Like so many American Jews, I cannot remember not knowing about the Holocaust. Growing up in a Jewish neighbourhood, attending a secular but mostly Jewish school, from early on in my school career Elie Wiesel's Night (1960) was a set book, the travelling Holocaust memorial a field trip, concentration camps a geography lesson. While the experience itself was abstract, the survivors themselves were not; my grandparents' neighbourhood teemed with ageing survivors, many with thick accents, a fondness for cabbage soup and little green numbers on their forearms. It went without saying that those tattoos were never, ever to be mentioned. Behind such an approach was the constant, nagging reproach 'Never forget'. And through such consistent visitation none of us ever did. Lesson learned - sort of.
Fifty years later artists have continued to revisit this material as a wellspring for their artistic practice. This was evident, if not appalling, to the many visitors (and protesters) last spring at The Jewish Museum's 'Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art' show in New York. Dominated by weak, conceptually 'lite' work, the exhibition nevertheless attempted to break from the tiresome narrative strategies employed over and over again by the most accomplished of Holocaust-inspired artists, such as Shimon Attie, Christian Boltanski and Art Spiegelman.
It should be said that Péter Forgács' film installation The Danube Exodus (1997-2002), created in collaboration with János Varga, composer Tibor Szemzö and the Labyrinth Project at the University of Southern California's Center for Communication, is a large-scale narrative project, but one that actually unearths a different kind of story. Comprising computers equipped with CD-ROMs, an interactive film and a roomful of maps and timelines, The Danube Exodus is a documentary film project with masterpiece ambitions. Two parallel narratives embody the structure of film, with one ship and its captain at its core. In 1939 a community of 350 Bratislava Jews who had purchased their way out of concentration camps paid the naval captain and amateur filmmaker Nándor Andrásovits to ferry them illicitly to Palestine, a journey fraught with complications that took over three months. The following year Andrásovits traversed the Danube in the opposite direction, with a boatload of Bessarabian Germans being repatriated to Nazi-occupied Poland after the Soviet occupation of Bessarabia (present-day Moldova and a portion of Ukraine).
Using found and archival footage from both institutions and from the captain's widow, Forgács creates a disjunctive drama that unfolds in disparate sequences over four hours and five screens. The power of the film is not in its poetic editing or its powerful score but in its reversal of expectation. There is a power in the plump, cavorting passengers going about their daily lives, the hopeful expectation of the Jews, who dance, swim and conduct a wedding, and of the Bessarabians, who swim, sunbathe and anxiously await their fate. These are not the routine faces of the Holocaust, the hundreds of silent, mournful school photographs, the grainy historical photographs of American GIs liberating skin-and-bones prisoners in blue-and-white striped pyjamas, and frankly, it's a welcome change. Through a dialogue of the two narratives Forgács interrogates the role of the witness and places it in tandem to the role of the victim. Is there witnessing without victimizing? Is one dependent on the other, and moreover, what is the power dynamic between victim and witness? Certainly these are a crucial set of questions that speak to a more global perspective, particularly in relation to recent international peacekeeping efforts, the presence of NGOs, war crimes and trials, and international journalism.
The Danube Exodus documents, but is not a documentary. It is dramatic, but not a drama. Emotional, powerful and historically accurate, it is more compelling to consider the film and its installation as more than a recovered spot of history - rather, as an ongoing repository of other points of view. As a CD-ROM, the project continues to collect, and offer, its archive to a younger generation of viewers who can listen to interviews as well as contribute their own commentary. It is through such an accumulation of material that Forgács facilitates the interrogation of what is for many American Jews the dearly held universalist Holocaust narrative.
First published in Issue 72