Posts Tagged ‘Refugees’


Time for a break

The more the world turns in a direction I don’t want to go, the greater the urge to write. Only to write.

This is the first in a series of wishful poems.



Lunchtime poet



I’d like to be a lunchtime poet

but first I have to award myself

time for lunch


Perhaps the week after next

when I’m through with

the history of savings banks

the Nazi perversion of justice

and the future of memorial culture


Maybe in a space between

spring cleaning

and doctor’s appointments

a lunch break will divide the day

offering me a poem on a plate


a sonnet risotto, each hexameter

a grain of saffron-spiced perfection

with a flavour of classical delicacy

accompanied by a side salad

green leaves a natural offering

of free verse with crinkled metaphors,

followed by a summer elegy:

a bowl of mixed red berries in season

drenched in juices of nostalgia


A one-liner espresso

with an almond

soaked in terza rima amaretto

rounds off the poet’s lunch.

Back to work

a bitter taste in the mouth.



Maybe the meagre pension I have earned

in a lifetime of arduous soft labour

that slackens the muscles

and consumes our most precious commodity

– time –

will not be redeemed for belated leisure

poetic lunches, for instance,

but tied up in red tape and dropped

from a great height

into the precipice of Brexit fallout.


How long have we been standing at the edge

peering into the abyss?

They keep things dark down there.


Shall I watch last hopes drowning

in the waters of profound cynicism?

– merely another case of collateral damage

a calculated outcome

of a doomed political agenda.





I’d like to be an aperitif poet

an early evening lyricist

laying the pen aside to caress

a glass of Entre deux mers

my fingertips leaving clear trails

on the misted surface

chill sharp and dry, the wine

stings the tongue.


Gently smiling, stroking

my writing hand with his eyes

Jerome the Hausbar patron

makes me feel 30 was only yesterday

and tomorrow’s evening will be even longer:

the June twilight keeps the stars in waiting


a glass of salt sticks, a jug of water

an unlit candle, pen and notebook

the present constellation on the pavement table

outside the night bar. The future

does not have to be dedicated

to reviving the past.




Devoid of good sense

and material securities

I could reinvent my existence

as a poet of leisure.


I could be a weekend poet

writing haikus in a spa hotel

or sparkling gems of prose in a park restaurant.


I could be a holiday poet

on a flight of imagination

composing quatrains in a beach bar

The calypso band plays reggae on tin drums

palm trees sway in the breeze.


I wish I could be a part-time poet

no more tortured texts to feed greedy landlords

no more dubious translations

to sustain chronic conditions

instead, divested of deadlines



circular address lists

and mailbox dread


I would sit writing poems in the rumpled bed

and on a wintry pebbled shore

on the shortest day of the year.


There must be a few good moments left

to indulge the urge to write

to create poetry that defies borders

challenges future fears

and celebrates joy without guilt.


I want to live beyond the legacy of survival

carrying the burden of the past lightly.

Lunchtime sounds like free time for poetry

Sounds right for now. See you at the sushi bar.






Karen Margolis

Berlin,  July 2018



Word & photos ©KarenMargolis 2018

Posted 10 July 2018






#SheToo back then




We have only just begun talking publicly about sexual harassment and it will be an endless, unstoppable discussion. It is deeply embedded in our consciousness and daily lives. Infinite layers of thought, feeling and memory are waiting to be uncovered and explored. Histories will be rewritten.

Some of the events happened in public, in broad daylight or on public stages. Some of them occurred in the dubious privacy of homes and hotels; some in secret corners. Wherever it was, these events occurred in places we inhabit and share with others, they happened in the real world with real people, yet at that moment they happened to us alone. And afterwards we were alone with the memory, the knowledge, the guilt shame, horror and fear. We dug deep holes in our memory and buried them there.

Yet everybody knew these events happen and hardly anybody was surprised when the stories sometimes came to light and they heard or read about sexual harassment. Much of the public outrage is hypocritical. Most women and many men have suffered from sexual assaults and many people have been witnesses, if only subliminally, of sexual bullying or coercion. Generations of feminists have pointed out that sex can be a danger zone for women, and we are gradually starting to realise how important it is to protect children and other weaker members of society from sexual attacks.

The whole topic is far from new. If we look at literature from the earliest beginnings to the present, from the first sagas and epics to the Bible and the Greek tragedies and the medieval legends and Shakespeare, from the early novels and the penny dreadfuls of the nineteenth century to today’s mass-audience TV series and erotic bestsellers, sexual abuse is an enduring theme. Fiction and drama have always been a way of breaking taboos and saying the words that cannot be said otherwise. Studying the portrayal of sexual abuse in literature can tell us much about what happens when coercion enters the play between the sexes, or between young people and adults. Literary works also have much to say about the cover-ups that make it possible to blackmail people into silence, or the voices screaming into the void.

As a teenage girl in London in the 1960s I saw sexual coercion as a fact of life. Friends at my all-girls school shared vivid tales of first nights with ski instructors on the Alpine ski course, peeping Toms in the neighbourhood, men who exposed themselves on the Tube or behind bushes on Hampstead Heath… Most of us never discussed these issues with parents or teachers. We were growing up in the swinging London in the 1960s, in the midst of the sexual revolution, and we were already aware of the contradiction between sex and truth that lies at the heart of this discussion. Sex was all around but we had to keep it secret. A personal secret, leaving us alone with sometimes traumatic experiences and feelings we didn’t understand and couldn’t cope with.

My school friend Judith told me this story when we were fourteen.





Walking home the usual way from school, Judith saw two men playing with a flying saucer.


In the first moment she accepted the vision without question, as you do when treading a familiar route unseeing, following a train of thought to the rhythm of your feet. You see a new sight, remark it is new, then stack it away at the back of your mind till you have passed all the carriages of thought that were already coupled together in sequence before you saw the new phenomenon.


So she pursued what she had begun before she saw the flying saucer. She was trying to work out why the first verb learnt in Latin is “amo” (I love) and the first verb in Greek is λῡ́ω (I set free). What did that say about which was the greater civilisation? Is it nobler to love or to liberate? Love as a guiding principle is far more ambiguous; it has a soft, squishy core to it, a blindfolded silliness, a coy poeticism that causes giggles in the classroom… no wonder the Romans fell into decadence, with orgies of soft grapes, flabby skin and overhanging bellies.


Definitely, thought Judith, ignoring the passing to and fro of the flying saucer, I prefer the Greeks, whose heroes had a hard, muscular intensity. A mystical language, Greek, with its squiggles on the page and haunting resonance when read aloud… When she was mad, Virginia Woolf thought the birds talked to her in Greek. She was right. If birds are talking any language, it must be Greek; a chorus as timeless as that of a tragedy enacted in the Delphic amphitheatre.


Looking up at the trees, Judith noticed the first signs of spring. The branches were still stiff and brittle, but no longer sterile. Their sticky tips were a promise of the green to come.


Just then the strange object, the flying saucer, flew past the lower branches, curving gracefully over the street. It was small, but its movement was the authentic ellipse of an unidentified flying object.


The two men playing with it stood on opposite pavements, throwing it to each other with a wrist toss that sent it across the street in an arc, or slimming like a flat stone over water. She had never seen anything like it before.


As she watched, one of the men missed a catch and the object skidded to land right by her feet. Picking it up, she saw that it was made of rigid red plastic with concentric circles on its top and an overlappinged rim stamped with the word: FRISBEE and, in smaller letters, MADE IN USA.


“Hey! That’s ours!” one of the players cried, running towards her. His accent matched his outlandish toy. Likewise his companion, who came across the road, looked Judith over and declared: “Well – whaddya know! – a real live English schoolgirl.”


It was not easy to muster dignity when dressed in school uniform, but Judith did her best. Straight-backed, she handed the frisbee to one of the men – not the one who had called her a schoolgirl. He curled the corners of his drooping moustache into a grin. She stared back unsmiling. She disliked men with hair on their faces.


The two men stared back equally hard, as though she were a tourist sight, taking in every detail of the uniform and the two long plaits hanging down her back. Meanwhile she took in their apparel of sports shirts, scuffed white sneakers and genuine Levis as proclaimed by the orange labels on the back pockets of their jeans. The men had long hair. One was dark and one fair.


There was not much more to look at; so she hitched her bag more firmly over her shoulder and started walking away.


“Hey,” the dark one called. “Don’t you want to play frisbee?”


“Don’t know how,” she retorted shortly. There was something strange about the two men.

“Anyway,” she added mockingly, “my mother told me not to talk to strange men on the street.”


At which they both laughed.


“We’re not strange,” the blonde one assured her. “I’m Clark, and this is Jay. There; now you know our names, we’re not strange anymore.”


“No, we’re just harmless frisbee freaks,” Jay said, laughing loudly as though he had made a great joke.


Judith had not yet forgotten the joke about the real English schoolgirl. She would have left then, had it not been for the thought of her mother and how horrified she would be at how far Judith had already strayed in talking to these two strange men. She was enjoying the thought of her mother’s disapproval, and then the blonde one – what was his name again? – Clark, that it was it; the blonde man asked: “Now aren’t you going to tell us who you are?”

Disarmed by his directness, she said: “Judith” before she could stop herself.


“C’mon then, Judith.” Jay took the game in hand. “Let’s teach you how to play frisbee. Call it a cultural exchange, if you want: You get a chance to learn the world’s greatest freak game, and meanwhile we get the benefit of your sterling English accent.”


He gave her no time to hesitate. “Give Clark your bag,” he ordered, “and I’ll show you the basics.”


With that, he tossed the frisbee into the air and caught it, balancing it on his index finger.


The rudiments of frisbee throwing turned out to be fairly easy. As Clark explained, the secret was in the spin. After half an hour running up and down the street, Judith was puffed and still unskilled, but beginning to enjoy it. Trying to out-toss the two men, she had forgotten they were strangers. The game made them seem more quickly familiar than if they had spent an hour together talking in a café.


Jay was the more competitive, eager to show off.


“I’m more laid back,” commented Clark accurately as he passed Judith easy catches.


Laid back? She didn’t know what it meant, but she could guess. That was the virtue of American English – a transparency that revealed the meaning even if the words were totally unfamiliar.


But Jay wanted to win, even an easy victory over a novice; he played so hard that after a flurry of failed catches, Judith begged for breath.


“I’m hopeless at sports,” she excused herself, her reserve dissipated sufficiently to volunteer personal details.


“Uh, huh,” Jay agreed, not looking at her, playing virtuoso with the plastic saucer and his forefinger. “You’re not bad… for a beginner,” Clark said consolingly, handing back Judith’s bag. She could feel the Greek grammar book heavy in its bowels.


“Must go,” she said, not mentioning homework but thinking of it.


Clark made a face of comic misery. “Don’t go. Why don’t you come and have – English tea?”


“Yes; why not?” Jay tucked the frisbee under one arm, pulled a pack of Marlboro from his back pocket and lit a cigarette, punching his hand into a fist to hold it. Aggressive, Judith thought. But his words were friendly.


“We only live around the corner,” he said, drawing the smoke deeply into his throat.


At any moment it would be possible to say: Here’s where I stop; and to go. But once something is started, a thing never done before, that breaks you out of a mould, out of the monotony of the walk home from school and the schoolwork when you get home – Judith began to glimpse the possibility of another life, not necessarily connected with these two men but more with a situation that opened a completely new window.


“I can always go at any time,” she reassured herself. “It’s a matter of chance; and choice; and right now I want to see what happens next.”





If she retained any doubts, they were dispelled by the time she and the men reached the bakery and stood together before the display of cakes behind the glass counter. Judith recommended a selection of the best.


“Three of each,” Clark ordered, largely and loudly. His confidence made Judith feel she was part of a group. And the shop assistant included all three equally in her scowl as Clark produced a ten-pound note. Judith could hear her still grumbling at the cash register as they left. Bloody Yanks, coming here and throwing their money about, takin’ all my small change…


The Americans’ flat was on the ground floor of a once-noble, wide-fronted big house with bay windows that had once housed entire families (complete with maids in the attic), until conversion had carved it into two-roomed apartments with kitchens and bathrooms cramped into corners.


Clark vanished into the kitchen. Judith heard an irritable “Shit!” as he struggled to light the gas.


In the front room, Jay out a record on the turntable. A throaty voice sang out:

“C’mon baby, light my fy-ah… y’know that we c’n get much hy-ah- ”


“D’you like The Doors?” asked Jay, shouting above the music volume.

“Mmm,” responded Judith non-committally, unwilling to say she had never heard of them. She was awkwardly perched on the edge of the double bed. There were no chairs in the room. Jay was sitting cross-legged on the floor, smoking, banging his thigh in time to the music, banging harder as the singer reached frenzy.


On the wall was an Indian poster of a naked woman lying with her legs open, a man pointing his forefinger at the triangle of her crotch. The poster colours were innocent pastels, light greens and lilacs. The man’s face had a sly smile.


Following Judith’s gaze, Jay waited for her to comment on the picture. Instead, she looked away hastily and asked: “Is this your bedroom?”


“No, it’s Clark’s. We each have our own room.” He eyed her quizzically, adding: “We’re not gay, if that’s what you mean. Just temporarily womanless, you could say.”


She didn’t know what to say. In the hiatus he turned the record over. Ship of fools, sang the rasping voices. Ship of fools, echoed Jay, tunelessly.


“Sorry, no tea. Coffee,” Clark announced, arriving with a tray.


“Black, no sugar,” requested Judith. She had been practising drinking coffee that way since Lucy had told her it was stylish. All the top models drank their coffee black.


“I like mine sweet. Really sweet.” Clark ladled four generous spoonsful into his mug. “I picked that up in ’Nam,” he explained, taking an appreciative swig. “Viet Nam, that is.” He pronounced the name carefully in two distinctly articulated words, as though it were difficult for him to say.


“The coffee in ’Nam was lousy. Only drinkable with masses of sugar.” For good measure, or perhaps to sweeten a bitter memory, he added another spoonful and stirred aggressively.


Jay inspected Judith critically over his mug rim. “Do you always wear your hair like that?” he asked.


“The plaits, you mean?” She fiddled with the rubber bands at the ends. “It’s school regulations,” she said apologetically. By way of explanation, she gave the two men a near-perfect imitation of Mrs. Granton reading from the school Rule Book. Long hair must be tied back at all times. With navy hairbands for winter and white for summer. And skirts no more than six inches above the knee when kneeling.


Dropping the mimicry, she explained, growing indignant: “The teachers always carry rulers. They stop you in the corridors between lessons, make you kneel down on the floor, and measure how far your skirt is from the ground. If it’s more than six inches, you have to go home in the lunch hour and sew an extra piece on the hem to make it the right length.”


Here was something she could talk about assuredly. “I don’t know what it is about mini-skirts that makes teachers and parents so frightened. A couple of extra inches of leg are displayed and you would think civilisation was coming to an end… that revolution was about to break out – ”


The two men’s blank expressions forced her to pause. They must think I’m really stupid, she thought, feeling hot-cheeked and childish. A stupid kid who lives by school rules. “But of course I wear miniskirts outside school,” she concluded.


They made no comment. Then Jay suggested that she undo her plaits.


Without thinking, she pulled off the rubber bands and loosened the plaits.


“Much better,” Clark commented appreciatively. “You’re not bad-looking. Pity about the uniform.”


Judith had no intention of taking that off.




They ate the cakes listening to The Doors exploding their Oedipus complexes in orgasmic screams. Judith was glad when the record wound – or ground – to its end. She had the feeling that something was going on over her head.


It’s nothing, she reassured herself. Here I am eating custard slices with two men. A harmless occupation. Sharing food with people is friendly; nothing more. There is no danger. But they know something I don’t… they see things differently. For them it’s not like for me, sitting here having tea for the first time in a place I don’t know with two men I don’t know.


She suddenly felt like a child who experiences the world only from knee height – and can’t see what’s going on between the grown-ups towering over her.


“Good.” Sated, Jay licked the cream from his lips. “And now,” he said, “how about a smoke?”


Taking a pack of cigarettes from the mantelshelf, Clark offered one to Judith. “You start it off,” he said.


“No thanks.” She shook her head firmly. “I don’t smoke.”


“But you must,” insisted Jay. “These are very special cigarettes… from Viet Nam.” And he laughed.


Again, the feeling that he was laughing over her head.


“Did you fight? – In Viet Nam, I mean.” Judith hoped by asking to ward off the cigarettes.


“Fight! Fight!? You gotta be kiddin’!” Jay banged ferociously on his thigh, raising his eyes to the ceiling. Not that he believed in heaven. He could swear to hell, though.


Angrily, Clark began to speak now.


“Only the really dumb bastards fought,” he said. “The rest of us dug ourselves in and got stoned. On this.”


He pulled a cigarette from the packet, lighted it and inhaled deeply, forcing the smoke down into his lungs; then passed it to Judith with a quick expulsion of breath. For show, she took a quick puff, barely inhaling because she didn’t know how to; and gave it back to Clark.


“No. To Jay. Don’t you know how to pass a joint?” He gave it to his friend and sat staring absently at the frayed carpet. Then continued: “We got stoned out of our tiny minds. Wrecked. Smashed. We lay bombed out of our heads while the B52s flew over shitting bombs. When we weren’t stoned we were even more shit scared. So we were always stoned.”


He frowned at the well-tanned joints of his hands. The smoking had opened the tap of an underground memory source. Words gushed out of him. Fascinated, listening hard, Judith took another drag of the joint when it was passed her way again.


At Clark’s loquaciousness his friend turned laconic and sat silently shaking his head.


Suddenly Judith’s ears popped open as if she had shaken out water clogging them. They opened to admit the music as she had never heard music before, sinking deep into her skull, swirling and throbbing, each note with its own clear personality, the melange of instruments separating, each declaring its distinctive identity. The woody notes of a flute called to her – but no, it was a bird outside the window. And then, just as her ears had done, her eyes expanded, widening with a fresh wonder of seeing. The cherry blossom branch pressing against the window was… a cluster of popcorn bursting into white mingling with a corner of cloud that the wind whisked away as she watched. Outside, all was soft and budding, like the fluff on newly hatched chickens.


Inside, the room seemed dark, and in the gloom the two men sitting on the floor grew bigger and bigger, until they almost filled the space around them; larger and brutish; alien, not only because of their foreign accents and expressions. Clark’s long, lean limbs made him look like an insect, spiky at the joints. His eyes were the faded blue of old jeans. His whole face was washed out, stretched out, the colour faded.


Jay, she reflected, staring shamelessly because he was too absorbed in the pattern of carpet threads to notice her scrutiny – Jay is clearly the better looking. A compact dark figure with a hint of olive to his complexion. He could have Italian origins; or Latin American. He was altogether a more defined shape than Clark, though sunk now in some internal slough, shoulders hunched together, head hung.


He could almost be my type, she thought.


What a thought! She had never thought of a man like that before. Come to think of it, she didn’t know many men, apart from relatives and fathers of school friends. She knew boys; boys who thumbed through the dictionary with grubby fingers, looking for dirty words; boys who snickered on street corners; boys who she imagined sliding greasy hands up her thighs and trying to reach further when the lights were turned off at parties. She had always slapped them off in her imagination.


Not that she was innocent (she thought). It was just that she could never, ever contemplate… It… with any of those unsavoury grubs of fledgling manhood.


“Stoned?” Jay was asking. But he wasn’t looking for an answer.


“Jeez,” he continued, speaking to himself. “That dope always makes me so dry. What’ve we got to drink?”


Opening the wall cupboard, he grabbed a half-empty bottle of red wine, swigged from it and passed it around like a joint.


Thirsty too, Judith drank. The new way of seeing and hearing was pulling her beyond herself, into a time-suspended space where she could do whatever she wanted, if only her body would obey her. Yet all it would allow her to do was to kick off her shoes and lie down flat on the bed. The ceiling sagged perilously. To prevent it falling in altogether, she closed her eyes. They ached as though she hadn’t slept for weeks.


This is all a dream. Just a dream. In a minute you will wake up. In a minute you will be able to open your eyes and the ceiling will be dead straight, the way a ceiling should be.


The refrain circled in Judith’s head, circling too fast for her to catch the thought she knew was missing. What was it? She struggled to get a grip on herself.


The sound of a record being placed on the turntable. Click of the needle arm; and Jay said, in a broad take-off of a Yankee accent: “This, folks, ah’m tellin’ yer, this is the year nahnteen sexty-seven. This is the dawn of the age of Aquarius, folks… the age of dope ’n’ sex ’n rock moozik.”


Over the record his voice grew louder. “An’ we’re gonna get rich,” he declared. “We’re gonna make our liddle nugget of gold, bombing those buggers outta their heads.”


There was the sound of feet moving across the carpet. Judith felt Jay’s breath close to her. She opened her eyes just enough to see him brandishing the mysterious cigarette packet.


“See this?” he asked insistently. “See? Looks like any old fag packet, huh? Fooled yah, huh?” He pointed at the torn customs label. “See here – it says: Export of Viet Nam.”


He laughed, an ugly laugh that gurgled unpleasantly in the depths of his throat.


“Well, these are none of your ornery Virginia tobacco sticks.”


Still harping on about the strange cigarettes. Why does he keep on about them? Judith wondered.


“Oh boy,” Jay said. And again, shaking his head: “Oh boy. These liddle numbers in this pack are – I swear to yah – the purest head-smashing weed yah ever could smoke. An’ we” – here his voice rose in a note of triumph – “we got millions of it – millions ’n millions of packets o’ the stuff. We gonna make millions ’n millions o’ dollars.”


He shook the packets upside down. The cigarettes fell out onto the floor.


“Aw, Jay. C’mon,” protested Clark. But he was ignored.


“Packs of twenny,” Jay went on relentlessly. “Sell faster than MacDonalds. They’re linin’ up to buy ’em, fifty bucks a throw. We call ’em” (and he leaned closer to Judith’s ear, as if imparting a particular secret), “we call ’em the businessman’s joint. Clarkie here ’n me, we dreamed up this sweet liddle dream, lyin’ in a gook swamp. Boy, was we swearin’! We gotta get outta here, we said. And when we get out, we’re gonna fuck over the bastards who dropped us in this shit.”


He turned to look at his friend. “Some of those idiot bastards,” he said, “They got back home ’n started with that political shit. Anti-Viet Nam. Marching ’n all that shit. But not me ’n Clarkie boy – oh no, not us. We’re not anti anythin’ – let the war go on as long as it wants, that’s what we say. We’re into making our pile – hitting gold, selling the gook grass to the same bastards who shipped us over there. Gettin’ rich – that’s us!”


“Politics!” he continued, spitting into the mouth of the empty wine bottle. Where does that get you? Politics!”


Then he paused, suddenly seeing Judith through the undergrowth of his thoughts. “Aw, Jeez, Clark. Whadda we gonna do? Stupid kid’s gone ’n passed out on us.”


“Leave her be,” came the reply. “She’ll soon come to. Probably never smoked such heavy stuff before. Maybe never even took a toke on anythin’.”


They have rough voices when they think I’m not listening, Judith thought. She was still able to think, though in a restricted way, along a narrow corridor in her mind flanked by closed doors.


Rough ways of speaking, she thought, wishing she could think of something else.


“How old d’yer think she is?” asked Clark idly.

“’Bout twelve, by the size of the tits on her,” replied Jay.


Fourteen, she wanted to protest. I’m fourteen. But even wounded pride could not force her lips open. They were glued together, her entire mouth clamped and caked with a fiendish dryness.


There is… no dream. It cannot be. Nothing I have ever known could have created such a dream.


And Jay remained standing over her, standing close as she lay there. And he said slowly, thoughtfully: “I’d love to put my finger inside that liddle cunt. I bet it’s wet ’n juicy in there. Warm ’n juicy. That sweet liddle pot of honey… bet nobody ever got so much as a finger in there… ”


He was speaking directly to his friend now. “Ever fucked a virgin, Clarkie? I mean, a real pure as driven snow maiden, like this liddle one here.”


Again he laughed with the gurgle that got stuck in his throat. “A real live English schoolgirl like this one here – not like those fuckin’ slant-eyed bitches who screamed so yah had to beat them senseless before yah could get into them… no, a real one… like this one here…”


Fury. A burning fury drained the feverish flush from Judith’s face and limbs, and concentrated into a molten lump at the core of her.


Did she really feel his finger inside her?

Did it matter whether she really felt it?

After all the women this man had raped, did one more matter? Do I matter? Judith asked herself. I am just like all the others now – helpless. Fucked by the intention of his mind, if not the fact of his fingers.


The great molten mass of fury rose to boiling inside her. The hate could have killed him instantly, if only she could have forced it out.


I could kill him with that empty bottle, she thought. I could smash it over his head and the glass would shatter and the blood would spurt out, and he would be dead, like a fly is dead after you swat it against a wall.


I can’t. Helpless. Lying on a bed. Bound as surely as if my hands and feet were chained up.


The fury threatened to choke her. How fitting, to die of my own rage. A fitting punishment for my despicable helplessness.


For a fraction of a second the hot breath of a man touched her cheek. Then she heard Clark snap irritably: “Oh, leave her be, Jay.”


The darker man moved away.




When she revived, they were politeness itself. They gave her black coffee to drink, and told her to brush her mussed-up hair. She pulled the brush through the tangles with shaking hand. Re-doing her plaits was beyond possibility.


Beyond the bay window, the sky was dusking into darkness. The branch of cherry blossom was a shadowy grey. The hair and the brush felt reassuringly real; the rest… was like a dream that flies away as you try to snatch it on waking.


“Better get home,” Clark suggested softly, rubbing his pink-rimmed eyes. He seemed very subdued, and sounded nervous.


“Your ma’s gonna be worryin’,” he said. “Don’t want her sending out the cops to look for you.”


Gingerly he steered her by the elbow to the door, opened it and pushed her outside. “Get home safely,” he said, not unkindly, and went rapidly back inside, leaving her on the front step.


Still the hate was burning inside her, rising to her gorge, choking her.


Steered by a latent pride, she managed to wobble as far as the street corner, out of sight of the house. There, she leaned against a lamp post, put her head down and vomited more profoundly and painfully then she had ever done before.




Jeanne Mammen, Untitled, 1920s


@ Karen Margolis 2017

Posted 16 November 2017



Past selves on the shelves



Reading past selves, events and encounters in the journal series.



The journal series began in Berlin, dates back to 1979 and has been written continuously almost every day with only a few significant longer breaks. Over 300 notebooks, mostly DIN A5 size with squared paper, have survived all the moves between the thirteen odd addresses I have lived at during the past thirty-four years in this city, and all the journeys abroad. I hardly ever leave home without the current journal in my bag to write in wherever I find an empty time and a congenial space.

A bewildering panorama of past selves, events and encounters, lost faces (did I really know those people I write about so intensely – and how could I have forgotten them?) and vanished occasions, seasonal moods and perpetual obsessions has aroused a barrage of memories. Every day reading a little more, and I am doing my daily business with at least one foot in the past.

The impressions are overwhelming. Almost forty years of thoughtful life trying to make sense of the world with words. Sometimes there are pages of hopeless internal wrangling, and I’m yawning at my own boredom, when suddenly a thought pops up that makes sense of the whole dross and rant before. Yesterday I read a journal from 2009, a time that seems like a big tangle now, wading through the educational morass as a parent, struggling to pay huge and rising rents for substandard accommodation, working more than overtime with no time for life, and worst of all the constant financial disasters in the wake of the credit crunch and economic austerity measures.

One journal passage moans on for pages about the miserable state of the world and everything in it. It comments on horoscopes I read to convince myself that I was merely the victim of mean planetary constellations, my stars were against me, but things would get better before or after the next full moon / new moon / eclipse. That’s where I quoted from an English horoscope site where the writer reminded us that the sales of lipsticks rise in times of crisis. I had forgotten that I wrote down the quote because I meant to find out why this is so. My street observation doesn’t reveal any apparent surge in lipstick use in my usual surroundings in turbulent times. Is there a cultural difference here? Or do people buy the lipsticks but then don’t wear them? (I must confess to impulse buying of lipsticks myself) …) If so, why?

This is just one of the many, many ideas I noted and never pursued. Or at least, not as I intended. Not long afterwards, that journal jotting about lipsticks found its way into a poem, The rising cost of loving. It was written as part of the CREDIT CRUNCH cycle (2008–9) and dedicated to Richard Livermore, the editor of Chanticleer magazine. Richard had a serious operation recently. I’m re-dedicating the poem now here with good wishes for his speedy recovery.



The ghosts of summers past haunt all the winter pages of the journal series.




The rising cost of loving

for Richard L.

It comes as a surprise

to realise

that prices don’t obey

the law of gravity


mesmerised we watch

their upward trajectory

like jet trails vanishing

into the skies:

twin tracks

of progress

and destruction


day by day

a mounting curve

of waste and want

graphs and bar charts

illustrate our plight

without filling the gaps

where ends don’t meet


loving, meanwhile

isn’t getting cheaper either

if you add

the wear and tear

of fractured hopes

to the extra cost

of crisis care

patching up families

and hunting new sources

of surplus energy

to warm up hearts

and souls gone cold


the dominant mode

of global discontent

and wars of attrition

drains away

the flow of passion


sad to report:

a bunch of flowers

cheap sexy underwear

foot massages

scented candles

earrings found

on flea market jumble trays

or a night on the town

– please don’t let me down –

have lost their power

to banish the prophets

of gloom and doom


everybody’s talking

about silver linings

predicting resurgence

of human values

& the probable return

of the love that fled

in the hour of reckoning

when the gas bill came


a new language

of fabricated optimism

tells us there’s a way out

if we don’t mind the wait


but speechless lips

dry with fear and desperation

are no fun to kiss


the cost of loving

rises & rises


by insatiable demand

& heightened

by mounting desire

to put our money

where our mouth is


statistics tell us

in times of crisis

the sale of lipsticks

shoots up

in the high streets


© Karen Margolis





Meanwhile I keep on reading my daily portion of the journals and marvelling at how stupid and blind I was back in those days and how some things never really change.





“We have all the letters of the alphabet in stock”


Words and pictures © Karen Margolis 2017

Posted 7 October 2017




Crossing the border with a love poem

File note on KM border crossing April 1989

… as seen from my Stasi files

Where was I on the afternoon of 12 April 1989?

It’s coming up to thirty years ago but I can tell you exactly: at 4 pm I crossed the border from East to West Berlin at Friedrichstrasse Station. I know because it was documented by the border police officer behind the glass window at the checkpoint. The officer’s handwritten record of my border crossing was duplicated several times and sent to various East German spy agencies. Copies of it were kept in the secret police (Stasi) files of several people I knew.

The copy above has my name blacked out and shows a file number from the BStU, the German government office for the Stasi files of the GDR, the former East German state. A separate page was attached commenting on the details of my visit and my appearance and demeanour.

Verdict: nothing unusual.


I had been crossing the border with a special visa from the GDR Cultural Ministry for several months by then, and the border police had got into the routine. This time there was nothing unusual to report. I had entered the previous evening on a multiple visa and given my destination addresses in East Berlin. One of them was described as the residence of an F-Object, a person who was under constant Stasi surveillance. This object of suspicion was my lover, with whom I had stayed overnight. The report also appeared in his Stasi files.

Entry form for a defunct state

The officer photographed my passport before stamping it and retained the slip of paper with my exit date, which always had to be stated in advance. Then I pushed open the heavy metal door to the passage that led to West Berlin. The door clanged behind me with loud finality. I felt relieved until I remembered there would be a next time. I imagined crossing and recrossing the border for a lifetime.

I still have empty cards for entry into the GDR, ghost cards that will never be filled in and submitted with my passport at the glass window, remainders from a society that printed millions of cards in the expectation of an endless future of border crossing and surveillance. The cards  became obsolete only months after this report on my border crossing. I filled in the last one the day after the Berlin Wall fell. By then the observation of subversive suspects had been blown wide open by the militant occupation of Stasi headquarters in East Germany’s towns and cities.

In 1994 I was able to get extracts from my Stasi files and read information the secret police had gathered about my friends, the neighbourhood spies and myself. I could see what they thought about me and what they embroidered or dreamed up to fill the files.

The essay I wrote about reading my Stasi files and confronting the loss of trust they evoke has just been published on Kindle:

The Spider and the Spies

The secret files of Stasi and Co.

Before I crossed the border I always cleaned out my bag, removed any printed matter, my address book and the current volume of the diary I have kept almost constantly since 1979. I tried to clear my mind to concentrate entirely on getting across the border without incident. Trouble could mean hours of waiting in an airless hall or being strip-searched in a cold narrow booth or having the gifts and supplies I had brought with me confiscated. I always asked the guards if they were going to enjoy the goods they took away. Faces immovable, they never answered.

The best way to pass the time while waiting in the queue at the border at Friedrichstrasse Station was to make up poems in my head. This was written on an earlier trip, in 1988:

Crossing the border with a love poem

To cross the border with a love poem

you first

have to learn it

line by line

verse by verse by heart:

then eat your words.

Object ©Karen Margolis 2017

It is time to start sifting the evidence again. The Stasi files, like the painstakingly kept Gestapo files from the Nazi era, do not make pleasant reading.  They comprise too many documents of the worst and ugliest sides of human nature. The Stasi records are full of distilled spite, envy, jealousy, hatred, rivalry, meanness, and most of all greed. Greed for power, greed for privileges, greed for money. They reek of the stench of denunciation that has surrounded dictatorships through the centuries.

Perhaps the seeds of fascism and racism only remain dormant until the next point in history when they feel ready to re-emerge. You can sense it coming today with the rise and acceptance of public bullying, blatant attacks on women and minorities, restriction of civil rights and tolerance of wars and brutality. It is the spirit of cowardice that settles conflicts by the back door, not face to face and openly. It is the craven spirit that points the finger and appeals to powerful judges and the big brothers and sisters of the state authorities and secret services to force people to do things against their will, to rob them of their privacy and condemn them to arbitrary decisions by fiat.

It is an atmosphere where certain government offices control the lives of millions without due checks and balances. It is a system of blatant injustice, particularly where money is involved. Millions of people are being forced to pay for a surveillance system that mainly protects the property of the rich, for pensions they will never get, for a two- and three-tier health system and for insurance that takes more than it gives back.


Goodbye Stasi hello Jobcenter

The Stasi is gone, like the Gestapo before it, but the hammer of the strong state still strikes. It strikes ever more heavily and frequently.

Today’s surveillance techniques are light years in advance of the Stasi files. The system of control and coercion, particularly of foreign residents, refugees and migrants, is moving towards complete and digitised bureaucratic perfection in all the major industrial countries.

Don’t believe the propaganda. The end of the Cold War did not herald a new era of freedom and democracy. A new instalment of my encounters with the coercive state has just begun.

The Jobcenter files promise to be just as revealing of the current state of German society as the Stasi files are for the bygone era of divided Germany. I’ll keep you posted.

Words & pictures © Karen Margolis 2017

Posted 1 September 2017




NEXT PLAY words light up


Continuing my reflections on the vampires of our days. A constant theme because at times like these life becomes a battle against the abuse of good nature. I was reminded recently and not too pleasantly of a brief marital episode over 30 years ago. It happened at the time when Berlin was divided and West Berliners practised yoga diligently in the summer and flew to warm places in winter to escape the grim encircled misery of the walled-in city. Berlin in the 1980s where the past and present seemed to weigh so heavily that the future seemed only more of the same. Perhaps I would not have married that man whose name I can barely remember now if the proposal had been made in the canteen of the art college where he was just finishing his studies. But the Café de Paris, Dakar, was a place that invited recklessness.

And there are few things more risky than making a pact to spend the rest of your life with another person.

Each broken link in the chain of love leads back to the ones before in an infinite loop, back to the love we thought we deserved but never got, back to the love we dreamed that vanished on waking, back, back and back to the early buds of desire and the longing to share the richness of the world that is too much to bear alone.






More than a quarter of a century ago, and I can still taste the sweetness of the croissant as it mingled with the salted butter. The butter still hard from the fridge, portioned in gold foil with the fine printed label Produit de France. Relics of old tyrannies they called civilisation in gold-wrapped pats of butter. And peanuts, peanuts everywhere, measured out in jar lids for sale on the street and pictured on the back of coins as the economic base.

Bush taxi to Casamance, where black men in uniform guarded the enclaves of the Club Mediterranée against intrusion by the locals while public beaches were infested with shysters dealing dope and plastic bangles. The vision of escaping the winter in a divided city in central Europe, flying across continents to a land of steamy tropics, lush fruits and palm wine.

Gratefully back in Dakar, the Café de Paris like a familiar refuge now. Croissant, butter, fresh French coffee, everything tasting finer after the boat trip to the slave island, casting off the past, escaping the wall, abandoning guilt, forgetting families. Liberation, emancipation, relief, release, living for the moment. The unguarded moment back in Africa when I mortgaged my future.

I lived my childhood in a Jewish family in apartheid South Africa. Even fairy tales were conflict zones to be negotiated between sensitivities about race, colour, class, religion and ethnicity, with post-Holocaust trauma threatening every innocent joy. The Brothers Grimm were gruesome and German – enough to condemn them. That left Hans Christian Andersen as almost respectable (if we overlook the tell-tale middle name). The Little Mermaid suffering for her sex has pursued me for a lifetime. But much more terrifying was the fate of the heroine of The Red Shoes – my namesake, Karen, brutally crippled for the crime of trying on the tempting shoes.

Some mistakes are quickly rectified, then best forgotten. The marriage contracted in the Café de Paris, Dakar, and enacted six months later in Berlin, was worth no more than a single poem. The pain in the title story is the pain of mutilation when love becomes torture.




The Red Shoes


Thanks for painting me

in the red dress

and the red shoes.

The shoes made the picture.


Later you hung me

in the Berlin art academy

and on the oak tree avenue Zehlendorf;

next to the portrait

a friend reported

a notice:

Karen. Nicht zu verkaufen.


You hung me in the gallery

I was your only portrait of a lady

I didn’t go to see


you gave it me

— Yes; but that was then

and now is

now I want it back again.

The moment of giving

regret starts gnawing

a gift for you

is always a loss



tossed in the slot machine:

NEXT PLAY words light up

Scheiße. A slim Dostoevsky book

peeps out your jacket pocket

you grope, fish out 5 marks

computer noises crowd the calculation

three-fifty for a beer

one for the one-armed bandit

what’s left sends you

spinning to the bank singing

over the tannoy

I’m just a poor boy

my story’s seldom told.



absent from Europe

outside the Café de Paris

Avenue Georges Pompidou, Dakar

you read Der Mann

ohne Eigenschaften vol. 1 & I

à la recherche du temps

perdu vol. 2

Here comes the beggar

shuffling on his bum

look, no legs

the lapdogs yap at his stumps

va t’en!   va t’en!


the proprietrice

as his legless back recedes

places our Pernods on the table

pats her coiffe, says, Mes chiens

peuvent sentir tout suite

les sales noirs.

sipping the cloudy liquid

taste aniseed

mourn lack of absinthe

in the paris bar back home.


you turned my ring

on your little finger

traced the line of my left eyebrow

bowed head softly said

into the smoky yellow glass

marry me.



Nice of you, your Omi wrote

sending back the wedding snaps

to think of me but how o how

will I ever live this down?

— it’s a shame a crying

shame the bride wore red shoes.



In the picture I sat still, long

feet foremost

true to lifesize

in the red shoes: the girl

in the grim story

danced and danced

wild entranced

until she dropped

still couldn’t stop —

chop. chop

The woodcutter took the first foot off

and then, in a trice, the other.



aah. what a relief

she sat stiff

stumped. please she asked

can I move now

No he said stern

turned to the canvas

not till I finish your feet.


© Karen Margolis                               Berlin, 1988



Text and photos © Karen Margolis 2017




Posted 4 August 2017




The vampires of our days





Maintaining the man

   in his status quo



when he buys her flowers

he pays with money she earns

her hands are broken


in cafés he refreshes tactics

plays digital chess

and calculates his winnings

from her typing prison


laughing at her pain

he lines his pockets

with the gains of her labour


they can force a woman

who works and works

to pay for a man

who lives from perks

and deals on the market


but they can’t break her spirit.

Resistance is her birthright

from ancient times.


The vampires of our days

will soon be laid to rest

in the graves of their evil ancestors


Karen Margolis







Photos: 2 x 50 Isabel Huppert, Berlin 2017







Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2017

The poem is part of a cycle in progress:

The Day the Dolls House Smashed (1997/2017)






The Whole Trial



Pages from Der Prozess



Last week an exhibition opened in Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau dedicated to a single book. The entire 171 pages of the original handwritten manuscript of Kafka’s Der Prozess (The Trial) is on show for the first time in the city where Kafka was inspired to write it.

Not far away, before the Second World War, stood the Hotel Askanischer Hof where Kafka had the legendary conversation with Felice Bauer, her sister and a friend that led to him breaking off his engagement to Felice. Kafka called that meeting on 12 July 1914 a “trial in the hotel”. The result was his famous novel, edited after his death in 1924 by his friend Max Brod and first published in the original German in 1925.

In 1988 the German Literature Archive in Marbach bought the manuscript of Der Prozess for 3,5 million marks. It is thought to be the highest price ever paid for a manuscript at auction.

Fittingly, the pages of this costly literary treasure are displayed in the Berlin exhibition in glass cases in a premier historical location, the Schliemann Room of Martin Gropius Bau, the room where Heinrich Schliemann and his wife presented the newly excavated gold of Troy in 1881.





Seen altogether, the pages of Der Prozess give an incredible glimpse into the creative process of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Sometimes the writer’s pen flows across the sheets, sometimes you can see words scored out and replaced in haste or annoyance, or after a mental struggle, and at times you can sense the urgency and determination of a man who felt the pressure of life and time. Kafka was no admirer of Freud and he would probably have dismissed graphological interpretations, but it’s hard to overlook his special relationship with the capital letter K. that plays such a large and symbolic part in his writings. In these pages the K. often appears with a elaborate tail or a triumphant or defiant swing that makes it stand out and speak for itself.


Facsimile edition from Stroemfeld Verlag of the first edition of Kafka’s Der Prozess, published in 1925 by Der Schmiede.



K. for Kafka, obviously. K. for Josef K., the protagonist of The Trial. What else does it stand for? – this is one of the riddles that makes Kafka’s work so mysterious and haunting.

Aside from the manuscript pages, the exhibition offers a rare chance to see a remarkable selection of photos and other memorabilia from the Kafka collection of Berlin publisher Klaus Wagenbach.



Kafka’s passport photo from the Wagenbach collection.


A terminal shows details of the work on the annotated facsimile edition of The Trial first produced by Stroemfeld Verlag in 1995. It caused a stir in German literature circles at the time. I commented on the publication and the ensuing controversy among literary scholars in a poem as part of my 1995 cycle A Year of Anniversaries:


Kafka Revisited

on the 70th anniversary of his death


Kafka’s being scanned by a clever invention

That shows us the heart of his true intention

The spirit of The Trial is leaping out of the pages

Provoking fierce debate among literary sages.


Kafka wrote a manuscript and not a publication

They captured it in print and sold it in translation

We’ll never really know what Kafka had to express

But he wanted us to question our eternal powerlessness.


Kafka’s being reconstructed in the nth dimension

And critics are gnawing at the bone of contention

Yet reading him anew we find he’s only gained in meaning:

Pruning dead wood away lets the tree start greening.


From the poem cycle A Year of Anniversaries

© Karen Margolis 1995/2017



Translations of Der Prozess from all over the world.


The Goethe Institute, which promotes German literature worldwide, made a special contribution to the exhibition by gathering copies of  translations of the Der Prozess in over 50 languages for display here.

It’s a magnificent tribute to the work of translators who have made this classic available in languages as widely different as Hungarian, Hindi, Czech, Vietnamese, Hebrew and Chinese. Many of the covers are works of graphic art.

Here is a selection:









Note: In a literary exhibition the contributions of everyone involved in book production from manuscript to publication should be acknowledged. So why did the curators omit the names of the translators of those editions of Der Prozess from all over the globe? – they missed a chance to salute the achievements of all the people who enrich world culture by translating Kafka.



Top row: English translations



The exhibition Franz Kafka. Der ganze Prozess runs from 30 June to 28 August 2017 in Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.

Text & pictures Karen Margolis 2017


Posted 2 July 2017







Beneath the leaden canopy



Seen from Alexanderplatz under a leaden sky: the towers and spires of central Berlin.


Set on a collision course towards an unknown destination, we are clinging to our threadbare seat belts and hoping blindly.

Final elections are staged on the edge of the precipice. The world has switched into apocalyptic mode while we were busy sorting rubbish or reading online headlines.

Links and leaks have merged into fabricated monotony between video sales pitches.

All the omens are there. Especially the absence of spring. We are learning the bitter lesson that spring is not a natural human right.

The city of Berlin has been gripped for months with a strange tristesse. Try as it might, the sun cannot win through.

The sale of lipsticks and optimism pills has soared in the high streets.

The pictures show the eerie light that has blighted the daytime hours. Building sites spoil every inner city stroll. Even the monuments look weary of standing up straight.

There is nothing left to report. No opinion left to rely on. I’m afraid you’ll have to start thinking for yourselves from now on.

Enjoy the ride.




Berlin-Alexanderplatz, March 2017






backyard Berlin elegy

blackbird singing frantically

coaxing the hidden sunshine

behind the city’s leaden canopy


April fell out of the year

leaving its silhouette trembling

among barely clad trees


autumn in spring a harbinger

of early parting. Every dawn

another promise flies away.




Berlin backyard, April sleet 2017


Berlin monument weary of standing up tall



© Karen Margolis


Berlin,  May 2017



Berlin backyard failing to meet the spring 2017




Blocked by building sites: the Humboldt Forum emerging from the asbestos ashes of the Palast der Republik (now extinct).


Posted 6 May 2017




Far more / against than for


March on Science, Berlin. 22 April 2017




Visual impressions from April to May 2017 in Berlin. And a poem for the First of May. 



Berlin Alexanderplatz April 2017



May Day with red square (Berlin 2017 version)



MayDay Monday outside a street café

the wind scatters blossoms on my blank pages

down the street they’re marching for workers’ rights

a living wage, affordable housing,

or against something. Far more

against than for.


The church clock strikes noon.

Red stars have been removed from circulation.

A square pin of lapel decoration

tries to fill the round hole

of desolation

left by the decline of social democracy.


The church bells ring and ring

five past twelve and still chiming.

(A reminder that this used to be

the Eastern zone of hero workers?)

Here in Berlin on this May Day Monday

Brexit is only one of the clouds

on the horizon, and the sun

has battled through briefly

for the workers’ holiday.


May Day the day of festivals, parties and

seasonal hazards. The wind the cutting edge

of the chill factor. The wind

that won’t let your thoughts stand still.

It carries them away

before you have let go.


Nearly all my facts are checked

my words & images copied into clouds

or dispersed as particles

of digital smog. What’s missing?

Why the persistent sense

of being whipped onwards

to a finishing line

in a future that never arrives?


There is a journey I wish to make

backwards, towards an ancient goal,

it started with strange markings on a stone

seen in a museum of my youth

– a path missed so narrowly

on the road to lost civilizations.


Now they are talking again of catastrophe.

How many more days and nights of fear

until the catastrophe strikes?


For some it is like the Messiah

already come. Others are still

trembling in waiting. The First of May

once was a day for dancing around trees.

Now every day seems like a day of judgement


trying to make sense of a life

spent waiting for things that don’t happen

in a place that was promised but never given


the future is always a heartbeat away

or an infinity of imagined moments

between now and when.



© Karen Margolis 2017



SPD new members’ kit – the red square lapel pin



Image from Rayyane Tabet KOPF HOCH!… DAAD Galerie Berlin 2017



Poem & photos: Karen Margolis

Posted 1 May 2017


The back side of Berlin Gallery Weekend 28 April–1 May 2017






The Century of Women




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.





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.


From child to woman

is a wondrous transformation.

Chance is always possible.



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


Gulp its freshest air

to swell your open lungs

you’ll need them later

to shout your demands

a girl to be heard


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


Open your eyes

beyond history & tradition

you can see the path

you can choose to follow

a girl who wants to learn



Welcome to the world of unequal distribution

let’s tip the scales together

when you’re ready to decide.


A thinking woman’s life

is a voyage of resistance. Still.





© Karen Margolis

March 2017


Posted 7 March 2017









::woman’’s’s choose::






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.



Women's Liberation Movement



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. 







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.







The Pill, please


The notice at the entrance to the clinic was comfortingly neutral. ADVISORY CENTRE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE. First floor. Please walk up. Simple sans-serif black print on a white background.


It could mean anything, except to those who know what it is. Judith cast a cautious glance around the busy pavement to see if anybody was watching her who might know – who might spot her climbing the narrow grubby stairs and say: there goes another schoolgirl on the Pill. And shake their heads, muttering about the Permissive Society.


Nobody was looking. The November afternoon was too cold for dawdlers, and most of the shoppers were laden with large boxes of hi-fi equipment, or daydreaming about having their arms full of it. The street specialised in hi-fi shops. That was the advantage of coming to a clinic in the city centre: it was more crowded and anonymous. There was less chance of anyone she or her parents knew observing her.


Not that there was anything criminal about going to the clinic. Thousands of girls her age were doing it. You could even say it was a mature, responsible act. If her parents were more enlightened, she wouldn’t have to watch out like a guilty thief or a spy who suspects she’s being followed.


Do I look guilty? Do I look like those men who prowl in Soho alleyways? – glancing quickly to left and right and then rapidly climbing the narrow grubby stairs beyond the sellotaped hand-scrawled notice that reads: Young model Anne. Third floor. Please walk up.


She had been walking down just such an alleyway recently when she had seen a man emerge from one of the labelled doorways, straightening his tie and seeming pleased with himself. When he had noticed her looking at him, he had averted his eyes, cleared his throat and moved very fast in the opposite direction. I know what you’ve been up to, she thought, reading the doorway notice. Was it Jacky on the first floor or French model on the second?


There was no innocence anymore. You only had to walk on the street to smear your innocence, just as the lead fumes from car exhausts blacken the cream-coloured facades of the most illustrious buildings, the most noble classical pillared terraces. Innocence belonged to that bygone world of white buildings. Only nostalgists believed in it now. Only nostalgists and moralists.


Fuck moralists, Judith said to herself; and the expletive made her less nervous. She started towards the stairs, her eyes carefully avoiding the glass door of the lighting shop which shared the clinic entrance. The people in the shop were sure to know what went on upstairs on the third floor.


Did it matter if they knew? She was only doing what lots of other girls did. She used to pride herself that she was special, but now it gave her courage to think that she was not unique, she was part of her generation and united with others who believed in freedom and fought moral repression.


In the clinic there was no talk of morality. The receptionist was businesslike. The doctor looked bored.


“I see. I see-ee.” With his chin resting on his chest, he made a note on the card in the brand new beige folder with Judith’s name on the cover. He shielded his hand as he wrote so that she could not see. Since he was merely recording her answers to his questions, she did not see why he was concealing what he wrote. She felt in no position to ask. Instead, she fiddled with the outsize gem on her ring finger – a piece of blue-green glass the size of a fingernail. It was too improbably big to be authentic, but the setting was gold. The doctor, however, had an x-ray type medical gaze. Could he detect that the ring was borrowed?


Feeling its foreignness heavy on her finger, she slid it 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.







The cramped cabin seemed so full of the ghosts of former doomed patients that she forgot what she was there for, until she recalled Jan warning her that this was the worst moment, waiting for the Internal. They put a metal thing up your cunt and stretch it to look inside. It’s a bit uncomfortable, but nothing mysterious. Think of Biology lessons.


There was a world between the blackboard with its neat white chalked diagrams and this hard white waiting bench. The technical terms and the soft flesh seemed to have no point of contact. The doctor was going to see something of her that she had never seen. She could only hope that he did not see her nakedness, but saw her as a textbook diagram.


Silly to be shy – he must see hundreds of girls like me. Again she drew courage from the thought of all her contemporaries.


“You can come out now.”


As she opened the door between the cubicle and the surgery, she could hear the running water of his handwashing; then a clink of metal on metal.


He looked up, startled, as she emerged through the door. “It is not necessary to take off all your clothes,” he said severely. “Skirt, tights and panties are sufficient.”


And seeing her rooted in gooseflesh paralysis, he added sharply: “Would you please put your jumper back on?”


Obeying his instruction, Judith pondered about professional guidelines that gave licence to doctors to probe the primary sexual organs, yet at the same time required that the patient should keep her breasts covered. Still, the less he sees the better, she told herself. It felt more dignified to be only half-naked.


“Right, then.” He spoke briskly; she had wasted enough of his time. “Get on the couch and hoist your knees over the stirrups.”


She winced at the coldness of the metal under her knees.


“What’s the problem?” Speculum in hand, he paused as he saw her shiver.


“Cold,” she said, indicating the stirrups.


“Well, what do you expect? Central heating?” he asked impatiently as he pushed the instrument inside her, screwed it open and then looked intently. After a few seconds he withdrew it, throwing it with a careless gesture into the sterilising tray. Judith made to get off the couch.


“Just stay there,” he ordered. “I haven’t finished yet.”


He pulled on sheer plastic gloves, and placing one hand on her abdomen, reached inside her with two fingers of his other hand. She shifted uncomfortably. There was a dreadful intimacy about the way he fingered places which were highly sensitive; a clinical exploration that awakened sensations she prayed he could not detect her feeling. She tried to concentrate away from his fingers, scrutinising him.


He was short, squat and balding. Her line of vision as she lay led straight to the white buttons of his coat, straining at the waist. She wondered, as he manipulated inside her, what kind of man chooses to dedicate his career to probing every working day the deepest, most intimate parts of women. The metal instrument, though hard and cold, had at least some neutrality about it; you could view it as the sterile tool of an honourable trade, as smooth and chaste as a machine could manufacture. But the fingers of the doctor had a personality, an identity linked with a hand, an eye, a brain, a being, a male being that could surely not remain forever unmoved by the moving of his digits, plastic-covered, smooth-sheathed, feeling inside the flesh, touching the bone and coming out covered in the juices of her.


“Seems all in order,” he said, pulling off the gloves and throwing them in a waste bin beneath the couch. “Okay, you can put your clothes back on.”






Dressed again, carrying her folder, not daring to look inside it, Judith descended one floor below to see the nurse, who was young, pretty and busy.


“Won’t be a moment,” she said, smiling automatically and vanishing into a curtained cubicle. By straining her ears only slightly, Judith could hear everything inside.


Nurse: “Have you managed to put it in yet?”

Girl’s voice (flustered): “No – when I put the jelly on and squeezed the cap like you said, the thing slid out of my hand. I can’t get a grip on it – the jelly makes it too slippery.”


The nurse sighed. “I told you,” she said, “to grip it firmly at the rim… yes, like that. Now squat down and try to put it in again.”


A moment’s silence. Then: “Does it feel alright?” came the nurse’s voice again.


“I don’t know,” the girl replied hopelessly. “I really can’t tell.”


“Well, pop up on the couch and I’ll check.” The nurse sounded bored. “Hmm,” she said, “I don’t know what you‘ve done here, it’s all sideways. Don’t you know where your cervix is?” Her tone was scornful. “I’ll take it out and you try it again while I’m gone. There’s another patient waiting.”


She emerged and led Judith to the desk, took her folder and skim-read the notes. Judith sat feeling relieved, almost superior that she did not have to go through the trouble she had just heard. Absolutely no question: nothing was easier than the Pill.


“Okay, the Pill.” The nurse continued reading and snapped the folder shut. “You can have three months’ supply to start with,” she said. “But first we must check with your general practitioner that it’s alright to give you the Pill. What’s his name and address?”


She sat, pen poised.


“My GP?” Judith choked. “You can’t ask him! Not him!”


“We have to ask him.” The nurse’s tone was terse and convincingly reasonable. “The Pill is a powerful chemical. You could have something in your medical history that indicates it might be harmful for you to take. We must know.”


Again, this time more firmly, she said: “We must know. Regulations.”


Caught between what the nurse must know and what her GP must never get a hint of, Judith could only beg weakly: “Please, not him. Please. He’s a friend of the family. He’ll tell my mother. She’s always in his surgery – he’s bound to tell her.”


“Nonsense.” The nurse spoke like a teacher; utterly unlike a sister of mercy. Her eyes chill, she slammed Judith’s file down on the desk.


“No GP,” she said shortly, ”would ever tell your mother. GPs are under oath not to reveal professional confidences.”


“Mine would,” argued Judith, with soul-sinking certainty. She could just see the doctor, his pudgy hands poised over his prescription pad, ready to write out a month’s supply of Valium – no, it was now Librium – pretty, gelatine-coated capsules in a glass phial for mothers who needed it to cope with teenage daughters… “And concerning your daughter,” the doctor would murmur, “I really shouldn’t be telling you this, but as a friend of the family… you ought to know… ”


“No! No!” cried Judith. ”Impossible!”


The nurse shrugged her shoulders. The ice around her eyes had spread down to her pretty 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?”







Dismissed, thoroughly demoralised, Judith crept downstairs past the dispensary where another nurse was counting out pill packets to a girl who looked even younger than her. Lucky girl. She had jumped all the hurdles. She was getting the Pill.


The way Judith had understood it, everything would be easy. Pills handed out to unmarried girls, she had read in the headlines. Pills dished out to schoolgirls… for free, just like school milk. On the National Health! State-subsidised subversion of the morals of innocents! The scandalised leader writers made it sound so easy. She was part of what they called The Pill Generation…


Why, then, had it become so difficult? To be promised what she wanted, to have almost held one of those coveted pill packets in her hand, and then to have it snatched away by a bureaucratic rule.


She studied again the door sign as she reached the street. Advisory centre… please walk up… she had read it as an open invitation. Please walk up and we’ll give you the Pill. She had taken all the precautions against moral objections; she had been unprepared for trifling medical obstacles. The problem was not even medical: the doctor had said that her insides were “healthy enough”. He had also noted: “And you’re over the age of consent – if only just.”


Only her parents insisted on denying her womanhood. Her parents – and assuredly their ally, the GP.


Bureaucratic obstacles. We must have your GP’s consent. As she pushed through the crowds of hi-fi consumers and headed for a side street, Judith was submerged by a wave of disappointment. I took it upon myself, she thought, to control my destiny. I went alone to the clinic. Now they take control away from me, and give it to my GP. Now I have to depend on his decision.


He will tell. He won’t tell. He will. She sat freezing on a park bench in the wan evening sunshine, remembering the chill No of the nurse, mentally pulling the petals out of long-gone daisies. He will tell… he won’t… what would she tell Rob? In two hours she was due to meet him. She had longed to be ready, to be able to say: “I’m going on the Pill,” and to watch his face change to approval and respect that she could handle it, that she might be barely past the age of consent but she had the capability of a mature woman.


She might even have said to him: ”I did it for you. I went through all that medical stuff – it was no trouble, really – through all that so as to be able to make love with you.” No, she might skip that part. He should not be made to feel grateful to her. She was the one who should be grateful, that he was so gentle and undemanding, and did not press her about sex because he knew she was afraid to do it without contraception.


But she could not say anything now. It all depended on the GP. He will tell… he won’t…


She would have to say No again. No to sex. Everyone else was saying Yes, Yes, Yes; and she had to say No, not because she wanted to, but because saying Yes meant being prepared, meant the Pill, meant… the GP’s sanction. (How strange those phrases sounded: saying Yes, being prepared. She accepted them in magazines or when others used them, but applied to herself they did sound odd. They obscured what it really was – deciding, having sex, fucking. They concealed, not clarified, the mystery she still felt.)


And Rob would look down from his seven-year superiority, and speak of former flames who had been ‘good in bed’. They had no problems about contraception. They all took the Pill. Of course, they were all older than Judith. The Pill, he told her, had liberated women’s sexuality. Now, he said, women could enjoy themselves as much in bed as men had always been able to. Perhaps more. He quoted American psychological studies about how many orgasms women could have.


“What I like best in a woman is sexual confidence,” he went on. Judith liked the way he explained his thoughts to her, never asking if she understood, assuming that she could follow his arguments. She never said when she didn’t follow. She was too occupied with absorbing what he said – for it was a lot – to try deciding what she thought of it.


“The days are past,” Rob continued in the same vein, “when women waited around for men to make the first move. Now the sexes are equal in sex – thanks to the Pill.”


How could she be as bold and independent as the women Rob admired? His stories of them aroused her to competition. In the present, she must compete with and overpower his memories with her own power. Each time he spoke fondly of a former girlfriend she would feel the odious air of comparison enter the room.


What Rob liked was a woman who made things easy. Sex easy, satisfaction simply gained, contraception taken care of, lie back, be laid back, no hassle man, grow your hair long and shave your lady’s pubes into a heart shape.


With the Pill everything would be possible. But not if the clinic told her GP and her GP told her mother, Judith thought, coming back to that intractable problem.


Let it all hang out, Rob used to say. Neither the GP nor Judith’s mother could be trusted to let anything hang out except clean washing and clean pure thoughts such as married people think, if they think at all about sex.








Waking the morning after the clinic visit, she was aware of a faint stirring in a hitherto dormant place in her, connected, she felt, with the doctor’s probing fingers. The Pill, she reminded herself; and the curious inner sensation vanished as she 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.”






© Karen Margolis 2017


Posted 28 January 2017




The Eight Days of Chanukah


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

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



Kindling of the Lights




The first light

for defiance and resistance

– we are not born victims


the second light

for the contours of a landscape

that calls us to remember


the third light

for the comfort of a place

in a heart or corner of the world


the fourth light

for the cultivation of a tree

into a future we will never see


the fifth light

for survival. Some talk of solidarity

others of miracles


the sixth light

for creative opposition

the sharp curve of imagination


the seventh light

for everyday optimism

against bullies and dictators


the eighth light

for the restless spirit

that chases desire and makes lights flicker.


And last, the torch

that kindles the lights to bring hope

the age of darkness will not come again.


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.


Poem & photos© Karen Margolis

Nice, 27 December 2016


Photos from Nice during Chanukah 2016


photo © KarenMargolis 2016



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




Christmas funfair seen from Place Masséna, Nice, December 2016

Christmas funfair seen from Place Masséna, Nice, December 2016


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


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




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


Posted 27 December 2016










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.



Wittenbergplatz monument


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?



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.



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.



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.



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


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.





Books of condolence with thousands of signatures and messages.

Books of condolence with thousands of signatures and messages.


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.


Tiny memorial on the Promenade near the attack site.

Tiny memorial on the Promenade near the attack site.


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.



Names and ages of victims painted on a flowerpot.

Names and ages of victims painted on a flowerpot.



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.


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.



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


Photos & text © Karen Margolis 2016






posted 12 December 2016




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!










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


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


November full of heavy hope

hedgehogs in holes hugging

bodies lying iced on winter’s slab

awaiting nature’s equinoctal sacrifice


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


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


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


November smells of musk and caraway

and tastes of nutmeg roughly grated

and promises small comforts


 November 1991



photo © KarenMargolis2016



Diesen November


November, voller Versprechen

Der Nebel birgt unsere Geheimnisse

Vorwiegend nachts gibt es Regen


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


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


November, schwere Hoffnung voll

Igel im Unterschlupf drücken einander

Vereiste Leiber auf des Winters Leichensockel

Erwarten das Opfer der Natur bei Sonnenwende


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


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


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


November riecht nach Moschus und Kümmel

Und schmeckt nach roh geriebner Muskat

Und verspricht uns bescheidenen Trost


deutsche Übersetzung: Andreas Koziol



Photo©Karen Margolis 2016


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


Posted 11 November 2016 







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


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


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


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

nature and local spirits
aren’t friendly to intruders


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

panic withdrawal attacks
conjure mirages of espresso bars


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


slender in a trembling coat of leaves

dappled by passing shadows

temporarily reconciled
to this northern habitat


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


photo ©Karen Margolis 2016



Text and photos © Karen Margolis 2016


photo ©Karen Margolis 2016


Posted 24 October 2016 


photo ©Karen Margolis 2016




Brexit – No Exit



Brexit Malvern station






Brexit – Europe Have Mercy 

Brexit chapel Bath


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.


Oh what can ail you splendid isles

You’re pawning your intelligence

Democracy’s pushed to the edge

For pounds and pence.


I see a continent distressed

With hate and murder on the rise

Leave or remain a bad campaign

Blinds all our eyes


A man spoke through a microphone

The polls shot up in every town

A man spoke on the telephone

The polls went down


I met a woman with a child

She wept and wept incessantly

While death stalks the shores of our lands

We are not free


The music that was once our joy

Is playing at the funeral

Why do we join the chorus now?

Where is our will?


Headlines blare and figures baffle

Demagogues shout an old refrain

Fear rules too many hearts and minds

History means pain.


A woman lies dead on the street

Killed by politics not fate

The outcry comes too late to stop

An act of hate


A narrow channel of divide

Should not become a stinking moat

The drawbridge up, the watchtowers manned

Britain afloat!


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


United Kingdom keep your place

At Europe’s table with the rest

The pros are greater than the cons

Remain is best.


A continent hangs on your vote

So stop swinging that wrecking ball

Your children’s children depend on you

Stay – and change all.


Brexit sheep


© Karen Margolis

Berlin, 23 June 2016


Brexit old people sign


Posted 23 June 2016


Brexit chapel2


All photos © Karen Margolis



Schönhauser Allee Walking Blues
– Part One




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.


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


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?


But wait –

Whatever happened to the rabbits

that used to come out at night

on the bombed site on Friedrichstrasse just after


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?





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




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.


photo ©KarenMargolis2016


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.)





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


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.


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.



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


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.




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.


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?


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.


Photo ©KarenMargolis2016


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.


the clock strikes two

at a quarter to three


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.




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.


Mickey against gentrification, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg 2015

Mickey against gentrification, Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg 2015


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

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


© Karen Margolis

June 2016



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


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

Posted 12 June 2016



The have-nots and the haves




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.




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.


Höllmann Cliquen Chinese 17Apr2016


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.


Höllmann Cliquen 17Apr2016


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:


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.




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




For German readers:

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

Die chinesische Schrift (2015)

This very beautiful poetry collection:

Windgeflüster – chinesische Gedichte über die Vergänglichkeit (2013)

Die Seidenstrasse: (2011)




Text: Karen Margolis

Posted 17 April 2016




Purim: Celebrating Survival



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.


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.




Queen Esther’s little finger… 



It was many years since I had been to a Purim party. Then, around ten years ago, I visited a small synagogue housed in a church community centre in the southwest of Berlin. The usual Friday evening service to welcome Shabbat concluded with a Purim celebration. 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.


Purim scroll, Northern Italy, 18th century.

Purim scroll, Northern Italy, 18th century.



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.


Hamantaschen with hundreds & thousands

Hamantaschen with hundreds & thousands



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.





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.



17th century Megillat Esther from Italy

17th century Megillat Esther from Italy



“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.






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




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




Women’s liberation – the longest journey


photo © Karen Margolis 2016


International Women’s Day 8 March 2016


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


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


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


Pushing far beyond equality

or model female leaders

who never break the mould

we are still on the longest journey


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


Karen Margolis

March 2016


photo © Karen Margolis 2016


Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2016

posted 7 March 2016



Don’t Brexit my heart!



photo©KarenMargolis 2015


Brexit – no exit!

Don’t Brexit my heart

don’t tear me apart

don’t ruin my June

with a bogus high noon


don’t trample my rights

from your Eton heights

if you steal my vote

you’ll cut me afloat


don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say nada to exit


don’t take me away

or force me to stay

where Tories roam free

and I don’t want to be


don’t Brexit my life

with your carving knife

for the Sunday roast

and baked beans on toast


let’s stay together

in fair or foul weather

leave my croissant round

you can keep your pound


don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say nein to exit


don’t Brexit my life

with sorrow and strife

don’t throw me in limbo

between yes and no


the mix is the key

to diversity –

Celts, migrants, Greeks

pizza & Welsh leeks


try to imagine

Fortress Britain

the exit decision

a nightmare vision:


Spanish senoras

stopped at the borders

barbed wire strung over

the white cliffs of Dover


don’t poison my days

with island clichés

if you turn back the clock

the future will mock


don’t Brexit, don’t Brexit

say non to exit


old and new Europe

are walking a tightrope

don’t ignore the past

you’ll regret it at last


don’t scuttle the boat

to keep banks afloat

preserve our culture

from capital’s vultures


from Cork to Stockholm

from Madrid to Rome

to Warsaw and Prague

then back to Den Haag


from winters in Nice

to summers in Greece

from London to Berlin

the ways are all open


So stand up for Europe

its landscape of hope

its rivers and lakes

and Renaissance fakes


don’t disenfranchise

and cut off my ties –

I demand the choice

to add my own voice:


Say no to Brexit!




©Karen Margolis

 March 2016




Posted 3 March 2016




Home is where my pen writes



©Thomas Schliesser 2016 Karen writing TPhoto Feb2016


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.


Status thought report#1

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

                         – Hannah Arendt


yellow mimosa dust

gathers in the gutters

after the carnival of flowers

has passed in procession


trying to forget the memories

I can’t recapture

I wrote off lost opportunities

and just when I thought I had settled


the word sheen floats to the surface

and breaks through

on the icebound pond

of my thoughtful life


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


unions are made, and fade

agreements trampled

islands invade supermarkets

new metaphors take shape


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.


sheen. It makes me thirst

for all my lost English.


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


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


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)



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


These days begin with checking the news

to make sure another war

hasn’t broken out overnight.


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


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


it is late to learn that thinking in cycles

is comfort not solution


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


Home must be more than a hope

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


Poem © Karen Margolis 2016


photo ©Karen Margolis 2016


photo©KarenMargolis 2016


photo©KarenMargolis 2016



photo KarenMargolis 2016


photo©KarenMargolis 2016


photo©KarenMargolis 2016


Photos: Carnaval de Nice 2016 © Karen Margolis 2016

Photo of the author: Thanks to Thomas Schliesser

Posted 22 February 2016







Potato poem (Dadanniversary edition 2016)

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



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.




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.


Checkpoint Charlie UFO collage © Thomas Schliesser

Checkpoint Charlie UFO collage © Thomas Schliesser


Text: Karen Margolis

Pictures & design: Thomas Schliesser




posted 20 February 2016



Citrus Cinema Nostalgia


Poveri ma belli, 1957

Poveri ma belli (Poor but Beautiful), 1957


Homage to Cinecittà

at Menton’s traditional Fête du Citron 


Photo © KarenMargolis 2016


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.


Official poster - Fête du citron Menton 2016

Official poster – Fête du citron Menton 2016


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.



Cine symbol of an era: Fellini's Dolce Vita

Cine symbol of an era: Fellini’s Dolce Vita


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.


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


I like you

french fried


Poem: Karen Margolis

Design: Karen Margolis/Thomas Schliesser

© 2016

posted 13 February 2016





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)


my friends and my foes

a never-ending story

snails and scorpions



days of my raging

are gone; I fought to become

a mother who loved



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




Remembering resistance




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




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.




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




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



wechsel geld

tu es schnell

wechsel schwinden


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



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-



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







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





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.


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



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



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 



photo ©KarenMargolis 2015


Posted 10 December 2015





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



Paris symbolNov15

For Paris, everywhere


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.


photo © Karen Margolis 2015


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


Not fascism, not again


Autumn in an East Berlin street

Autumn in an East Berlin street


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.



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.




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


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


November full of heavy hope

hedgehogs in holes hugging

bodies lying iced on winter’s slab

awaiting nature’s equinoctal sacrifice


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


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


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


November smells of musk and caraway

and tastes of nutmeg roughly grated

and promises small comforts


Karen Margolis

                       Berlin, November 1991


Berlin building sites: New homes for whom?

Berlin building sites: New homes for whom?



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.


Courtyard of renovated Berlin apartment building

Courtyard of renovated Berlin apartment building


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


The wall fell

people rejoiced

the world watched the party

before switching channels


change always looks good

garnished with handouts & promises

but tarnishes quickly

dulled by the business of living


the magnifying glass of history

makes dictators more fearsome

heroes braver

and walls higher


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


nostalgia repeats itself

until remembrance

turns to depression

still, there’s no going back


the hole the wall left

has grown to a global chasm

with millions teetering

on the edge of existence

freedom fenced in

threats on all fronts

and devalued promises

sold as rescue packages

with the call to build new walls


Each of us has a wall story

a tale buried in the debris

of a time that keeps returning

Karen Margolis

Berlin 2009


Underneath the gingko tree

Underneath the gingko tree


Text & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 1 November 2015

Last weekend (haiku)


Haiku rose 26 Oct15 @KarenMargolis


Last weekend

A lone rose reprieved

in a lingering sun ray

as the clocks changed hands


Wassterturm1Sunset 26Oct15


The season is too good to squander.


Poem & photos © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 28 October 2015


Half-hour glass 19Oct2015


Readux & Co.




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.




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.”




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.



Franz Hessel


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.




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.



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


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.




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.




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:


from Readux's forthcoming sex set (October 2015)

from Readux’s forthcoming sex set (October 2015)


Text © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 27 September 2015



Signing Off


Staatsgalerie, final exhibition opening 23 July 2015

Staatsgalerie, final exhibition opening 23 July 2015


Farewell to the Staatsgalerie Prenzlauer Berg


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.


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.”


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.


Photo@KarenMargolis 2015


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.



Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


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 


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


G for genius, the place or the name

R the rebels who won’t join the game


                                                                            Photo©KarenMargolis 2015

Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


E stands for edges defying the rub

Here in Berlin with the hype in the hub


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


                                                                   Photo©KarenMargolis 2015



R the right when there’s nothing else left

E an essential vowel in bereft


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


                                                                                                          Photo©KarenMargolis 2015



U is the underground put up for sale

A an alternative fairy tale


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015



L for life on the temporary stage

Z is the German word Zorn that means rage


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


N for the need to go on with the show

E for the extra time you can borrow


Photo©KarenMargolis 25Jul15





R the relics of systems gone past

P for punk culture and long may it last!


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015





S is the symbol that hung by a thread

T for the tears that will never be shed


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


A stands for art or some ways of seeing

A again, ambience/moment of being


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015



T marks the time of radical reduction

S drives it almost to self-destruction


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



G the gallery run on subsistence

A for angst also known as existence


Henryk's Mum got away with the L

Henryk’s Mum got away with the L


The evil E mysteriously disappeared

The evil E mysteriously disappeared



Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


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.


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


                                Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


I may be irony – skip the clichés

E is for endings that sign out new ways.


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

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


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

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


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

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


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.


Words & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 8 August 2015



In Europe’s vibrant cities


Mickeyred Prenzlberg 8Mar15


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.


Europes vibrant cities


“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.


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.



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?


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


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


Donna Stonecipher reading from

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


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.


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.


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.


Mickey Kollwitzstr. 4Mar15


Model City by Donna Stonecipher, Shearsman Books, 2015

Text & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 21 July 2015


.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.


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


Cecil Newman’s photos of Berlin, 1945/46


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

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


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


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.


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.


Newman developed many of his own negatives.

Newman developed many of his own negatives.



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.


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

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


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


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


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.


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.


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:


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

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


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


10am – 6pm, Tuesday – Sunday


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


© Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 17 July 2015

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



Remembrance in times present


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


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.


photo©KarenMargolis 2015


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.


@KarenMargolis 2015

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


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


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.


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”.


Honour the victims


photo©Karen Margolis 2015



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.


and the following pages.


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


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


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



there was intimacy

swathed in deep colour

shimmering between us

a tropical feather


starved of pity

betrayed by envy

the rainbow turned grey

leaving you enclosed

in your rubber armour

and iceberg pride


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




Words & pictures © Karen Margolis 2015

Posted 11 June 2015



Poem of Untitled Hope


Photo © KarenMargolis 2015


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.




 poem of untitled hope

however hard you’re trying not to live

you can’t help seeing the chestnut tree

from the kitchen window


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;


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:


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?


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

still standing         being there

forces you into a future


Photo©KarenMargolis 2015


© Karen Margolis 1991/2015

Posted 12 May 2015



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.


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:


Carolina Cruz / Paper Monster

Carolina Cruz / Paper Monster


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.


Photo Monster©KarenMargolis2015

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


Poem of the Paper Monster © Karen Margolis 2015

Poem of the Paper Monster © Karen Margolis 2015


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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



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.


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


Photo©Karen Margolis 2015

“… listen to the rustling leaves…”


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.


Photo@KarenMargolis 2015


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:


Ikumi Nakaya's luscious inedibles.

Ikumi Nakaya’s luscious inedibles.



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.



Photo©Karen Margolis 2015

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


Jasmine Parker: The Tower of Flying Merguez 2014-2015

Jasmine Parker: The Tower of Flying Merguez 2014-2015


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.


Yasmin May Yaafar's monster looks very very tasty.

Yasmin May Yaafar’s monster looks very very tasty.


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”.



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).


Photos25PaperMons 29Apr15


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.


Urban Spree: Street Art & Post-Wall Metro Feel 


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.


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.


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.


Photo ©Thomas Schliesser2015

Photo: Thomas Schliesser


Welcome to Monsterland at Urban Spree:

Way to the bar.

Way to the bar.


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

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


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




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.



Thanks to Carolina Cruz, Laura Popow and Thomas Schliesser.

Words & pictures ©KarenMargolis 2015


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


Posted 1 May 2015