I've been to a number of art openings in Germany. Unlike in the United States, openings in Germany are an
occasion for public speech making and I am always astounded by the length of these talks and the patience of
the audiences. At one opening in Berlin at a contemporary museum the speeches ran for over two hours. Needless to say it is difficult to become engaged when you can't understand a word that is being said, but it is also an
opportunity to see the oratory as a peculiar form of cultural theater; a form of theater that feels oddly connected
to a pretty sordid political past. This connection seemed even less tenuous to me when I attended the ceremony
commemorating the departure of the women from the camp in Helmbrechts on the day that I set out to retrace
their march route in 1998. The ceremony was held in front of a plaque in the cemetery and I was told by one of
the townspeople that a similar ceremony is conducted in front of that plaque each year on that date. None of
the victims of this march was buried in the Helmbrechts cemetery and the plaque dedicated to them and their
departure from the town doesn't mention anything about Jews, and while I couldn't understand the speeches,
which went on for a very long time, I don't recall hearing the word Juden (Jew) mentioned even once.
One of the people who spoke was quite young, clearly born after the war was long over. He gave the longest
speech and after a time I felt as if the commemoration of these women had morphed into an opportunity for
vain young people in this small town to listen to their own voices projected aloud even if their audience consisted only of the other speech makers and a few stragglers from the town who had nothing better to do early on
a Monday morning. The one exception was the last person to appear on this "stage" to perform. She was wearing a bright red coat—Nancy Reagan red—and appeared to be in her mid-seventies. She was the only person to
participate in the commemoration who looked old enough to have experienced the war firsthand and who might
possibly have remembered something of it. She stepped forward hesitantly with an accordion in her hands, selfconscious and very aware of the
placement of my video camera in the audience. To my utter amazement she began to sing a rendition of Blowin' in the Wind in German, accompanying herself on her accordion. For a moment
I feared becoming convulsed with laughter.
I'm not sure why the accordion is so deeply associated with kitsch in my mind. My parents grew up in Eastern
Europe and that instrument must have been a part of their cultural life. Nonetheless, this poor instrument has
found its way into the corner of my mind reserved for ridicule. And as ridiculous as this performance was, it
seemed to me at the time, that it was directed solely at me; not at my camera, as the speeches had been, but at
me. This woman must have realized that I was Jewish. She was shy and humble and it seemed to me that her
only wish was to attain my approval. And despite the fact that I found this performance completely absurd I was
caught in the emotional tangle it created for me, one in which someone earnest and decent wanted to do something right and felt that I was the one with the authority to pass judgement on the propriety of the proceedings.
So there I was, trying to keep myself from an explosion of laughter, yet totally aware of the complete sincerity of
this old woman who cared so much about doing this right for me.
Of course, the fact that the Jew in the audience was given this power might also be seen as of a piece with the
strange philo-Semitism that one encounters in Germany, but this old woman would have no intellectual understanding of an analysis of that sort. She would only understand how she felt and what she thought was important
to her at the time. And it was difficult not to be moved by that.
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