Shtetl

I have just watched Marian Marzynski’s Shtetl on Vimeo; here is the link.

He documents his journey to the village of Brańsk in Poland in 1996, with Nathan Kaplan – a 70-year-old American who is researching his family’s history – aided by an anomalous moustachioed Polish man called Zbigniew Romaniuk.

I found it fascinating and I recommend anyone interested in history, the Holocaust, Poland, and WW2 to watch.

What caught my eye was a scene where they were pursuing informers – not so much in the sense of Eichmann/Mossad/Nazi Hunters, more in a humanistic colloquial interaction with ageing Polish farm-folk, relating to their memories of the past.

One encounter was with an old farmer, grey, aged; wizened, dirt-caked nails and rheumy eyes talking about the past; ‘He is senile, I wasn’t sure whether to pursue the conversation,’ says Marian – whether the old man’s testimony would be worthwhile.

They talk.

They don’t really get anywhere.

This made me think about the experiences we have when we are young – those which are perhaps more straightforward; first day at school, marriage, family holiday and those which are more opaque, moments of regret or chagrin which we would perhaps best leave in the past. What happens to these memories? These fragments of yesteryear when we haven’t necessarily been at our best? How does this translate into the mind of a person living with dementia; when the seismic plates of experience shift, and the present is undone? Is it frightening? Overwhelming? How does our conscience react?

In the mindful moment, we don’t tend to consider how we will perceive our actions 50 years hence, when we are old, infirm, looking back. The War is falling-out of memory; those who were 13 in 1936 are now in their 80’s; I remember back in 2005 when Albert Marshall died – he was the last survivor of the Somme. In an old lecture I used to show a photo taken in 1900 of an old woman whose great-grandfather had been a piper at Culloden in 1745.

We have these tenuous connections to the past that are constantly moving, shifting targets that we struggle to anoint.

Another old woman in the film, pointing with rheumatic finger; ‘Over there, that was the ghetto,’ she says. We know that our memories are transient manifestations of electrochemical signals in the brain. What was happening with her. Was she back in the moment; 1942, Nazis demanding that all Jews head for the train station?

And from here, I shift; I judder across time and space to David Rakoff and the family game he used to play… Who would give-up Anne Frank; You have to know David to understand the humour. You can watch a clip here.

It is interesting how much the past informs the present.

I wrote yesterday about the Lamassu. This is an Assyrian winged-god dating back to 700BC. Translated and transmuted to the 21st Century you either have American troops standing at the gates of Baghdad reliving a scene from The Empire Strikes Back or the fourth plinth at Trafalgar. Take your pick. (For more see Michael Rakowitz)

It is a whirling confusion of past and present; now and then; them and us.

I sit here, in the moment, in the present.

The clock ticks, the processor whirrs, cars drive past.

The moment lasts as long as the span of your concentration. There… it’s gone.

I reflect on Kaplan’s sky-blue flat-cap. His thick rimmed specs and little notes recorded on scraps of paper; the film ends with him writing on Marian’s hand. An essence of transience.

Let me write-down your number here;

I’ve washed my hands it’s gone.

Kind of thing.

Back in the day Ignaz tried to convince his colleagues to wash their hands, Lister sought antiseptic; no one listened. They were all too full of their own preconceptions. We have evolved to listen to the moment, to the present; the past helps, but not in relation to evolution.

Here I am.

Look at me.

Over here.

Under the arches.

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