“What Comes Next Nobody Knows” are words in a letter written by my father, Alfred Mendel, in 1939 from South Africa, to his mother and stepfather in Germany, neither of whom he would see again. He writes of the challenges of getting them permission to immigrate to Northern Rhodesia, a quest that was ultimately unsuccessful. This phrase crystallises German Jewish anxieties of the period. The letter I quote from is one of thousands in our family archive. My intervention superimposes three elements of the document: the page, the paragraph and the phrase. This is first in a series of works that confronts my German identity through a visual interrogation of key texts and images in this collection.
What Comes Next Nobody Knows
For much of my life I did not want to know about my Jewish family history, but this feeling has been reversed in recent years by a gradual uncovering of a huge archive of documents, letters and photographs that were kept by my parents, but never handed on or explained. In the process, as a ‘second generation’ descendant of people so affected by the Holocaust this ‘burden of history’ has taken on new focus and meaning for me.
My parents were German Jews who escaped to South Africa shortly before the onset of the Second World War. They were both directly affected by some of the most violent events of European history, even before the Holocaust.
In numerous letters my father describes his childhood memory of his mother’s constant tears for his own father who had died on the Western Front in the First World War fighting for Germany. “I have no memories of my father, all I remember of the war years is my mother’s frequent tears. She never really got over her loss.” My grandfather’s patriotism ultimately counted for nothing in the eyes of the Nazis and thirty years later his widow, my grandmother, was murdered in Treblinka. My mother also lost many close relatives in the camps, including her grandmother along with three aunts and an uncle. Deep trauma pervades my family history and this is reflected both consciously and unconsciously in my own practice.
I began my career as a photographer in South Africa in the 1980s documenting the violence enacted by the apartheid state against black protestors. This experience marked me in many ways and since then I have consistently been drawn to make work about the key social and political issues challenging my generation, from HIV/AIDS to the impacts of our global climate crisis. I am also just starting to understand the links between the ways I have chosen to build my creative practice and the traumas in my own family history, between my drive as a photographer to document pain in the contemporary world and the pain that is evident in this archive.
The legacy of emotional damage that has been passed on paradoxically has enabled me repeatedly to represent the trauma of others. My parents tried so hard to isolate their family from any feeling, which I have discovered was a common reaction amongst those who narrowly escaped the Holocaust. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to document scenes of intense emotion.
Since this project began our family archive has grown exponentially, both in volume and the history it covers, through contact with relatives around the world. An archipelago of archives is now emerging from dusty boxes in numerous locations around the world, hardly looked at for generations. It is a vast and interlinked collection that has been described by Professor Scott Denham, a leading German Studies scholar, as ‘one of the most comprehensive representations of German Jewish family history’. Dealing with this material, many thousands of documents, photographs and letters that go back hundreds of years is a huge responsibility.
I have taken on the task of organizing this archive with my son, Elias Mendel, as an inter-generational collaboration, and so far we have arranged for more than 6,000 documents to be scanned between London, Johannesburg and New York, though there are many more still to be done. What is unique about our approach is that, alongside this forensic cataloging process we are also separately intervening creatively in material.
For my response I have immersed myself in the raw material, combing through thousands of letters, documents, postcards and photographs, searching for the connecting nodes that might work in the layers of new palimpsests. Combining images and words in a variety of formations, I am trying to develop an approach that sits between documentary exploration and art. Each image is built from a foundation of research and dialogue with fellow artists, archivists and scholars. I hope that these works might challenge notions of how images and words can work together to make the past more visible, particularly right now.
In Germany, as Jews, my parents had been pushed to the bottom of the racial hierarchy, but on arriving in South Africa as new immigrants they found that in their ‘whiteness’ they were at the top of the hierarchy in a colonial society. Like many Jews who arrived in this way they made uneasy compromises and built a comfortable life in a country with harsh racial discrimination and violence. This is a crucial part of my family story and I am acutely aware that I grew up with all the unearned benefits of being white under apartheid while also being the child of refugees from the Holocaust. This irony is a fundamental part of my background and is part of my impulse to work in the way that I do.
My engagement with this archive is just the beginning of my process of confronting my roots in Germany and Austria and my related sense of a lost cultural legacy. In doing this I have become increasingly aware of the elusive nature of memory itself, its fragility and unreliability. I intend to dig deeper, to explore what is painfully evident in the archive but also what is not, the unanswered questions and the silences.
This is not a departure from my on-going work as a photographer. It makes complete sense in the arc of my own development. There is a direct continuity. For many years, consciously and unconsciously, archival practice has been a consistent part of my practice: As part of my Drowning World project I have collected an archive of more than 2,000 water-damaged family photographs encountered on my journeys through flooded communities. I have enlarged some for a series called Watermarks, amplifying them to evoke a sense of communal memory being surrendered to climate change. For my Burning World project I have built up a collection of fire damaged objects that I call Climate Artifacts. For my Dzhangal project I collected discarded items at the ‘Jungle Camp’ in Calais, a settlement of many thousands of migrants hoping to cross illegally to the UK from France. Today all 3,865 items are housed by the Museum Of London Archaeology collection. In my Freedom or Death book I explored my own archive of negatives and prints from my time as a photographer in South Africa in the 1980s, highlighting both accidental and intentional interventions in this historical narrative.
“I breathe, I think, I feel” This work combines some of the most powerful items we have in my family archive. It shows the yellow star that was worn by my father’s cousin, Arthur Mendel, along with a page from his literature journal showing a poem he had written in 1940 in Westerbork Camp in Holland. At this point it was a refugee camp for Jews who had fled to Holland. It was later taken over by the Germans and turned into a transit camp for Dutch Jews. Arthur lived in the camp for many years where he married and had the position of camp librarian. However despite his relative privilege he was eventually deported and was murdered in Auschwitz. In the archive we have five books that he made with hand written excerpts from German literature and within them are some of his poems. There remain many questions about how he managed to get these items to his brother, who survived the war in hiding nearby.
Seven Sisters uses a photograph shot in Vienna in 1912, showing my grandmother Irma Schwarz (far right) with her sisters. I have used the tracing paper from her album to create a layer that separates the three sisters in the back row, Ada, Paula and Elsa, who perished in the Holocaust.
Jew Bruno Schwarz shows the document which allowed my grandfather to leave Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He had been arrested on Kristallnacht. I have combined it with an image taken on a walking holiday in the Alps a few months earlier. This palimpsest addresses the strangeness of ‘normal’ life that the family attempted to maintain through the 1930s, amid worsening conditions for Jews.
“The First Concerns Aryanisation” is a phrase in this letter by my grandfather, Bruno Schwarz to his wife, Irma from 1938. He had been arrested on Kristallnacht and this letter, mostly consisting of practical instructions, was written from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was released shortly after he wrote this and managed to immigrate to South Africa. The ‘Aryanisation’ that he refers to is the process in Nazi Germany where Jewish-owned businesses and property were transferred to non-Jews. So he was talking about the forced sale of the family home and business. The letter is one of many like this in our family archive, most of which are in German. My intervention superimposes the full page of the letter with this one shocking phrase. It is one of a series of works I intend to make that will confront my contested German identity and lost language through a visual interrogation of German texts in this collection.
My Mother Paula. In the Brüll archive that we are scanning in South Africa I found this photograph of a powerful looking woman. On its reverse is written “My mother Paula. Shortly before going to the concentration camp (Lodz). Died with her 2 sisters (Elsa and Liesel) in concentration camps”. After some research I learnt that Paula was the mother-in-law of Fritz Brüll. I found a document in the Yad Vashem collection, which showed her in a list of names of people taken into Lodz Ghetto. I combined the image with its reverse, and the document to create this multi-layered palimpsest, a new memorial for Paula.
Your Obedient Servant utilises a bureaucratic letter written by a civil servant who refuses permission for my father’s mother and stepfather to immigrate to Northern Rhodesia. The formal language sits in harsh contrast with the fact that this was a death sentence for my grandmother. I have combined the document with a photograph of the couple and the crepe paper that was used to separate the pages in their old albums.
Hermann Mendel, The Lost Photograph. This photograph showing my grandfather who died in the First World War was a fixture of my parent’s home for as far back as I can remember. After it moved to my home my son knocked it off the wall by accident. The frame broke and I found that it contained a much earlier version of the same photograph from 1910. A more recent copy of the same image was pasted on top of the old one. I digitally combined the old print, including the damage done by the tape, with the newer print and the back of the frame to create this meditation on my lost grandfather.
Ever Increasing Hate combines a document written by my mother in 1957 describing the impact of Nazi policies on her education, with a class photograph showing her at the Catholic school that she briefly attended before it was forced to close down.
“Gideon On His 1st Birthday” are words on the reverse of this image showing me as a child in South Africa with the family domestic worker, know as Eva. (Unfortunately there is no family memory of her surname.) I have combined the image with the writing on its reverse as part of my attempt to address the life that my parents established after immigrating to South Africa where they found themselves in another racial hierarchy. Like many Jewish immigrants my parents made their own compromises to fashion a life in South Africa without dwelling on the similarities between the oppression they previously experienced and that which was endured by millions of black South Africans.
I Never Got An Answer combines both sides of a postcard, sent to my father’s adoptive uncle Fritz Brüll. In the archive there are many cards of this sort. The words are banal in sharp contrast with the shocking image. Putting them together points to some of the unanswered questions that emerge from this archive.