Silent images speak through time in one family’s story of Poland under the Nazis

File 20181120 161624 8wzrnr.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
One of the photographs from Terry Kurgan’s book.
Supplied/Jasek Kurgan

Michael Godby, University of Cape Town

The first photograph in Terry Kurgan’s Everyone is Present shows what appears to be a mid-20th century idyllic scene of a young family at a spa in southern Poland.

It’s a scene that puts one in mind of the reverie in old photographs described by French theorist Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida and the nostalgic fragments used so evocatively by the Anglo-German novelist W.G Sebald in Austerlitz and elsewhere.

But Kurgan, the Johannesburg-based artist, writer and curator, is more forceful in her efforts to wrest meaning from this and other images. She “longs to be able to sit inside this photograph”, as she puts it, to work actively on its subject. She juxtaposes this image with others from the album she inherited from her grandfather, Jasek, to include the rest of the extended family and something of their complicated histories.

And she correlates the album with correspondence with family members and extracts from Jasek’s diary. That woman in the photograph is Jasek’s wife, Tusia, Kurgan’s grandmother. The child is Kurgan’s mother and the man reclining on the deck chair is Doctor Lax, who at that time was Tusia’s lover.

This photograph, she discovers, must have been taken in the summer of 1939, as Kurgan writes, “on the eve of one of the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century”.

In other photographs taken at the spa, people are shown reading newspapers that were likely reporting the threat from Nazi Germany. But there appears to be no reaction to this impending catastrophe. It’s the silence of these images on such matters that drives Kurgan to devise forceful new techniques to unlock their meaning.

She scans the photographs and scrutinises them on her computer screen: clothing, expressions, gestures all take on new significance as their detail is revealed. Objects or, as Kurgan calls them, “stuff”, are discovered and identified in the shadows and revealed as the repositories of intensely personal histories: what happened to the furniture when the apartment was abandoned? What happened to the cat? Did anybody water the flowers?

Connectedness, strife and betrayal

In another bid to get closer to her subject, Kurgan Googles the spa depicted in these early images. It is now trading on the days of its former glory, typified in the furniture and other objects shown in Jasek’s photographs.

The photograph that underpins the second section of the book on the family’s flight from Poland as the Nazis invaded – and were welcomed by a large section of the local population – shows the street below the family’s apartment in the town of Bielsko. It is deserted except for two unknown men who appear to react to Jasek at the window.

Locals welcome Nazis as they invade Poland.

Kurgan uses Google Street View to determine that the neighbourhood has changed very little over the past 70 years. But while Google allowed Kurgan an astonishing proximity to this distant place, it’s the random connection with the two men on the street in Jasek’s photograph that she ultimately finds to be more meaningful and real. She writes:

As social beings, we want to matter, to be noticed, to connect.

In a similar bid for connection, Kurgan regularly elides time when she wants to communicate the horror of the Holocaust, the Polish population’s complicity in this history, and even the lasting influence of previous generations of one’s own family.

She reacts to Jasek’s account of his arrival at Auschwitz – the concentration camp at which more than 1.1 million people were killed during the Holocaust – while it was still an ordinary Polish market town:

This short sentence plummets through the page, through my desk, through this grey concrete floor, and through the deep red Johannesburg earth.

And, on Jasek’s photograph of Roza, formidable mother of his perennially flirtatious wife: “She rebuffs him and ourselves in that split-second moment, and forever, as we gaze at her across more than seventy-five years. Now.”

Kurgan weaves major themes of modern Jewish history around Jasek’s account, in the diary and the photographs, of the family’s perilous flight from Poland via Romania, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, India and Kenya to Cape Town.

She notes repeatedly the different forms of betrayal perpetrated on Eastern Europe’s Jews by the people they had lived among for generations, when endemic anti-Semitism erupted on the back of the Nazi invasions, whether through direct assault, complicity or simply looting. Again, these are the histories of “stuff”.

For the affluent, their flight was not quite comparable to the current waves of migration moving, as Kurgan notes, in the opposite direction into Europe. But the experience of prejudiced bureaucracy, arbitrary closing of borders and abrupt implementation of quotas must have been just as humiliating.

Jasek’s photographs seemingly ignore these awful realities. They focus for the most part on family life with its own versions of strife and betrayal. Indeed, by all accounts, it was impossible for those caught up in it to make sense of this maelstrom.

History is now

In the end, Kurgan herself visited Poland: both the sites of her personal family history and those monuments of evil, the death camps.

Noticing her own reflection in a mirror as she tries with her camera to capture “a molecule of air they might have breathed”, she accepts the impossibility of this “very particular kind of retrieval”.

But that, of course, is the point. History is as much about the questions we ask as the answers it provides. In this book – by turns lyrical, angry, frustrated and forgiving – time collapses. The photographic present joins the past to the present. Everyone is present. Now.

Fourthwall’s production of the book, the quality of its images and the sensitivity of its design provide an excellent vehicle for both the strength and the delicacy of Kurgan’s essay.The Conversation

Michael Godby, Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fantastic Beasts – experts explain the mysterious real life questions behind JK Rowling’s magic tales

File 20181121 161638 v0vvxq.jpeg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Johnny Depp as Grindelwald in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Nikk Effingham, University of Birmingham; Anna Cermakova, University of Birmingham; Heather Widdows, University of Birmingham; James Walters, University of Birmingham; Michaela Mahlberg, University of Birmingham, and Stephan Lautenschlager, University of Birmingham

Even in the real world there are witches among us, and fantastic beasts – and a touch of magic, too. And so to mark the release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, these experts have answered some of the more mysterious questions behind JK Rowling’s magical fiction. And they’ve made a series of short video explainers, too.

What would we see in the Mirror of Erised?

Professor Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics

The Mirror of Erised (“desire” backwards), features in the Harry Potter films and The Crimes of Grindelwald. It is a magic mirror that shows “not your face but your heart’s desire”. When Harry – the neglected, lonely orphan boy – looks in the magic mirror, for example, he sees himself surrounded by a happy, loving family. His heart’s desire is to be loved and not alone.

The moral of the Mirror of Erised – and the Harry Potter universe is full of morals – is that the truly happy person sees only themselves as they really are.

But could many of us do this? In our increasingly visual and virtual culture, what many of us would likely see if we looked in the Mirror of Erised is an improved, perfected body, the imagined self, the Perfect Me. This is the self we are constantly working on. The self we imagine we will attain if only we stick to our diets, go to the gym and perform the prescribed tasks: brushing, pumping, plucking, creaming, firming, smoothing and erasing.

This is the self we seek to invoke in our doctored and digitally remastered selfies. The thinner, firmer, smoother, younger, you. Still you, but the better, best or even – if you believe the language of the beauty business – the “real” you.

Is there equality in the world of witches and wizards?

Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics and Dr Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow

In a captivating scene in Fantastic Beasts, little Modesty Barebone is playing hopscotch and singing:

My momma, your momma, gonna catch a witch,
My momma, your momma, flying on a switch,
My momma, your momma, witches never cry,
My momma, your momma, witches gonna die!

This ominous song alludes to the historical witch trials. The trials mainly focused on women and girls – and these historical connections contribute to the negative connotations we have of the word “witch”. Indeed, in today’s language, “witch” often refers to an unlikable, unpleasant or ugly woman.

But things are different for the word “wizard”. Wizards tend to have positive qualities, being wise and brave, for example – think of Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings books – and there are also positive expressions, such as “computer wizard”. The word “wizard” is also used less frequently than “witch”.

And so the words “witch” and “wizard” make a rather unequal pair. How Rowling’s Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts series shift and question the meaning of these words for today’s children is really quite remarkable. She makes some witches (such as Hermione in the Harry Potter films) good, and some wizards, such as Grindelwald (played by Johnny Depp in the latest film) bad, subverting the old stereotypes. At the same time, it is interesting to see how our real world gender inequalities are mirrored in Rowling’s world of magic.

Are there real life Fantastic Beasts?

Dr Stephan Lautenschlager, Lecturer in Palaeobiology

In the Fantastic Beasts series, the audience is introduced to a range of weird and wonderful magical creatures: from winged horses and thunderbirds to demons and mischievous furry animals, which look like a cross between a mole and a platypus. While some of them might have been inspired by living animals, many of the beasts in the movies would seem to be too fantastic to be true if we encountered them in the wild. However, this might also be the case for many of the real-life fantastic beasts which inhabited this planet long before humans.

The evolutionary origins of modern animals date back more than 500m years, while the first traces of life itself go back as far as 3.5 billion years. Over that period of hundreds of millions of years, many animals which can only be described as fantastic beasts have evolved, conquered the water, land or air, and eventually become extinct again.

But proof for their existence is documented by their fossilised remains. In fact, the fossil record is full of fossil fantastic beasts and, as palaeontologists, we attempt to revive some of them. Not in real life, but by studying their fossilised skeletons to reconstruct their appearance, their biology and their behaviour.

What role do we play in the wizarding world?

Dr James R Walters, Reader in Film and Television Studies

The wizarding communities in the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films live among ordinary people – the muggles, no-majs and non-magiques. These lives are sometimes intertwined as magical incidents spill over from one society to the next.

But who are these ordinary people? The monstrous Dursley family who abuse their magical nephew, Harry Potter? The childlike Jacob Kowalski, who cannot be trusted with the secrets of the wizarding world and must have his memory erased? Or the oblivious masses who feel only the effects of magic without seeing their causes? In these films, non-magical humans are often peripheral, inconvenient or even negative elements.

As ordinary humans, we are the muggles. In these worlds, we would be background details or minor complications. And yet the films allow us to become part of the magical world, as we move through its landscapes and share its secrets. We shake off our ordinariness and become temporary members of a society more spectacular, but less human. So, the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films possess a magic common to all of cinema. As we watch the films – something I discuss further in this podcast – we are not ourselves. There, in the darkness, these films cast their spell of invisibility over us.

Will we ever be able to ‘apparate’?

Dr Nikk Effingham, Reader in Philosophy

In the world of Harry Potter, the wizards can magically move around, vanishing from one place and appearing in another. They might use “floo powder” or “portkeys”, or “apparate” away. And they can also move through time! Using a “Time Turner”, a witch or wizard can travel back into the past. But doing so is risky – who wants to end up like Madam Mintumble who travelled back to the 15th century and ended up ageing five centuries?

But if you’re careful, the skilled magician can manage to pull it off, as we know from when Hermione Grainger, from the Harry Potter stories, managed to regularly travel back in time to fit in her studies. Or when the protagonists of the books managed to push the boundaries of safety when they went back to save Sirius Black and Buckbeak the Hippogriff.

But does this make any sense? What does teleportation involve? Does being careful when we’re back in the past make a difference? And is time travel even possible? I can’t say whether time travel is physically possible (you’ll have to ask a physicist) but in my latest research, I argue that it is at least theoretically possible – like many things, we can’t rule out its possibility without first learning more about the physical world around us.The Conversation

Nikk Effingham, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Birmingham; Anna Cermakova, Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow, Centre for Corpus Research, University of Birmingham; Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics, University of Birmingham; James Walters, Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies, University of Birmingham; Michaela Mahlberg, Professor of Corpus Linguistics, University of Birmingham, and Stephan Lautenschlager, Lecturer in Palaeobiology, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.