there to savour the sinful pleasure.
“Let’s go,” Sarah said. The sight of the forbidden food was suddenly sickening, as if a whole life of debauchery lay beyond the clean glass, souring the cream, spoiling the innocent sweetness of the pastries.
Davida, however, was caught by the double vision of freedom and excess. “No; let’s eat a cake. Let’s prove that we can challenge guilt — and win. Let’s cast off the chains of that heritage imposed on us by dead generations. Let’s eat — and see what happens.”
Her voice had the urgency, the ring of conviction that Sarah could never resist. She tried one last way out.
“No money,” she said.
On holy days you did not carry money; you wanted to forget the burdens of commerce. On this day the earthly should be transcended.
“No problem,” returned Davida, stepping into the shop. A housewife with a heavy shopping bag was pausing from her duties to chat with the shop assistant. “After the operation he was right as rain,” she was saying. “His spine was good as new. Only problem: he was left impotent. The doctors say it will improve with time, it’s a side effect, very common — they just forgot to mention it before.”
She spoke as if today were just any day, the day to talk about just anything.
As they waited, Davida saw herself in a time when Yom Kippur would be just any day for her too, when she might not even know that it had come and gone. Would that make her ordinary, like the woman with the impotent husband? Would she ever forget the piercing wails of the worshippers lamenting their dead in an ancient tongue?
The shop assistant turned to the two sisters. “What can I do for you young ladies?” She was plump and motherly. She had no problems with guilt or sin, thought Sarah; and saw the hand of God, five gigantic crabbed fingers grasping the air before her, then pointing straight at her. This is the day of judgement. Either God judged you, or you judged him.
We have weighed religion in the balance and found it wanting.
Davida had adopted her pleading child face. “Please miss, we’re hungry and don’t have any money. Have you got any broken cakes for us?”
She arched her shoulders so that her collarbone protruded even more than usual. The more waif-like she looked, the more people would feel sorry for her and give.
The two women laughed, not without sympathy. “Poor little things. Hungry.” Then the assistant lifted a finger in mocking admonition. “Now don’t go spoiling your dinner. If I give you cakes you must promise not to miss the good healthy food your mother will cook for supper.”
Again, Sarah marvelled at this world out here, oblivious of this day of fasting for the Jews.
“We promise,” said Davida solemnly. She rarely felt guilt about breaking promises to strangers who would never find out.
“Keep that promise,” laughed the assistant. She was enjoying these two teenage girls. “Remember,” she added: “an Englishman’s word is his bond.” (She was so nice that she couldn’t even tell that they weren’t English, but Jewish and immigrants.) She gave them a generous paper bag full of damaged cakes from the back of the shop — squashed pastries, battered gingerbread, shortbread dissolving into crumbs.
Only as they were leaving the shop did she realise there was something amiss. “Hey,” she shouted at their retreating backs, “why aren’t you two in school?” Suddenly she sounded ferocious. “Hey, are you skiving off? — come back…”
But they were already gone, skipping away, joyfully free, consciences clear. They weren’t sinners like that. They had never played truant from school.
“Perhaps that comes next,” Sarah mused through mouthfuls of pastry. “Maybe one sin leads to another.”
“Maybe we’ll find out that sin doesn’t exist,” replied Davida. And maybe God doesn’t exist either. Verena doesn’t believe in God, I heard her say so to Tatiana. She said she only keeps the festivals to give us kids a sense of belonging, to make sure we grow up to be good Jews.”
The cakes tasted rather old, with the dryness of yesterday. After a few more bites they threw away the bag, sucking at their sticky fingers.
“Don’t say you feel sick,” Davida warned. That would be too much like just retribution. But Sarah did feel sick. Stale cakes on an empty stomach were bound to make you feel queasy.
They resumed their seats in the synagogue just in time for Rabbi Bronsky’s prayer for the state of Israel. As always, he delivered a sermon about the holy land. It was the right time: the general sense of sinfulness and remorse provoked a good response to the plea for funds. Naturally there were no hats or collection buckets, since money and devotion were mutually exclusive. Instead there were little cards placed on each seat, printed with the numbers in ascending order. The numbers stood for money: £10, £20… right up to the vast amount of £10,000. Alicia always looked covertly at the neighbours to see whether any were rich or foolish enough to covenant the jackpot. To make your donation, you looped a blue thread through the hole next to the appropriate number, pulling it tight.
“How much? How much?” Alicia asked Verena, who hushed her quiet and passed her card quickly down the row before the girls could see.
This year Isaac and Verena had agreed beforehand to give generously. The rabbi’s sermon had been anxious. “Israel needs her friends,” he urged. “We are all citizens of Israel, just as if we lived there. Being good Jews, our hearts and loyalties lie with the Holy Land.”
Rabbi Bronsky was careful never to mention politics. He had no need; biblical allusions sufficed. The Bible had foretold everything that would come to pass, every persecution and every triumph of God’s chosen people. “Enemies are lurking at the gates of Jerusalem,” the Rabbi warned. “The holy land of the Temple and the Torah is once again under threat. Israel needs her people. Give generously; give more than you can afford. Give till it hurts, for Israel needs your sacrifice.”
And the lawyers and stockbrokers, the merchants and doctors, the clerks and schoolteachers pulled the blue silken thread through the little punched holes with one eye to heaven where, on this special day, God was watching them with extra vigilance. As they passed their cards down the rows, they felt the salutary emptiness of their bellies; felt the lightness of being divested of money for a good cause; felt the magnanimity of self-sacrifice and the satisfaction of self-punishment. They settled back in their seats for the closing service as sundown sent its first signals through the narrow windows above.
“Where have you been all this time?” Alicia was angry, and jealous that the twins might have had an adventure without her.
“Just walking around — too hot and stuffy in here,” Davida replied nonchalantly, careful not to catch Sarah’s eye. Verena was watching them both intently. “It’s silly to walk,” she commented in a whisper. A neighbour frowned at them to be quiet. “Walking only makes you more hungry when you’re fasting.”
“Yes, I’m starving,” said Sarah, wondering where such a lie popped out from, marvelling at the way it came out so clean and convincing.
All the photos reproduced here were taken in September-October 2014 in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin.
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 5 October 2014
New year’s fall
saving the red (digital haiku)
autumn change of ways
where I stooped for fallen leaves
photos take over
Text & pictures © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 19 September 2014
The past is another country
Remember, remember the 10th of September
Smokescreen in G
Each time we met again
it rained. You teased
about the wetness of London
and cats whose names
rhymed with G
I lit a candle for Pussy Riot
and carry a purple umbrella
always in the case
wherein my life lies
After the textual overflow
Plans (they always have them
well prepared) those men
with cheeky grins and the sweeping
view from the top floor
quite naturally they spread out
and take their due
according to their blueprints
they know their status without doubting
so where does that leave us?
we could spend the leftover years
singing along to oldies (teardrop mode)
— a boy got out of a car
that’s no goodbye
dreamed in a blue
or brown motel room —
barefoot in Berlin
the carpet’s treacherous
!watch out for shards
of a shattered past
just detach the hurt and bury it
but don’t dig too deep
artesian wells may gush and strew
old bones from hidden graves
pneumatic drills in backyards
throw up new dirt
to build lifts for lofts:
the inner city purging the poor
me keeping pace with dates & times
trying too late to learn patience
ever the dutiful handmaid
apparently purifying through
the self-chastisement of housework
tidying desktops, wiping
speckled plastic surfaces, mopping
floors, always revisiting
the years of homegrown mobbing
(tortuous whine of vacuum cleaner)
overstrained the limit breaks.
kick of release: mental stripping
a flame of thought
burns old layers away
after the textual overflow
desire enjoys the sleep of fulfilment
while silence begs
for its own living space.
I find my old pen again
the gold bands red tarnished
green ink still flows from its capillary
the nib is stained, yet it retains
the air of ceremony
I hold it poised, a banner unfolds
swirling above the paper
everything I write with it seems better
is the only thing that matters
writing a poem is like making love
take pleasure doing it by yourself
writing a letter is a reflection of the other
my words echo in your mirror
I write to the beloved child-in-me,
my most cherished other self
let’s not wait for heaven
the poems are safe in the blackberry basket
there’s nothing more to prove.
Now it’s my turn to choose
when and where
we lie down on paradise shore.
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 10 September 2014
If Tom were a poem
he would have been a haiku
shimmering at dusk
Poem © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 3 September 2014
Brandenburg Gate Berlin. 30 August 2014
Posted 31 August 2014
The silly season doesn’t seem to be happening this year. There were no headlines to laugh at the past week. No juicy morsels of fabricated gossip from the yellow press, not even the first birthday party of Britain’s most famous junior icon, nor stolen paparazzi shots of stars and the super-rich cavorting on exotic private beaches could wipe the tragedy and disasters off the front pages.
Spectacles of death and destruction played out before the eyes of the world. They were caused by the inhumanity of human beings.
“… in a battle where I can’t cope”
Never-ending cycles of violence destroy creativity, faith, hope and ultimately, life. Old books and poems repeat the same refrain. There is nothing new about naked aggression and military might. A few profit, and many suffer.
Helplessness sends us back to the past, where we find strange solace in conflicts that ended before we were born. In this bumper year of commemorations, we honour past heroism while present tyranny gets appeased.
Two old poems remind me of previous occasions of helplessness. We have all the means to end wars and conquer suffering and disease. Who is to blame if we don’t use our knowledge and skills and creative power to do that?
Writing my diary with water
inspired by a work of art by Song Dong
Chinese art exhibition, Berlin, September 2001
I’m writing my diary with water
to wash away my fears
dipping the pen in water
to drown the flood of tears
the water runs into the words
blurring the green scrawls of hope
I’m writing a diary of slaughter
in a battle where I can’t cope
I’ll give up pen and paper
find an unmarked stone in a field
smooth a space upon its face
and ask my thoughts to yield
I’ll dip the brush in water
write poems on the stone
they’ll soak in till they’re watermarks
an epitaph for me alone
© Karen Margolis 2001
effigy of a charred baby
high on a pole
a trophy of suffering
on parades of grief
Goliath versus David
the legend perverted
devouring new generations
condemned from cradle
the parents of war
devour their children live
before the world’s eyes
an orgy of suffering
truce; mourning; rubble
aid appeals follow the TV show
who needs the carnage?
who gambles on collateral damage?
who profits from death
with the weapons of war
to feed hate?
we the Jews
can only lose
the Red Sea will not part for us again
no god and no book
will stop us drowning
© Karen Margolis 2009
Poems and photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 27 July 2014
growing and going
When the last child left school he chose some childhood photos for the back screen at the graduation ceremony. One showed him aged three on a playground swing, reminding us of the many Berlin playgrounds we knew so well in the growing years. Sites of childish joys and high-pitched noise while adults practised patience and the skills of mediation.
Sand was the natural corollary of family fun. It covered the ground that shifted beneath our feet as banks began to fail and the credit crunch began. The poem about sand is part of the Credit Crunch cycle I wrote in 2008-9. The photos were taken at Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea in October 2011.
When you live with children, you live with sand
From the playground the beach the sports field
they bring it home as a seasonal offering
sand caked to mud or soft and slushy
cold and gritty mixed with salt
or sunbaked fine and powdery
sand knocked out of shoes on doorsteps
fallen from pockets turned inside out
strewn over carpets, pillows and towels
settling in corners behind cupboards
and clogging up washing machines
Fresh from building castles and winning trophies
for picture book families
the children return with a bounty of sand
enough to fill a lifetime of hourglasses
ebbing away in a trickle of dry grains
to be sucked up in the connubial vacuum.
Out there in the virtual world
pundits discuss hedge funds & capital gains
and politicians deplore toxic debt & meltdown
while here on the home front
legions of female warriors
equipped from the household arsenal
battle ceaselessly against that inflationary menace
sand, the encroaching desert of domestic life
Poem and photos © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 12 July 2014
they’ve built another shopping mall
Inside out at Bikini Berlin
Bikini Berlin is not just another shopping mall. It’s a bizarre joke, or a telling sign that however hard the city tries, it can’t shake off its past and become just another 21st-century metropolis. Urban reshaping is what happens elsewhere. Deep at the heart of Berlin is a lump of sheer resistance to normality. Maybe it’s an instinct to protect what was good about the city despite its miserable history rating. Berlin was once the transit station for writers and artists, musicians and secret agents. It was a haven for daring cabaret stars and legendary gay bars. The bohemian, dadaist spirit of the 1920s and early ’30s still lives on somewhere in the city, giving rise to all kinds of crazy trends and weird misplaced experiments. Like Bikini Berlin.
Misnomer and nostalgia
Maybe there’s a reason for the name but (aside from summer bathing) the word Bikini, especially with a capital “B”, has an uncomfortable association. It goes back to 1 July 1946 with the first atomic weapons tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, in the northern Pacific ocean. Among the many anniversaries this year, 1 March 2014 marked 60 years since the US exploded the first hydrogen bomb, a 15-megatonne monster called Bravo. Bikini and Bravo stand in history for the first major show of force in the nuclear arms race, an opening shot in the Cold War that was to define Berlin for decades to come. Even today, many exiled Bikini islanders are afraid to return to their homes, and the fallout is still causing disease and death.
Bikini, then, comes immediately Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the roll-call of horror at the end of the Second World War. Bikini stands for the aftermath. Now the historical chain Hiroshima-Nagasaki-Bikini-Berlin has wound its way across time and space (conveniently avoiding the Soviet and Eastern European zones) to land up in the western centre of contemporary Berlin. It is completing the circle that began with the restoration of bombed-out West Berlin in the 1950s and its remodelling as a showcase for Western democracy and US capitalist consumerism.
Ladies and gentlemen, Berlin hasn’t yet found the way to build an adequate airport for its role as the German capital, but we bring you an entirely new shopping experience — BIKINI BERLIN!!
This is what can you expect when a city obsessed with its past slaps preservation orders on ugly buildings by postwar German architects and shrouds almost an entire city quarter around the famous Zoo Station in scaffolding and giant H&M ads. Where demolition was actually allowed, a tall hotel, the Ritz Charlton, rose up over the past few years and now dominates the area. Unconfirmed rumour says it appeals to Russian oligarchs. The Fifties building complex that had to stay as an architectural fossil borders on the Tiergarten, the big beautiful central park with the Zoo in the west and the Brandenburg gate at the eastern edge. It is this block that has been transformed into Bikini Berlin, with shops, cafés and a hotel on several levels.
The building has special memories for me: in the 1980s, as a film critic for the Berlin Film Festival newspaper, I worked in an office on the fifth floor that housed the Berlin festival organisation. Back then, although only thirty years old the entire block was already rundown, and at street level the colonnade with touristy snack bars and shops full of cheap tat was a place to avoid. The one thing I loved about the complex was the view from my desk in the office on the fifth floor. I could see right across Breitscheidplatz, often under snow in January and February during the peak film festival working period and always a splendid panorama of inner city life. My working day was timed by the clock on the ruined tower of the Memorial Church at the end of the square. The Berlinale and the other festival offices found new quarters in the 1990s, and the building complex slowly emptied, declining like much of the western city after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Before he moved out, a relieved colleague from the festival organisation described it as a cesspool. —I can hardly wait for the demolition hammer, he said. It was ripe for that.
Aping and gaping
Planners have their own logic. Investors too. Not to mention city councils. The listed building with its cracked façade, the colonnade smelling of old frying fat and urine, and the spacious ever-empty Chinese restaurant on the first floor was transformed to preserve the exterior for historical reasons. The interior was totally gutted and then filled with shopping and snacking opportunities. The ground floor at the back has been given huge glass walls. The result is that shoppers can walk around in a enormous barn-like space indoors and stop to look at the animals roaming free outside. The window onto the baboons is especially popular.
The shops, their goods and assistants are meanwhile housed in wire cages scattered around the huge floor space. Outside at the back, overlooking the zoo, steakhouses, trattorias and coffee bars try to make the split-level concrete exterior look like a epicurean adventure playground. They fail.
Probably the best business bet in Bikini Berlin, and certainly its busiest location, is the big supermarket with lots of fast food and long opening hours. Otherwise the lack of clientele might be partly explained by having to walk almost a mile from the coffee bars to the toilet, and then paying over the odds for the right to piss. The toilet fees separate the serious shoppers and diners from the rest. That’s Bikini Berlin. Yet with all those purchasing options and apes as well, something is still missing. Maybe it’s that touch of Berlin bohème that always puts the spice back into this city and makes it so great to live in.
Around the corner is the back entrance to the Europa Centre, another western city landmark with the Mercedes Benz star turning on top. Here, amid boarded shop fronts and CLOSEDOWN SALE notices, I found no bikinis in sight, but a lonely figure waiting — don’t touch! — for the latest phase of this locality’s revamping. Whatever will they call the next mall?
NICHT ANFASSEN BITTE! PLEASE DON’T TOUCH!!
© Karen Margolis 2014
posted 6 July 2014
Don’t ask – feel!
“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” – George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)
Love woke me up on a fresh Sunday morning at the start of a spring month.
Croissants for growing and going.
An old poem rehearsed all the questions again and came up — finally — with the answer.
why I’m here
— not for the beer
why I stay
it’s far away
when I’ll go
what I do
it’s not in who’s who
does it pay
what can I say
my selling price
want firm advice
for times and dates
can’t wait, won’t wait
for milk and sugar
the coffee’s bitter
it’s free it’s free
the time of day
light years away
if I’m in love
drilling into me
what they won’t tell
just as well
on bended knee
but do they need
words or deeds
Buddha or Allah
dream of Valhalla
Christ or Mohammed
to bless their bed
to live forever
want a saviour
their own reflection
devil in the flesh
to get the answer
why I’m not there
an empty chair
all the same
what’s in a name
me to dance
kiss my arse
for final proof
the bitter truth
to ease the load
till they explode
why life is short
of well-bred clones
again and again
here comes the train
what is reality
in all directions
ask ask ask
tongues are sharp
a lot, too much
yearning to know
the human touch
© Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 1 June 2014
Symmetry, poetry, endings
Seventeen years, almost to the day, since I wrote this poem. All the parameters have shifted. The renovations have been completed and begun again, there and everywhere. Nothing remains of emotions that became memory through words and pictures.
All that is left is a sense of wonderment that peacocks still strut around the orangery in the palace park and you can never know beforehand whether May will be a month of joy and fulfilment, or sorrow and disappointment.
Time you can trust. The magnificent symmetry of time. Wait long enough and it will all come around again.
Other poems are born for other lovers.
This one stands alone now for the moment when a peacock spread its tail.
The Birth of a Poem
The birth of a poem
is always a tiny miracle
like love it comes
when least expected
amid the music of the inner spheres
it flashes quickening
in the core of being
pounding in the brain
swelling out the belly
A poem being born
is a child of coincidence
emerging feet first
clamouring to be heard
like a sage and tender mother
you hold it close & warm
nourishing its strength
to stand proud among its peers.
Seeking fresh association
it floats beyond your grasp
let it go gently with a blessing
it was only yours to borrow
the birth of a poem
is always a tiny miracle
© Karen Margolis 1997/2014
Posted 28 May 2014
All our memories
This month of May 2014 is remarkably full of significant anniversaries. In particular, the two world wars of the 20th century are occupying major mass media and educational space in many countries.
“Every human has a name”
Commemorating the Holocaust in Berlin
Today, 28 April, is Yom haShoah, the day of remembrance for the Holocaust. There are different dates for commemoration in other countries as well as the international day on 27 January, but today is the special day set aside in Israel to remember the Nazi murder of the Jews of Europe.
Berlin’s Jewish community marks the day with a round-the-clock reading of the names of Jewish Holocaust victims. The event is held at the old Jewish community centre in the western part of the city. When I arrived shortly after noon, students from Berlin’s Jewish secondary school were taking turns before the mike under the big white umbrella. The list edged slowly through the letter “B”. Members of the Borowski family… Brand, Lily, née Friedlaender… Brandeis, Kate, née Lippmann… it will take the whole day till we reach the Levins, Margolises and other family members I am here to mourn, but now and again a name strikes a chord, and faces resurface from my childhood and from Jewish circles I have known.
In the end it doesn’t matter if they are “my” dead, or the dead relatives of other Jewish people gathered here. The banner across the railings says it clearly, “Jeder Mensch hat einen Namen” – Every human has a name. They are all our dead. The murdered people belong to all of us, to all our history, especially here in Berlin, where the decision to exterminate them was made and the execution largely planned.
Inside the community centre gates, the wall of remembrance lists the names of the concentration camps all over Germany and Europe where the Jews and many other Holocaust victims suffered and died. Fresh wreaths have been laid: from Berlin’s mayor, from other political parties, from the government. A woman in black lays roses on the ground next to them. Later she helps an old white-haired man up to the lectern where he reads some names from the list, standing surrounded by the young people waiting quietly in their T-shirts and jeans with their Coke bottles and plastic beakers of Starbucks juice.
Only a few metres from one of Berlin’s busiest shopping streets, this is all so far from the terrible events of 70 and more years ago, the sorrow and the pity, the hate and anger, the drama of one of history’s most terrible and unforgettable events. Even the uniformed police and muscular Israeli security guards who usually show such obtrusive presence here seem to have melted into the background, or been pushed there by the sheer weight of respect.
The mood is sombre, but not unhappy. After all, each commemoration like this is a tiny triumph, an ongoing victory over fascism, a statement of survival and rebirth despite the monumental loss. Particularly in Berlin. The old portal moulded into the 1950s community building reminds us that a large synagogue once stood here proudly, serving a big prosperous community, many of Russian and east European origin, in the Charlottenburg neighbourhood.
This is what the synagogue looked like around 1916:
And this is what the interior looked like after the “Kristallnacht” of 8-9 November 1938 when the Nazis and other Germans destroyed Jewish shops, businesses, community centres and synagogues:
We don’t forget. We will never forget. We will continue to mourn the dead of the Holocaust (not only the Jewish dead) and some of us will do our best to keep alive the eternal flame of memory. That was the cry of my childhood in the 1950s as I grew up among Holocaust survivors: IT SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN!
Every human being has a name. Each and every one of us is precious. Let us speak the names of all the people we love, and never forget the value of all our lives.
© Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 28 April 2014
Spring haiku for the Bard
Threshold (Shakespeare birthday haiku)
birth winds in April
brushing teardrops on leaf tips
words crack shells open
Poem © Karen Margolis 2014
The pictures were taken at the exhibition Paul Klee, Berlin National Gallery collection, 2014, and at the Berggruen Museum, Berlin.
Posted 23 April 2014
Shadows of identity
Show your face, please!
“Madame, would you show your face, please!”
The request rang across the checkouts of the supermarket in southern France. The loud, commanding tone broke through the automatic routines of the sleepy time of afternoon. All heads turned to look, first at the branch manager who had shouted, and then, following the direction of her outstretched hand, at the customer she was addressing. The middle-aged woman had just entered the shop. She was wearing a long grey robe with a long headdress that half covered her face and trailed down her back behind. She was black-skinned, possibly African. She could have been a nun. Her dress looked religious, but nowadays it’s hard to tell.
Watched by the other people in the shop, she lifted the scarf and fastened it back with her headband, revealing her face. The manager grunted approval while the grey-clad woman took a basket and headed for the vegetable section. That was the first time I had ever seen the law enforced as it now stands in France: citizens are not allowed to wear face-covering in public, even for religious reasons.
When President Sarkozy’s “burka-ban law” was enacted in France in 2011, the right hailed it as a victory for “tolerance” and the left saw it as a blow against civil liberties and capitulation to right-wing racism. Today, three years on, the debate looks completely off the mark. It’s clear now that it was never really about children being able to see their teacher face to face, and even less about liberating subjugated women from patriarchal cultures. It wasn’t about attacking Muslims, either. These questions are all very important, but not what is at stake in being obliged to show your face uncovered in public.
It is about one principal issue: identification by the authorities.
The supermarket manageress doesn’t care whether the maybe-nun is a victim of oppression or not. The command to show her face was the order to be identifiable to the shop CCTV system. Women with elaborate headwear and garments are suspect. What might they be hiding under there? Shoplifted sausages? And even if they’re not hiding anything, they may be feeling good about the idea they could hide something if they wanted to.
Disguise as Empowerment
Hoodies have become a target of official mistrust for similar reasons. In the US, the case of murdered teenager Trayvon Martin highlighted the symbolism of the hood and hostile images of its wearers. The hood plainly means belonging (to the group of disaffected hood wearers), along with the bodily comfort of covering the vulnerable back of the neck. Still, there are some hate-filled people in our societies who resent “underdogs” having pride and feeling secure. Or there are people who have enough to feel threatened by the have-nots. They want to be able to identify the supposed enemy. Hoods and headscarves prevent them from seeing faces they can accuse.
As with headscarves, it is possible to envisage a “hood ban” – hooded heads being banned in public places, or at least indoors where weather can’t be an excuse for wearing the hood up. Again, the ban would be presented as a measure for public ease and safety: showing our face means we are all equal under the law. As with the burka-ban arguments, there could be reasons for suspicion or fear of hoodies. But the tenets of a democracy require that we weigh up the issue of personal freedom of dress very carefully against the issue of public security. (Anyway, a hooded unarmed teenager is almost certainly less dangerous than an adult with a gun.)
The state doesn’t care about fighting prejudice or ending economic equality. If it did, it would enact effective legislation to help the disadvantaged. There is a close relationship here between identification and control, specifically of minorities and people who feel safer or empowered if they wear particular kinds of clothing and hide their faces in society.
What the state is aiming for is maximum transparency – of its citizens. Today’s transparent citizens in Germany, for instance, have to upload their own biometric portrait photo for the new health insurance chip card, and before you can say “NSA” the whole international digital information network has stored the details and can match your name and birthdate to your face anytime, anywhere.
“What happens if I don’t want to provide a portrait photo for the health insurance card?” I asked the representative at my local insurance office in Berlin. He smiled at the very thought. “No question. You have to,” he said. As I still looked unconvinced he added, “Of course, if people are really stubborn about refusing we can declare their card invalid.” He smiled again, pleased with his neat logic. “No photo ID, no medical care.”
In other words, the seeming inevitability of the transparent citizen is actually based on coercion. Reluctantly I had to embark on the latest step in the journey towards my identity as a see-through figure in today’s information landscape. And what’s worse, this “technical advance” is being achieved with the biometric photos that make everybody look so hideous.
The drawbacks of unrestricted portrait flow are becoming ever clearer. One day we’ll probably be asking ourselves how we could have been so naïve. There are already enough cautionary tales of personal disasters due to certain pictorial poses appearing in the wrong context. But if it’s too late to delete what’s already in there, what can we do to limit future damage?
Part of the answer lies in holding back – limiting the flow of visual images of ourselves and our nearest & dearest in digital media. Blurred or dark images confuse the spies. Fuzzy anonymity is an option. Since facial features are key to personal identification, we can make them hard to see. Sunglasses are a good beginning. Caps, wide-brimmed hats, hoods, headscarves… all the apparatus of sartorial disguise can help keep your face hidden. You are not legally obliged to smile for the cash automat camera, the shop CCTV or the electronic videos on public transport and in urban space. Cherish your personal anonymity, it’s precious like your name and birthdate. It stands for the right not to be known.
Silhouettes and shadows – the opaque citizen
A digital silhouette or shadow? In the age of 3-D cinema and printing, the line and plane start to look creatively exciting. Perhaps we real-life three-dimensional humans could assume the image of a cut-out, or a projection onto a flat surface. Instead of transparency, let’s go for the illusion of being. Let’s cherish privacy and melt into the shadows with our secrets. Most of all, we don’t have to believe in the all-powerful state that can x-ray our body, steal our image and read our mind at will. Instead of this negative fearful approach, it is far more interesting to invent new ways to conceal rather than to expose. This is about creative resistance, not resignation.
Collectively we could create an innovative vision: the opaque citizen.
Since it’s a big Shakespeare anniversary this year that reminds us of all the immortal speeches, let’s give the last word to the Bard, the shadowy figure who has dominated world literature since the 16th century.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 12 April 2014
Modesty and THE SPANNER
Latest issue of THE SPANNER, the Soho-based broadsheet for a critical light in dark corners. Theme: Modesty. With lots of thoughts by people who think and write, and a short morality tale by me. Not to mention illustrations. A fine print experience. Order / subscribe at: www.thespanner.net
Just right for reading in the shade!
posted 6 April 2014
blossoms and gooseflesh
April comes in pinks and blues
kisses find lovers
Poem and pictures © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 1 April 2014
Every day, my mind a tangle of convoluted e-mails, puerile games and impossible demands, I walk along the sea shore and ask what matters out of all the worlds I know but do not inhabit. The sea doesn’t interrupt its rhythm. The horizon keeps its own counsel. Just looking is enough to open every pore of being. There is greatness in feeling small.
Sometimes I come home with the germ of a poem.
waves of promise
crash on the shore of real time
see the strange imprint left
as they recede
a human shadow
cast across wet sand
watch it shrinking in a moment
what has vanished mysteriously?
what is happening
in the deepest depths
of our oceans?
everything you say you see
in others betrays yourself
crushed shells line the shore
the beach is swept
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 23 March 2014
Good morning Monday
Good morning Monday
Good morning Monday
new week switched on
coffee tastes fresh still
sun, croissants, piano sonatas
banks opened on time
a phony war game plays
on breakfast tv
the full moon came and went
why abandon the race
before the start?
they say it’s the hits that count.
leave me out. Here’s a morning
crammed with promise
I’m living to write to feel
not a win-win factor
calculating like-button scores
in an empty events culture
Poem © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 17 March 2014
Queen Esther’s little finger…
It was many years since I had been to a Purim party. Then, around ten years ago, I visited a small synagogue housed in a church community centre in the southwest of Berlin. The usual Friday evening service to welcome Shabbat concluded with a Purim celebration. Arriving just before the service began, I was swept away by nostalgia and memories of anti-patriarchal rebellion before landing on the shores of contemporary feminism.
In this makeshift synagogue room I can see right away that there is no ladies’ gallery; you can choose your seat regardless of sex. I will be staring at the backs of men’s heads rather than seeing them from a vantage point above, as I did in the Conservative synagogues of my youth in South Africa and London.
There are still only a few people sitting down in the big room at Middenweg. I choose a seat at the side near the coat rack and the entrance. (You never know when you might need to escape discreetly.) In the row ahead, a beautiful woman with abundant black hair is trying to calm her two small daughters. The elder girl is feeling elegant in her white party dress. The younger has a pair of shimmering gauzy angel’s wings attached to her back that keep slipping off as she wriggles against the chair. Whooping with delight, she is smearing red lipstick all over her face. I offer her a pocket mirror so she can see the result; satisfied, she passes it back, and offers to smear my lips with the mangled lipstick as well.
The noise level in the foyer is rising as people trickle into the room, greeting each other with handshakes and hugs and kisses and loud appreciation of the children’s costumes. One little boy has a complete Harry Potter outfit including magician’s hat and broomstick. He races around the room, showing it off. Later I found the broomstick propped forlornly against the wall, its modern magic vanquished by the old Purim story. The little boy had swapped it for a plastic rattle whose raucous tones would chase away the evil threatening his people.
Black and white: carnival caricatures
Purim comes at a convenient time for Berlin’s Jewish mothers. Most of the kindergartens and schools celebrate carnival in the period before Ash Wednesday. The costumes for the school parades and fancy-dress parties double neatly for Purim. This evening at Middenweg there are the customary Queen Esthers, Mordecais and Hamans — but they are outnumbered by angels, cowboys and other figures of childhood fancy. One little boy is covered in green from top to toe with sprouting trimmings, like a woodland spirit or a dancer in the rites of spring. The ancient rituals and retelling of traditional stories inevitably hark back to the earliest, natural religions. Purim is a delightful foretaste of Pesach (Passover), the great spring pilgrim festival.
Further along our row, the excitement and the waiting prove too much for a little boy dressed in black as Haman. Perched on his father’s knee, he is weeping miserably, smearing the paint from his evil black moustache all over his cheeks as he pummels his face with his fists. Maybe somebody has told him that Haman is the baddy of the story, and he’ll come to a sticky end before it’s all over.
The rabbi stands at the lectern, waiting for the noise to die down. When it sinks low enough for his soft voice to be heard, he begins the Friday evening service. Some members of the congregation chant with him. The student cantor’s recitation is shaky, but the energetic women’s choir helps smooth out the creases.
Immersed in memories, I get lost trying to follow the Hebrew. Some of the melodies are different to those I learned all those years ago.
Tonight at Middenweg the Shabbat evening service is augmented by passages from the Book of Esther to mark the Purim feast, which fell earlier in the week. The rabbi introduces the story briefly. Everybody knows it, he says; so why is it still important to retell it and celebrate Purim every year? One reason is that Purim passes on an unforgettable story heard in childhood, like the fairy tales and nursery rhymes of our native cultures. The despotic wilful king; the unloved queen; the beautiful (and intelligent) young girl who takes her place as representative and saviour of her people, the Chosen People; the entrepreneurial uncle; the baddy who wants to wipe out Our Side. Yes, Esther is the heroine of an eternal story — and a great role model for girls.
Hearing the rabbi recalls the white dress I wore as Queen Esther at Purim, my first starring role: the tinny tiara, the paste diamond bracelets and necklace. A costume that owed more to the coronation robe of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, than the biblical Esther. Four years old in the mid-1950s at a Hebrew nursery school in a small town near Johannesburg, and I had already joined the ranks of biblical heroines and royalty. Yes, Purim is a festival to remember.
Plastic rattles are being distributed down the rows to all the children. The rabbi starts reading the story. “When I read out the name Haman,” he instructs, “shake your rattles vigorously.” Some children can’t wait that long. They’ve been patient during all the incomprehensible singing and the sadness of the prayers for the dead. Now here’s the party they were promised. The video team recording the event for local TV starts moving the camera on squeaky wheels up and down the side of the hall to capture the children’s faces. Every time the rabbi is about to pronounce the name Haman, he looks up as a signal to the rattle-shakers. I stamp my feet on the floor like the congregation in my shul used to do. The little boy dressed as Haman has quite forgotten his grief and is swinging his rattle gleefully, not at all worried that the outbursts of noise are directed against the character he represents.
As a child I learned early on that Haman and Hitler were one and the same. Haman stands for everybody who ever tried to wipe out the Jews. None of them ever succeeded. We have survived to tell the tale and at Purim we have a chance to vent our feelings and vilify their names. The stamping and shouting and the bitter-sweet taste of Hamantaschen, the poppy seed cakes shaped like Haman’s three-cornered hat (a later embellishment of the story)… all that reminded me of Haman as a figure like Napoleon or Chaplin’s Great Dictator — nasty, ugly, dictatorial and deeply absurd. A man whose hat you could eat. The poppy seeds always got stuck between my teeth, little black bugs that I spat out later with the toothpaste and watched as they swirled away down the drainpipe. There. That’s the last of him.
No Proustian moment
The end of the Purim story this evening is accompanied by the smell of pita bread and spinach pastries being warmed up in the narrow kitchen behind the back wall of the hall. As soon as the service is over the chairs are stacked up to make space; we gather around a table in front of the buffet, where we sing together while thumbnail plastic beakers of syrupy New York kosher wine are passed round and the rabbi blesses the fruit of the vine. After the traditional toast, glasses are drunk in a single gulp while the cantor blesses and cuts the the plaited challah loaf.
Musicians are already setting up instruments; as soon as they start playing, the children join hands in a ring with adults, singing and dancing. The video team’s wires get tangled up between the dancers and the queue for the buffet. Hummus, falafel, aubergine salad, pita bread… anything except the gefilte fish and latkes, chopped liver, pickled herring and heymische cucumbers of East European Jewry which filled the synagogue buffets of my youth.
On a side table are plates laden with Hamantaschen baked to an unfamiliar recipe: little short-pastry triangles filled with poppy seed or mashed dates. Rather dry and chewy, they bear no resemblance to the melt-in-the mouth delicacies my Lithuanian grandmother baked for Purim, nor to the Polish versions we ate in London, from Grodzinski’s bakery on Haverstock Hill: three-cornered flaky pastries brushed with egg-white to give them a shine, with tiny coloured sugar balls scattered on top that contrasted brightly with the moist black poppy seed inside. At Middenweg I had been looking forward to the taste of Hamantaschen and the possible onset of a Proustian moment. I am disappointed.
In retrospect, I wonder why eating Haman’s hat, the headgear of the original genocidal murderer, should have been such a great treat. If you take the symbolism literally, those moist black poppy seeds could be brain matter and the charming little cakes part of a cannibalistic ritual.
The music is getting louder — a mixture of traditional liturgical tunes, Israeli folklore and klezmer. In fact, everything here is a mixture. Ancient and modern. A story told alternately in German and Hebrew. People talking in many tongues.
From the outside, being Jewish might seem decisive, a single defining characteristic, a yes-or-no; but inside you’re constantly surprised by its rampant eclecticism, its defiance of categorisation. The fifty-odd people here come in all shapes and sizes from all over Central and Eastern Europe and the wider world: other regions of Germany, Israel, Poland, Russia, the US, Britain, the Baltic States, Morocco… Whether they look Jewish or not depends on what your eyes are used to. But most of them know the songs, and are dancing, tapping their feet or clapping as they sing along.
Rebel thoughts from the ladies’ gallery
Suddenly I am back in my early teenage years again, standing in the foyer of the Hampstead synagogue with my father, reunited after the separation during the service. He is lapping up compliments for having such lovely children (making him temporarily forget the home battleground of the generation gap), and praise for having read his portion of the Torah so well; and I’m seething with annoyance that I never get a chance to hold the holy scroll and touch its twin crowns with the dangling bells that chime as they sway to the singing, and caress the gold-embroidered midnight-blue velvet covers, and walk in circles cradling them in my arms like the boys do. How soft they must feel… I want to lift off the crowns, then the covers, as carefully and tenderly as the men do, like a bridegroom on the wedding night undressing his bride for the first time. I want to take out the Torah and unroll it from the wooden poles and look close up at the black letters of Hebrew handwriting on the scroll.
It might be written by men, but it is a book. There is no biological reason why women shouldn’t read it, just as there is no biological reason why women should always do the washing-up. And it’s not a ten-ton weight, either. It weighs less than a child, and it’s a precious object, a jewel, its velvet cover frequently embroidered by women’s hands; holding it demands delicacy and care. There’s no earthly reason why a woman shouldn’t pick it up and walk around with it.
But if you read it, you can find ample explanation as to why women are not to be entrusted with it.
In the Middenweg foyer, where conversation is hearable, I tell the rabbi about a British woman rabbi I heard talking about the Book of Esther the previous day on BBC World radio. She insisted it was important to contextualise the story. In her view there are two basic flaws: first of all, the narrative is hostile to women. They are presented as objects of manipulation by men for political ends. Secondly, the ultimate message is about violence and revenge. After Haman has been defeated and consigned to his fate, King Ahasuerus asks his beloved wife Esther for her heart’s desire. She replies: A day of festivities for my people so they can take their revenge on their enemies. When that day has passed, the King asks her again for her heart’s desire. She replies: Another day of festivities, during which Haman’s ten sons shall be hanged upon the gallows and our remaining enemies slaughtered.
All this, according to the British lady rabbi, shows that the Book of Esther doesn’t fit the modern age. The time has come, she insisted, to rewrite the story to maximise its feminine potential and minimise its male aggression.
Listening to this, I was already mentally writing the revised version.
Instead of the white princess-gown and glittering tiara I wore as Queen Esther in my first role at nursery school, I am wearing green-and-brown army camouflage gear with a machine gun slung casually over my shoulder. If my parents had emigrated to Israel, as my father once dreamed of, I would have served in the Army like my cousins who were children when they fled with their parents from Lithuania to Palestine. In Esther’s shoes (or rather, knee-length combat boots), I would have snapped my fingers at King Ahasuerus and Uncle Mordecai, and mobilised with the women of Israel to defend our people alongside the men.
But once we were safe and secure, my Queen Esther wouldn’t demand slaughter and retribution. She would find a female solution to the conflict instead of the cockfighting that men call war. There would be no bloodbaths and no mass graves.
And if a sweet remembrance is necessary for the Purim party, maybe Hamantaschen with its cannibalistic implications should be phased out in favour of… apple pie? Jaffa cakes?
— But then again, something inside me objects to this rewriting. And it’s not just the romantic militarism.
The Queen Esther in the white dress is a precious memory of my childhood. Dressed up as Esther, I was not only playing a Biblical queen, I was replaying my mother and grandmother and all the women of past generations who have dreamed of wearing regal trappings and achieving immortality by saving their people.
Esther’s story has been written time and again, but never more humanly and humorously than in Itzik Manger’s Yiddish version, The Tailor’s Megille, written in 1936, three years before he left his native Bukovina in flight from the Nazis.
“Queen Esther doesn’t have armies or power,
But she lifts her little finger, that’s all.
And when she tickles the king with that finger,
Armies and evil can fall.”
Meanwhile, in the early 21st century, a woman rabbi was telling us in all seriousness to rewrite the story for the present. The way she wanted to do it is symptomatic of our times. The modern-day Queen Esther would be a perfect example of political correctness. She would not abuse her power to massacre her enemies, she would pardon them graciously and send them on socio-psychological rehabilitation courses… She would disavow nationalism, racism, patriotism and all those other prohibited ideologies. In other words, she would be the perfect, politically acceptable role model for kindergarten children in the (Western) Europe of today.
Thus rewritten, the story loses its psychological credibility, and collapses. An Esther reformed to suit our present criteria would never have allowed herself to be manipulated in the first place by her uncle, husband or any other man. After seeing how the despotic king summarily disposed of his first wife, Vashti, because she refused to let him denigrate her before the courtiers, our modern-day Esther would have been roused to female solidarity. She would never have obeyed Mordecai and married the chauvinist king.
The Esther of the Bible played out her role within quite different parameters, whose rigidity could not be softened by sheer goodness and political correctness. Her sheroism consisted in taking the only path open to a woman of her time and operating skilfully within those parameters. It is fascinating to discuss Esther’s choices without rewriting the story.
The little boys in the Purim play, dressed up as Haman with threatening black moustaches painted on their smooth faces and licence to be rowdy, embody the incarnation of evil. Swinging rattles and stamping our feet at the mention of Haman’s name is a way of materialising this evil and confronting it. Re-telling the story every year allows for catharsis with a touch of communal exorcism — driving out the devil in society and our selves.
“So may it be in the world forever!
May the good all flourish and the evil fall!”
Itzik Manger, Die Megille/The Tailor’s Megille, The Complete Songbook, Megille-Verlag, Dresden, 1998.
The Book of Esther is a story of survival in a time of absolutism, a story of brute force, emotion, and very limited individual options. Political correctness is a luxury of the advanced industrial countries of our times. Applied retrospectively, it saps the vitality of myths and fables. It robs Esther of her glory as a saviour of her people.
It robs me of my dream of female heroism.
Everyone needs heroes moulded to their wishes. Girls especially need heroines; and the debate about Esther and her choices is a valuable addition to the female historical canon.
Let me keep my Esther.
Text © Karen Margolis
Posted erev Purim, 15 March 2014
INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY
Back in herstory…
The poem below was written in Berlin more than 25 years ago, when a wall divided the city. I lived on the western side not far from the central Zoo Station. My sixth-floor apartment had a small balcony looking onto the railway lines that converged on the station. I soon got used to the Paris-Moscow express rushing past, and the slow chug of the old S-Bahn city trains that halted close by at Savignyplatz before continuing eastwards to the last stop at the Friedrichstrasse border post between West and East Berlin.
Now the memories make exciting stories that it’s thrilling to relive as I write them. The actual process is fascinating. Working apparently by association, the mind develops a complex system of signposts to long-buried thoughts and experiences.
Today, for instance, International Women’s Day: I’m reminded of the first time I crossed the Iron Curtain, in 1975, when I went to Prague. Picture a fearful young woman smuggling letters to people in the Czech opposition from their comrades in exile in Western Europe. Waiting for my assigned contacts in the wintry grey misery of central Prague, I strolled around and soon became aware of a strange sight. Everywhere were long queues of men standing at flower kiosks and coming away with big bunches of coloured blossoms and early spring blooms.
That evening I met some students from the underground movement in a pub. They explained it was a tradition for men to give bouquets to women on this day. It was the 8th of March – International Women’s Day. Men were supposed to help with the housework and childcare. There would be marches and speeches. In factories and offices, women workers would receive gifts of cosmetics, perfume, scarves.
The dissident students laughed at my enthusiasm. International Women’s Day, they told me, had nothing to do with the women’s liberation movement I was part of in London. It was a cynical anniversary like all the other state-proclaimed events in the calendar, designed to buy off workers with panaceas, to paint communism with the human face it lacked.
It was the year 1975, only seven years after the Prague Spring that had ended with the invasion of Soviet tanks, with bloodshed, repression, imprisonment, death, or exile for the leaders of the uprising. Some of the students at the big table in the old Prague pub that evening were still mourning relatives, friends or lovers killed in the conflict. The students were now fighting secretly in the underground. The women were strong and determined, and angry at the idea of being bought off with flowers or cosmetics. They despised International Women’s Day.
Having disposed of official “women’s policy”, we got down to talking about what really mattered. On that night, and in all the years since, in similar conversations in Prague, in Warsaw and Lodz, in Budapest, in East Berlin, wherever… what we shared as women was always greater than what divided us. Our common dreams, ambitions, goals, our sorrow and anger, our strength and willpower all fused into a longing for self-determination. For control over our bodies, our minds, our place in society, our right to have choices and to live as we choose.
Most of all, the right to search for love and for ways to live that allow the maximum love in a lifetime.
Love Poem in Eight Songs
Come live with me and be my love
The poet sang. But that was long ago
when lovers were a pair of cooing doves
Far from the histories you and I both know
we sit for hours across a glassy table
Drink wine. Eat white fish. Play billiards with words
Then go to bed. It’s there that we are able
to prove our pleasure like those cooing birds.
Don’t wanna be your chess pawn
Don’t wanna be a wife again
Don’t wanna be the Frau in der Flasche
that you drink of now and then.
Don’t wanna be your reason for living
Don’t wanna use words like true
Don’t wanna measure the taking and giving
All I really want is you.
I’ve been loved and married
born and carried
and been their child again;
I’ve been beaten, battered
had all my hopes shattered,
tried swapping roles
landed at opposite poles;
seen it all before
till I’m sick of more
and destroyed the lot
but never quite got
what I really want.
So where do I go from here?
to a distant isle with a faraway man
where we don’t talk and don’t plan:
where our castles of words dissolve into clouds
till there’s no use saying anything out loud.
And we will play the games that bring us pleasure,
find at last a blissful piece of leisure,
read and write and sing and smoke and drink
allow ourselves the luxury to think.
Grow great. Write masterpieces
Cover literature with golden fleeces
Cast aside all past and tried relations
Preserve our power for our own creations.
And you will be my lover
I your mistress. But that’s not all
I’ll also keep the eye that looks at me
and you will keep the you I never see.
Why do I love A.
When he’s so far away?
Because my heart
at the sight
of his six o’clock shadow.
If you want to win me
Ring my bell at midnight
warm my toes
bring me a single rose.
feed me fresh food
translate my book
send me postcards from afar,
hold me close when I come
then do it again. And kiss
the tip of my nose when we part.
But I still wouldn’t give you my heart
you also made me laugh.
When the sun makes a triangle
at three o’ clock
on the balcony wall
I stand at the window
watching the long black tails
and white bellies
of the nesting birds
as the S-Bahn rattles by.
— dash downstairs
under the bridge, across the Kantstrasse
feed the right-hand mouth of a yellow monster
with a postcard
To Wilmersdorf, saying
Wish you were here
Men friends are enduring
women briefly alluring
but nothing lasts so long
or burns so hot and strong
as the passion of a poet
for his Muse.
You can be a goddess woman
you can be a doormat too
You can run around complaining
’bout the things men do to you.
But you don’t have to:
You can sob, cry shout scream
and fight to make him better;
You can burn his clothes, slap his face
and send him lawyers’ letters
But you don’t have to:
You can be a model woman
you can fast and exercise
and if you’re good enough you’ll win
the next man as your prize
But you don’t have to:
there are other things to do.
You can be a mistress woman
the hetaira of the Greeks:
the classic sovereign courtesan
whose praise the poet speaks.
A woman who’s unique.
Text & poem © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 8 March 2014
The revolution has been photoshopped
The revolution has been photoshopped
for Eddie Woods
The revolution has been photoshopped:
it began with a square
masses gathered to shout slogans
messages and pictures were sent in thousands
celebrating the people power eruption
soon the revolution could be seen
day & night via live stream
capitalising on events culture
the media outbid the masses
for story and image control
lately the crowds on the square
revel in their spotlight place
the world’s eyes watching their rebellion
they can’t be persuaded to go home again
till the dancing on the square
turns to running
teargas clouding cameras
helpless protestors choking
water cannon flooding
red smoke everywhere
riot control takes command of the square
cue: first shots are fired
repeated scene: bloodshed
freedom banners in flames
incendiary devices, carnage
body bags, makeshift coffins
massacres & lamentations
we watch the terror rise on every screen
follow the ticker for the death toll
#aftermath #empty square #barriers
the restoration of a new status quo
in retrospect seldom better
the stuff of legends in video games
youtube clips, smartphone albums
the film of history today
directed by the bosses
recorded by the masses
stored for future media use
before the epicentre shifts
to a new square
They’re photoshopping in
the next protest, cloning mass demos
from image libraries
(every era has its archive crowd pics
waiting for keynote anniversaries)
we the spectators
thrill to the suspense
the battle for top dog
politics as reality show
a tug of war on main square
concealing the forces that always win
beneath a narrative of surface pictures
Who wins the contest
for the most viewed
iconic image of the conflict?
How does it feel to be a hero of the hour
and a loser the rest of your time?
The people from the square
manipulated out of real existence
embedded in a giant wave of romanticism
— that ends, for some, at the morgue —
stare at the pictures they made
ask who stole the spirit of the moment
and wonder why they called it spring
© Karen Margolis 2014
Thanks to Richard Livermore and Chris Aziz for comments on an earlier version of this poem.
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 25 February 2014
Not watching Sochi
Since the winter Olympics started in Sochi, I have been avoiding all media coverage of the sporting events and surrounding hype. This is not a call to action, not a petition, simply a personal protest against Russia’s flagrant attacks on human and civil rights and failure to protect basic liberties for its citizens. Freedom of speech, of artistic expression, of sexual and political orientation, freedom to protest are all dangerously threatened in Russia today.
Russia has again become a country that menaces and silences writers and artists, murders journalists and political opponents, enslaves prisoners, attacks gays, fails to protect women and children adequately from violence, oppresses ethnic and other minorities, and whose rulers retain power by intimidation and coercion. All this, it must be said, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the world powers and its own satellite countries.
For many years I actively supported dissidents in Eastern Europe fighting against Stalinism and the Soviet system. Not for this. Our friends and fellow world citizens deserve a better future than the perversion of democracy and justice that rules in Russia today.
Instead of watching Sochi, instead of joining the ever-jubilant chorus of the global events society, I’m looking at the world close to my front door. Taking my camera for afternoon walks. Taking time to watch everyday sports.
GOLD MEDAL of the Not Watching Sochi games goes to the unknown maiden at the Sunday inline slalom on the Promenade des Anglais, Nice.
Text & photo © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 14 February 2014
This is life. Touching us all
The pictures are from two recent sequences:
Taking my camera for an afternoon walk and On the beach
If I were a painter I would paint a picture every day after a storm in Nice. The light is legendary.
“La richesse et la clarté argentée de la lumière de Nice me parait unique
et indispensable à l’esprit d’un artiste plastique”
(The richness and silver clarity of the light of Nice seemed unique to me
and indispensable for the spirit of a visual artist.)
Henri Matisse, 1942
Instead of painting I take my camera everywhere, along with my diary. An afternoon walk to the beach is a feast for the senses, a natural wonderland event.
There are mirrors at the corner of Rue de Rivoli.
Down at the seashore, gulls are keeping an eye on the waves. Rather choppy lately.
There is a cat that walks to the beach with its family. Woman, man, lap dog and cat. The humans order beverages, read magazines and talk Italian. The animals settle down quietly in the shade at their feet.
Cat on the beach
mountains of freshly whipped chantilly clouds
in the clear sky of midday blue
joggers dodging strolling couples
dog walkers, pram pushers
gigolos on bicycles
below the promenade
earthmovers sweep away the storm detritus
among the stones I find no shells
each time the tempest is followed by a marvel
of resignation and the will to reconstruction
beach bars resurface from flooding
where there is sun and sea there is commerce
yet amazingly still so much for free
a public beach a field of play for life outdoors
a theatre of possibilities
and occasional wonders
the cat sits enthroned
on the middle step
of the plastic slide
on the playground
of tide washed pebbles
upright sits the cat
back to the cresting waves
nostrils flared for wafting
grilled sardines and salt sea
the prospect of fish heads and tails
tossed by friendly lunchers
pigeons and lap dogs the only competition
otherwise a rapt audience
faces turned to the sun
hair straggling in the afterstorm wind
February straining toward spring
occasionally wild on the Riviera
Now the guests start talking to each other
– a cat at a beach café
its presence a contact chance
a pet makes a meeting place
a living room in public space
people, animals, birds
marinated olives, vin de pays d’Oc.
conversation, crêpe sucré, café express
this is life. touching you
more than a dating site
more than the hearts of digital friends
this is life. touching us all
so much more than survival
© Karen Margolis 2014
© Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 13 February 2014
STOP SPYING on us!
The fight back starts now!
Solidarity with the worldwide websites day of action against mass state surveillance. Read more at pen.org (PEN USA)
Back to the bad old days?
Recent legal changes restricting abortion in Spain contradict the blithe assumption that women in Europe are on a progress march towards greater power and freedom. The battle for a woman’s right to control her sexuality and fertility is still going on throughout the world — and in some places it’s going backwards. Many of us who grew into adulthood in the 1960s and supported the Women’s Movement believed we were at the dawn of a new era of women’s liberation. Key to this was the contraceptive pill. The following extract from an unpublished novel gives a flavour of the hopes and expectations of a young woman growing up then.
From the unpublished novel 14-15-16
The following chapter was published in German translation as Die Pille bitte in Unbekannte Wesen (Women in the 1960s), anthology ed. Becker, Elefanten Press Berlin 1986. It was reprinted 1988 in Hart und Zart (Women in the ’60s and ’70s), Elefanten Press Berlin, and in two school textbooks in Germany in the 1990s.
The Pill, please
The notice at the entrance to the clinic was comfortingly neutral. ADVISORY CENTRE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. First floor. Please walk up. Simple sans-serif black print on a white background.
It could mean anything, except to those who know what it is. Judith cast a cautious glance around the busy pavement to see if anybody was watching her who might know – who might spot her climbing the narrow grubby stairs and say: there goes another schoolgirl on the Pill. And shake their heads, muttering about the Permissive Society.
Nobody was looking. The November afternoon was too cold for dawdlers, and most of the shoppers were laden with large boxes of hi-fi equipment, or daydreaming about having their arms full of it. The street specialised in hi-fi shops. That was the advantage of coming to a clinic in the city centre: it was more crowded and anonymous. There was less chance of anyone she or her parents knew observing her.
Not that there was anything criminal about going to the clinic. Thousands of girls her age were doing it. You could even say it was a mature, responsible act. If her parents were more enlightened, she wouldn’t have to watch out like a guilty thief or a spy who suspects she’s being followed.
Do I look guilty? Do I look like those men who prowl in Soho alleyways? – glancing quickly to left and right and then rapidly climbing the narrow grubby stairs beyond the sellotaped hand-scrawled notice that reads: Young model Anne. Third floor. Please walk up.
She had been walking down just such an alleyway recently when she had seen a man emerge from one of the labelled doorways, straightening his tie and seeming pleased with himself. When he had noticed her looking at him, he had averted his eyes, cleared his throat and moved very fast in the opposite direction. I know what you’ve been up to, she thought, reading the doorway notice. Was it Jacky on the first floor or French model on the second?
There was no innocence anymore. You only had to walk on the street to smear your innocence, just as the lead fumes from car exhausts blacken the cream-coloured facades of the most illustrious buildings, the most noble classical pillared terraces. Innocence belonged to that bygone world of white buildings. Only nostalgists believed in it now. Only nostalgists and moralists.
Fuck moralists, Judith said to herself; and the expletive made her less nervous. She started towards the stairs, her eyes carefully avoiding the glass door of the lighting shop which shared the clinic entrance. The people in the shop were sure to know what went on upstairs on the third floor.
Did it matter if they knew? She was only doing what lots of other girls did. She used to pride herself that she was special, but now it gave her courage to think that she was not unique, she was part of her generation and united with others who believed in freedom and fought moral repression.
In the clinic there was no talk of morality. The receptionist was businesslike. The doctor looked bored.
“I see. I see-ee.” With his chin resting on his chest, he made a note on the card in the brand new beige folder with Judith’s name on the cover. He shielded his hand as he wrote so that she could not see. Since he was merely recording her answers to his questions, she did not see why he was concealing what he wrote. She felt in no position to ask. Instead, she fiddled with the outsize gem on her ring finger – a piece of blue-green glass the size of a fingernail. It was too improbably big to be authentic, but the setting was gold. The doctor, however, had an x-ray type medical gaze. Could he detect that the ring was borrowed?
Feeling its foreignness heavy on her finger, she slid it round to ease the guilty weight of it. Maybe she shouldn’t have worn it. Maybe he knew she was pretending to be engaged, and thought her silly.
“And what form of contraception would you prefer?” Putting down his pen, the doctor stared sraight at the offending ring as he asked.
She answered, unhesitatingly: “The Pill.”
There was no question about it. Sex and the pill went together like sperm and the egg – except that one stopped the natural meeting of the other. The alternative to conception was oral contraception. Any other methods were outdated, inconvenient and inconceivable. She knew she had a choice in the matter, but anything except the Pill seemed a relic of a former generation when girls dashed into the bathroom to ”get ready”. The idea made her shudder. Apart from anything else, imagine the embarrassment of it. Finding an excuse between kisses to slip away. Those discreet plastic pouches with rubber domes inside, that she had found in people’s bathroom cabinets. They might just as well be labelled Passion Killer. There was no need for such choices: freedom was the Pill.
“The Pill,” she repeated to the doctor. Without comment, he made another hand-shielded note. Then asked: “Is that what your fiancé also thinks is best?”
“My… ? Oh yes, of course.”
The fiancé was as fabricated as the ring. There was no immorality in the lie, it was necessary in case the doctor was watching for respectability. Jan had assured her that the clinic was used to girls like her, but she had found it hard to imagine that no questions would be asked. It was difficult to believe that a doctor, a professional guardian of ethics, should not share the view of her parents that unlicensed sex was immoral and dangerous.
She had told him that her boyfriend Rob was a student at Oxford (he was actually an electronics engineer), and that they intended to wait to marry until he had gained his degree. Oxford was a good touch, she thought; a doctor would be impressed by the mention of Oxford.
Up till then, it was a story that her parents might have approved of, if she had been a few years older. Now came the test of the doctor’s liberalism. Marriage with Rob, she told him, was two years away. In between, there was sex. (She said intercourse, but both she and the note-taking doctor knew what she meant.)
“We haven’t had… I mean… intercourse… not yet. But we do love each other… and we believe in being” – she scrabbled for the best word… “responsible… ”
It was the right word, he was writing it down.
The doctor wrote it all down. She couldn’t tell whether he believed it, but she took comfort from the inky black scrawl gradually filling up the notecard. Once written down, filed in a folder and hung in a filing cabinet, the truthful tale was bound to acquire credibility. And he had made not one comment: he had merely listened and then asked what she wanted.
The doctor screwed the top back onto his pen and rubbed his hands together in preparation for washing.
“Well, let’s have a look then. Just to see that everything’s in order.”
He stood up and walked over to the door. “Would you pop behind that white door,” he asked, “and take your things off? – I’ll be back in a moment.”
Stripped, Judith sat on the hard bench in the white cubicle, cold and almost fearful. She waited. This, perhaps, was the punishment she had half-expected: to sit naked and alone with a vague suspicion of what was about to happen, but not to be sure, and not to know how long she must sit there until she found out.
This is the torture chamber of today. A tiny cell, separated from others identical by a worn grey curtain. The condemned person sits naked, defenceless, while behind the white door the doctor prepares to pronounce sentence. Cancer. One year to live. That must be what most people are told, when the news is bad news. Cancer. That’s what people die of nowadays.
The cramped cabin seemed so full of the ghosts of former doomed patients that she forgot what she was there for, until she recalled Jan warning her that this was the worst moment, waiting for the Internal. They put a metal thing up your cunt and stretch it to look inside. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but nothing mysterious. Think of Biology lessons.
There was a world between the blackboard with its neat white chalked diagrams and this hard white waiting bench. The technical terms and the soft flesh seemed to have no point of contact. The doctor was going to see something of her that she had never seen. She could only hope that he did not see her nakedness, but saw her as a textbook diagram.
Silly to be shy – he must see hundreds of girls like me. Again she drew courage from the thought of all her contemporaries.
“You can come out now.”
As she opened the door between the cubicle and the surgery, she could hear the running water of his handwashing; then a clink of metal on metal.
He looked up, startled, as she emerged through the door. “It is not necessary to take off all your clothes,” he said severely. “Skirt, tights and panties are sufficient.”
And seeing her rooted in gooseflesh paralysis, he added sharply: “Would you please put your jumper back on?”
Obeying his instruction, Judith pondered about professional guidelines that gave licence to doctors to probe the primary sexual organs, yet at the same time required that the patient should keep her breasts covered. Still, the less he sees the better, she told herself. It felt more dignified to be only half-naked.
“Right, then.” He spoke briskly; she had wasted enough of his time. “Get on the couch and hoist your knees over the stirrups.”
She winced at the coldness of the metal under her knees.
“What’s the problem?” Speculum in hand, he paused as he saw her shiver.
“Cold,” she said, indicating the stirrups.
“Well, what do you expect? Central heating?” he asked impatiently as he pushed the instrument inside her, screwed it open and then looked intently. After a few seconds he withdrew it, throwing it with a careless gesture into the sterilising tray. Judith made to get off the couch.
“Just stay there,” he ordered. “I haven’t finished yet.”
He pulled on sheer plastic gloves, and placing one hand on her abdomen, reached inside her with two fingers of his other hand. She shifted uncomfortably. There was a dreadful intimacy about the way he fingered places which were highly sensitive; a clinical exploration that awakened sensations she prayed he could not detect her feeling. She tried to concentrate away from his fingers, scrutinising him.
He was short, squat and balding. Her line of vision as she lay led straight to the white buttons of his coat, straining at the waist. She wondered, as he manipulated inside her, what kind of man chooses to dedicate his career to probing every working day the deepest, most intimate parts of women. The metal instrument, though hard and cold, had at least some neutrality about it; you could view it as the sterile tool of an honourable trade, as smooth and chaste as a machine could manufacture. But the fingers of the doctor had a personality, an identity linked with a hand, an eye, a brain, a being, a male being that could surely not remain forever unmoved by the moving of his digits, plastic-covered, smooth-sheathed, feeling inside the flesh, touching the bone and coming out covered in the juices of her.
“Seems all in order,” he said, pulling off the gloves and throwing them in a waste bin beneath the couch. “Okay, you can put your clothes back on.”
Dressed again, carrying her folder, not daring to look inside it, Judith descended one floor below to see the nurse, who was young, pretty and busy.
“Won’t be a moment,” she said, smiling automatically and vanishing into a curtained cubicle. By straining her ears only slightly, Judith could hear everything inside.
Nurse: “Have you managed to put it in yet?”
Girl’s voice (flustered): “No – when I put the jelly on and squeezed the cap like you said, the thing slid out of my hand. I can’t get a grip on it – the jelly makes it too slippery.”
The nurse sighed. “I told you,” she said, “to grip it firmly at the rim… yes, like that. Now squat down and try to put it in again.”
A moment’s silence. Then: “Does it feel alright?” came the nurse’s voice again.
“I don’t know,” the girl replied hopelessly. “I really can’t tell.”
“Well, pop up on the couch and I’ll check.” The nurse sounded bored. “Hmm,” she said, “I don’t know what you‘ve done here, it’s all sideways. Don’t you know where your cervix is?” Her tone was scornful. “I’ll take it out and you try it again while I’m gone. There’s another patient waiting.”
She emerged and led Judith to the desk, took her folder and skim-read the notes. Judith sat feeling relieved, almost superior that she did not have to go through the trouble she had just heard. Absolutely no question: nothing was easier than the Pill.
“Okay, the Pill.” The nurse continued reading and snapped the folder shut. “You can have three months’ supply to start with,” she said. “But first we must check with your general practitioner that it’s alright to give you the Pill. What’s his name and address?”
She sat, pen poised.
“My GP?” Judith choked. “You can’t ask him! Not him!”
“We have to ask him.” The nurse’s tone was terse and convincingly reasonable. “The Pill is a powerful chemical. You could have something in your medical history that indicates it might be harmful for you to take. We must know.”
Again, this time more firmly, she said: “We must know. Regulations.”
Caught between what the nurse must know and what her GP must never get a hint of, Judith could only beg weakly: “Please, not him. Please. He’s a friend of the family. He’ll tell my mother. She’s always in his surgery – he’s bound to tell her.”
“Nonsense.” The nurse spoke like a teacher; utterly unlike a sister of mercy. Her eyes chill, she slammed Judith’s file down on the desk.
“No GP,” she said shortly, ”would ever tell your mother. GPs are under oath not to reveal professional confidences.”
“Mine would,” argued Judith, with soul-sinking certainty. She could just see the doctor, his pudgy hands poised over his prescription pad, ready to write out a month’s supply of Valium – no, it was now Librium – pretty, gelatine-coated capsules in a glass phial for mothers who needed it to cope with teenage daughters… “And concerning your daughter,” the doctor would murmur, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but as a friend of the family… you ought to know… ”
“No! No!” cried Judith. ”Impossible!”
The nurse shrugged her shoulders. The ice around her eyes had spread down to her pretty pinkish cheeks, making them resemble frozen peaches.
“It’s up to you.” She spoke sharply. “You go away, have a think about it and come back when your mind’s made up.”
She shut her lips together, closing the subject. But then reopened with a final threat: “And you don’t get the pill without your GP’s permission.”
If only she hadn’t said it so loudly. Judith could picture the girl behind the cubicle curtain pausing in her labours to listen. Not that the nurse cared about sensitivity – or confidentiality. She was striding back through the curtain, inquiring briskly: “Well? Found your cervix yet?”
Dismissed, thoroughly demoralised, Judith crept downstairs past the dispensary where another nurse was counting out pill packets to a girl who looked even younger than her. Lucky girl. She had jumped all the hurdles. She was getting the Pill.
The way Judith had understood it, everything would be easy. Pills handed out to unmarried girls, she had read in the headlines. Pills dished out to schoolgirls… for free, just like school milk. On the National Health! State-subsidised subversion of the morals of innocents! The scandalised leader writers made it sound so easy. She was part of what they called The Pill Generation…
Why, then, had it become so difficult? To be promised what she wanted, to have almost held one of those coveted pill packets in her hand, and then to have it snatched away by a bureaucratic rule.
She studied again the door sign as she reached the street. Advisory centre… please walk up… she had read it as an open invitation. Please walk up and we’ll give you the Pill. She had taken all the precautions against moral objections; she had been unprepared for trifling medical obstacles. The problem was not even medical: the doctor had said that her insides were “healthy enough”. He had also noted: “And you’re over the age of consent – if only just.”
Only her parents insisted on denying her womanhood. Her parents – and assuredly their ally, the GP.
Bureaucratic obstacles. We must have your GP’s consent. As she pushed through the crowds of hi-fi consumers and headed for a side street, Judith was submerged by a wave of disappointment. I took it upon myself, she thought, to control my destiny. I went alone to the clinic. Now they take control away from me, and give it to my GP. Now I have to depend on his decision.
He will tell. He won’t tell. He will. She sat freezing on a park bench in the wan evening sunshine, remembering the chill No of the nurse, mentally pulling the petals out of long-gone daisies. He will tell… he won’t… what would she tell Rob? In two hours she was due to meet him. She had longed to be ready, to be able to say: “I’m going on the Pill,” and to watch his face change to approval and respect that she could handle it, that she might be barely past the age of consent but she had the capability of a mature woman.
She might even have said to him: ”I did it for you. I went through all that medical stuff – it was no trouble, really – through all that so as to be able to make love with you.” No, she might skip that part. He should not be made to feel grateful to her. She was the one who should be grateful, that he was so gentle and undemanding, and did not press her about sex because he knew she was afraid to do it without contraception.
But she could not say anything now. It all depended on the GP. He will tell… he won’t…
She would have to say No again. No to sex. Everyone else was saying Yes, Yes, Yes; and she had to say No, not because she wanted to, but because saying Yes meant being prepared, meant the Pill, meant… the GP’s sanction. (How strange those phrases sounded: saying Yes, being prepared. She accepted them in magazines or when others used them, but applied to herself they did sound odd. They obscured what it really was – deciding, having sex, fucking. They concealed, not clarified, the mystery she still felt.)
And Rob would look down from his seven-year superiority, and speak of former flames who had been ‘good in bed’. They had no problems about contraception. They all took the Pill. Of course, they were all older than Judith. The Pill, he told her, had liberated women’s sexuality. Now, he said, women could enjoy themselves as much in bed as men had always been able to. Perhaps more. He quoted American psychological studies about how many orgasms women could have.
“What I like best in a woman is sexual confidence,” he went on. Judith liked the way he explained his thoughts to her, never asking if she understood, assuming that she could follow his arguments. She never said when she didn’t follow. She was too occupied with absorbing what he said – for it was a lot – to try deciding what she thought of it.
“The days are past,” Rob continued in the same vein, “when women waited around for men to make the first move. Now the sexes are equal in sex – thanks to the Pill.”
How could she be as bold and independent as the women Rob admired? His stories of them aroused her to competition. In the present, she must compete with and overpower his memories with her own power. Each time he spoke fondly of a former girlfriend she would feel the odious air of comparison enter the room.
What Rob liked was a woman who made things easy. Sex easy, satisfaction simply gained, contraception taken care of, lie back, be laid back, no hassle man, grow your hair long and shave your lady’s pubes into a heart shape.
With the Pill everything would be possible. But not if the clinic told her GP and her GP told her mother, Judith thought, coming back to that intractable problem.
Let it all hang out, Rob used to say. Neither the GP nor Judith’s mother could be trusted to let anything hang out except clean washing and clean pure thoughts such as married people think, if they think at all about sex.
Waking the morning after the clinic visit, she was aware of a faint stirring in a hitherto dormant place in her, connected, she felt, with the doctor’s probing fingers. The Pill, she reminded herself; and the curious inner sensation vanished as she quelled doubt and focused on reality. Decide what you want and find a way to get it. Plenty of other girls must have faced a similar dilemma.
Her determination bred a defiant strength she had not known was in her. In the kitchen before school, she composed a letter to the family doctor. She was alone, but as a precaution she covered the words with her left hand as she wrote:
“Dear Dr. N.,
The Clinic for Unmarried Teenagers will be writing to ask you whether it is alright for me to take the Pill. They say I need your permission before they can prescribe it.
They also told me that GPs are not supposed to tell anybody (even parents).”
Was that enough? Had she made herself clear? The words read back rather weak. She must show her strength.
She had a sudden sense of being on a crash course to learn something – many things – very fast. To lie when the truth won’t serve. To move faster than the people trying to stop you. To take off your clothes and open your legs to a stranger in a white coat, if that is necessary. And to make it clear that you won’t accept No.
Yes: that’s what was missing from the letter. It was not enough to say that he must not tell her mother. He had to be told the consequences if he did break confidence.
She signed the letter with deliberate strokes; then added a careful postscript:
“P.S.: If you do tell my mother, I shall be forced to report you to the General Medical Council.”
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 7 February 2014
Whatever happened… ?
A mysterious poem story
On a plane flight heading north the man sitting beside me offered me a chocolate from a box of exquisite Swiss pralines shaped like bunny rabbits with big ears. As Easter was long past, this seemed strange. With his expensive leather bag and costly aftershave he looked out of place on the budget flight. While I ate the delicious chocolate he told me the story of a woman who wanted to be caressed like a bunny but was treated like a scapegoat instead. Tears stroked his face as he spoke. He had lost the woman, he said. Perhaps she would still be with him if he had given her a cat. Altogether he seemed preoccupied with animals. Or perhaps it was children. Certainly it was loss.
When I arrived in London I sat down in a café in Soho and wrote the poem. Like all mysterious events it seems to have happened a long time ago.
Whatever happened to Madame Bunny?
They killed Madame Bunny
drove a stake through her heart
called it art
to save their faces
from their own disgraces
As early omen the praline
squashed in an ice cream glass
at a birthday tea in a local café
thumb pressed hard
nail digging viciously
— the chocolate cracked
strawberry cream oozed
squashed up against the wall
on the grubby plastic leather seat
Madame Bunny watched in unbelief
the mangling of an innocent praline
sticky mess of sickly pink innards
splattered over the twisted remains
of gaudy foil wrappings.
Witness the child’s pain beneath the rage
Madame Bunny cried again & again
soon it became her pain.
Proud masters of repression
champions of rock-jawed sadism
they who feel no need to learn
would not have known or cared
had they heard the ancient bard
telling of mother Medea child killer
or the prophet sister of catastrophe
speaking with an oracle’s tongue.
Tied to the work bench
as the story crawled
on three legs into a new century
Madame Bunny drew
ever the short straw,
branded the house baddy
in a relentless dystopia
(so convenient for the family)
From her corner she witnessed
the struggle for elbow room
(not a home — lebensraum)
driven by the battle for remote control
fuelled by robot gadgets
emotion fillers poor comfort
for a failed mother
the small screen their mirror
while papa hid burnout skeletons
of starved tamagochis in shoe boxes
then went out dancing at a dozen weddings
It was just another familiar
dying year’s celebration of a birthday
café windows steamy, the cold outside
the smell of lasagne and marzipan,
sweat, espresso, and stale tobacco.
An act of mindless brutality
the lethal crushing of a praline
leaves dark chocolate traces under the nails.
For well manicured barbarians
with borrowed glass files
eliminating clues is simple
easy as the casual gesture
that shuts a car door
on years of loving and giving
without a goodbye
One more case of file closure.
The policeman shrugged:
they pour hate down the phone
and prise mail open with blunt knives
clumsily. What is to be done?
— they never confess. Sorry
is not their vocabulary
(typical 21st century!)
You can’t put the thumbscrews on.
Sadism a system so simple
why does it take so long to understand?
basic fear and whiplash menace
denial of the human living in the flesh
pain as delectation, the primal urge to taste & feel
chastisement beating out the devil
Rejection of origins. Drives as motives.
Revenge as reflex.
Worship of ancestors (safely dead ones —
an ancient ritual as digital chess game:
guilt (that’s in the catalogue too)
ingrained by experience
the curse of families in certain places.
Narcissism breeds self addiction
corporal training a weapon in phallic wars
The body as threat. Bullying.
miser spreading misery
spanning a family
hate their common denominator
repeated down the generations
the curse of compulsive
They killed Madame Bunny.
Too late she had already fled
— she knew the history —
and soon she was glad to be gone.
Resurrection is the sweetest illusion.
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
. posted 31 January 2014
After the Spin — the Spin-Offs
Transportation and media benefit from French presidential couple split
When I was a little girl, children who left food on their plate were told to eat up and not waste anything. “Think of the starving children in India,” our elders admonished us.
This always seemed strange, not least because my sisters and I were growing up in apartheid South Africa, where starving black children covered with flies could be seen lying on the street, and their parents could be shot for trying to steal food for the family. Even more strange because we grew up in a Jewish community surrounded by people who had escaped death from starvation in concentration camps.
The idea of the starving children in India was supposed to guilt-trip us into eating up all the excellent steak, fresh fruit and vegetables and other foods abundantly available to white middle-class children in 1950s South Africa. The reason was clear, and it was nothing to do with malnourished children far away, nor with any nutritional needs of us children at the table. It was to show a picture of a happy prosperous family that could provide food for its young and ensure they were polite enough to polish their plates clean. Besides, it was an early introduction to the concepts of moral responsibility and hypocrisy.
Exit to India
Nowadays the starving children of India (along with their counterparts in many parts of Africa and Asia) are still sure to win moral ground and sympathy points in whatever context they appear. This week they provided France’s ex-First Lady with optimal photo opportunities. Sacked on Saturday from the Elysée and her shared life with President François Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler made a triumphal exit to India. By Monday, with a regal entourage in tow, she was surpassing Hollande on every media front. His outings to the Pope, Turkey and other places were quickly drowned in the flood of photos and videos of La Trierweiler visiting sick children in hospital, comforting anxious mothers, courteously answering reporters’ questions…
It is as if she had studied all the divorced Lady Di queen-of-hearts footage she could get hold of, followed by a goodwill ambassador crash course run by Angelina Jolie on how to win friends and disarm critics by placing oneself strategically in helper mode next to the suffering salt of the earth. The familiar media circus, cynical in its lack of tact and taste: Everywhere those huge feverish eyes in emaciated skulls, the sores that testify to Lady Ex’s courage in facing possible infectious disease, the angel of mercy hospital visits, the nobility of her visage in natural look make-up as she speaks in low, carefully modulated tones, insisting, “Never forget the children. I’m only here for the children.”
So what’s stopping her leaving the cameras outside?
Round One to Lady Ex
Mediawise, she got it right most of the time. Especially the body language. And her famous line, “It was power that destroyed my relationship with the president.”
Power? Well, a shapely 41-year-old blonde could be described as a force of nature. But Lady Ex, not a stranger to power herself, knows how to rewrite the script. For the past 25 years she has been a staff journalist at the French illustrated weekly Paris Match, and they’re specialists in celebrity presentation and marketing. She has certainly got staying power. This one could run and run, taking on predatory aspects (see Lady Ex’s choice of limousine below) and chasing little monsieur piggywiggy president all the way… not home. No, not there.
As for M. le Président: he seems to have lost his early bonus (for scoring the above-mentioned much younger actress with the soft porn credits). Politically and personally, he has hit a big bad patch. I never really understood before what the word “douchebag” meant. Recently, as I watched him on TV news, it suddenly clicked. Hollande le Douchebag, something like a sack of potatoes that got left out overnight in the rain.
Silver lining: the split will not hit the president and his ex as severely as break-ups often affect couples. Each of them has at least one home to go to.
On the way to Valentine’s Day
Marketing potential of the presidential couple break-up has been optimized largely in the vehicle and transportation sector. Quick to respond, with attendant good publicity, was Sixt, the car rental firm, with its personal offer of service to the president. Referring to the shock exposure photos showing Hollande off on a nocturnal escapade with crash helmet on a scooter, the firm advised:
“Mr. President, avoid the scooter next time. Sixt rents out cars with tinted windows.”
The same now-famous photo brought pride and joy to an authentic French manufacturer. “Hey, that’s our helmet!!” The bosses at Motoblouz.com were quick to react. A large wordy advertisement in the national press began, “Thank you, Mr. President, for choosing our helmet for your safety.”
The company ad went on to identify the helmet in question as their brand “Dexter”, and suggested checking out their website for “our new collection … to ensure safety on your next escapades.” They also recommended their selection of ladies’ leather bike jackets, “the ideal gift for a Valentine’s Day outing.”
“Thank you, Mr President, for choosing our helmet.”
From ex-First Lady to Lady Ex
Brand recognition was also a spin-off from Lady Ex’s India visit. On arrival she was photographed getting into a limousine and settling into the luxurious leather upholstery. Identification came quickly from the privileged few. One Paris gossip mag got almost hysterical. “A Jaguar! — James Bond’s car!” Jaguar proudly posted the photo on its Twitter page and declared its delight at their XJ model giving the presidential ex such a comfortable ride. (Note: no starving children in sight to spoil the image.) Jaguar could be seen as symbolic of Lady Ex’s style-to-come, metaphorically and actually — this is yet in the making.
Next, some enterprising tour company will offer visits to starving children in the world’s major poverty hubs with take-home souvenir photostory as the most effective way to cure break-up heartache and score all round against your douchepotato ex.
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
A special note of appreciation to my Californian Berliner friend Karen A. – Karen, I had you in mind! If only you could have provided the photos to match!
posted 29 January 2014
After the storm. Nice, 20 January 2014
Posted 22 January 2014
France’s juicy new year scandal
The new year started well in France. For a change, there’s something in politics to talk about. Well, it’s not exactly politics, but closely related, you could say. In case you haven’t noticed, the president’s love life is the hot topic. He has pulled off a coup, reversing the downward spiral of boredom that dogged his presidency up until now.
The French seem to appreciate the turnaround. Recently I was at a neighbour’s cocktail party in Nice. Talk inevitably turned to the head of state’s extra-presidential activities. The assembled company couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The discussion divided neatly along gender lines.
“So what’s new?” the women shrugged. “All French husbands are cheating on their wives.”
Like President Hollande, the men chose to remain silent about this. Instead, they asked, “How can a dull guy like the president catch a young sexy blonde like that?”
You can see that my company was just as well informed as anybody else. Short on facts but sure about their feelings. They knew almost nothing, but in matters of scandal nothing can mean a great deal with the right kind of coverage.
Anyway, knowing nothing has never hindered people from having an opinion. And in the past couple of weeks since the scandal broke, the French and international public have been treated to an extraordinary output of opinion.
All the Presidents’ Women
Lacking facts, some commentators have resorted to history, always a good filler. (At least it appears as if the research has been done elsewhere than the local bar.) Hollande is merely following in his predecessors’ footsteps, we are told. Look at former presidents Mitterand, Chirac, Sarkozy, etc. — they all had affairs with women while in office, and probably before and after as well. Photo archives have been combed for appropriate images to match this argument. A philandering president could almost be described as part of the great Gallic tradition, like those legendary male French film stars and singers with rough manners, sandpaper voices and fag ends eternally hanging from their lower lips.
Other facts in this vein: Hollande can’t be accused of adultery because he isn’t married anyway. The father of four children and serial couple member has managed to remain a bachelor to the ripe age of nearly 60, with some convenient bachelor pads to match. His complicated love life has caused concern before, with open warfare between the mother of his children and his present official partner. Some say that a man who can’t keep his women in order shouldn’t be responsible for running a major industrial nation.
However, to get back to history, few men in the great Gallic tradition have succeeded in winning battles with their women, or at least not without great trouble, and we should be grateful for their failure. It has spawned some of the nation’s finest art, literature, and music. In Hollande’s case it touches the comedy nerve, with cartoonists and satirists reaping the benefits.
Warning: do not believe!
The French revelations may come as a shock to people who think we are in a post-sexist, post-feminist era. The widely quoted idea that the French public believes in the sanctity of private life, even for public figures, is beginning to crumble under assault from cheeky foreign publications and internet forums. Not to mention the collapse of traditional bourgeois marriage based on property, which fostered the system of discreet adultery.
Just try feeding Twitter some of those old Gallic chestnuts: it simply grinds them up and spits them out as caustic bon mots or hilarious pictures.
In fact, the whole story shows how women’s bodies and sexuality have become currency in the hands of extremely clever spin doctors. Sex sells and virility means strength. Consider the record: sensitive to accusations of indecisiveness, Hollande started off the year 2013 with the strong-arm approach and tried to boost his image with a military intervention in Mali. Now a little wiser (soldier body bags are not popularity winners), his spin people made him kick off this year by showing he can get the girl. As the story goes, he swapped the military helmet for a moped helmet, snuck out of the Elysée Palace in the dark of night to his mistress waiting at the secret pied-à-terre, had the breakfast croissants delivered by a bodyguard, et voilà! — A cheap and easy way to improve ratings (especially among women, apparently) and to distract the public from his projected political turn to the right. And in the process, getting rid of his unpopular First Girlfriend while keeping the nation in suspense about his liaison with the First Mistress.
Is any of this authentic? Isn’t it all too neat? Doesn’t it reek of scripting and spin? For a start, does anybody really buy the image of the bumbling president with the waddle who can’t make up his mind? (Angela Merkel is another notorious waddler and procrastinator but in Germany that seems to be regarded as a virtue, not a drawback.)
We can enjoy the jokes, but at some point we have to remember this is about real stuff, not virtual or movie antics. The leading man in this scenario is the elected head of state of a world-class power. He didn’t get there via the casting couch. He is capable of playing cut-throat and dirty like any other top politician and he has a bevy of advisors to dream up distractions for the masses while he directs the government machine behind closed doors.
The whole episode looks like classic, well-timed staging – the entertainment value in grey January shouldn’t be underestimated. The gutter press is having a ball, as are some of Hollande’s sharpest critics, and every article you read on the topic should be stamped with a warning not to believe it.
Actually, if we’re talking about privacy, the case has spawned some bad taste. By sneaking round the corner and humiliating Valerie Trierweiler, his longtime partner, Hollande himself isn’t winning points for Gallic chivalry. Meanwhile, the kind of attention he’s getting is summed up in a rather odd commentary by Naim Attalah, the idiosyncratic chairman of London-based Quartet Books, who has carefully hunted out pictures of first mistress Julie Gayet (in brunette mode) from erotic websites. In his company blog, Attalah embeds her bare-breasted images in a blatant attack on Hollande’s economic policies.
Vive la France! = Vive la patriarchie!
What does this actually tell us? — that part of the battle to save Hollande’s political skin is being fought using women’s bodies. In one corner we have the First Girlfriend, already KO’d and lying prone from grief. In spin terms she will probably have to be neutralized. In the opposite corner is the First Mistress, a blonde by choice, actress by profession, and currently the involuntary symbol of French female desirability. Her naked image is already being traded for big money. Her future depends on political calculation. In other words, spin.
All this is degrading to women. We are presented as dumb victims of lying, cheating male partners, or as sex toys to be photographed, publicly exposed, picked up and cast off depending on the whim of powerful men. What is the role of a woman waiting in a “love nest” for the chief of the republic to sneak time for a visit? Are we living in the 21st century, or the age of courtesans, concubines and luxury call girls? What kind of relationships between the sexes does this imply? What kind of genuine equality can women expect? Is it possible to play the part of mistress with dignity? Or are women not expected to care about their dignity? I only mention the word “dignity” because Hollande explicitly used the word at his keynote press conference on 14 January when arguing for his right to private life without interference.
As for love, that was never the issue. Not even the spin doctors dared to introduce the term “love triangle”. Credit for that goes to the mass media cliché makers who have a phrase for every occasion.
Let’s not be distracted by media trying to run the story in the guise of “serious” discussions about the role of First Ladies. Across the border, German President Gauck (a former Lutheran pastor!) is still married to the mother of his children and has a live-in partner who acts as first lady. No problem, discretion all round, and there’s the difference. If France stands for sex, Germany stands for money, where politicians’ private lives are largely irrelevant and usually kept under wraps with media cooperation. The majority of disgraced politicians are brought down by corruption scandals.
Sexting & security
We shouldn’t neglect another serious political question in all this. If the president is really involved in a steamy affair with a sex bomb actress — who is looking after his communications security? We loyal Europeans wouldn’t want President Obama and the NSA to be the first to know when Monsieur Hollande slips out of a cabinet meeting for a quick bout of sexting, or shows off his male assets on Snapchat. When it comes to privacy, we hope our leaders are doing a good job of safeguarding their personal secrets — and ours —against spies and hackers.
Footnote: The Twitter community is running several hashtags on the topic. This is a link to another cartoon:
Text © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 20 January 2014
meanwhile in a gap between torrential rainstorms
Photo © Karen Margolis 2014
posted 19 January 2014
Rhyming the Future
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The whole new year is a resolution for me. Each day so far has felt like the joy of new beginnings, the don’t-look-back feeling brought by living entirely in the present. Returning to rhyme is part of this. When the creative juices flow, rhyme seems a natural medium. When there’s a story to tell, whether of love or politics, sorrow or joy, the ballad form offers the perfect scope. After years of occasional rhyme and free verse, this new year brings the itch to balladise again.
The Ballad of Past and Present
The ballad is one of the easiest poetic forms to learn by heart. Some ballads I learned as a young girl have remained with me, often dormant, waiting to be wakened from their past slumber. Others contain a line that was anchored in my mind way back and gets triggered at regular intervals — lines that develop their own careers in dictionaries of quotations so that hardly anybody knows where they originated. Take this one: “Each man kills the thing he loves”. It has been throbbing in my mind for days, with the verses that follow it, until I’m moving to the rhythm as I walk along the street.
The immortal line “each man kills the thing he loves” stands for a dark moment in English cultural history. It comes from the most famous passage in Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Wilde, a successful playwright and star of London society, was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for “gross indecency” (homosexual activity) in 1895. After his release he left Britain forever and went to France, where he wrote the poem in 1898. Here are some of the most famous stanzas:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.
from The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Oscar Wilde, 1898
Each man kills the thing he loves. It’s a thought that can be read both ways: each person can be both the victim (the murdered beloved) and the murderer (the killer lover). Wilde reflected deeply on this duality in De Profundis, the long meditation he wrote in prison that was first published posthumously.
Wilde died in poverty in Paris in 1900, aged 46. More than a century since his death, his tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery is still a place of pilgrimage today.
. . . The complete poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol is available as free download from: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/301 Text © Karen Margolis 2014 Posted 9 January 2014
Bangs and whimpers
Nymphomaniac: Part One
“My next film… will be porn. That’s how women are. Really hard core.”
— Lars von Trier in an interview, Cannes Film Festival 2011
“Of course, I was afraid of the humiliation…”
— lead actress Charlotte Gainsbourg describes reading the scenario for Nymphomaniac. She was reassured that “actors” wouldn’t have to perform the sex scenes. Does she mean the stand-ins who played the porn scenes weren’t acting? Are porn actors not “real” actors?
The film Nymphomaniac: Volume One opened in France on 1 January. I saw it at one of my favourite cinemas, the Rialto in Nice, where it was billed as “film érotique” with admittance to anybody over age 12.
Two things to note:
1. Director Lars von Trier’s gratuitous sideswipe on the subject of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Pedantic and irrelevant.
2. The involvement of Fibonacci series. An unforgivable transgression. People such as von Trier should be banned from taking the golden spiral in vain.
As for the rest: that’s how bad-boy attention-grabbing film directors are. Really a bore.
Footnote: here is a random list of topics expected to figure in the discussion about this film (cliché alert):
misogyny / Elektra complex / pseudophilosophy / wet dreams / infantilism / acting / faking / teen fantasies / phallic supremacy / motorbike (no kidding!) / cold bitch mothers, warm fathers / Oedipus complex / young&old / orgasm mystique / hand-and-blow-job / fishing metaphors (that sucks) / bondage / trains, rivers & flow images / soft porn / religious ecstasy / hard porn / borderline / comic strip / necrophilia / Jewish bakery (with or without fork) / perversion/ love deprivation/ insatiable witches / dumb women & intellectual men (teacher-pupil) / subjugation / boss & secretary / crime & punishment / degradation / overdose / vomit / brainsex / cavities & holes / blood & bruises / hell / heaven / abyss / depravity / wounds / stigmata / divinity through pain / crouching hobbling female & upright healthy male / godhead = you got it / get plenty before death gets you / obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession:obsession
Footnote 2: Audience figures after the first week of screening showed the French public was not rushing to see “Nymphomaniac”, despite the holiday season and media coverage. Instead of von Trier’s voyeuristic meditation on sex, violence and degradation of women, cinema visitors preferred Martin Scorsese’s blockbuster “The Wolf of Wall Street”, apparently a winning combination of sex, violence, degradation of women, Leonardo di Caprio and MONEY. After all, porn is only porn, but for many people there’s nothing sexier than money.
Motto for 2014: THE SEXIEST SIGN EVER IS THE INFINITY SYMBOL
Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014
Posted 5 January 2014
+++2014 message for all+++private+public snoopers & stalkers+++
posted 3 January 2014
Smiles wide open
Closing the cycle
These poems just keep on flowing. For now, a provisional ending to the cycle, Smiles wide open, that has occupied me for so long.
The old love has been written away, making room for renewal.
What next? – After the poetry comes the prose. Or, if you like, the story of the poems.
Right now the music is playing and it’s time to dance.
Paraphilia camera visitation
“Everybody is nobody until you love them”
– Tennessee Williams
Scene: the avenue of missed chances
near the musée de beaux arts
each time I ask another question
that you don’t want to answer
you can hold up a little flag
heart-shaped, if you wish
red for your wounds
pale blue for your sorrow or regrets.
green may have to wait:
these days hope is not
one of your painting shades
heavy of mind
busy of hand
in places that matter
your body harbours
an obsession for company.
the women are angry
yes, angry with you
who doesn’t understand
why? who can understand
a man abandoned feeling
behind a camera lens
this paradise city of close circuits
is nowhere for sharing unfilled moments
what is visible through a sea fog?
— did you notice by the way
the tiny four-legged towers in gold & pearls
dangling from her earlobes? —
With life gone out of control
at least you can steer
conversation off the rails
if lines get crossed
you can put up barrier signs
or wave down slowly on the track
when all else fails, seek comfort
in thumb work and ringtones
a man and his phone
are never alone
How many hearts do you need
to fill your blank walls?
how many shades must you try
to reach black and white?
how many colours does it take
to blend love?
keep on wrestling with mental anguish
destroy old photos & videos
what degrades or worships women
is ambivalent. Our icons
make us feel inadequate
that obscure sense of failing
a test we didn’t enter
What is never forgotten
sadism isn’t a parlour game
Listen to Colombier as the gulls wing
— when did the music stop?
for the loss of a child
writing is too much pain
reading Brodsky not enough
and love? an art form in disrepute
after all the destruction
not even negatives
of painted hearts survive
from the self-inflicted lesson:
we can’t revisit our past
except as fiction
© Karen Margolis 2013
This is a kind of coda to the cycle, inspired by a musician with a chipped guitar.
Go with the glow
let this at least be said of me
I always loved for love
© Karen Margolis 2013
Vive la liberté!
Text © Karen Margolis 2013
Posted 18 December 2013
The Whittington Press
Cotswold sheep and Virginia Woolf
MIDWINTER wood engravings by Miriam Macgregor
“In February 2009 the north Cotswolds were covered by a brief but deep fall of snow. A fairytale landscape of changing shapes and patterns appeared overnight, and beside the predictable snowman on the village green a habitable igloo even appeared. Miriam Macgregor at once ventured out into this unfamiliar snowscape with sketchbook and camera, and these engravings, mostly full-page, are the ideal medium for their subject. This is the third book of Miriam’s engravings in which all the subjects are within walking distance of her cottage.”
(from the Whittington Press website)
After a hectic week it’s good to look back at a really pleasurable event of the past year – a visit to the Whittington Press in the grounds of a stately home in Herefordshire, England. I was on my way to Bath Fringe Festival.
Printer Pat Randle set up the fantastic machine from the age of 20th century printing, and I was allowed to print a copy of a poster he was producing. Pat had done all the work, I only had to push a button and guide the paper through, but it was still thrilling, and a great reminder of the days of creating books by hand.
Photographer Charly Lowndes, who has a family connection with the Whittington, captured the moment, now on YouTube:
Moods with Virginia Woolf
The first book published here, Richard Kennedy’s A Boy at the Hogarth Press (1972), printed in a limited edition of around 500 copies on an 1848 Columbian hand press, was an overnight bestseller. Produced immediately as a paperback by Penguin, it is now available from Hesperus Books. It begins in 1928 when 16-year-old Richard Kennedy joined the Hogarth Press as Leonard Woolf’s publishing apprentice. Between stacking books and making tea, Kennedy managed to gather some sharp impressions of the Woolfs and their Bloomsbury group friends and the surrounding English cultural elite. Kennedy went on to become an illustrator and wrote the memoir forty years later.
The book’s charm resides in its boy’s-eye view of the literary world of the late 1920s, enhanced by Kennedy’s illustrations portraying the chaotic office (collapsing shelves, discussions about toilet paper etc) and the Woolfs’ sometimes helpless approach to business management.
At the centre, of course, is the rather elusive figure of Virginia Woolf flitting in and out, a presence of changing moods: “V’s new book Orlando and plenty of tension”. How satisfying: just how we imagine the great lady of English 20th century letters and her world, changed for ever by war and the huge leaps in printing technology over the past century. How appropriate that the memoir was first published on a hand press that already belongs to a bygone age of printing technology. How wonderful that there is still a place in our 21st century world to treasure a tender, beautifully crafted little memoir that recaptures what is lost.
Read more about the magnificent prize-winning Whittington Press on their website:
A VISION OF ORDER 35 linocuts by Andrew Anderson, with his commentaries on the images (July 2011)
Posted 13 December 2013
Stories of life
“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.” — Anais Nin .
Recently I met a man who told me he wanted to write his life story. He is just over 50 (so: old enough), and has done some unusual things in several different places (so: interesting enough), and I could only encourage him. Still, he doubts his ability as a writer. Won’t it be too much effort? Does he have the necessary discipline? And why should anybody want to read what he writes?
I reassured him that many authors suffer from self-doubt, and it’s even supposed to be salutary, a kind of literary first-night nerves that makes performances all the better. He is still hovering between desire to record his life and fear of looking vain, silly, or irrelevant. With taste, fashion and other forms of expression changing so fast, who can be sure that you matter at all nowadays?
FAREWELL NELSON MANDELA
One person who could be sure his life story would be written many times over was Nelson Mandela, who died last week at the age of 95. It is hard to think of any other person of our times whose passing has affected so many people so profoundly. Some of us will always remember the moment we heard the news of his death and the emotions it evoked, even though it was expected. For some members of my family Mandela represented a time when world history touched our own. As exile South Africans in London we spent the years of his imprisonment supporting the anti-apartheid movement and feeling ashamed for being “white”. We never imagined that he would die a national and world hero in a South Africa governed by its indigenous peoples. Mandela’s story as a brave freedom fighter (don’t forget that part!) and a wise, peacemaking politician carries in tow all the stories of people affected by his life and deeds. Each time his story is retold, it recalls all those other people’s stories and helps in making their lives feel worth while.
When my parents emigrated to London from South Africa in 1961 with my sisters and myself, I was a young girl. I never forgot the shame of coming from racist South Africa, or the difficulty of adapting to a new climate and culture in the UK and Europe. More than 20 years later I wrote an account from memory of the time of emigration and the ocean crossing to the Northern hemisphere. The story forms the core of a novel about three generations of a family defined by migration between continents.
The book is available from Kindle:
and at many Amazon national sites.
Now, more than 50 years since that emigration, the full impact of the history of colonialist South Africa is just beginning to be understood. The moral and social fabric of anti-Vietnam-war, anti-Stalinism and anti-apartheid that guided my political upbringing seemed to unravel in the mid-90s. In South Africa, what survives (despite bad present conditions) is not just Mandela’s precious legacy but that of a generation of extraordinary writers, poets and playwrights, including Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, Breyten Breytenbach, and Andre Brink. All of them wrote about life with an intense degree of social commitment. They wanted to convey something of the world (wide and narrow) that they lived in.
One day we may be able to understand how a vast country with a small population at the very bottom tip of a continent should produce a statesman of Mandela’s stature alongside so many writers of global importance, all in the same historical era. For now, we can be truly grateful, and appreciate the legends and endowments of the great sons and daughters of South Africa.
… AND NOW — LOVE ‘EM & LEAVE ‘EM
This heading could have been the motto of US American writer, poet, and professional expat, Eddie Woods, and I don’t think he’ll mind my saying so. Eddie is known for speaking his mind, sometimes at length, and he writes like he speaks. As I remarked to the friend who is contemplating writing his memoirs, writing how you speak is one of the hardest skills to master. Eddie does it with bravour in his recently published memoir, “Tennessee Williams in Bangkok”, set in the early 1970s.
More accurately, this is how-Eddie-Woods-met-Tennessee-Williams-in-Bangkok and hung out with him, mainly in the gay scene where Eddie made out with boys dressed as girls, and T. Williams the world-famous playwright (known as ‘Tom’ to close friends and drinking partners) followed his preference for boys dressed as boys. While both followed their desires in most other respects as well.
I enjoyed every word of this hilarious, often breathless romp among the rumps, especially Eddie’s ability to mention paid work as an aside before going on to luscious detail about the really important things in life, such as good Chinese food, prostitutes with heart, and getting laid as often and as long as possible.
This book is eminently quotable but I’ll spare myself the trouble of hunting out morsels by referring you (see below) to two superb reviews by fellow writers and literary sages,
and Richard Livermore:
This review first appeared in issue #16 of Ol’ Chanty magazine:
The text of “Tennessee Williams in Bangkok” is garnished with period photos, some from Eddie’s relics, some archive pics, that make the 1970s look very far away. Interesting to see that Eddie’s eagle-eyed look (What’s up? I’m not going to miss anything!) hasn’t changed in all these years.
And now I’ll risk Eddie’s wrath by stealing his last line, a dream of a quote from T. Williams.
“Everybody is nobody until you love them… “
Tennessee Williams, The Rose Tattoo
Sheer genius. Sigh. It glides along and goes down so smoothly, it could be a line from Cole Porter sung by Frank Sinatra. That’s the trick of great writing — making it look easy.
NOIR ce soir!
Hot on the heels of the news that the NOIR Erasure Anthology trumpeted recently on this site (scroll down for more) is now available for HOLIDAY PURCHASE on Amazon.com (shhh, we know it’s not quite culture-politically correct, but we authors want to make a living somehow, too)… anyway, quite coincidentally I stumbled across a noir ghostwriting novel. This might be just the thing for my friend who is not sure if he is up to the task of writing his own biography. I shall now recommend it to him and to all you other readers out there:
L.A. SLEEPERS – a noir novel in instalments by Dakota Donovan
The brilliant idea behind this is the ghostwriter as sleuth. With a perfect pseudonym: Dakota Donovan. Doesn’t that just sound off-the-peg? The tale is told as a serial in daily instalments (can Dakota keep up the gruelling pace? Is a daily deadline too much for a ghostwriter with her nose to the Grub Street grindstone?) — such are the hazardous conditions of production of this ever growing masterpiece that is crying out to be discovered, scripted and serialised by TV moguls.
Today (8 December 2013) we have already reached the 13th instalment (Chapter 3.4).
This latest instalment dives right in with the muscular, pithy noir style. Another literary effect that looks easy, but is very hard to get right.
‘Dakota jumped to her feet and told Joyce, “I’ve got to go.” Yes, she had to get home and retrieve Milton’s confidential file from the trunk of her car.’
As a subscriber to Dakota Donovan’s daily pen product, I can look forward to hours of happy reading through the holiday season and well into 2014.
Books are like life stories. Whether you’re a writer or a reader, they can give you a sense of purpose and continuity. Told well, they can take you to heaven. Thanks, writer friends for all the pleasure you give. Thanks, all you future life story writers. Thanks, Nelson Mandela, for making this one life seem more precious.
Photos (some) & text © Karen Margolis 2013 .
Posted 8 December 2013
Jazz & poetry & all that
Once in a while comes a day of such overwhelming beauty and pleasure that I abandon all resolves and good intentions and surrender completely to the joy of poetry. Or joys, in this case. A clerihew orgy is in full swing on Facebook, and two new poems from my latest series, Smiles Wide Open, wrote themselves into existence before I had finished my first coffeepot of the day.
Later I was rewarded from heaven with a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean. The right sky- and seascape for the rare conjunction of Thanksgiving and Chanukah. Or whatever else you like to attribute natural wonders to. Anyway, yet another occasion when I was glad to have my camera in my bag. And on that theme, in tune with the poems, I’ve slipped in a couple of shots from my landing in Nice.
Low sun, dazzling.
I looked at you
and thought jazz
© Karen Margolis 2013
I met a man who took me to the mountains
I met a man who took me to the mountains
young we were and free in summer
shadowed by clouds
we climbed an alpine glacier
slippery yet I had no fear of sliding
he knew his ground & made me feel safe
year after year I dreamed he came back
in a blue beetle car wearing a tan blouson
(I can smell & stroke the chamois
as I sit beside him)
and he drives me to the mountains again
after reunion he put a tag on us
not safe for work or playtime, a warning
discomfort gnawed me to the bones
hard casing grew around my passion
nonchalance a brittle shell
covering soft fruits of desire
love awakens freshly in the present setting
a sea view, mountains at my back
days of dreaming in between:
a willing slave for licking service
to nibble at my naked feet
polish my french windows
share truite aux amandes
crêpes flambées & domestic chores
this is how we learn to play with ageing —
you can’t catch up
with what you never had
I’m nobody’s recipe
for the cookies they didn’t get as a child
we all make our own compromises
each different even with the lights down
Don’t confuse me with the callgirl next door
or look on my laptop for your dating sites
there’s always someone else
always somebody out there – where?
waiting. Maybe for another you
in another world. (I didn’t say the word better)
Seasonal decorations are going up
in shopping streets. The sun
pierces their flimsiness
making them look useless, exposing
their ugliness. At night, lights
salvage the magical illusion.
Being here still is a daily surprise.
Let’s make it stay. If you wish
you can erase your past.
I’m saving mine as a future possibility.
Warm late November sunshine,
the gold pink glow of a sunset
over deep blue waters where fishing boats bob
the evening star all alone
sights hard won. Being able at last
to say what I want
is a gift too precious to waste.
© Karen Margolis 2013
Poems & photos © Karen Margolis 2013
All rights reserved.
Posted 28 November 2013
NOIR is out!
Eagerly awaited, now available ― NOIR is here just in time for the gifting season.
40 writers, including myself, have contributed erasure poems culled from the pages of noir novels.
Erasure is a fascinating technique, a blend of physical involvement with the text, elementary destruction of the printed word and reader empowerment. After all the tampering and trouble (and it’s no easy job!) the result is a metamorphosis or re-formation of the original author’s intention.
Erasure is a kind of harmless heresy, a desecration without damage. It’s all done on copies, leaving the original book intact. A new kind of creative game that any reader can play, juggling with notions of meaning and text structure.
Here’s a preview from the NOIR anthology of the note I wrote to accompany my erasure poem:
“Erasure poetry – fine. Noir? – well, not so easy if you happen to live in Berlin, Germany, a city where classic genre 20th-century books in English aren’t exactly paving the sidewalks.
“A skim internet search came up with predictable hits for Chandler, Hammett, and their kind. Meanwhile I was hooked on the theme and started following up all kinds of clues… until finally a reference to the landmark Truffaut noir film from 1968 led me to the author William Irish —alias Cornell Woolrich— and his great noir novel from 1940, The Bride Wore Black. (…)”
Suspense is the name of this game. You’ll have to buy the collection to read the rest.
Keen already to get your copy of the NOIR erasure poetry anthology? You can order it by mail:
NOIR Anthology from Silver Birch Press, Los Angeles, Ca.
Description: 120-pages, 5.5×8.5, $12 retail
ALL PRICES INCLUDE SHIPPING AND TAX FOR U.S. ORDERS; OVERSEAS ORDERS REQUIRE SEPARATE QUOTE.
If you would like copies of the anthology in time for Christmas, please place your order by Wednesday, Nov. 27th. Also available soon from Amazon.com
Write directly to: email@example.com
And get that NOIR feeling on those dark wintry afternoons…
Text & photos (except NOIR cover) © Karen Margolis 2013
Posted 20 November 2013
Underground literature to go
Book-O-Mat at Berlin-Alexanderplatz
Rumours circulating for some time in Berlin can now be confirmed as truth. There is a Book-O-Mat deep in the very heart of the city, in the maze of tunnels that house the platforms and tracks of underground line U8 at Alexanderplatz station.
The big yellow automat with its colourful brain food offers “Reading to go” – 25 paperback titles ranging from popular children’s and young adult books and mass bestseller novels to self-help books, Berlin guides and even, with an eye to the international trade, English-language books. Prices run from one to ten euros.
The machine is a joint venture between Berlin’s public transport authority and a vending firm that offers the usual fizzy drinks and snacks in automats on the city’s underground (U-Bahn) system. Right now it’s a pilot project: if it’s successful, more U-Bahn stations will be blessed with books to go.
The idea of slot machine literature has been around for a while in Germany, and some publishers have set up their own vending schemes for booklets or small publications. (*See below for a recent summary on the blog Love German Books, my reliable informant on everything-German-and literary-that-matters nowadays.) But this commercial venture seems a novelty, and Alexanderplatz is just the right place to start. Bordering the core of old Berlin, it’s a great site of German literary and social history, and the stuff of legend and thrillers, particularly in the 20th century. It was a setting for dramas of the two world wars, the Weimar republic and the Nazi era. In the Cold War it lay in communist East Berlin and its bleak windy expanse became a synonym of socialist planning and punk rebellion above ground, while underground along the lines running through Alexanderplatz the ghost stations shut down after the building of the Berlin Wall were constant reminders of the inner-German border.
Today, most of the people waiting for trains on the platform of Line 8, where the Book-O-Mat stands, don’t remember the trains rushing without ever stopping through dead stations preserved in their prewar state with original tiled walls and old nameplates, like a series of Miss Havishams in their yellowing bridal tiles.
Fortunately for these stations, and for the city they serve, the groom of change came to liberate them from their curious slumber and they could be reunited with their past and future network. And receive automats to nourish the waiting passengers. Books to go at Alexanderplatz – who could have dreamed of this 25 years ago?
German readers can get more background on the Book-O-Mat here:
* German literary scene specialist and blogger Katy Derbyshire looks at some other imaginative book vending schemes in Germany:
Multimedia footnote: If you think the Book-O-Mat is cool, take a minute and a half to watch this vimeo of a truly brilliant variation:
Bibliomat on Vimeo
The Biblio-Mat is a random book dispenser built by Craig Small for The Monkey’s Paw, an idiosyncratic antiquarian bookshop in Toronto. For the rest of the story (and it’s really worth it!), just follow this link — and enjoy:
Text & photos: © Karen Margolis 2013
Posted 17 November 2013
Revamped capital magazine
Always good, now even better: parisiana.com, the lit mag with style and grace, has a new look worth following.
Latest issue has G. Legman on faking Henry Miller, and archives with plentiful poetry and prose by Eddie Woods, bart plantenga, Nina Zivancevic, Richard Jurgens, Einar Moos and others. And love poems by me, including Goddesses and Doormats and The Red Shoes.
Special credits for the relaunch to Einar Moos & Eddie Woods.
posted 11 November 2013
Please don’t forget: FREE PUSSY RIOT!!!
Jailed Pussy Riot member Nadia Tolokonnikova has been missing without trace for several weeks inside Russia’s vast prison system. Nadia, serving a two-year sentence for a punk performance with the band Pussy Riot in a Moscow cathedral in February 2012, protested against prison conditions and went on hunger strike earlier this year. Women’s groups, Amnesty International and other human rights organisations are calling for information on Nadia’s whereabouts and her immediate release as well as the release of Maria Alyochina, the other convicted Pussy Riot member still in jail.
Please do what you can to help free Nadia and Maria. Their speedy release could help many other prisoners in Russia’s 21st century gulag.
Text: Karen Margolis
posted 8 November 2013
Chinese bargain made in Germany and USA
The Land of the Five Flavors – a cultural history of Chinese cuisine
by Thomas O. Höllmann
translated from the German by Karen Margolis
This large-format book, richly illustrated and full of fascinating things you never knew about Chinese cooking, food history and culture is now available directly from the publisher at a pre-publication discount of 30%.
Simply order on the Columbia University Press page for the book and type in the promo code LANHOL to get your bargain. Here’s the link:
posted 7 November 2013
“I’d put you in the mirror / I put in front of me”
– Lou Reed 1942-2013
The day Lou Reed died
a generation vibrated
with its age and mortality
we knew the wreckage of drugs & rock music
we never won the battle of sex and soul
stronger than images sounds are our legacy
turn up the volume to drown out the weeping
texting condolences with old friends and lovers
across borders and oceans
surprised we could still feel
30 October 2013
He was an artist to measure our lives by. Already an icon in my student days in the Seventies, his 70th birthday in 2012 was a news item that prompted a poem. It belongs to Song of Age, my poem series in progress.
Red Square hot lips
on Lou Reed’s 70th birthday
bought me a lipstick called Red Square
thinking of you, Lou Reed,
no longer stalking down the wild side
no more lonesome cowboys
nowhere to run & hide
underground flirtations long gone
in high & mighty corridors
consorting with onetime dissenters
celebrating heroin orgies
in abandoned factories
media mingle alter egos
what’s it all about
world turned upside down
Berlin on your birthday
riding the U-Bahn
come sit beside me
eyes up to onboard tv:
King Kong premiere
New York, 2 March 1933
—Germany notes the year—
cover versions followed sporadically
before lyrical deconstruction
robbed the rhymes and rhythms
of poetic endeavour
leaving word scraps floating in gutters
What else happened
on 2 March this year?
It snowed in Jerusalem,
big soft flakes
covering the ground
where my beloved Etta lies
—who is sheltering her street cats now?
Lou Reed is 70
Putin rules the Kremlin
the ghost of an era
howls in Berlin
Berlin, 2 March 2012
These ancient days of mourning the dead, if you hear singing with the angels it’s probably Lou Reed.
. Text & cloud photos © Karen Margolis 2013 posted 31 October 2013 :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: ################################### .coming up.coming up.coming up. coming up. .
UPCOMING #1 and LAUNCHING
This year the clocks changing to winter time seems the signal for a frenzy of activity. Ask my friends how they are doing and they’ll mostly answer with just one word: busy. TBP = Terribly Busy Person has replaced VIP in the parlance of the 21st Century Sweatshop and signifies a new pecking order. She who is not busy is failing. Luckily I have just managed to edge into the TBP ranks. With hardly time to update my diary I’m trying to keep pace. The tireless activity of my friends and myself is simply exhausting.
It may be, of course, that we’re all doing it —consciously or not— to annoy the NSA, BND, GCHQ, and other illegal state eavesdroppers by being so active they can’t keep up. Carry on communicating, should be our motto. Maybe sexting or snapchat can bring the secret listeners to implosion during the dark of the moon. Some of my correspondents specialize in long mails about commas. Let’s entangle the monitoring peeping toms in chains of commas and knock ’em out with the Chicago style manual.
Another plus is the preview of a post-Facebook era. It feels good to be so busy that it doesn’t matter what people are doing in the social media. Life is elsewhere and the last rays of autumn sun are out there waiting to be caught. Sometimes the world, even in a grimy central European city, is almost too overwhelmingly beautiful. Trying to capture it with a camera is an understandable compulsion. Most of all, there is the urge to just stand and look. And the sheer natural pleasure of throwing off the TBP persona and succumbing to something that really deserves the word “awesome”.
Good news from Los Angeles:
*ERASURE NOIR ANTHOLOGY* will be published in December by Silver Birch Press with erasure poems by 40 poets (including me) based on pages from classical noir novels. The book (digital and print) includes pictures of every erasure page. Details soon. For now, I can only tell you erasure poetry is one of those bright, fascinating ideas that simply devours time. Hard to create but delightful to read, an odd kind of parallel text sensation that tickles in places normal writing doesn’t. (Photo should keep you guessing…).