–International-Women’s-Day-2017–International-Women’s-Day-2017–

 

The Century of Women

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This year’s International Women’s day is different from so many I have celebrated since the 1970s. Millions of women have been active and on the march over the past few months. You don’t have to give it a name to recognise it’s a movement. Women’s anger and women’s power are issues for the whole world now.

We can’t be content with just one day of international protest and action. Not even a year will  be enough for everything we need to do to win equality and freedom for women. Let’s go for the whole century. Let the 21st century be the century of women.

To do that we have to start now and we should try to include everybody who wants to change the lives of women and girls and those of men and boys in the world we will shape together.

Here’s a poem for this special International Women’s Day.

The pictures below are from my childhood in South Africa. Even then I can remember refusing to do what girls are supposed to.

 

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Poem for a newborn girl on International Women’s Day 2017

 

for Masha who is very new

and for Moon who is already asking why

 

 

 

 

Welcome to the world of limited opportunities.

it is yours to make your own.

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From child to woman

is a wondrous transformation.

Chance is always possible.

 

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Grasp this world in your hands

as you grasp the first finger

feel it take shape

as you mould it to your will

your world, a girl’s world

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Gulp its freshest air

to swell your open lungs

you’ll need them later

to shout your demands

a girl to be heard

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Kick away the barriers

with your agile heels and toes

run far enough, climb high above

no one can stop

a girl who won’t be caught

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Open your eyes

beyond history & tradition

you can see the path

you can choose to follow

a girl who wants to learn

 

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Welcome to the world of unequal distribution

let’s tip the scales together

when you’re ready to decide.

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A thinking woman’s life

is a voyage of resistance. Still.

 

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© Karen Margolis

March 2017

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Posted 7 March 2017

 

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::woman’s.right.to.choose::woman’s right.to.choose::woman’s right.to choose::

OUR BODIES OUR SELVES

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Almost 50 years ago a 16-year-old girl in London took the first steps toward deciding her own life by visiting a birth control clinic. It was 1968. Abortion had only been legalised the previous year in the UK. A woman’s right to choose was one of the main demands of the growing women’s movement.

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Women's Liberation Movement

 

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Our bodies, our selves, would become a rallying cry of women’s liberation in the 1970s.

That slogan reappeared again on last weekend’s women’s marches in the USA and all over the world. It shows that while much has changed in the past 50 years, women have still not won full control of our bodies and our reproductive power.

History is not repeating itself — what is happening today is a continuing story. It proves the age-old truth that a society’s level of civilization depends on the freedom of  women to control our own lives and bodies.

A woman’s right to choose freely whether she has a child or not is a fundamental right. Wherever it is under threat it is worth fighting for. It is essential for the quality of life.

Now I invite you to read the story of the girl who went in search of contraception almost half a century ago, and to ask what has changed, what has improved, what is endangered, and how we can support our sisters everywhere in the battle for free contraception and abortion.

The Pill, please. 

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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, 1994, and in two school textbooks in Germany in the 1990s.

 

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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.

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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 around 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.

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

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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 pink 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?”

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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 banished 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.”

 

 

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© Karen Margolis 2017

 

Posted 28 January 2017

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::lights.and.years::lights.and.years::lights.and.years::

 

The Eight Days of Chanukah

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Holiday lights at Place Masséna, Nice Côte d'Azur, December 2016

Holiday lights at Place Masséna, Nice Côte d’Azur, December 2016

 

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Kindling of the Lights

 5777/2016

 

 

The first light

for defiance and resistance

– we are not born victims

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the second light

for the contours of a landscape

that calls us to remember

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the third light

for the comfort of a place

in a heart or corner of the world

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the fourth light

for the cultivation of a tree

into a future we will never see

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the fifth light

for survival. Some talk of solidarity

others of miracles

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the sixth light

for creative opposition

the sharp curve of imagination

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the seventh light

for everyday optimism

against bullies and dictators

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the eighth light

for the restless spirit

that chases desire and makes lights flicker.

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And last, the torch

that kindles the lights to bring hope

the age of darkness will not come again.

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The Chanukah menorah surrounded by police barriers outside the Chabad movement building in central Nice, December 2016.

The Chanukah menorah surrounded by police barriers outside the Chabad movement building in central Nice, December 2016.

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Poem & photos© Karen Margolis

Nice, 27 December 2016

 

Photos from Nice during Chanukah 2016

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photo © KarenMargolis 2016

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Gifts for the homeless left with greetings by children fixed to park fencing in Nice, December 2016

Gifts for the homeless left with greetings by children fixed to park fencing in Nice, December 2016

 

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Christmas funfair seen from Place Masséna, Nice, December 2016

Christmas funfair seen from Place Masséna, Nice, December 2016

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Lycée Nice: The light that inspired Chagall, Matisse and many other great artists

Lycée Nice: The light that inspired Chagall, Matisse and many other great artists

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Santa Claus, bubble wrapped, with the globe and crystallised fir trees, Place Masséna, December 2016

Santa Claus, bubble-wrapped, with the globe and crystallised fir trees, Place Masséna, December 2016

 

 

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Light that makes miracles possible: Sunset over the Baie des Anges, Nice, December 2016

Light that makes miracles possible: Sunset over the Baie des Anges, Nice, December 2016

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Posted 27 December 2016

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::Nice.remembers::Nice.remembers::Nice.remembers::

SUN, SEA, PALMS – and DEATH

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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Cultivating remembrance in the age of instant forgetfulness

Opposite the entrance to the KaDeWe, Berlin’s prime department store, is a memorial to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps between 1933 and 1945. The names of the camps are written in vertical rows, orange on black wooden slats mounted on a metal frame standing on Wittenbergplatz. People streaming out of the underground station onto the square hardly ever stop to read the title “Ort des Schreckens wir dürfen niemals vergessen” (“Places of terror we must never forget”) above the list of camps that reads like a litany of evil in our times.

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Wittenbergplatz monument

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The monument is so inconspicuous that it has been praised for its modesty — as if failing to stand out among the garish advertising  of a busy shopping centre is a sign of nobility in the 21st century. Guidebooks often describe the KaDeWe as a temple of consumption. This sign may be there because this is a good place to reach a large audience, but it is conveying some odd messages. Mourn the dead and go shopping. Fight fascism and win a bargain. Or even worse: commit genocide and prosper.

For what Wittenbergplatz and the KaDeWe symbolise is the power of consumption and the transformation of Germany from a nation of the worst inhumanity to a nation of the greatest prosperity and tolerance. A memorial that truly commanded remembrance would have to be more impressive than any temple of consumption, or touch deeper than the next design trend. In fact, this modest sign is symbolic for other reasons. It was erected by a human rights group in 1967 when the KaDeWe was a propaganda outpost for capitalism in the Cold War, the Berlin Wall divided the city, and West Berlin was an island where memorial culture was barely in its infancy. It was a pioneering landmark in a near-barren terrain that has since become overcrowded with signs of the past.

Fifty years on, the city is plastered with monuments, memorials, sites of terror and resistance, museums and other significant buildings dedicated to the history and catastrophes of the 20th century. Today’s tourists looking for something off the selfie track are rediscovering the power of the simple message at Wittenbergplatz. It offers guidebook authors a different angle. Words like stark and cool come to mind.

But you have to be looking away from everything else that distracts the eye to find it.

And after you have found it, do you process its message, fit it into your world vision – and then go shopping?

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photo © KarenMargolis2016

Pavilion in the park on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice has become a memorial to the victims of the terror attack there on 14 July 2016.

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Nourishing remembrance

Living in Germany necessarily involves approaching the country’s history through monuments and a pervasive narrative that underpins daily life and the mass media. It seems that the past is always there in the present. Does this constant –  nearly obsessive  – preoccupation with victims and perpetrators, with cruelty and punishment, prepare us in any way for what is happening right now? Are world wars and genocide our benchmarks and is anything else a lesser evil? Is there less violence and inhumanity and suffering in the world today than there was during the Nazi era? Can any nation claim the right to have clean hands for past crimes against humanity by virtue of being suitably penitent and paying reparations?

Today, the 11th of December 2016, bombs exploded in Istanbul and in Cairo, killing dozens of people. In Syria, Aleppo’s population is being bombed out of the city and Palmyra has become a battlefield again. Those were the headlines. If you scroll down you may find the latest tally of deaths at sea of refugees and other desperate people trying to reach Europe.

We are surrounded by violent deaths, the deaths of unknown people, strangers, children, women and men who become victims of political decisions and military strategy, or people long dead who demand or deserve our remembrance.  The ancient cult of ancestor worship has returned to haunt us in our daily lives. We are duty bound to remember the dead, not only “our own” dead, but the dead of other times and places. How can we do justice to all those deceased people?  –  There is not enough time to mourn the dead, let alone build memorials.

Nourishing remembrance can fixate us on the past and make us oblivious to what is happening in the present. And fearful of the future. Perhaps there is a different kind of remembrance that can inspire us to resistance instead of resignation and moralising attitudes. Maybe remembrance can nourish us to fight for a better present.

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Graphic response: sign on the steps up to the pavilion.

Graphic response: sign on the steps up to the pavilion.

 

 

Promenade of tears

On 14 July 2016, Bastille Day in France, a man drove a truck directly into the crowds gathered on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice to watch the traditional fireworks display for the national holiday. The death toll was 86 people. Children, women and men.  Nearly 450 people were injured, some seriously. The assassin, a Tunisian-born French citizen, was killed in a gun battle with police at the scene. France has been in a continuous state of emergency since terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015. The state of emergency is now a fact of daily life in France.

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

December 2016: Soldiers patrolling the Promenade des Anglais close to the scene of the terror attack.

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Nice is still in a state of shock. This beautiful city that stands for the rich, luscious life of the Riviera, with its magnificent French and Italian architecture and its extraordinary mix of European and North African cultures, its unique natural beauty, the city nestled between the azure sea in the gently inviting curve of the Baie des Anges and the mountains of the Alpes Maritimes, the light that inflames artists and bewitches photographers, the mild air in winter and the orange and lemon trees, the olives, and the bougainvillea and oleander flowering in winter.

Nice’s dolce vita idyll was already shaky before the attack because right-wing establishment has held political and financial power for too long, the far right Front Nationale has a firm grip here with its white supremacy programme inciting racism, particularly against the large North African Muslim population, and the rich/poor divide is glaringly evident and ugly. But that doesn’t justify or explain terrorism and the massacre of people out at the sea front in summer celebrating a public holiday. Nothing justifies that.

The other main divide apart from the fundamental economic one is the mental gap between those who think terrorism is justified as an end to a means and those who reject violence as a way to solve conflicts. That divide allows no compromise.

 

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Books of condolence with thousands of signatures and messages.

Books of condolence with thousands of signatures and messages.

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Terrorism has succeeded in making Nice into a city in a state of fear. Security guards stands at the entrance to post offices, supermarkets and department stores checking customers and their bags. I’m used to that when visiting synagogues and other Jewish institutions back home in Berlin, but not at other places, ordinary places. At synagogues in Nice you see soldiers in camouflage gear with machine guns standing at the door during services.  When children arrive or leave the Jewish nursery school near the city centre, the entire street is blocked off by police and military. The atmosphere reminds me of security measures in Israeli cities. You get used to it because Israel is in a permanent condition of war. But Nice… well, French politicians keep insisting the country is at war. Hence the permanent state of emergency. The war against terror. I thought that phrase had been discredited, but here it is – daily life in Nice in the war on terror.

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Tiny memorial on the Promenade near the attack site.

Tiny memorial on the Promenade near the attack site.

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Soft remembrance

 

If you’re used to the sombre memorial culture of central Europe, its traditional marble and granite and latter day glass, steel and concrete, you’re used to hard remembrance. Its surfaces cut or grate and its didactic moral rectitude is sometimes hard to stomach. If you do rehearse the names of concentration camps and then go shopping, you feel decently guilty about it. That kind of approach to the evil past is like the awful medicine that does you good, or the salutary wake-up call that’s always uncomfortable but very bracing.

Coming from this tradition, the pavilion in Nice commemorating the attack of 14 July comes as a shock. From a distance it looks like part of a circus or funfair or an advertising kiosk for the annual carnival. It screams loud colours and kitsch. Any demons lurking here would feel very uneasy with this enormous outpouring of emotions. Sorrow, immense sorrow and grief, and anger and pain. But all this is flooded by an overwhelming sense of tenderness.  The whole pavilion is filled and surrounded with cries of love and peace and messages of compassion.

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Names and ages of victims painted on a flowerpot.

Names and ages of victims painted on a flowerpot.

 

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The many child victims of the Nice attack on 14 July have influenced the memorial spirit in a natural, spontaneous way. Where adults might bring stones (another ancient ritual for mourning or burial), children bring soft toys. Very often this is a sacrifice, because children usually love their soft toys and are reluctant to give them away. What gods are the children trying to propitiate, and the adults who followed their example as well, who have brought their teddy and rabbits and giraffes and mice and elephants and cats and dogs and other stuffed creatures? It’s amazing to feel the comforting effect of a soft memorial. It was hard to resist the temptation to stroke the delightful animals. Several visitors wept openly over the scenery of soft toys of every size and shape cuddling together in peaceful coexistence like a huge soft cushion. It almost felt possible to be drawn into the furry depths, to lie down in the inviting softness among mounds of stuff toy bellies, and cry.

Soft remembrance is not about confronting. It is about comforting and healing.

If we want confrontation we have to enter the political arena and fight the forces that promote and nurture violence. That’s a hard fight and it doesn’t leave much space for softness.

If we want to mourn the dead, whether people we know or strangers, we have to find ways to turn the hard anger and pain and desire for revenge into the soft comfort that will heal. The soft offerings people brought spontaneously to the scene of carnage tell us that remembrance can be a balm, not just a nasty-tasting medicine.

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There is a story about a pink teddy and a rather greyish rabbit who get taken to the memorial for the Nice 14 July victims. They are reluctant to go… I won’t spoil the ending because the story is still in progress. For now, you’ll have to be content with the picture.

 

photo©KarenMargolis2016

“Help! Get me out of this memorial. I want to go home!” – spot the rabbit trying to get away.

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Photos & text © Karen Margolis 2016

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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posted 12 December 2016

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…darkdays:darkdays:darkdays:darkdays:darkdays…

 

Not again November

November comes but once a year. This November will be remembered. Perhaps we are standing on the brink of a new era. Or perhaps the future will look back and wonder what the fuss was about.

Still, it will take more than optimism exercises to give November a good name, at least in the northern hemisphere where the days are getting darker and life is getting harder and more dangerous for too many people.

These are bad times when the old sad poems seem to say more than anything new. Do we really want to live the future as a throwback to an ugly past? And if not, what are we going to do to turn around the signposts that seem to point inexorably to disaster?

This poem was written in 1991 after attacks on refugee accommodation in northeastern Germany. If it is relevant today, it proves that outrage is not enough.

Don’t mourn — organise!

 

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

 

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This November

 

November full of promise

the fog hides our secrets well

the rain falls mainly at night

.

in the dark afternoons

masses gather in squares

with empty spaces where the idols stood

the faces hostile, right hands

raised to heaven calling up the demons

that lurk behind the chimney-stacks

and crawl in beds of trodden leaves

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November full of hate and fear

the wind bites ears on shaven heads

the sun kills memories of the past July

the stars shade their light

the moon has trouble getting out of bed

the nights are colder, she shivers on rising

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November full of heavy hope

hedgehogs in holes hugging

bodies lying iced on winter’s slab

awaiting nature’s equinoctal sacrifice

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in the inner temple of the century’s tomb

two leopards lick blood from shallow stone dishes

men and women dissolve with desire

into the carved womb, its walls

a globe from within, sheltering the scorpion

the mountain goat, the snail, lizards, sea turtles

& snakes coiled in cold blood

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we climb the spiral staircase. From the roof

of the world we see the smoke of November

vanish up its own dark hole

leaving only a wisp of stardust

to sprinkle on the cities’ sunless balconies

and the wavetips at the gusty eastern shores

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November true season of the north

breeds brown conspiracies

behind embroidered tapestries

a wild despair strangles the day at birth

at dusk we eat chocolate heart cakes

relight the tiled stove; practise hoping

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November smells of musk and caraway

and tastes of nutmeg roughly grated

and promises small comforts

 

 November 1991

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photo © KarenMargolis2016

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Diesen November

 

November, voller Versprechen

Der Nebel birgt unsere Geheimnisse

Vorwiegend nachts gibt es Regen

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An dunklen Nachmittagen

Bevölkern sich die Plätze, leere

Stellen darunter, wo einst Abgötter standen

Feindselige Mienen, zum Himmel

Erhobene Hände beschwören Dämonen

Die hinter den Schornsteinen lauern

Und sich in zertretene Laubbetten trollen

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November, voller Haß und Furcht

Wind beißt die Ohren geschorener Schädel

Die Sonne tötet Erinnerungen des Juli

Die Sterne verhüllen ihr Licht

Der Mond tut sich schwer aus dem Bett zu kommen

Die Nächte werden kälter, ihm schaudert beim Aufstehen

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November, schwere Hoffnung voll

Igel im Unterschlupf drücken einander

Vereiste Leiber auf des Winters Leichensockel

Erwarten das Opfer der Natur bei Sonnenwende

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Im Innentempel des Jahrhundertgrabs

Lecken zwei Leoparden Blut von steinernen Tellern

Männer und Frauen zerfließen vor Sehnsucht

In den gemeißelten Schoß, seine Wände

Ein innerer Erdball, beherbergen Schnecken

Skorpione, Bergziegen, Eidechsen, Seeschildkröten

Und Schlangen die sich kalten Blutes winden

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Wir steigen die Wendeltreppe hinauf. Vom Dach

Der Welt aus sehen wir den Rauch des Novembers

In eigenem düsteren Loch verschwinden

Er läßt einen Anflug von Sternstaub zurück

Der sich über sonnenlose Stadtbalkone

Und Wellenzipfel der stürmischen Ostküsten aussprüht

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November, wahre Jahreszeit des Nordens

Brütet er hinter gewirkten Gobelins

Über brauner Verschwörung

Wilde Verzweiflung erwürgt den Tag bei seinem Geburt

In der Dämmerung essen wir Herzen aus Schokolade

Üben Hoffnung, heizen wieder den Kachelofen

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November riecht nach Moschus und Kümmel

Und schmeckt nach roh geriebner Muskat

Und verspricht uns bescheidenen Trost

 

deutsche Übersetzung: Andreas Koziol

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Photo©Karen Margolis 2016

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Text and photos — 3 from Golem exhibition currently in Jewish Museum Berlin – Karen Margolis

 

Posted 11 November 2016 

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img_7185

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::OctoberBlues:::OctoberBlues:::OctoberBlues::

In flight from robot elections

 

 

.photo © Karen Margolis 2016

 

 

Mirages of espresso bars in rainsoaked Berlin. October is here again to mist up our mental windscreens.

This year is different. Nothing looks the same since Brexit and if we want to remember how it looked before we have to go back a long way. Seven years ago I was still spending weekends in Brandenburg. Those were the days when neo-fascists were a radical fringe and Europe still seemed to be promising a better future. The number of espresso bars worldwide has multiplied in inverse proportion to the number of new dwellings built for the homeless of Europe. The number of weapons sold has grown in direct proportion to the number of armed conflicts that can no longer be described as limited or containable. The world is a runaway train without a driver and robots decide the outcome of elections.

How good that the worst has not happened yet and if the best lies behind us it is still there to take pleasure in. There is a unique joy in rediscovering a feeling you had long ago and glimpsing the person who wrote these words back then.

I was so sure that if I said No to Brandenburg (and I had my reasons) the rest of the world was still open to me. It was a tiny insignificant No in a vast landscape of possible and exciting ways and places to say Yes.

Now I’m not sure. Maybe I will end up following the careless prophesy and join the storks on their flight to the Cape of Good Hope.

In Berlin the rain is beating on the grey-clad window sills.

Poetry is a strong antidote to the mitteleuropean October blues.

An iPhone adds colour with the photographs.

Loss of leaves can be a seasonal gift for the world around. Jewels on the ground.

Mood change is an act of creation.

photo © KarenMargolis 2016

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A silver birch, me

photo©Karen Margolis 2016

A silver birch, me

“Lately life for Karen has not been all that kind/She’s reached the outer suburbs of her inner city mind.”

— Johny Brown, from album ‘Love never fails

beyond the city ring, familiar streets

drift into towering monotony
blurs of mottled brown & grey

smokeless chimneys of empty factories

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blending out architectural misery
I count the motorway exits
through the Brandenburg March
till the yellow blaze of rapeseed fields

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city outskirts are wild country
maps turned in circles don’t help my bearings

nature and local spirits
aren’t friendly to intruders

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out of bounds I can’t belong here
buzzing insects disturb my mental traffic roar

panic withdrawal attacks
conjure mirages of espresso bars

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metamorphosis a metaphor
of escape. Across the other side
of the line a little boy drew in the dust

behind the derelict cottage
a silvery-white pillar, me

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slender in a trembling coat of leaves

dappled by passing shadows

temporarily reconciled
to this northern habitat

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the storks are readying for take-off
on the Cape Town flight via Istanbul

they tell me I’ll have to move on again

before winter’s stripdown

    Berlin, 2009

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photo ©Karen Margolis 2016

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Text and photos © Karen Margolis 2016

 

photo ©Karen Margolis 2016

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Posted 24 October 2016 

 

photo ©Karen Margolis 2016

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

brexit-no-exit-no-brexit-no-exit-no-brexit-no-exit

 

Brexit – No Exit

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Brexit Malvern station

 

 

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Brexit – Europe Have Mercy 

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Brexit chapel Bath

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Brexit – Europe have mercy

Oh what can ail you splendid isles

You’ve come so far, where will you go?

Your politics is on the brink

And flags hang low.

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Oh what can ail you splendid isles

You’re pawning your intelligence

Democracy’s pushed to the edge

For pounds and pence.

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I see a continent distressed

With hate and murder on the rise

Leave or remain a bad campaign

Blinds all our eyes

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A man spoke through a microphone

The polls shot up in every town

A man spoke on the telephone

The polls went down

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I met a woman with a child

She wept and wept incessantly

While death stalks the shores of our lands

We are not free

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The music that was once our joy

Is playing at the funeral

Why do we join the chorus now?

Where is our will?

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Headlines blare and figures baffle

Demagogues shout an old refrain

Fear rules too many hearts and minds

History means pain.

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A woman lies dead on the street

Killed by politics not fate

The outcry comes too late to stop

An act of hate

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A narrow channel of divide

Should not become a stinking moat

The drawbridge up, the watchtowers manned

Britain afloat!

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The winners here will always win

They own the stakes how could they lose?

Voting’s a must though it does not mean

The right to choose

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United Kingdom keep your place

At Europe’s table with the rest

The pros are greater than the cons

Remain is best.

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A continent hangs on your vote

So stop swinging that wrecking ball

Your children’s children depend on you

Stay – and change all.

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Brexit sheep

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© Karen Margolis

Berlin, 23 June 2016

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Brexit old people sign

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Posted 23 June 2016

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Brexit chapel2

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All photos © Karen Margolis

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…walking-blues:walking.blues:walking.blues:walking:blues…

Schönhauser Allee Walking Blues
– Part One

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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Down the way with Jenny, Käthe and Rosa

Drunk on May sunshine.

Walking down Schönhauser Allee, the windy side

asking if I can cast off all my memories

and jettison nostalgia forever.

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It was always ugly and hasn’t improved with time and changes.

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Can I get rid of the Time Before and the Time After

(insert some snapshots here)

shall I let them float on the wind that still

and always whistles downhill to Mitte?

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But wait –

Whatever happened to the rabbits

that used to come out at night

on the bombed site on Friedrichstrasse just after

YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR

at Checkpoint Charlie? – to your right

the border huts in a maze of state terror

to your left, a field of bobtails

glowing eerie white in the moonlight.

Is that a memory worth preserving?

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photo©KarenMargolisJune2016

 

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Let us ask the ones born after:

Like 16-year-old Riva from New York

sulky in front of the fake sandbags

at the old deserted border post

for the photocall with parents.

April in Berlin the vanished Wall,

the packaged Nazi story, the country

that disappeared off the map.

Was it like Cuba? she asks

– she’s been to Cuba, she says

when you see the president’s portrait

on every wall you know it can’t be democratic.

I guess that’s why they called it

the Democratic Republic she says

to cover up that it was the opposite.

You can see she likes the word democratic

She rolls it slowly around her tongue

cracking the double consonants in the middle

savouring that American ‘r’.

.

For a moment this confident vigour

is the brush I’ve been seeking

to sort out the tangles

leaving the dead ends clinging

dully to the bristles

and the healthy memories

shining on the cleansed surface

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photo©KarenMargolisJune2016

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Maybe I should pick remembrances

off the stems of the flowers

trying desperately against all odds to grow,

just grow, with no greater ambition

than survival to fullness

in the flowerbeds around sprawling tree roots

on Schönhauser Allee. The urban patches

where tulips and dahlias share space

with planted signs begging dogs not to shit

.

Shall I pluck off the petals

and strew them

on the waters of puddles on the street

that reflect the muddy silhouettes

of permanent building sites?

Cranes and cement mixers

block street and sidewalk

in a machine circus of perpetual motion

swinging from one site to the next

and back again.

.

Here at the centre of gentrification

we have to readjust our route every season

to dodge or circumvent the barriers of construction.

We the pedestrians on the big wide avenue

are pioneers treading newly planted paving stones

and kicking over traces of the past.

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photo ©KarenMargolis2016

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Should I toss my memories to the clouds

that hang for weeks on end

over Schönhauser Allee,

the avenue of grim ugliness,

and if I do, where will they land?

probably among the agglomerations of Italian tourists

marvelling that espresso

brewed freshly with fiscal subsidies

is still the cheapest beverage

on Schönhauser Allee?

(The word mokka floats to mind

on a tide of brackish water.)

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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The heavy girders of the overhead railway

throw dark shadows across

the wearers of Swedish rucksacks

from ephemeral boutiques

on freshly cobbled side streets

with cameras on every retro lamp post

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straying fluff of past regrets

borne by the winds of transition or tradition

floats down and comes to rest

among the pigeons gathered to pay homage

to Käthe Kollwitz’s massive knees

on the real surviving socialist statue

in the dusty square that still bears her name

.

Time past in the inner city is a tourist factor

with growing profit margin. The stuff that fills

the stately halls of national museums

directed by global art world celebrities

and much esteemd scholars scholars.

Aggregated memories boost attendance figures.

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We the people are often unreliable witnesses.

Our memorial value is falling. Only a matter of time

till the price of remembrance shatters

on the rocks of virtual reality.

It’s too late anyway the past was already sold out

long ago. Perhaps I shall donate my memories

with the rest of the loose change

to the drunks and homeless

who gather in the shade of chestnut trees to share

the quick hit of forgetfulness on cheap liquor

I’ll trade you a flash of déja vu

for a thimbleful of Moskovskaya

before my mind takes off altogether

for the shipwreck shores of the Mediterranean

and other watery graveyards

of failed escape attempts.

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

Monument for the Unknown Refugees, by Karen Margolis & Thomas Schliesser, August 2015

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Wind whips me down Schönhauser Allee

speeding me up from the back

down the slope, wind unexpectedly

not always an adversary,

the wind in my sails

sweeping me down the road

with the dust of past dictatorships

(fine particle dust, insidious, pervasive)

carrying me easily into the next district,

the wind in my hair

clearing my head.

.

Down the road beyond the church

Jenny reminds me of the regulars at H-platz

she says they return over and again

years since they were displaced

to concrete slab blocks on the city’s edge,

the exile wasteland for resettled poor tenants

beyond the magical S-Bahn ring

– the girdle between inner and outer

enclosure and sprawl –

and before the golfing lawns

garden estates and gated communities

of the green belt. H-platz

where those who have bought in

still share their public space

with those who were forced out. The old inhabitants

gather to revisit on the benches of the square

watching the children of the new prosperity

play towards a future full of promise

while the old ones reminisce

about the good old bad days

when life was simpler if not safer

shortages were the motor of invention

and people were so much kinder. Or so they say.

Whatever the system we all had a youth.

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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Security of memory. When everything collapses

you can console yourself at least

someone somewhere is preserving memories

if only for their market value.

Hold out for the boom

in archive shares

as long as you can fight

the urge to forget

and keep on practising remembrance.

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Do I want to forget? Is it easier to remember?

Will forgetting make me remember

in a different & better way?

Can I exchange the memories

that pursue me bitterly

for alternatives that offer comfort?

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Culinary comfort, perhaps.

Reliving foods of love.

Tastes of freedom mixed with defiance

walking up the church street topped by the red tower

thinking of Memelsprotten

– sprats from the Memel region –

in a screwtop glass jar on the Russian fish shelf

sharing space with Rigasprotten, mackerel

in sunflower oil and other delicacies

in the squat round jars with garish labels.

What kind of crazy sentimentalism

makes me want to buy Memelsprotten

in a jar from a supermarket in East Berlin?

Hard to imagine that sprats from my father’s birthplace

would taste any better than sprats from Riga.

I wouldn’t know the difference anyway.

The Baltic is only a genetic footprint

& I’ve been a migrant all my life.

Memel is today Klaipeda and a long way

from Salisbury, Rhodesia.

Maybe this is the very place

the most uncanny place

to give thanks for survival.

Schönhauser Allee has kept its name

its solid urban authenticity

through a century of annihilation.

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Photo ©KarenMargolis2016

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The walking blues melody slows down

hovers on the corner of the street

where the church tower rises red

brick red above the double crossing.

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the clock strikes two

at a quarter to three

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Time to resist. At last the spirits

of dormant resistance rise to meet

the tidal wave of present anger.

What guise will they take

this time around? Let them finally

challenge the inhuman face

and sweep away the rotting heaps of old ideas.

There’s no salvation in dogma preservation.

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photo©KarenMargolis2016

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From a passing tram

Pirate Jenny waves the flag

of an uncharted future.

Don’t mourn the changes

on the Schönhauser Allee, she says.

If you can’t be reborn as Rosa Luxemburg

(the time and place was long ago)

you can still weave a dream of revolution

from the tensile thread of imagination.

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Mickey against gentrification, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg 2015

Mickey against gentrification, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg 2015

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Head of Karl Liebknecht (after death), Käthe Kollwitz, drawing 1919

Head of Karl Liebknecht (after death), Käthe Kollwitz, drawing 1919

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© Karen Margolis

June 2016

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photo@KarenMargolisJune2016

Page from Stasi files, border crossing report Friedrichstrasse, April 1989

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All photos ©Karen Margolis taken in and around Schönhauser Allee, 2015-16.

Posted 12 June 2016

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…say-it-in-chinese.say-it-in-german.say-it-in-english.say-it-in-chinese…

The have-nots and the haves

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images-1

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Chinese voices from the first millennium

“We must really raise our glasses one more time.” This is the title of a collection of 20 Chinese poems on friendship by Thomas Höllmann, professor of sinology and ethnology at Munich University. Höllmann selected and translated the poems, mostly from the eighth century, from the original Chinese into his native German. It is part of a long-term translation project involving published poetry collections as well as private editions circulated among scholars and friends.

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9783406653452_large

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While translating Höllmann’s book on the history of Chinese cuisine, The Land of the Five Flavors*, I became fascinated by these early poems and started creating English versions based on his German ones. As I don’t know Chinese, this may be regarded as transgression rather than translation, and purists might condemn it as a kind of linguistic sin. It is a process of its own, a hybrid, the offspring of a complicated relationship to the original like a second cousin once removed.

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Höllmann Cliquen Chinese 17Apr2016

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That doesn’t matter because all I care about is the poetry and that has no boundaries. It belongs to everybody who wants to read it. Reading Thomas Höllmann’s German poems from Chinese originals makes me want to share them with English readers. It makes me take up pen and paper to write my own interpretation.

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Höllmann Cliquen 17Apr2016

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Friends who read the poems in German or English usually say one thing right away:

How remarkably similar we are in our habits to those Chinese people of the first millennium.

 Take this, from Höllmann’s recent collection of 20 poems:

Cliques

Among those who become friends

in Chang’an,

the have-nots

and the haves

form their own circles,

each to each.

They pass their time accordingly

in different ways:

While the have-nots

sit in their rooms

discussing literature and history

the noble lords enjoy themselves

in their mansions

to the music of flutes.

Why should we distinguish anyway

between the pampered

and the down at heel?

I’d much rather know the difference

between the wise

and the foolish.

Poem by Han Yu (768-825), around 790.

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images-2

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Note on poem by Thomas Höllmann:

“The poem is dedicated to Han Yu’s friend, the poet Meng Jiao (751-814). Han Yu stayed in the capital, Chang’an, at the beginning of the 790s while preparing for an examination.”

From 20 Chinese Poems on Friendship, selected and translated into German by Thomas O. Höllmann

Handmade edition 29 February 2016

__________________

*Thomas O. Höllmann, The Land of the Five Flavors. A Cultural History of Chinese Cuisine, trans. by Karen Margolis, Columbia Univ. Press, 2013

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9780231161862

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For German readers:

Many of Thomas Höllmann’s books are published by C. H. Beck, Munich, including:

Die chinesische Schrift (2015)

http://www.chbeck.de/Hoellmann-O-chinesische-Schrift/productview.aspx?product=14915357

This very beautiful poetry collection:

Windgeflüster – chinesische Gedichte über die Vergänglichkeit (2013)

http://www.chbeck.de/Windgefluester/productview.aspx?product=12245586

Die Seidenstrasse: (2011)

http://www.chbeck.de/Hoellmann-O-Seidenstrasse/productview.aspx?product=21933

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Text: Karen Margolis

Posted 17 April 2016

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……………………………………………………………………………

…peace-for-all.peace-for-purim.peace-for-easter.peace-for-all…

Purim: Celebrating Survival

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Children at a Hebrew nursery school in Germiston, South Africa, including the author and her two sisters, celebrating Purim in March 1957.

Children at a Hebrew nursery school in Germiston, South Africa, including the author and her two sisters, celebrating Purim in March 1957.

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The calendar tells us this is a week of traditional celebrations: the start of spring, the vernal equinox, the Christian Easter festival and the Jewish feast of Purim. A time of buds and nesting birds and the first blooms and blossoms after the winter in the northern hemisphere.  Of light and colour after the darkness, of universal symbols of hope and rebirth.

The terrorist attacks in Brussels yesterday shatter these expectations. However bravely and defiantly people react and refuse to be intimidated, the shadow is cast. The list of places in the world living under attack and permanent threat is growing longer all the time. It makes  old promises of “never again” in relation to the terrible histories of wars, slavery, genocide, oppression sound hollow. It makes it too easy for civil liberties to be eroded in the name of security. It makes it too easy to forget the massive and increasing inequalities that destroy life chances for the majority of people everywhere. It stops us seeing that the real war, the only war worth fighting, is against poverty and injustice the world over.

After each terrorist assault like those in Brussels, Paris, Ankara and other metropolitan centres recently,  life seems more and more like a process of survival against hidden enemies. It’s hard to pretend we can go on as before. Every time there is a terrorist attack there is a shift in a direction most of us don’t want to go, towards fear, restrictions on freedoms, police states, universal surveillance.

We don’t have to accept censorship and discrimination in the name of public safety and whatever festival we celebrate we can share in welcoming the spring.

The following extract from a memoir of Jewish life in Berlin is about Purim, the feast of Esther, which starts at sundown tonight. In these times, more than ever, it is a celebration of survival.

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megillah1.s

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Queen Esther’s little finger… 

Purim!

 

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. I arrived just before the service began:

 

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.

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Purim scroll, Northern Italy, 18th century.

Purim scroll, Northern Italy, 18th century.

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Haman the paradigm baddy

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.

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Hamantaschen with hundreds & thousands

Hamantaschen with hundreds & thousands

 

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The failed Proustian moment

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.

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 Grodzinkski’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.

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Visions of Esther

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.

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.

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17th century Megillat Esther from Italy

17th century Megillat Esther from Italy

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“Armies and evil can fall.” 

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.

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Itzik Manger, Die Megille; das grosse Text- und Liederbuch.

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Itzik Manger (30 May 1901, Czernowitz, Bukovina, Austrian-Hungarian empire – 21 February 1969, Genera, Israel) ( איציק מאַנגער) was a prominent Yiddish poet and playwright, a folk bard, visionary, and ‘master tailor’ of the written word.

 

© Karen Margolis 2016

 

Posted 23 March 2016

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@women’s.day.2016@women’s.day.2016@women’s.day.2016@

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Women’s liberation – the longest journey

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photo © Karen Margolis 2016

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International Women’s Day 8 March 2016

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The green and the violet

Marching today in my mind

a woman of many movements

still open to adventure

believing in a future

as the woman who acts her self

not waiting to be watched

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On a day for women the world over

we make a bouquet of green and violet

demonstrate or meditate

to honour women’s liberation

the force that challenged

the most ancient slavery

and changed lives

without killing for its cause

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We shook off the dust

of the 20th century

its strangled promises, grim

ideologies and annihilation

to stand at the prow

of the new millennium

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Pushing far beyond equality

or model female leaders

who never break the mould

we are still on the longest journey

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the more we think the more we want

more than survival, more than the power

for another futile revolution

feminists for a lifetime

on the road to liberation –

a world of freedom without fear

for the girls and women of tomorrow

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Karen Margolis

March 2016

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photo © Karen Margolis 2016

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Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2016

posted 7 March 2016

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…don’t.brexit:don’t.flex.it:don’t.brexit:don’t.flex.it…

Don’t Brexit my heart!

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photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Brexit – no exit!

Don’t Brexit my heart

don’t tear me apart

don’t ruin my June

with a bogus high noon

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don’t trample my rights

from your Eton heights

if you steal my vote

you’ll cut me afloat

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don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say nada to exit

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don’t take me away

or force me to stay

where Tories roam free

and I don’t want to be

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don’t Brexit my life

with your carving knife

for the Sunday roast

and baked beans on toast

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let’s stay together

in fair or foul weather

leave my croissant round

you can keep your pound

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don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say nein to exit

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don’t Brexit my life

with sorrow and strife

don’t throw me in limbo

between yes and no

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the mix is the key

to diversity –

Celts, migrants, Greeks

pizza & Welsh leeks

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try to imagine

Fortress Britain

the exit decision

a nightmare vision:

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Spanish senoras

stopped at the borders

barbed wire strung over

the white cliffs of Dover

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don’t poison my days

with island clichés

if you turn back the clock

the future will mock

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don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say non to exit

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old and new Europe

are walking a tightrope

don’t ignore the past

you’ll regret it at last

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don’t scuttle the boat

to keep banks afloat

preserve our culture

from capital’s vultures

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from Cork to Stockholm

from Madrid to Rome

to Warsaw and Prague

then back to Den Haag

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from winters in Nice

to summers in Greece

from London to Berlin

the ways are all open

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So stand up for Europe

its landscape of hope

its rivers and lakes

and Renaissance fakes

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don’t disenfranchise

and cut off my ties –

I demand the choice

to add my own voice:

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Say no to Brexit!

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IMG_3440

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©Karen Margolis

 March 2016

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giphy

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Posted 3 March 2016

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::words&jewels::words&jewels::words&jewels::

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Home is where my pen writes

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©Thomas Schliesser 2016 Karen writing TPhoto Feb2016

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Nowhere seems safe nowadays. Keep on writing, the next line is a future even if you don’t know where the next poem will begin.  This is the first in a series.

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Status thought report#1

“There are no dangerous thoughts. Thinking itself is dangerous.”

                         – Hannah Arendt

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yellow mimosa dust

gathers in the gutters

after the carnival of flowers

has passed in procession

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trying to forget the memories

I can’t recapture

I wrote off lost opportunities

and just when I thought I had settled

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the word sheen floats to the surface

and breaks through

on the icebound pond

of my thoughtful life

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What a word! sheen

what can I do with this word?

why does it appear here and now

when I was busy sweeping away

the yellow mimosa dust

from the spray the flower queen tossed:

a garter of promise

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unions are made, and fade

agreements trampled

islands invade supermarkets

new metaphors take shape

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sheen floats to the surface

now where did it come from again?

what mental interstices secrete

a word like sheen for years

no: decades, then bring it out,

wipe off the yellow dust, polish it bright

and present it as a found object

in a language I used to know well.

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sheen. It makes me thirst

for all my lost English.

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it sharpens my lust

for new discoveries in worlds

of words I can’t imagine. They

spill out like jewels

from a buried treasure chest

found on the sea bed

by divers with diamond eyes

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a treasure chest hauled up to the light

with pearls, opals, tourmaline,

aventurine, rubies, moonstones,

malachite, serpentine and lapis lazuli –

magical names for precious things

tumbling over its sides, falling into nothingness

at the edge of tomorrow

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sheen slips back

into oblivion with all my other words

that wither from lack of use

(firmament and oneiric whisper

in the concrete corridors

of 20th century housing blocks)

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2.

Alone, time follows itself

with no future thought

nobody is forcing anyone to explain anything.

unless of course – and then the phone rings

plucking at harp strings

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These days begin with checking the news

to make sure another war

hasn’t broken out overnight.

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Leaving the open question

of the intimate relation

between submersion

and subversion

we witness closure of many circles

backwards is one direction

I never asked to go

once again citizen is a status

to be lost or won

in a race I’m banned from joining

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Wake up one day

and a vital essence will have slipped away

like that hidden word sheen

living will lose some of its glow

before the chance to get old

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it is late to learn that thinking in cycles

is comfort not solution

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supermarket islands offer old goods

in restyled environments

migration is and always was

not the wish to move

not the freedom to choose your country

not the new revolution

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Home must be more than a hope

it is the need for a place to be your human self.

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Poem © Karen Margolis 2016

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photo ©Karen Margolis 2016

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photo©KarenMargolis 2016

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photo©KarenMargolis 2016

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photo KarenMargolis 2016

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photo©KarenMargolis 2016

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photo©KarenMargolis 2016

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Photos: Carnaval de Nice 2016 © Karen Margolis 2016

Photo of the author: Thanks to Thomas Schliesser

Posted 22 February 2016

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:100Dada:100Dada:100Dada:100Dada:100Dada100:

Dadanniversary

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Potato poem (Dadanniversary edition 2016)

Potato poem (Can’t pay/Won’t pay edition 2016)

 

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The 100th anniversary of Dada’s first appearance at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich has not gone unnoticed in Dada’s sister city, Berlin. The Berlin Dada (non-organisational) branch has announced a series of Dadanniversary homages including a special limited edition of the Potato books first seen in 2003 at the European Potato Party exhibition curated by artist Thomas Schliesser and poet Karen Margolis.

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The Potato Party claims direct descent from Dada and the Potato book series claims direct descent from the ancient craft of potato cuts. The key element is the strength of the potato starch. The producers of the Potato books are making every effort to achieve optimal starch relationships.

Meanwhile they are also investigating the artistic potential of fare dodging as a method of urban economising, as symbolised by the printing of potato cuts on underground train tickets. Limited edition sales will help to offset fines that may be incurred in the process of this artistic research.

Signed copies of the Potato book series will shortly be available on demand. A limited edition of 100 will be sold out by pre-order at a date to be announced. Proceeds will be reinvested for potato purchase to ensure continuing production of Potato books.

Note: Culture is more than a European subsidy opportunity. This is the posthistorical lesson of the Dadanniversary.

Potatoes live, and scream when uprooted. Somewhere lies a message for Europe today.

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Checkpoint Charlie UFO collage © Thomas Schliesser

Checkpoint Charlie UFO collage © Thomas Schliesser

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Text: Karen Margolis

Pictures & design: Thomas Schliesser

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cvplakat-0

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posted 20 February 2016

**********************************************************

…oranges&lemons.oranges&lemons.oranges&lemons.oranges&lemons…

Citrus Cinema Nostalgia

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Poveri ma belli, 1957

Poveri ma belli (Poor but Beautiful), 1957

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Homage to Cinecittà

at Menton’s traditional Fête du Citron 

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Photo © KarenMargolis 2016

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The sleepy town of Menton on the Riviera coast between Nice and the Italian border grew up as a seaside resort and spa for English patients in the 19th century. Queen Victoria and her Russian cousins led the tourist colonisation of the Côte d’Azur and were frequent visitors to Menton. Remains of the lovely old seaside architecture of the Victorian era still graces the city centre. Every year since 1933 a citrus festival in February has been one of the main end-of-winter attractions, combining the ski-ing holidays in the mountains with the celebration of the citrus harvest. It’s a chance for the local region to show off its artisanal skills with the local produce – and this year it has done it superbly with a nostalgia show. The theme is Cinecittà – a homage to Rome’s great movie studios from the 1950s to 1980s.

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Official poster - Fête du citron Menton 2016

Official poster – Fête du citron Menton 2016

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Cinecittà: Federico Fellini, Marcello Mastroianni, Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn… they were among the great names of cinema that influenced the style of a generation in the West. Those were my dream movies, the ones that we fans of European cinema in London had to see at the ICA in The Mall or the BFI on the South Bank.

The Italian films were the vivacious light-and-life contrast programme to the Neue Deutsche Welle and the French Nouvelle Vague.

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Cine symbol of an era: Fellini's Dolce Vita

Cine symbol of an era: Fellini’s Dolce Vita

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What a great time for European cinema it was altogether!

.

 

Cleopatra: Citrus blockbuster Egyptian style with Provençale mountain backdrop

Cleopatra: Citrus blockbuster Egyptian style with Provençale mountain backdrop

 

.

 

Fellini’s 8 1/2 – the epitome of sexy cinema in the 1960s.

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

8 1/2 (the number represents the number of films Fellini had made by then) starring the immortal Marcello Mastroianni, won Oscars for Best Foreign Film and Best Costumes in 1963 and ranked as 10th in the British Film Institutes 50 greatest films of all time. And now commemorated in a new century for a new generation at the Citrus Festival.

.

Cinecittà6Mention 16Feb2016

.

The rest is pictures – and the hope that a Cinecittà movie retrospective programme will come to a place near me soon. The citrus homage has inspired appetite for the real cinematic experience.

:

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

 

.

Another of my all-time favourite films: remembered (below) by the circus wagon from Fellini’s La Strada starring Anthony Quinn and Fellini’s wife, Guiletta Masina.

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016
.

photo ©KarenMargolis 2016

 

.

Front and back (below): Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), an account of coming-of-age under Italian fascism that could have been the director’s own story.

.

photo©KarenMargolis2016
.
Amarcord: The massive backside of Italian history?

Amarcord: The massive backside of Italian history?

 

.

photo ©KarenMargolis 2016


Fellini’s fascination with clowns and circuses: The Clowns (1970)

.
Cleopatra: Spring flowers at the foot of the citrus sphinx

Cleopatra (1963): Spring flowers at the feet of the citrus sphinxes

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

The statue below is taking it all lying down. She is always in this park and has seen many themed citrus festivals in her time.

.

photo © Karen Margolis 2016
.

 

Photos and text © Karen Margolis 2016

.

You too can star in a movie poster

You too can star in a movie poster

.

Special thanks to Thomas Schliesser

Posted 17 February 2016

.

Film reel14Menton 16Feb2016

.

@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@
Haiku my Valentine
.

 

 

Poem & design: Karen Margolis/Thomas Schliesser

Poem & design: Karen Margolis/Thomas Schliesser

 

 

.

Valentine haiku

haiku

I like you

french fried

.

Poem: Karen Margolis

Design: Karen Margolis/Thomas Schliesser

© 2016

posted 13 February 2016

 

………………..

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

….promenade.des.anglais.promenade.des.anglais.promenade.des….

Mild thoughts in season

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

A haiku chain 

.

2016 will be a crucial year for many reasons, some obvious, some to be revealed, and all full of poetic promise. It has begun with a cycle dedicated to my favourite road, the Promenade des Anglais. Almost every day in winter I walk up and down the Promenade watching the world and composing in my head.

This is not about fashionable flâneurism or urban ethnology, nor about political geography and economic wealth or misery. Quite the opposite. It is about what happens when you turn your back to the city or leave it to one side and face the horizon, the sea and the sky, the birds and the beach pebbles.

It is about not trying to find reasons or answers. Not being afraid of random thoughts, of chance and risk. Taking off the coat that covers your daily life and closing down the devices that keep you organised and letting something underneath come out to breathe and stretch. It is for yourself.  You can keep it to yourself or share. You can save or erase it.

All options open, I walk along the Promenade with the music of being in my mind.

.

Mild thoughts in season (haiku chain)

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

Mild thoughts in season (haiku chain)

1.

my friends and my foes

a never-ending story

snails and scorpions

.

2.

days of my raging

are gone; I fought to become

a mother who loved

.

3.

soft drops of spring rain

sun with a sharp lemon edge

desire ripens flesh

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

Poem and pictures © Karen Margolis 2016

.

photo©KarenMargolis 2016

.

posted 6 February 2016

=====================================

§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§§

the.perished.the.perished.perished.perished.the.perished.the

Remembering resistance

.

photo©KarenMargolis2016

.

Holocaust Remembrance Day             

27 January 2016

If you want it never to happen again

stop watching barbarity

like a natural disaster

.

when we lay the wreaths

and light the candles

for the victims of inhumanity

.

let’s never forget

those who resisted, who saved lives

they were few

they too deserve our blessing

.

© Karen Margolis

January 2016

posted 26 January 2016

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

changes.Bowie.changes.Bowie.changes.Bowie.changes.Bowie.changes.

Changes

Once in a while coincidence takes over from sense and gives you a reason to dig out something old and show it anew.

It happened again yesterday after hearing the news of David Bowie’s death and wondering what he had meant to me and what it means to join the fans of my generation and those who came after celebrating his life through his music. Everybody shares the image of the man and each of us has is or her Bowie moments or memories – thats what makes a star. Not the person with the fake name and the constantly reinvented persona but the shine that surrounded everything associated with him. The ability to make failure look like a viable alternative and to redefine oneself in each successive life phase under the banner of ‘comeback’.

Bowie’s Changes 1973

Changes. Changes was the Bowie song I heard first, in 1973 in London in an intimate situation involving a naked man, a record player and myself, aged 20. My life was about to change forever and the moment of hearing Bowie sing the first word will always ring in my mind. The feeling of change is the sensation shock, of tremor, being shaken. Awakened.

Changes 1991

Scene changes: I lived through the changes of the late ’80s and early ’90s in Berlin. Earlier, Bowie came to Berlin and stayed and created his art there and left again before it changed from a Cold War swamp at the back end of an expiring century to the coming city of the new millennium.

:

photo © Karen Margolis 2016

change a man / do it fast / exchange rate falling / all the time

:

Listening to Bowie’s ‘Changes’ yesterday reminded me I had found a poem from long ago to fit the photo I took at the New Year’s sales in Nice last weekend. As I said, chance wrote this for me. Chance made me look for the poem I wrote in 1991 and I found, to my surprise, an angry chant that may have been a hidden tribute to Bowie’s ‘Changes’. Who can tell what time and experience implant as hidden capsules that only start working decades or a lifetime later?

My  poem changing was written in a Berlin that was changing faster than it was possible to describe. The hectic tone barely conveys the pace of that time after the end of Berlin Wall fell and the beginning of the new phase of Berlin’s metamorphosis into a city it has yet to become. It was part of a cycle, Berlin Year 2 A.W. that was published in English and German in an anthology of Berlin poets.

.

changing

.

change money

a prelude to spending

change a man

.

change tactics

make a list

minus side longer

draw an ultimatum line

impose a fine

change trains

.

change habits

hack away at them

they grow teeth – bite back

chop them off

they flourish all the more

like snakes on the gorgon’s head

pull them out at the roots

they multiply in the hand

change cigarette brand

.

change hairstyle

a prelude to hoping

change heads

.

change clothes

a prelude to dieting

change sizes

.

change shoes

a prelude to dancing

change feet

.

change drugs

a prelude to flying

change carpets

.

change homes

a prelude to moving

change routes

.

change work

a prelude to retiring

change partners

.

change places

a prelude to parting

change faces

.

change shops

a prelude to consuming

change products

.

change cases

a prelude to declining

change contents

.

change colour

a prelude to blending in

change scenery

.

ring the changes

a prelude to cashing in

change rings

.

change choices

a prelude to deciding

change free will

.

change dates

a prelude to lying

times change

.

change a man

do it fast

exchange rate falling

all the time

.

change money

do it fast

change gets smaller

all the time

the dime stores fuller

change change

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

wechseln

.

wechsel geld

ein vorspiel zum ausgeben

wechsel den mann

.

wechsel die taktik

mach ein verzeichnis

tiefer das minus

zieh einen grenzstrich

verhänge ein bußgeld

wechsel den zug

.

wechsel die bräuche

stoße sie ab

sie schießen ins kraut

schlage sie weg

sie sprießen erst recht

schlangen auf dem gorgo-haupt

reiß sie an den würzeln aus

sie mehren sich auf der hand

wechsel die zigarettensorte

.

wechsel den haarschnitt

ein vorspiel zum hoffen

wechsel den kopf

.

wechsel die kleider

ein vorspiel für diäten

wechsel die größe

.

wechsel die schuhe

ein vorspiel zum tanzen

wechsel die füße

.

wechsel die droge

ein vorspiel zum fliegen

wechsel den teppich

.

wechsel die heimat

ein vorspiel zum reisen

wechsel die richtung

.

wechsel die arbeit

ein vorspiel zum rückzug

wechsel die partner

.

wechsel den ort

ein vorspiel zur trennung

wechsel gesichter

.

wechsel die läden

ein vorspiel zum konsum

wechsel die produkte

.

wechsel die fälle

ein vorspiel zur beugung

wechsel den inhalt

.

wechsel die farbe

ein vorspiel zur vermischung

wechsel die gegend

.

klingle den wechsel

ein vorspiel zur kasse

wechsel die ringe

.

wechsel die wahl

ein vorspiel zur entscheidung

wechsel den freien willen

.

wechsel die daten

ein vorspiel zur lüge

die zeiten wechseln

.

wechsel den mann

tu es schnell

der wechselkurs fällt

allezeit

.

wechsel geld

tu es schnell

wechsel schwinden

allezeit

kaufhäuser füllen sich

wechsel wechsel

.

deutsche Übersetzung: Andreas Koziol

.

Hauptstr.155 Berlin

Berlin-Schöneberg 11 January 2016. Flowers placed at the house where David Bowie lived in the 1970s. Photo: Thomas Schliesser

.

The Bowie spirit 

Chance made me take the photo outside the menswear shop in the pedestrian precinct. It is an enduring tribute to Bowie that having him in mind sets up sparks that always surprise.

That’s not just star quality. It is, perhaps, what used to be called genius.

It is the spirit that moves us to creativity beyond our own limits.

Thank you for your life and art, David Bowie. Thanks for sharing some of it with us. 

Text & pictures  © Karen Margolis 2016, 2 photos © Thomas Schliesser

Posted 12 January 2016

.

11 January 2016: People gather at Hauptstr. 155 in Berlin-Schöneberg, where David Bowie lived around 40 years ago.

11 January 2016: People gather at Hauptstr. 155 in Berlin-Schöneberg, where David Bowie lived around 40 years ago. Photo: Thomas Schliesser

.

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the.past.is.another.country.the.past.is.another

Going up, going down

.

photo © Karen Margolis 2016

.

Going up, going down

The rape of intimacy in the showplaces of civilisation

.

1.  She knows what she feels

A man attacks a woman

she does not see his face

she does not see his hand

it can happen in the night

it can happen in daylight

.

the colour of the hand

does not matter

the colour of the eyes

does not count

.

all she knows is what she feels

.

it is the hand of a man

groping a woman

a woman he doesn’t know

with the blunt cruelty

of ignorance and greed

with no desire except

capture and possession

.

he grabs the goods that aren’t given freely

purse, phone, credit cards, breasts, crotch, ass

all there to see everywhere

on offer to those who can afford

if it can’t be bought it can be robbed

.

in the showplaces of civilisation

in the melting core where the system throbs

destroying human instincts and poisoning the air

.

2. Faces of terror

The man’s hand

that gropes a woman

without her consent

has no particular colour or country

it holds the banner of male supremacy

enshrined in manmade constitutions

religions and ideologies

.

terror has many faces:

the man’s hand

that grabs a woman

is stealing liberty

destroying dignity

abusing intimacy

turning public space

into private hell

.

– murdering desire –

.

the man’s hand

that grabs a woman

implants a memory

that can be triggered

each new day or year:

.

3. Belsize Park Tube Station 1964

the longest lift shaft they said

was at my local Underground station

new in London I could only know

what I was told. Afraid to tell

what I already knew too soon

.

We came to the great city

from a far continent on a big boat.

At last they said, you have reached

civilisation. The mother of Parliaments

was only a bus ride away.

.

Twelve years old, torture in the city

on the Northern Line, misery line

waiting for the longest lift

body crush, surging crowds, sharp

corners of handbags and briefcases

elbows umbrella ribs and hard things

pressed against my ass. And

always the hands that groped

blind or sighted for female flesh

for the flesh of a young girl

sometimes clutching tight

binding me as the human mass

moved in to fill the lift

hundreds of caged city dwellers

waiting to be raised or lowered

the inner doors shut

the outer doors shut

.

Did a bell ring or was it just

the alarm in my mind?

– Please stand clear of the gates –

going up or going down

still grasped by the hand

a part of me nobody knew yet

except myself flushed

in a guilty secret, trapped

imagining death from heat

or suffocation. Or fear. Or shame.

.

4. Frozen moments

All those incidents

unnamed and not forgotten

hidden in memory holes

too many to count:

life’s frozen moments

when you only know after

what you should have said

or done at the time

How many years later?

.

Each remembrance

brings a shudder

shake yourself

to shake off revulsion

.

How many frozen moments

does it take to stop feeling

to resign yourself to others’ reality

to learn that all other lives matter

except your own

because you were born deprived of rights

you were born a woman

.

5. Shame in you

shame is today’s judge and jury

wherever they place the blame

shame will always remain

and we the women feel the shame

the curse of violation

that can never be forgotten

.

and pity for all women the world over

as long as we must live in a world

that allows men to assault women

.

6. New Year’s wish

If I were a mistress of martial arts

I would seize the men who attack women

throw them over my left shoulder

and not stick around

to pick up the pieces.

.

photo © Karen Margolis 2016

.

© Karen Margolis 2016

.

pPhoto © Karen Margolis 2016

.

posted 10 January 2016

.

ore poetry sign

.

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

poetry reposted.poetry reposted.poetry reposted 

pack your street angst in a poem

 

.

 

Paul Klee, In the old quarter numero 33, 1923

Paul Klee, In the old quarter numero 33, 1923

.

Clearing out my poem cupboard recently I discovered this one, written in snatches several years ago and now dusted off and ready for airing.

.

Poetry to order

descending from the lofts

of cultured modernity

the poet will deliver

a discreet package

tied up with coloured string

(he chose the colour carefully)

not for him the gush

of the interior monologue

.

hot & steamy not his style –

.

undo the string

on the little poem parcel

unpack the metaphors

wrapped in mindful simplicity

conjuring the atmosphere

of their reception: a calm

cool voice they will say.

In the literary business

so many lyrical endeavours

anticipate their reviews

.

In all things moderation.

.

the poet offers no surprises

he wants you to fill in

the form of his script

without risking spillover

into your own pool of thought.

his rigorous symmetry

tightens the noose of security

.

the poetry packages

appear with pleasing regularity

line them up in rows unopened

play hopscotch between

the cracks of being and self-

satisfaction

.

pack up your street angst

in a pattern of repetition

a hexagram is little protection

.

inside the poem parcels

you find honeycombs

dried out, the honey gone

nothing more to sweeten

the thin lips of envy

nothing to stick a life together

not even a system

of exquisite awareness

when desiccated words

drain the meaning

.

grounded by lack of passion

thoughts packaged as poetry

cancel their take-off

ideas crumble to fine yellow dust

.

I want to ask you poet

what parts of your self

hide in the folds of your heart

when you sort out your thoughts

and tie them in packages

what do you trim off

to make it all fit the mould?

.

are you afraid of the neat lines

in an out-of-town cemetery?

– another life you never knew

.

words not your own

break out of your cage

bite sting and wound

and lay waste to time

(beware seduction in a rhyme!)

.

order seeds its own destruction.

.

 

Paul Klee Child's Play 1939

Paul Klee Child’s Play 1939

 

 .

Poem © Karen Margolis 2015

posted 17 December 2015

.

Paul Klee

.

 

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

…looking.ahead.looking.ahead.looking.ahead.looking.ahead…

NOW NOT YESTERDAY

.

photo©Karen Margolis 2015

.

Not the past again 

Don’t think Hitler

don’t think Goebbels

think present

think future

.

Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Last day of Hanukkah: Miracle sky over Nice.

.

photo © KarenMargolis 2015

.

Posted 14 December 2015

<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<<

.song.of.age.song.of.age.song.of.age.song.of.age. 

THE DEAD DON’T BELONG TO US

 

.

photo ©Karen Margolis 2015

 

.

For several years I have been working on a poem sequence Song of Age. It concerns a larger circle than the daily round. I’m trying to understand what it means to be a woman growing older in a society getting younger. What does it mean to be still here at all? What still matters after all these years on Earth?

The following poem began with the death of a friend in Berlin and was provisionally finished today in Nice Côte d’Azur.

.

photo ©KarenMargolis 2015

.

After all is said and gone

in memory of T.M.

1.

The dead don’t belong to us

It’s not for us to decide

how others should remember them

.

Grief is a private communion

mourning a solitary occupation

remembrance an open book

where visitors may write or draw

or post a picture, memory assembled

out of grains retrieved and sifted

from the dredged unconscious

.

Time enough to construct later

the archaeology of a life

lived alone among others

explored by friendly strangers

after all is said and gone

.

2.

How not to desire any more

to shape words to reach feeling

A lopsided grin, a tear distilled

the traces of a lad who stuttered.

In a last street corner moment

a blue curl of guilty smoke

from a cadged cigarette:

enough remembered

.

— you know, he said

it could be the last summer —

running his tongue tip

along the ridge of an after eight

(sweet taste of the good life

shared from last century’s childhood:

bigger families around smaller TVs)

wafer thin with fine veins

rippling across the dark surface

.

before the medical machinery

that punishes all our joys

and makes survival an exam in stages

we only pass to fail the last

He used to lick his roll-ups

one-handed with a cat’s tongue.

Flick. Done.

.

As he rode away

bald head eerie in the lamp’s glow

his back wheel wobbling

choice words hung like stars

still waiting in the long twilight

.

3.

Afternoon at the promenade

babies slumber in prams

tourists practice panorama shots

.

fishermen wait

.

on the benches I join the old

the poor the crippled

and the jobless

.

looking out at the horizon

.

the homeless spread cardboard mats

over beach pebbles

watching the tide anxiously

.

gulls line up on the shore

.

my eyes shuttered

the roar of the sea before me

drowns the rush of life behind

.

take me where the waves go

.

let now be the moment

my face turned to the sun

there is nothing more to want

.

© Karen Margolis

Berlin/Nice Côte d’Azur 

2014/15

.

photo ©KarenMargolis 2015

.

Posted 10 December 2015

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

…no.more.war.poetry.no.more.war.poetry.no.more.war.poetry…

.

 

Liveboat project Tempelhof Park Berlin June 2015

Liveboat project Tempelhof Park Berlin June 2015

.

Bad Time for Poetry

 

A poem I wrote against a war that was fought as reprisal for an attack that changed the course of history, a poem I wrote and forgot as I have forgotten so much these past fourteen years until my memory is shaken into remembering again. Remember the war against Afghanistan? – it seems so long ago and now we discover it has been present all the while and what we suppress and bury today without asking the reasons why will only be exported into a future that will return to haunt us. Like the poem I retrieved from an old manuscript and trimmed and polished – but not much because it was surprisingly up to scratch considering its preoccupation with an outdated literary form.

This is as personal as it is political and the boundaries have become so blurred that any difference can transform into an insult that festers into a wound that will not heal but spreads by making other wounds in other places. The smallest scratch can trigger phantom traumas that evoke threats of apocalypse and annihilation.

Lines can be drawn that connect rather than divide. Start with a life that begins with a birth in a place that is not home, a life where the first borders were already crossed in the womb. Always start with single lives and draw the lines to other lives and we will end somewhere different to where we began whether in place or time or journeys of the mind. We are always in motion even if we think we are staying put.

Movement needs directions. Stability and security are not signposts to a better future, let alone a guarantee of anything except collapse of illusions. We can’t live to fulfil after-death prophecies. Calling the name of a god is no excuse or explanation for the evil some human beings inflict on others.

Poetry is far from a safe haven in a world turned vicious. It can sometimes reach places where other words and thoughts dare not go.

Bad Time for Poetry was originally Brecht’s title. He understood quite well what he wrote and lived. We don’t have to understand or write. Maybe we just have to draw the line between ourselves and other people and ask if we want it to connect or divide, to exclude or embrace.

.

 

Inside the boat - survival and suffocation

Inside the boat – survival and suffocation

.

Memorial at site of Ravensbrück concentration camp May 2015

Memorial at site of Ravensbrück concentration camp May 2015

.

Bad Time for Poetry

 

 

            “In meinem Lied ein Reim

            Käme mir fast vor wie Übermut”

                        Bertolt Brecht, “Schlechte Zeit für Lyrik” (Gedichte 1938-1941)

“A rhyme in my song

            would seem almost cocky”

    Bertolt Brecht, “Bad Time for Poetry” (Poems 1938-41)

.

Though I write many poems in these troubled times

full of anger & distress

I don’t like thinking of myself

as a war poetess;

I’m not at home enough anywhere

to take a stand for a fatherland

and thanks to old Trotskyist tendencies

I suspect war profits & secret agencies

.

Yet suddenly forced into close combat

I’m fighting swings of mood

and polishing my rusty words

to smash entrenched attitudes;

Forced to review the world I know

the pictures I see & people around me

I’m driven towards a radical stance

against sheer historical ignorance.

.

When fleets go up & fleets go down

and stock markets follow suit

when bombs & bread are delivered by air

and the troops are already en route:

I fritter away the precious hours

tilting sharpened rhymes at wind chimes

cutting through brainwashed argument

and rescuing friends drowned in pious lament.

.

I’ve had more than my share of religion

I don’t want a Buddhist conversion

it’s hard enough being a renegade Jew

without all this karma diversion.

But I see an ancient force among Jews

that helps them stay alive & thrive:

they often talk tacheles with their God

and laugh at themselves for being so odd.

.

In these dark times I write unstoppably

and worry less or more

But I won’t line up politically

as a poetess of war;

It’s not a good time for poetry

but I’m moved by passion, not fashion:

if a rhyme today is almost cocky

I’m guilty — and proud of poetical heresy.

.

© Karen Margolis 2003/2015

.

Liveboat installation at Tempelhof Park Berlin, June 2015

Liveboat installation at Tempelhof Park Berlin, June 2015

.

.

Monument for the unknown refugee

.

Posted 2 December 2015

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

#parisattacks#parisattacks#parisattacks#paris

Paris symbolNov15
.

For Paris, everywhere

Curse

A curse on all

who talk of God’s will

when they mean evil

.

 

 

© Karen Margolis

 

Berlin, 15 November 2015

 

.

 

photo © KarenMargolis 2015

Ink should flow. Not blood.

The collage above was made by a child and displayed at a Charlie Hebdo memorial site in Nice, Côte d’Azur, January 2015

 

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
The Ninth of November – no thanks!

 

.

 

photo © Karen Margolis 2015

 

.

No I don’t want to commemorate anything today

Thanks for your kind invitation

which I shall now decline

I don’t want to commemorate anything today

.

The date is obviously due

for ceremonies, memorial sites, parades,

wreath-laying and other paraphernalia

of a past we used to call civilisation

in a century of barbarism

.

Don’t want to remember a pogrom

that preceded a genocide

that almost destroyed a generation

of my people before I was born

.

nor a revolution that triumphed

failed, was betrayed or frozen out

depending on some timeworn ideologies

.

Don’t want to celebrate an anniversary

for a wall that stood and fell

in a faded disgraced era

– They’re building new and bigger walls

whichever way you turn

.

No, I’m not in the mood for

remembrance, and feeling rebellious

I can’t think of anything I regret, not even

the inability to mourn on the right date

.

Don’t want to build bridges

from an ugly past to present evils

remote emergencies leave me helpless.

I have no desire to forge links

between tomorrow’s crises

and yesterday’s atrocities

.

Can’t even imagine anything to cry about

except the waste of energy spent thinking

of other people’s evil when the ground is shifting

as the world we live in (still not our world)

becomes a gigantic displacement camp.

.

You can’t suffer secondhand

you can only try to understand.

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photo © Karen Margolis 2015

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The gingko leaf mosaic pictured above was made by the children in my apartment house in Berlin on 8 November 2015.

Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 9 November 2015

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remember.november.remember.november.remember.november
Not fascism, not again

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Autumn in an East Berlin street

Autumn in an East Berlin street

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Two November Poems

November always brings a chill. It is the month of remembering the dead and failed revolutions, of catastrophes, of sudden euphoria and deep disillusionment.

This November opens with a persisting political situation that they call a crisis. There has been a severe economic crisis in the world for many years but the added word “refugee” gives the crisis a different dimension.

I wrote the poem below almost 25 years ago, after neo-Nazis in Germany attacked refugee hostels. Public outrage followed the attacks. Political statements were made and police procedures tightened up. For a long time afterwards politics and public opinion claimed the “problem” had been identified and solved. It was actually brewing underground and the signs and signals were ignored or reshaped to fit acceptable versions.

Today it’s becoming clear there’s not just one “problem” and it doesn’t come from outside. Our society has built-in cracks that keep opening wider. In some places they are already chasms; in others, the gaping holes in what we called democracy are being filled with barbed wire and new walls at old borders.

Signs of fascism are appearing in many European countries. Whatever the historical roots, fascism is creeping into our lives. It is the fascism of today, not of the past. It is gnawing at the edges of our own existence, not just those of the “others”, the refugees, the discriminated and the dispossessed.

There is no democracy when masses of people have to sleep outdoors on city streets because they cannot afford a home. Nor when leaders pander to torturers and dictators in our name. Politics that tramples on human rights, spies on everybody and treats citizens with contempt and suspicion is not “real”, it is anti-human.

There is no “solution” to other people’s evil – except to fight it, directly, wherever we find it.

 

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The idyllic water tower park in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg was briefly the site of a Nazi concentration camp in the 1930s.

The idyllic water tower park in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg was briefly the site of a Nazi concentration camp in the 1930s.

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This November

November full of promise

the fog hides our secrets well

the rain falls mainly at night

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in the dark afternoons

masses gather in squares

with empty spaces where the idols stood

the faces hostile, right hands

raised to heaven calling up the demons

that lurk behind the chimney-stacks

and crawl in beds of trodden leaves

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November full of hate and fear

the wind bites ears on shaven heads

the sun kills memories of the past July

the stars shade their light

the moon has trouble getting out of bed

the nights are colder, she shivers on rising

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November full of heavy hope

hedgehogs in holes hugging

bodies lying iced on winter’s slab

awaiting nature’s equinoctal sacrifice

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in the inner temple of the century’s tomb

two leopards lick blood from shallow stone dishes

men and women dissolve with desire

into the carved womb, its walls

a globe from within, sheltering the scorpion

the mountain goat, the snail, lizards, sea turtles

& snakes coiled in cold blood

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we climb the spiral staircase. From the roof

of the world we see the smoke of November

vanish up its own dark hole

leaving only a wisp of stardust

to sprinkle on the cities’ sunless balconies

and the wavetips at the gusty eastern shores

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November true season of the north

breeds brown conspiracies

behind embroidered tapestries

a wild despair strangles the day at birth

at dusk we eat chocolate heart cakes

relight the tiled stove; practise hoping

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November smells of musk and caraway

and tastes of nutmeg roughly grated

and promises small comforts

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Karen Margolis

                       Berlin, November 1991

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Berlin building sites: New homes for whom?

Berlin building sites: New homes for whom?

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Dark troubled poems need an antidote. The photos are from the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin during the golden October of this year. This is one of the areas that has changed most – nearly beyond recognition – in post-Wall Berlin.

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Courtyard of renovated Berlin apartment building

Courtyard of renovated Berlin apartment building

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The following poem was written in November 2009, twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

 

Wall story

Once there was a wall

that stood for world war

mass slaughter, genocide

and the cynical ideological

division of a continent

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The wall fell

people rejoiced

the world watched the party

before switching channels

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change always looks good

garnished with handouts & promises

but tarnishes quickly

dulled by the business of living

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the magnifying glass of history

makes dictators more fearsome

heroes braver

and walls higher

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pending anniversaries

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

retro matchboxes

recipes for scarcity —

all the stuff that feeds archives

commemorative displays

& museum shops

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nostalgia repeats itself

until remembrance

turns to depression

still, there’s no going back

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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

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Each of us has a wall story

a tale buried in the debris

of a time that keeps returning

Karen Margolis

Berlin 2009

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Underneath the gingko tree

Underneath the gingko tree

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Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 1 November 2015

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…seasons.berlin.seasons.berlin.season.berlin.seasons…
Last weekend (haiku)

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Haiku rose 26 Oct15 @KarenMargolis

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Last weekend

A lone rose reprieved

in a lingering sun ray

as the clocks changed hands

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Wassterturm1Sunset 26Oct15

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The season is too good to squander.

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Poem & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 28 October 2015

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Half-hour glass 19Oct2015

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Readux & Co.

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The Big Art of the Little Book

Bertolt Brecht once said that a poetry book should be small enough to put in your pocket. This irresistible pre-digital idea has remained with me for many years as a declaration of love for that elegant minority member of the literary family, the slim volume, discreet, elusive, practical and yet assuredly poetic.

This is the winning formula of Readux Books, a very small publisher set up in Berlin in 2013. Founder Amanda de Marco, a literary critic and translator from the USA, calls them “teeny books” which could be misleading until you actually see them. They are, indeed, pocket-sized and slim, weighing in at a few ounces and 32-64 pages. I have acquired several by attending some of the thrice-yearly Readux launches in Berlin, where Amanda, not yet thirty and already a leading light of the émigré literary English community, offers a book and a free drink in exchange for a minimal entry fee. A genuine bargain when you add in the live readings from the premiered books (a pack of four individual titles three times a year) and the chance to meet the authors or translators in the flesh.

In keeping with its minority appeal, translation is a big issue at Readux. Many though not all of the books are translations, and some are rediscoveries of lost or forgotten texts from the 20th century. Translation was how Readux first came to my notice when translator Katy Derbyshire told me about researching in London for her translation from the German of one of the first books in the series, Francis Nenik’s The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping.

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5

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It is a strange, haunting story about madness, history, coincidence and identity. I read the digital version all in one gulp and then again on a plane journey and I keep meaning to buy the print version to give to English friends. The translation is so good you don’t notice it’s translated, which is always the crucial test. Readux’s implicit mission statement to promote translation as a literary form is spelled out by putting the translator’s name prominently on the cover.

Readux benefits from close involvement of lovers of new and older German literature on the Berlin scene such as Katy Derbyshire, who also translated City Spaces, a selection of texts by author and journalist Annett Gröschner. “I first read the texts as preparation for moderating an event, the launch of Lyn Marven’s excellent anthology Berlin Tales,” Katy told me. “And the pieces were great, gave a real sense of time and place. I also knew and loved Annett’s novels, which are equally playful and celebratory, and political at the same time. So when Amanda was looking for short texts for Readux I suggested something by Annett, and after a while, once the publishing house had got up and running and had a bit of a profile, Amanda came back to me on Annett and we picked out a handful of pieces that kind of tell stories together, reaching out a tiny bit beyond Berlin into the English-speaking world, and also fitted well with the public transport and city spaces theme of the other little Readux books coming out at the same time.”

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58

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Annett Gröschner hails originally from Magdeburg in East Germany but she is a longtime Berliner and her love of the city, particularly of the eastern part, its sometimes weird and normally unsung inhabitants and its unique historical twists and turns, oozes out of every descriptive pore. Here’s a text bite to whet your appetite:

“You’ve only come to write my obituary,” Lothar Feix had said to me last summer when I visited him in Prenzlauer Berg Hospital. Everything about Lothar was Prenzlauer Berg and now his hospital was too. (…)

“On that ugly January day, Lothar said, just before we got to Dunckerstraße, ‘You’ll have a lovely burial in the spring. The sun will shine and it won’t be cold any more.’ Lothar was right.”

Altogether Readux is part of the new trend in publishing that Bertolt Brecht could hardly have dreamed of but would surely have welcomed. It sparkles with the modern and trending (this month’s launch in October 2015 promises us four different mini-takes on sex…) while proudly presenting forgotten or neglected classics as well. The topics cover issues of our times such as urban life, leisure, personal and social questions in a space somewhere between street philosophy and arts pages. It highlights the individual and cutting edge without being cute. And its themed, eye-catching cover designs add to the charm of these mini-editions.

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Franz Hessel

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The very first batch notched up a hit, Franz Hessel’s 1929 account In Berlin, where author and editor Hessel, the epitome of the “flaneur”, gives a vivid account of the teeming city of his times with the verbal vignettes capturing the scenes like textual film clips.

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Amanda de Marco’s translation helped to revive interest in Hessel’s writing among English readers and surely contributed to winning her a publisher’s contract and a PEN American grant for translation of a full-length book by Hessel. He was, incidentally, recently rediscovered in his native Germany, a fascinating figure who was one of the protagonists in the real-life love triangle that inspired the famous film, Jules et Jim, and the father of French diplomat and politician Stéphane Hessel. Descended from a Jewish-German family, a refugee from the Nazis, Franz Hessel died tragically in exile after internment by the Vichy government in southern France in 1941.

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Recent German edition of Franz Hessel’s classic story of a flaneur in Berlin

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Arthur Eloesser is another classic German-Jewish author to benefit from rediscovery and revival by Readux. Born in 1870, he was best known for his monumental history of German literature published in 1930. Born and bred in Berlin, he loved the city and documented its rapid changes at the beginning of the 20th century with a sharp eye. His translator, Isabel Cole, told me, “I was familiar with Eloesser and other ‘flaneur writers’ because a friend of mine, ages ago, did an internship at Arsenal Verlag, which rediscovered a lot of them. The rights are in public domain; he died in the late thirties, which no doubt spared him a lot of suffering (his wife died in a concentration camp…).”

Isabel translated the two essays by Eloesser, from a book originally published in German in 1919, that Readux published in English in 2014 under the title Cities and City People.

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readux_covers-einzeln.indd

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Lengthy quotes from a little book of 29 pages would be spoilers, but I can’t resist a couple of tasters to give an idea of why I joyfully added Eloesser to my list of forgotten classics to be read.

“The Berlin of the 18th century enclosed itself with a wall; where this Berlin ends, we need a confident chord to be struck, a mighty prelude to the expanded dimensions of the new metropolis. But instead of a harmonious accord between old and new building concepts, we see collisions, interruptions, incompatibilities.”

In the 1910s Eloesser moved with his wife and young children to Charlottenburg, then a fast-growing district on the outskirts of Berlin. His complaint in his memoir The New Street was that it lacked the authentic urban smells:

“To this day, and with my eyes closed, I would recognize the Old Berlin street (not the poshest) that saw me come into existence, and when sweet dreams take me back to the land of childhood I sniff my fill of that distinctive atmosphere born of the combined efforts of horse stables, saloons, distilleries, and cheese shops.

(…) where horses were shod, where pigs still went under the butcher’s knife and not to the stockyard, where country and city met to bring forth one strong chord of animal, vegetable and human effluvia, that was the true stink.”

Today a lovely small park commemorates Arthur and Margarethe Eloesser near the spot where they once lived in the new street in Charlottenburg.

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mdb-110823gervinus__2_

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Readux’s latest batch of originals and translations, the sex set, is due to be published on 21 October. I’m looking forward to meeting some of the authors and translators at the Berlin launch party and picking up at least one new teeny book for my collection .

More info:         http://www.readux.net/

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from Readux's forthcoming sex set (October 2015)

from Readux’s forthcoming sex set (October 2015)

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Text © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 27 September 2015

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Signing Off

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Staatsgalerie, final exhibition opening 23 July 2015

Staatsgalerie, final exhibition opening 23 July 2015

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Farewell to the Staatsgalerie Prenzlauer Berg

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Almost five years is a long lifetime for an independent gallery run more on dedication than money. Seen like that, the Staatsgalerie Prenzlauer Berg, set up by Henryk Gericke in September 2010, was a great achievement. People came for the art shows, the music and literature events focused on punk and former East Germany, or just for the boozy pavement parties that always attracted a crowd whatever the season. But for all the hard work and goodwill the gallery couldn’t keep up with the rising cost of everything needed for survival. Berlin’s small independent cultural projects are gradually being submerged by the latest wave of rent rises and funding cuts. Last month, the Staatsgalerie held its last exhibition, a two-day event which opened on 23 July. The final night, on 25 July, was declared a “demontage”,  a ceremonial dismantling. Crowds gathered outside the gallery on Greifswalder Strasse, a grimy main road in the city centre not far from Alexanderplatz, to bid farewell and join the wake.

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Henryk Gericke at the opening of the Staatsgalerie's last exhibition -

Henryk Gericke at the opening of the Staatsgalerie’s last exhibition – “No need for mourning.”

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The signing off began with an inspection of the job to be done. A last consultation with the film cameraman, as Henryk prepared to rise to the occasion.

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Photo@KarenMargolis 2015

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Then up and away with the screwdriver. As each letter came down, Henryk held it up one last time for the audience to shout out a word beginning with that letter. The perfect farewell – poetry, cynicism and nostalgia sprinkled with a few choice German curses.

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Photo©KarenMargolis2015

Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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This is my personal alphabetic valediction to the Staatsgalerie, written in the order that the letters of the sign above the door were removed.

The Last Ballad of the Staatsgalerie 

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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G for genius, the place or the name

R the rebels who won’t join the game

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                                                                            Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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E stands for edges defying the rub

Here in Berlin with the hype in the hub

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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                                                                   Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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R the right when there’s nothing else left

E an essential vowel in bereft

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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                                                                                                          Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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U is the underground put up for sale

A an alternative fairy tale

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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L for life on the temporary stage

Z is the German word Zorn that means rage

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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N for the need to go on with the show

E for the extra time you can borrow

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Photo©KarenMargolis 25Jul15

Photo©KarenMargolis2015

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R the relics of systems gone past

P for punk culture and long may it last!

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Photo©KarenMargolis2015

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S is the symbol that hung by a thread

T for the tears that will never be shed

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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A stands for art or some ways of seeing

A again, ambience/moment of being

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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T marks the time of radical reduction

S drives it almost to self-destruction

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015 Photo 26Staatsgalerie 2015-07-25

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G the gallery run on subsistence

A for angst also known as existence

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Henryk's Mum got away with the L

Henryk’s Mum got away with the L

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The evil E mysteriously disappeared

The evil E mysteriously disappeared

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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L the last letters but what’s in a name?

E is the evil we’d so like to blame

R repeats history, it all sounds the same.

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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                                Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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I may be irony – skip the clichés

E is for endings that sign out new ways.

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Order of the Gallery: Lucky lady in blue got the last letter

Order of the Gallery: Lucky lady in blue got the last letter

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All gone! Henryk brandishes his screwdriver after the triumphal demontage.

All gone! Henryk brandishes his screwdriver after the triumphal demontage.

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Unsigned of the times: another naked shopfront waiting for the upgrade

Unsigned of the times: another naked shopfront waiting for the upgrade

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Henryk assures friends and fans of the Staatsgalerie that its future lies ahead. Never mind the place, it’s the spirit that counts, he says.

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Words & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 8 August 2015

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changing.city.changing.city.changing.city.changing.city

In Europe’s vibrant cities

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Mickeyred Prenzlberg 8Mar15

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Donna Stonecipher’s poetry book, Model City

Walking home from the underground station recently I was struck by an advertising sign on the glass door of a youth hostel on a busy corner. “In Europe’s vibrant cities,” it proclaimed. Vienna. Stockholm. Lisbon. Berlin. In blaring red and white. Resonant names in typical national flag colours.

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Europes vibrant cities

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“Where am I?” I asked myself. What does “vibrant” mean? – Maybe it has something to do with the huge holes in the ground all around with giant cranes towering above them. Or the fleets of tourist buses lined up to fetch or carry visitors to sites of bygone murder and destruction.

A different message awaited me around the next corner, where urban graffiti guerrillas had been at work with spray cans. An old icon, Mickey Mouse, had been given a new mission with his middle finger raised against the clean white façade of a freshly renovated house.

“Gentrification? – curse of a new generation?” I asked myself.

All of these questions are there for the asking. Whether you notice or not is your own business. Probably I would have noticed, but I certainly wouldn’t have asked the questions in the same connected way if I hadn’t read Donna Stonecipher’s recently published poetry book, Model City. It succeeds, in the way only poetry can, in heightening awareness of what is happening around you and connecting that to what is happening inside you. Or even, making things happen by making you connect.

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Model City: the cover shows a model of the

Model City: the cover shows a model of the “socialist city Halle-Neustadt,” by the municipal building office in Halle, East Germany, after 1970.

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Supercities & megacities

Think cities, think superlatives. Sweeping statements from planners and sociologists, futurologists and climate watchers pour out of the world’s word factories. Entire university and town planning departments are devoted to studying the state of the city. Books, articles, films and exhibitions examine the theory and reality of urban life and culture. “Beijing supercity”, the headlines proclaim. Or: “Urban renewal affects indigenous population.” Meanwhile in our own neighbourhood we feel threatened or confident depending on the circumstances, and often unsure whether it’s hype or capitalist speculation or the apparently inexorable march of progress.

When does a city stop having human proportions and become a megacity? At what point does a megacity graduate to become a supercity? Is there a limit?

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Berlin - Face of the city, summer 2015: Big holes yawning below and tall cranes towering above

Berlin – Face of the city, summer 2015: Big holes yawning below and tall cranes towering above

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Catching the thought

The trouble is, nobody can answer those weighty questions because they refer to a hazy future. Yet they evoke fear and anger and resentment because they involve unknown factors that may affect us all. This sense of angry bewilderment runs right through Model City. At a reading in Berlin in spring, Donna explained that one of the spurs to writing her book was the arrival of a building site next to her cherished apartment in the city centre. Suddenly life went sour.

Instead of abstracting, instead of going from the person to the disturbing environment, she starts from what is inside the person inside the system. She casts the net inside herself to catch flying shreds of the inner monologue for long enough to write them down before they escape through the invisible mesh of the netting.

Catching the thought is all about asking the right question.

Donna found exactly the right question. In Model City she begins by asking:

Q: What was it like?

Her answers are arranged in a series of matrices that form a grid. 72 pages, 4 units on each page, each composed of a single three-line sentence, and already you have a modular structure that reproduces the perfect proportions of today’s prefab house, residential estate, new town, model city.

Aside from being a mathematical structure, the word matrix comes from the Latin for “womb” and is related to “mater”, the Latin word for “mother”. The matrix system organises the thoughts that scream as the building machines hammer on the brain and the rising construction cuts out precious light in a city that is dark and grey for much of the year. The combination of symmetrical order (so very German!) and barely suppressed wild despair interacts to form an obsession that grows and grows the further you read.

Poetry of controlled obsession

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Donna Stonecipher reading from

Donna Stonecipher reading from “Model City” in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg, June 2015

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Below are some tasters of Donna’s insistent voice in Model City. Each sentence is like a trigger that sets off multiple associations. I have reproduced Donna’s sentences in italics and attached a few thoughts they triggered in me.

Model City (12)

 It was like wondering about the viability of the ersatz medieval town, peopled only by tourists and stocked with expensive ersatz Heimat cafés – just like real medieval towns all over the continent.

KM: Don’t mourn – reconstruct. Dresden. Ghastly, ghostly, Germany out of the ashes – is a rising phoenix somehow related to a dead imperial eagle?

Model City (31)

 It was like walking one evening through the violent anachronisms and disused clocktowers of a city that had once tried and failed to impede the march of time, and finding yourself invaded by a feeling.

KM: Where have the clocktowers gone in cities? Progress is rushing us toward the future yet there are so many stopped clocks. What times are their hands pointing to? Berlin used to be full of cubic clocks on posts at corners and junctions with signs pointing to the nearest pharmacy or U-Bahn station. If I look for the time now, I have to look down on my phone, not up at a clock.

Model City (57)

 It was like considering the city faced with a cherry festival and no cherries, counting on the import’s glossiness, its guileless slide into open mouths, on no one being able to tell the difference between native and foreign cherries.

KM: There’s a German expression about the wrong kind of person to eat cherries with: Mit dem ist nicht gut Kirschen essen. You don’t mess with them – they’ll spit the pips out in your face. Donna has lived in Berlin for 11 years, I for longer. I’m tempted to say something about us being foreign cherries and not feeling very different to the native ones but maybe other people see as us imports, or foreign bodies. Better not to pursue this thread. Cherry metaphors are always risky: it’s hard to avoid sexual undertones.

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Photo - Gentriefickdich PB May15

GENTRIEFICKDICH – GENTRIFUCKYOU. Comment about a new building about to be unpacked in Prenzlauer Berg, an old working class district in east Berlin that has become a synonym for gentrification in the past 25 years.

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The important thing is that a lot of a city rubs onto you and into you and sometimes it rubs you up the wrong way, it bores into you, it throbs, pulsates, hammers, drives you crazy…

We can only be grateful for the fragments of poetic awakening that capture the flavour of a moment of life in our city, the anger, the excitement, the beauty and inspiration. Let’s coast on Donna’s metropolitan verbal surfboard in Model City before we have to dive again into the next wave of urban change.

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Mickey Kollwitzstr. 4Mar15

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Model City by Donna Stonecipher, Shearsman Books, 2015

Text & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 21 July 2015

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.Berlin 1945/6.Berlin 1945/6.Berlin 1945/6.Berlin 1945/6.

Among the Ruins: Royal Engineer with a Camera

An exhibition just opened in Berlin shows previously unpublished photos from 1945/46 by a British soldier who volunteered to assist with the postwar reconstruction.

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Woman clearing stones and rubble from a German tank; probably in the Tiergarten, British sector, 1945/46

Woman clearing stones and rubble from a German tank; probably in the Tiergarten, British sector, 1945/46

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Cecil Newman’s photos of Berlin, 1945/46

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Cecil F.S. Newman, 1946 Portrait by Paul Nietsche.

Cecil F.S. Newman, 1946
Portrait by Paul Nietsche.

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The portrait of Cecil Newman greets us near the start of the exhibition in Märkisches Museum. Everything about it suggests the honour due to this remarkable man who fought against the Nazis in the Second World War and then volunteered for relief work to help rebuild the destroyed city of Berlin. An impressive man, over six feet tall, wearing the beret with the insignia of the Royal Engineers, comfortable in his Army jacket and in his skin, his eyes focused on a future task, meditating as he smokes his pipe. Instead of going back to his beloved homeland in Northern Ireland, he chose the ruins of the German capital and the chaos of the four-power government of victors.

Historic discovery

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Aftermath of bombings and ground battles: Newman documented ruined buildings all over Berlin, particularly in the devastated city centre.

Aftermath of bombings and ground battles: Newman documented ruined buildings all over Berlin, particularly in the devastated city centre.

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Newman worked in the Allied administration in 1945/6 under architect and planner Hans Scharoun, who helped shaped the image of postwar West Berlin. “My father loved Berlin,” Newman’s daughter Pat recalled at the opening of the exhibition of his photographs at Märkisches Museum on 16 July 2015. “When we discovered his photo reels from that time, I decided to bring them back home to Berlin.” She donated the reels to the museum in 2011 and worked closely with curators and historians to prepare the exhibition. It is the city museum’s contribution to this year’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

Newman himself made several albums of photos (on display in glass cases in the exhibition) during his stay in Berlin. But there simply wasn’t time to develop the hundreds of pictures he took whenever he went out with his Leica camera. The negatives, some damaged by long storage and age, were digitised and carefully processed to remove scratches and markings before printing for the exhibition.

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Newman developed many of his own negatives.

Newman developed many of his own negatives.

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Reconstruction

Newman only worked in Berlin for a year before the British Army ended the relief project. It was a crucial year for Berliners trying to rebuild their homes and lives after the war and coming to terms with the aftermath of Nazi terror and the occupation by the Allied powers. The exhibition shows Hans Scharoun’s personal testimonial of gratitude to Newman for his invaluable contribution, written in beautiful calligraphic script in German with English translation. Newman’s corps, the Royal Engineers, joined in many construction projects, mostly in the British occupied sector.

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Rebuilt Herkules Bridge in Charlottenburg - one of the Royal Engineer reconstruction projects.

Rebuilt Herkules Bridge in Charlottenburg – one of the Royal Engineer reconstruction projects.

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Remnants of battles could still be seen on the streets. Here, a wrecked tank in the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park.

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“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”

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Bringing it all back home

Shortly before the exhibition opened, the Museum commissioned Berlin photographer Jochen Wermann to photograph selected locations in Berlin shown in Newman’s pictures as they appear today. Visitors at the opening were amazed and intrigued by the results, shown on display screens.

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Newman's photo shows a group of 'rubble women' clearing war debris in Seydelstrasse in Berlin-Mitte.

Newman’s photo shows a group of ‘rubble women’ clearing war debris in Seydelstrasse in Berlin-Mitte.

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The stark contrast: today’s view of the same street in the Spittelmarkt quarter in Berlin’s city centre, looking past modern construction works toward the new Foreign Ministry building:

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Seydelstrasse then and now. Photo from 2015: Jochen Wermann.

Seydelstrasse then and now. Photo from 2015: Jochen Wermann.

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Below is the story of the exhibition as told on the Märkisches Museum website.

Berlin 1945/46 | Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin

Start: 17.07.2015 | End: 25.10.2015

Berlin 1945/46

Photographs by Cecil F. S. Newman

When Cecil F. S. Newman (1914­1984) came to the ruined city of Berlin in July 1945 with the British Army Engineers, he was a member of the occupying forces – but he left as a friend. In his work with the Royal Engineers, he took part in the restoration of the infrastructure and as a member of the International Committee for Civil Engineering and Housing under Planning Commissioner Hans Scharoun, Newman helped to develop the first plan for a new Berlin.

His pictures bring to life the terrible consequences of Germany’s war. Now, seventy years after the war’s end, there are scarcely any visible traces of these consequences for later generations to see. However, his stylistically haunting colour portraits in particular also reveal the courage of the younger generation who began rebuilding the city.

Destruction and new beginnings

The images by the Lisburn (Northern Ireland) native Cecil Newman bear witness to the nightmarish world of ruins that made up Berlin in 1945. They show the destruction from multiple bomb attacks and the results of the last futile defensive battles in the city’s once magnificent streets and squares. Whether it be the historical Mitte district with the tower of St. Mary’s Church (Marienkirche) rising from the ruins or the largely deserted residential areas, train lines and industrial plants throughout the city, his photos take the modern viewer back to Berlin shortly after “Zero Hour” and the year and a half that followed. They also show that the end also brought a new beginning.

Cecil Newman did not limit his photography to sites of destruction. He was also interested in the people who dared to make a new beginning amid the heaps of rubble, and he captured them for posterity in empathetic snapshots. These photos in particular make it clear that Berlin in 1945/46 was not only an arena of destruction but also of a budding, hopeful new future.

“I wanted to bring them home”

150 reprints from the 1,400 Berlin photographs that Cecil F. S. Newman left behind are now being presented to the public as part of our special exhibition. It also comprises written documents and original photo albums that Newman put together in Berlin in 1945 and 1946 and which have been preserved until this day. Upon donating the extensive collection of negatives to the Stadtmuseum Berlin, Newman’s daughter said: “I wanted to bring them home”.

With the exhibition “Berlin 1945/46”, the Stadtmuseum Berlin is making a contribution to remembering the end of the Second World War in the German capital 70 years ago. The special exhibition, which will be on view from 17 July to 25 October 2015 in the Märkisches Museum, is accompanied by tours and other events. The exhibition catalogue (published by Nicolai Verlag), richly illustrated with 100 monochrome and colour images, will be available as of 16 July 2015 for 16.95 euros.

Märkisches Museum

OPENING TIMES

10am – 6pm, Tuesday – Sunday

ADMISSION

Adults: €5.00 / Concessions: €3.00
Free admission under 18
Free admission the first Wednesday of each month

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© Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 17 July 2015

Thanks to Isabel Cole, Thomas Schliesser, Martin Schymanski and Jochen Werner. 

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remembrance-Sunday.Sinti&Roma.remembrance-Sunday.Sinti&Roma

Remembrance in times present

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Plaque at the Berlin-Marzahn memorial site for victims of the Nazi internment camp for gypsies

Plaque at the Berlin-Marzahn memorial site for victims of the Nazi internment camp for Gypsies

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At the site of the Nazi Internment Camp in Berlin-Marzahn

On Sunday 14 June members of Berlin’s Sinti and Roma communities held their annual commemoration at the site of the camp where the Nazis interned Gypsies from 1936 until the end of the war. The Gypsy families were forced to move to these fields on the outskirts of Berlin and lived in wretched conditions there. Many of them, including babies born there, died of disease or starvation and were buried in the adjacent cemetery. Many of the camp internees were forced to do slave labour in nearby factories; others were deported to almost certain death in concentration camps. Soviet Army soldiers liberated the few remaining people in the camp in 1945.

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photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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The memorial site, a series of plaques with photos and texts in German with English translation, was set up in December 2011 at Otto-Rosenberg-Platz in Berlin-Marzahn. The square is named after Otto Rosenberg, who spent part of his childhood in the camp before being deported to Auschwitz. He survived the extermination camp and the death march at the end of the war, and later became a famous leader of the Sinti and Roma survivors, campaigning to make the world aware of the Nazi genocide against his people.  His memoir, A Gypsy in Auschwitz, is an invaluable testimony of their suffering. His daughter, Petra Rosenberg, chairwoman of the Berlin-Brandenburg regional association of the Sinti and Roma, played a major role in creating the memorial. She organises the remembrance ceremony at the memorial site and cemetery every year.

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@KarenMargolis 2015

Otto Rosenberg: Interned in the Marzahn camp as a boy, and later a great leader of the Sinti and Roma in Germany.

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Petra Rosenberg at the memorial stone for the victims of the Marzahn Gypsy camp, 14 June 2015

Petra Rosenberg at the memorial stone for the victims of the Marzahn internment camp, 14 June 2015

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Remembrance of the past was mingled with concern in the present. The speakers at the 14 June memorial ceremony emphasised the growing racism and aggression against Roma population in many Eastern European countries, particularly Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. And the failure of governments throughout Europe to confront and combat discrimination against Roma and other migrants. As one speaker pointed out, the Roma are an isolated minority in many countries.

On the current immigration debate in Europe and the plight of stranded refugees, another speaker commented, “Europe’s Roma population doesn’t have to cross dangerous seas, but it has to face an ocean of prejudice.”

Learning from the past means caring for immigrants and refugees today.

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The memorial stone erected during the period of East German socialist government refers to the liberation of the camp

The memorial stone erected during the period of East German socialist government refers to the liberation of the Gypsy camp “by the glorious Soviet Army” and concludes, “Honour the victims”.

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Honour the victims

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photo©Karen Margolis 2015

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Note:

The Nazi persecution of  Sinti and Roma is the subject of an excellent recent blog series, GYPSY ROMA TRAVELLER HISTORY MONTH by Rainer Schulze, professor of History at Essex University in England.

See: http://hmd.org.uk/news/gypsy-roma-traveller-history-month-introduction

and the following pages.

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Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Thanks to Karen Axelrad

Posted 14 June 2015

#################################

…now&forever:never:now&forever:never: now&…

Once & not forever

First the good news:

photo © KarenMargolis2015

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The iPhone camera turns anybody into a photo artist and the neighbourhood into a summer wonderland.

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Now the sad side of a sunny memory (but don’t take poetry too literally):

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Once

there was intimacy

swathed in deep colour

shimmering between us

a tropical feather

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starved of pity

betrayed by envy

the rainbow turned grey

leaving you enclosed

in your rubber armour

and iceberg pride

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outside I’m straining

to get warm again

recalling an orangerie

where tenderness met frailty

as a peacock spread his tail

© Karen Margolis 2009/2015

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10838265_928362157195945_4406336948095231639_o

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Words & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 11 June 2015

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

:blossom:pinks:blossom:blues:blossom:pinks:blossom:blues:

Poem of Untitled Hope

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Photo © KarenMargolis 2015

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The old trees in Berlin’s back yards are friends and sentinels, comforters and sound buffers. After months of skeleton existence with bare branches and weeks of waiting for the sun, the huge chestnut tree in my yard burst into blossom a fortnight ago. Now the ground beneath is covered with tiny pink petals and blackbirds, magpies and blue tits sing from its heights.

I stand by the window combing my mind for words and resting my eyes on the tree. This is urban luxury.

Almost 25 years ago: another yard, another chestnut tree. Still Berlin, but another city. Now east, then west. The chestnut trees still stand in the yards, weathering the changes. They grow older and taller as we age and shrink.  Forget the differences ― we share the seasons.

 

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 poem of untitled hope

however hard you’re trying not to live

you can’t help seeing the chestnut tree

from the kitchen window

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even in February when it seemed just possible

to ignore its dormant branches

turn your back on its sterility

and examine your chewed fingernails

while waiting for the water to boil —

six birds chose its upper reaches

to lodge their morning complaint

six birds with yellow breasts;

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now when the kettle steams up the windowpane

you rub a clear patch to make out

the opening of the highest branchtips

however hard you’re trying not to live

the sappy green the blood-tinged brown

thrusts, insists, forces its way through

to capture your last shred of wondering:

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how long before the leafbursts?

which winged creatures will hover in its shade?

how many tiny beings will it nourish

while dust and dirt dry out the city?

will it succeed in captivating

a midnight owl? and then

when will the first fruits fall

to reawaken childhood’s autumn?

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however hard you’re trying not to live, the tree

still standing         being there

forces you into a future

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

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© Karen Margolis 1991/2015

Posted 12 May 2015

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#urban.monsters.spree#urban.monsters.spree#urban.monsters.spree#urban.monsters.spree#

Paper Monster on the Move

Photo©KarenMargolis2015 papermonster 29Apr2015

The Adventures of a Migrant Monster in Berlin

Berlin’s one and only paper monster has migrated from its home patch in Kreuzberg. After almost two years in the late late store in Adalbertstrasse and many tender farewells it is already sorely missed by the shop owners and customers. It returned to its maker, the artist, Carolina Cruz aka Lucilux, for refurbishing — and emerged freshly fringed with heartwarming offspring. It was ready to resume its odyssey as a migrant paper monster. Its first short stay in its new guise took it to a prime place in the Friedrichshain scene — Urban Spree, an arts playground where the Pictoplasma Festival held a show from 29 April-3 May 2015.

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Back pages

The Paper Monster deserves a book all of its own, but has adamantly refused to allow trees to be sacrificed to gratify the human need to read. Only recycle, says the Paper Monster. And: Read digital when possible. This is the beginning and end of the Paper Monster’s story. For the rest, we have to leaf through its back pages until we come to the moment it was born in the mind of Lucilux aka Caroline Cruz. This is her own description:

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Carolina Cruz / Paper Monster

Carolina Cruz / Paper Monster

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Carolina carefully cut newspaper into strips and built the Paper Monster. It started to feel like a character from poetry or song. It grew like an ancient being reborn into the modern world to revive dreams of a natural past. Its eyes looked into the digital future while its whole being pleaded for an end to the waste of real life in real time.

The Paper Monster’s first outing came in Carolina’s natural habitat in the district of Kreuzberg in Berlin. In 2013 Carolina co-organised the Late Late Store (Spätkauf Kunstaktion) Festival in Kreuzberg and Neukölln. Local artists, many of them visiting or migrants from outside Germany, linked up with late store owners to decorate and give an artistic ambience to the newspaper racks, bottle-filled shelves, packet noodle soups and other goods in the local late late stores. All a popular boost to slow summer trade in the art and retail sectors. Berlin’s artistic enterprises are a constant joy and surprise.

Carolina asked me to write a poem for the Paper Monster’s first show. Occasional poetry is a wonderful way of marking events. Give it a poem and you make it special. And multimedial. The exhibition opening at the Adalbertstrasse Späti late store in August 2013 was multi-multi-national and unforgettable. The Chilean, Turkish, Greek and US turnout was an extra bonus.

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Photo Monster©KarenMargolis2015

Late Store Festival Kreuzberg 2013: Adalbertstrasse Späti with Paper Monster: street view

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Poem of the Paper Monster © Karen Margolis 2015

Poem of the Paper Monster © Karen Margolis 2015

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With a backdrop of multicoloured bottles, the Paper Monster hung over the display refrigerator and the heads of the vernissage crowd and heard its theme poem read live.  Later the tape reel of tweeting birds, rustling leaves and the recorded voice reading the Paper Monster poem was turned on. The shop owner asked for a German translation. A Turkish one would be even better, he added. And at best, both. He told me he fell in love with the monster at first sight. He was extremely proud to be hosting it for the festival month. In fact, he would be sorry to see it go.

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The author reading the Paper Monster poem at the monster's first show, Kreuzberg August 2013. Far right: monster maker Carolina Cruz.

The author reading the Paper Monster poem at the monster’s first show, Kreuzberg August 2013. Far right: monster maker Carolina Cruz.

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Full glory: Paper Monster's best photo, taken in its gold backlit days at Adalbertstrasse.

Full glory: Paper Monster’s best photo, taken in its gold backlit days at Adalbertstrasse.

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Monster Moves On

Nearly two years later, Paper Monster morphed into the next phase of its promising career as a legendary urban art figure. It wasn’t easy to uproot from being the cosy neighbourhood mascot in the media limelight between warring fronts. Social police projects, drug mafias, property investors, pop-up events and an unstoppable subculture that breeds news shoots whenever anything is lopped off. Still, the Paper Monster was fraying at the edges and it was time to go.

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Paper Monster at home at the opening of Pictoplasma ACADEMY ALL STARS group show April-May 2015.

Paper Monster at home at the opening of Pictoplasma ACADEMY ALL STARS group show April-May 2015.

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The 2015 Pictoplasma Festival in Berlin gave Carolina Cruz the chance to add a new phase to Paper Monster’s biography. In its earliest days the Monster lay growing on sheets on her living room floor. Sometimes Carolina laid her new baby daughter on top to feel the softness of the masses of fringed newspaper that give the Monster its unique furry papery feel. Carolina prepared the Monster carefully for its appearance in Friedrichshain at the Festival show dedicated to the Academy’s master class. As she cut and pasted the old newspaper, a new figure was born: the Baby Monster, as yet unnamed as far as I know, but so appealing that visitors to the opening on 29 April uttered just one word: SÜSS (if they were German), SWEET (if English-speaking), or DULCE if they were native Spanish speakers like the Paper Monster’s maker.

All Stars 2015

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Recycling Birth and Migration

Birth, migration, recycling, family history, continental upheavals are all themes in the work of Carolina Cruz and countless other writers, visual artists and musicians today because these are the themes of our times. You can interpret the Paper Monster however you want, and some art critics, anthropologists, urban ethnologists and so on could have a field day thinking up things to say. Does the Paper Monster care? — I doubt it. Paper Monster is clearly content with its present situation and as for the baby, it’s positively chuckling at the idea of the future. A starring film role? A family of monsters created by a monster matriarch? Carolina Cruz is ready for whatever the new Paper Monster and its baby may bring.

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All the arts for All Stars: Paper Monster's literature table, Pictoplasma 2015

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Photo©Karen Margolis 2015

“… listen to the rustling leaves…”

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Paper Monster’s Neighbours

Given that moving neighbourhoods is seldom easy, The Paper Monster slid softly into its new existence with a brief guest visit to the Urban Spree gallery in Friedrichshain. One of its closest neighbours, facing almost directly opposite, had a novel view from under the piano.

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Photo@KarenMargolis 2015

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Monsters galore! as visitors chose their favourite figures and installations from the weird and wondrous figments of the artists’ imagination. Here’s a small selection:

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Ikumi Nakaya's luscious inedibles.

Ikumi Nakaya’s luscious inedibles.

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Strange to think how one wall replaced another: back then it was concrete, now it’s kilobits and megabytes and terabytes of information. When it’s called data and the issue is about collection and storage it can be a blessing or a threat. It all depends.

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Photo©Karen Margolis 2015

Shades of agitprop: Adolf Rodriguez’ installation: The Investigation Wall 2015.

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Jasmine Parker: The Tower of Flying Merguez 2014-2015

Jasmine Parker: The Tower of Flying Merguez 2014-2015

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The All Stars play with an enormous range of motifs. Consumerism, eroticism, food junkies, poster art, packaging, graffiti, we’re here in the middle of the big city with a big space to mingle in and time for dreaming and media mixing and matching in the Berlin Wonderland that’s a thousand times more magical because it’s vanishing before our eyes. This All Stars show has 3 days, just 3 days to impress itself upon the hearts and minds of its visitors and social media followers. All the monsters and other exhibit neighbours here are fighting for their tiny attention spot, the red flag that will single them out. (How good that the Paper Monster has the company of its baby monster to keep its heart warm.) Our Paper Monster, as a seasoned migrant, knows how to shape its space gratefully and in friendly fashion.

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Yasmin May Yaafar's monster looks very very tasty.

Yasmin May Yaafar’s monster looks very very tasty.

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What was that about finding a place to be? — Renata Miwa's work is titled,

What was that about finding a place to be? — Renata Miwa’s work is titled, “I want to be at home”.

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The more monsters, the merrier. We can all be children again and jump for joy or turn in our tracks when we see a monster that touches us. Here’s my special choice (next to the Paper Monster, of course).

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Photos25PaperMons 29Apr15

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And now close up so you can admire the handsome tattoo of artist Christian Michel’s monster:

Ugly & lovable: Christian Michel's monster shows off its best side.

Ugly & lovable: Christian Michel’s monster shows off its best side.

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Urban Spree: Street Art & Post-Wall Metro Feel 

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Urban Spree, the venue of the Pictoplasma All Stars show, is on the edge of what Berliners still call “the East”, the area once to the east of the Berlin Wall. The huge grounds with derelict industrial buildings on the River Spree behind the tracks of Warschauer Strasse railway junction are a last reminder of the Great Freedom Era for young people from all over the world who gathered in Berlin after the Wall fell in 1989. Over 25 years later, it’s amazing that’s anything is left of the wild era of the 1990s when punk met post-socialism and fired the creatives imagination of thousands of (mostly young) artists who poured into Berlin. Today the Revaler Strasse arena is a rare wasteland that makes anarchists’ hearts leap.

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Carolina's Cruz's Art-O-Mat dispenser offers original mystery drawings for the cost of a few coins.

Carolina’s Cruz’s Art-O-Mat dispenser offers original mystery drawings for the cost of a few coins.

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It is all the more precious because we have seen the rest of the squats and art/music/poetry projects sink in the sands of urban development whose evil name is gentrification. In fact, we are getting used to the inevitability of it. Sadly.

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Photo ©Thomas Schliesser2015

Photo: Thomas Schliesser

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Welcome to Monsterland at Urban Spree:

Way to the bar.

Way to the bar.

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Street artists at work: Visiting graffiti artists from France reclaiming the space.

Street artists at work: Visiting graffiti artists from France reclaiming the space.

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On the grounds: when it’s standing there waiting for its future — decorate!

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Photo©KarenMargolis2015

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Visiting Urban Spree is like an invigorating trip to a mountain resort where visiting French street artists are painting the walls while you lounge and sip your dream cocktail. It feels alternative enough to be encouraging. Let’s celebrate these pockets of creative resistance that are left and keep them alive as long as we can.

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Photo©KarenMargolis2015.

Thanks to Carolina Cruz, Laura Popow and Thomas Schliesser.

Words & pictures ©KarenMargolis 2015

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Artist Carolina Cruz with her Paper Monster at the Pictoplasma All Stars show, Urban Spree, 29 April 2015

Artist Carolina Cruz with her Paper Monster at the Pictoplasma All Stars show , Urban Spree, 29 April 2015

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Posted 1 May 2015

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*heroines.and.anniversaries*heroines.and.anniversaries*heroines.and.anniversaries*

 

History in the Margins

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Ravensbrück Memorial - wreaths commemorate 70th anniversary after liberation, 19 April 2015

Ravensbrück Memorial – wreaths commemorate 70th anniversary after liberation, 19 April 2015

 

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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 BlochLilian 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.

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Author Sarah Helm (standing) speaking about her book at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Ravensbrück, 19 April 2015

Author Sarah Helm (standing) speaking about her book at the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Ravensbrück, 19 April 2015

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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.

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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

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Ravensbrück's network of satellite camps and work details for slave labour (from permanent exhibition)

Ravensbrück’s network of satellite camps and work details for slave labour (from permanent exhibition)

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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.

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Slave labour in the aircraft industry at Neustadt-Glewe work detail. Working conditions were arduous and many prisoners died on the job.

Slave labour in the aircraft industry at Neustadt-Glewe work detail. Working conditions were arduous and many prisoners died on the job.

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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.

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Part of the big delegation from Israel with Polish flags waving in the background

Part of the big delegation from Israel with Polish flags waving in the background

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Proudly under the Ukrainian flag.

Proudly under the Ukrainian flag.

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The red, the white and the black: Polish nuns with national insignia

The red, the white and the black: Polish nuns with national insignia

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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.

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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.

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Liberated! Ravensbrück survivors on their way back to life.

Liberated! Ravensbrück survivors on their way back to life.

 

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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.

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Execution corridor

Execution corridor

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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.

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Giving history a voice

Giving history a voice

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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.

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In memory of Milena Jesenská 1896-1944

In memory of Milena Jesenská 1896-1944

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“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.”

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It felt good to throw flowers into the lake. It has become a tradition on memorial days at Ravensbrück.

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My small tribute to all the Hungarian victims and prisoners at Ravensbrück – the picture shows the Hungarian section of the Wall of Nations.

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Photo18Ravensbrück19Apr15 2

Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

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Photo20Ravensbrück19Apr15

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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

 

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::berlin’s.a.cabaret.my.friend.::berlin’s.a.cabaret.my.friend.::

 

In Berlin. This haiku does not directly mention the weather.

 

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Photo Equinox Berlin © KMargolis 20Mar15

 

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Berlin mood haiku (spring version)

City in waiting

Always after and before

Never in the now

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Photo 2Kastanie © Karen Margolis 29Mar15

 

 

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Photo Kastanie © KMargolis 27Mar15

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Photo Clock PrenzlB © Margolis 27Mar15

 

 

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Mickey against gentrification - Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg March 2015

Mickey against gentrification – Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg March 2015

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Poem & pictures @ Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 29 March 2015

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##heads’n’scarves#heads’n’scarves#heads’n’scarves##

 

It’s not what’s on your head, it’s what in it that counts

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

             W.N. Ewer
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
good fortune.

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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.

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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
recruited.

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
that.

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
statement.

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
rabbinical exams.

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.

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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
conversion.

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
— Judaism.

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images-6

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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
Jewish membership.

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.

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imgres-2

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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.

.

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© Karen Margolis 2015

posted 15 March 2015

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international.women’s.day.8march2015.international.women’s.day.8march2015.international.women’s day

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.

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img_selene

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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:

:

images

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apotheosis

                                (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

                              silver huntress

                    black princess

         purple songstress

 .

                                       since I came with a candle

                                               melting your axe

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images-1

 

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       Poem © Karen Margolis 2015

 

 

HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY to all my readers.

Posted 8 March 2015

 

 

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carnaval.de.nice.carnaval.de.nice.carnaval.de.nice.carnaval

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Photo©KaremMargolis 2015

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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

 

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Photo©KarenMargolis2015

 

 

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Photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 1 March 2015

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+++real+poetry+poetry+real+poetry+real+real+poetry+++

    Unfinished tridekacycle

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.

  .

.Sea4 webs 26Feb15

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.

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Seaspray webs 26Feb15

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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.

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© Karen Margolis 2015

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Sea3 webs 26Feb15

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 Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

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Sax5Lady Prom8Feb15 copy.

The photos reproduced here were taken in Cap d’Antibes and Nice Côte d’Azur.

Posted 26 February 2015.

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back-to-the-filmfest-back-to-the-filmfest-back-to-the-filmfest

Berlinale retrospective: 20 years back

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Photo PotsdamerPlatz webs 12Feb15

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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

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Photo1Berlin website 11Feb15

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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.

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Photo HMannTafel Webs 11Feb2015

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.

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Photo2Berlin website 11Feb2015

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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

spring

   will stage a happening

       for all six senses in slow motion

13 February 1995

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Photo6Berlin website 11Feb15

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 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.

.

                                                At night

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.

Some questions

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?

.

                                                            Today

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

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Photo Haseneck webs 11Feb15

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Brave new Germany

“And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

the way to dusty death”

                                    Shakespeare, Macbeth

I

round and round on sprockets in the brain

a never ending loop

the past repeats its old refrain

we jump through ever smaller hoops

.

II

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

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Spring equinox, 21 March 1995

Text and pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

posted 12 February 2015

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#Auschwitz.liberated#Auschwitz.liberated#Auschwitz.liberated#

IF YOU WANT TO BE SURE AUSCHWITZ NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN

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Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin 28 April 2014

Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin 28 April 2014

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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

and then

.

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

never forget

every human has a name

 .

Wall of remembrance, Synagogue Fasanenstrasse Berlin 28 April 2014

Wall of remembrance, Synagogue Fasanenstrasse Berlin 28 April 2014

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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

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#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif

If you’re not Charlie, who are you?

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Jesuischarlie street sign 13Jan15

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 Charlie space

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.

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Charlie2 website

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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.

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Charlie1 website

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Hearts aplenty

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.’

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Charlie3 website

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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.

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Charlie4 website

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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.

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Charlie5 website

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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.

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Charlie Garibaldi 10Jan15

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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.

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Charlie6 website

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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.

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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.

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Charlie9 website

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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

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Charlie7 website

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#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif#JeSuisCharlie#JeSuisJuif

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Nice, 10 January 2015

Nice, 10 January 2015

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'Espace Charlie', Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

‘Espace Charlie’, Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

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Espace Charlie, Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

Espace Charlie, Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

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Nous sommes Charlie, Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

Nous sommes Charlie, Place Garibaldi, Nice 10 January 2015

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Espace Charlie Place Garibaldi Nice 10 January 2015

Espace Charlie Place Garibaldi Nice 10 January 2015

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Mourning all the victims of the terrorist attacks of 7, 8 and 9 January in France.

Posted 10 January 2015

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 “If you take a closer look, the voice of the Muse is the voice of the language.” — Joseph Brodsky

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HOW MANY CENSORED POEMS SPOKE OF TORTURE?

Guantanamo — from shock and awe to guilt and shame

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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.’

 

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The following poem by Guantanamo prisoner Sami al Hajj was printed in the Independent newspaper on 21 June 2007.

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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.

Bush, beware.

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.

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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.

http://www.aljazeera.com/archive/2005/06/200849132624603963.html

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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.

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poetry is dangerous

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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.

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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

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the small print beneath the capitals elucidates

the nature of the threat between the covers

Reading a poem can result in:

heavy breathing

accelerated heartbeat

churning guts

hot flushes and cold sweats

tingling toes & fingers

hair standing on end

pricked-up ears

moistened lips

dry mouth, chattering teeth

twitching nose, and

shivers down the spine

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BEWARE! POETRY IS ALLURING

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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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS SUBVERSIVE

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It can stir you to rebellion

turn you inside out

steal the pennies from your pockets

shower you with insights

irritate dictators

topple politicians

seduce ambassadors

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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS ALL-CONSUMING

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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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS CATCHING

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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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS INDESTRUCTIBLE

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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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS IRRESISTIBLE

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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.

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WARNING: POETRY IS DANGEROUS

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a toxic distillation of concentrate emotion

without the claims of politics or patent medicine

with no pretence to answers or conclusions

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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:

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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

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POETRY IS DANGEROUS

IF YOU’RE AFRAID OF CHANGE

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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.

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DEM13-Infographic-Gitmo-REL7

Source: https://www.aclu.org/national-security/guantanamo-numbers

Text © Karen Margolis 2014

posted 18 December 2014

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Looking up, looking out

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Photo©Karen Margolis2014

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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

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Credibility a flash game
while the present is downloaded
as a crisis scenario
on flickering displays

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Elena, age 7, fires a question
through the baubles and tinsel
of adult illusion: “Why all the fuss
about a baby being born?”

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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

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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.

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photo 1Nice9Dec2014 ©KarenMargolis2014

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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.

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credit crunch

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

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we are the people Barclays batters
with harassment tactics
(homeworking wife has to take the calls)

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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

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they used to call it a squeeze
(at least the comfort of a boa embrace
before submersion in the mire of debt)

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now it’s come to the crunch
you can feel teeth chewing
on human gristle, bones
cracking in anguish, broken homes.

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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

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a room I don’t own, red rooftops and gulls
waves on the doorstep, shells underfoot,
at last a lone track by water

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…………………………………………………
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

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photo 2Nice9Nov©KarenMargolis2014

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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

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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

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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

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Who are they anyway?
The powers that be?
watching politics on stage
from seats in the gallery

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they were there before leaders came
and still there when they went again

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the spectre of revolution
robs their sleep of late
Marx back on the book lists
Trotsky rehabilitated

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the masters urge moderation
offer games to amuse
but deep down we serfs know
there’s nothing to lose

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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?

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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.

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photo 3Nice9Dec©KarenMargolis2014

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Text & pictures © Karen Margolis 2014

posted 14 December 2014

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Only here for the clouds

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4Nice 3 Dec2014©KarenMargolis14

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A poem of the promenade in pictures

for r.g. 

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7Nice 3Dec2014©KarenMargolis14

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3Nice 3Dec2014©KarenMargols14

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1Nice 3 Dec 2014©KarenMargolis2014

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8Nice 3Dec2014©KarenMargolis14

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6Nice 3Dec2014©KarenMargolis14

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5Nice 3Dec2014©Karen Margolis14

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with thanks to Michael Murray

Photos © Karen Margolis 2014

posted 3 December 2014

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NO ENTRY…

2014-12-02 15.19.07

 Danger of sea spray showers.

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Life is hard on the rocks.

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Still the cloud knows its natural place.

photo©KarenMargolis2014

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Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2014

Posted 2 December 2014

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after-the-coldwar.after-the-coldwar.after-the-coldwar

Beauties in the bestiary

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B20WSp7IYAAKyw8

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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.

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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

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there are beauties in the bestiary

I’ve had my term in purgatory

the moon fills out the equinox

the dragon stirs inside me

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bring out my dragon!

bring out my dragon

 © Karen Margolis 1991

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Salamanders: fire and poison

Salamanders: fire and poison

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Text © Karen Margolis 2014

posted 20 November 2014

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after.the.wall.quarter.century.after.the.wall.quarter.century.after.the.wall

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9 November haiku

remember the wall

never forget kristallnacht

think past tomorrow

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Underground reading in East Berlin - hand drawn invitation by Petra Schramm to woman-only literary reading in Wilfried Maaß's pottery, 9 June 1989.

Underground reading in East Berlin – hand drawn invitation by Petra Schramm to woman-only literary reading in Wilfried Maaß’s pottery, 9 June 1989.

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Genuine fake nostalgia show

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Photo©KarenMargolis2014 Original fake Berlin Wall pieces IMG_1848 copy

Object © Karen Margolis 2014

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Berlin mix: Wall memorial plaques and graffiti in former no man's land at Bernauer Str. in northern Berlin.

The Berlin mix #1: Wall memorial plaques and billboards in former no man’s land at Bernauer Str. in northern Berlin.

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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.

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Photo©KarenMargolis2014 Wall plaques graffiti copy

The Berlin mix #2: Wall memorial plaques and graffiti in former no man’s land near Bernauer Strasse.

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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?

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Former no man's land near Bernauer Strasse. The two metal strips in the foreground mark the line of the Berlin Wall. Cranes in the background signal the latest construction boom.

Former no man’s land near Bernauer Strasse. The two metal strips in the foreground mark the line of the Berlin Wall. Cranes in the background signal the latest construction boom.

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Wall poetry

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.

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Wall story

Once there was a wall

that stood for world war

mass slaughter, genocide

and the cynical ideological

division of a continent

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The wall fell

people rejoiced

the world watched the party

before switching channels

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change always looks good

garnished with handouts & promises

but tarnishes quickly

dulled by the business of living

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the magnifying glass of history

makes dictators more fearsome

heroes braver

and walls higher

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pending anniversaries

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

retro matchboxes

recipes for scarcity —

all the stuff that feeds archives

commemorative displays

& museum shops

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nostalgia repeats itself

until remembrance

turns to depression

still, there’s no going back

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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

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Each of us has a wall story

a tale buried in the debris

of a time that keeps returning

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Karen Margolis

Berlin, 2009

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Photo©KarenMargolis 2014 Friedrichstr 1961 Wall built copy

The day the wall was built: 13 August 1961.

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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.

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