"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen    
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Chapter 9

“Cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), Descartes famed contribution to knowing one’s self, could mean that the self - “who am I?” - might be no more than a thought: Ambiguity, certainly dichotomy, appear to replace the easy certainty of “I”. To see myself as two (to ease the pain of early abuse), might be considered as yet another “syndrome” (in this age of “syndromes”), but it should also question absolute identity. Draft after draft of this now so-called “Self-portrait” proceeded in the third person, “Si” replacing “I”. “It sounds a bit affected”, advised Rennie. “Si” switched to “I”, though never comfortable with the sound of it. Ultimately, perhaps, one must decide who or what one cares to be, the identity one cares to assume. A decision must be made.

My parent’s decision, after more than three years amid "nature", was to move back to Berlin in 1928, even though there had been occasional visitors, and discussions never stopped while in Fichtengrund, as one memorable visit by was Martin Buber, the philosopher. He was taken on the customary “walk”, often through the nearby forest. My father and his famous guest were deep in a discussion, unaware what “a little fun” I was up to – a running jump on the back of our esteemed but frail guest who fell headlong into the pine needle covered ground. There followed the customary lecture of “right and wrong”, on this occasion reinforced also by our guest.

Regardless of such occasional high spirited visits, my father felt "Kultur", the best of European culture, was to be found only within the great metropolis that was Berlin and the opportunities only a city could provide. These opportunities included not only my father's career, but especially better educational facilities for his sons. Even though my father had wanted to distance himself as far as possible from any reminders of his Orthodox past, he was relieved to find a small Jewish community in Karlshorst.

Karlshorst, a northern suburb of Berlin was at the edge of a vast park which had been the hunting preserve of Prussian kings. Soon after settling into our first apartment, on Gundelfingener Strasse, I discovered the nearby park and able to resume my long solitary nature walks. Strange, the workings of mind: it refuses to recall, often, the simplest name or date, but then an "impossible" name like "Gundelfingener Strasse" (or "Riemenschneider Strasse" of a later address) seems stuck in memory. It would have been no problem to research or consult maps or other people's memories to gather essential facts and data to stoke my memory. The name of that park, for instance, seems totally lost to memory. It revolves, always, around the question of "authenticity" - only that which my own mind can recall.

As befitting a Berlin suburb, Karlshorst had wide streets, sidewalks, apartment houses, shops, traffic and so many people ,which after years of country isolation, seemed bewildering. Walking with my father, I began to notice people turning around, staring, often with a contemptuous smirk, or so I imagined. Father looked, indeed, very different from all others, the Germans. Anxious perhaps to be recognized as a true cosmopolitan, a poet, he sported long hair. By the proper standards of the time and place this appeared unacceptable. He also disdained hats and ties and thus - with open collar, long flowing hair and invariably in an animated, gestulating and heavily accented discussion, people would stare, and his son was mortified. I would try to pretend that I did not really belong to "this man" and, puny as I was, prayed to be invisible, especially when passing some of my new classmates.

Karlshorst did have a small Jewish community, but they considered themselves more German than Jewish and looked upon the newcomers as aliens and possible reminder of something they did not care to be; nor did I. Karlshorst, however, also had a fulltime movie theater. Occasionally, I would withhold some change from the shopping I had volunteered. Sunday afternoons, I announced that I was off for a walk but went to the movie instead. Once, father caught me. He did not look kindly upon movies: "these cheap thrills". I, however, felt carried away in the darkness of the movie house, especially by American "Wild West" movies. My definition of "educational" was different from that of my parents. The bright new world which had opened when I saw my first movie in Fichtengrund began to expand and fill more and more of my life, amid dreams of "Hollywood".

Hollywood would have to wait, but in the meantime I was determined to make my own movies by whatever means: Into a large cardboard box I cut a window and to either side inserted two rollers with cranks on top. Then, on rolls of parchment paper, I painted the scenes, frame by frame. Illuminated by an electric light from the back, the roll would be cranked past the window of the box - I had moving pictures. Isaac, who had started to write poems and stories, volunteered to write the scenarios. We could not always agree - Isaac wanted scenarios of "social significance"; I preferred fantastic journeys or Indians. The compromise was mostly a hodge podge of "science fiction journeys", often to some distant planet, as well as Indian tales with social relevance.

As strange coincidence would have it - about 62 years later, in 1992, the College of New Paltz formed UMA (University Media Artists), to produce documentaries. Its first production, "The Children of Izieu", documented the story of 45 Jewish children during World War II, hidden in an "orphanage" in the French village of Izieu, and cared for as "good Catholic children". Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief, known as the "butcher of Lyon", discovered their true identity and shipped them off to Auschwitz where they were immediately gassed. A movie team went to France to film the documentary and interview three who had escaped the raid, as well as "Sabine", the children's Catholic caretaker, and Beatte Klarsfeld (a German Gentile) who after the War had tracked Barbie down in Bolivia and had him brought back to France to stand trial.

I became involved in this documentary when its director, Tom Demenkoff, decided to use in it some of my drawings (from two previously published "picture books" of war and Holocaust - Parade and Journey). One of the young boys, sheltered at Izieu, apparently entertained his companions by making "movies", consisting of the exact same process (paintings on transparent paper and scrolled past a lighted box) which I thought I "invented" 62 years earlier. A strange encounter, and as fate would have it, I might have ended up at Izieu and Auschwitz if not for an even stranger coincidence five years after Karlshorst.

But back in Karlshorst, at about the time I was making "movies", we had acquired a phonograph and a growing collection of records of my fathers' favorite music: Beethoven, Brahms, Bach etc. I also discovered, during visits to galleries, recent paintings by Kandinsky and other such "Moderns" who had abandoned any reference to "reality", creating work composed only of color and design. There was one exhibition, the "Secessionists", I believe, in which many of the paintings seemed composed of nothing but "globs and streaks of color". I was intrigued by this total escape from reality and set to creating movies of nothing but "color orchestrations", to the music of various records. The synchronization of music and painting were mostly out of step and, in any case, my audiences did not "get it". In the ensuing, always inevitable discussions, it became the "meaning" of art which was examined and debated. "You liked the music, didn't you", was the argument by which I attempted to convince that art could be totally free, non-representational but still enjoyable.

Kandinsky and all his kind are "unmenschlich" (inhuman), my father argued. "This so-called 'pure art' is no different than the Nazi theory of 'pure race'". Amid the heat of such discussion, the strongest epitaphs might include "petty bourgeois!" or "Kleinkramer!" (petty merchant) mentality. I was also taken to task for "plagiarism" which, in turn, spawned more discussions about "originality" and the fine line separating plagiarism from originality and inspiration. "Why don't you be yourself instead of copying all that abstract stuff", was the growing argument. But how was I to be "myself" (at age 9 or 10) when I had no idea who or what I really was, and did not care to be what I was supposed to be.

Arguments about "abstraction" followed - all the way to New York of the l950's when I tried to argue that there was nothing very original in Abstract Expressionism, that I had seen it all before in Berlin in the 1920's: "it's only a matter of size, hype and production". From Realism to Kandinsky, for instance, was certainly a far greater leap than from him to Abstract Expressionism. "Just take a look at Kandinsky's many-paneled 'Seasons' at the Museum of Modern Art", I would eventually urge my students. "How much of a truly revolutionary jump was there from the Bauhaus, for instance, to what later followed in New York? - Op, Pop and all its slight derivations but on a grand , pretentious scale."

The debates in New York of the 1950's about "meaning", "significance" and "originality" were often like echoes from the discussions in Berlin. No doubt, the "New York School of Abstract Expressionism" expanded the scope and means of what had been created in Europe decades before. However, abstract, nonobjective or expressionistic art did not originate in New York; it was a migrant from Europe, with a slight accent. In a shrinking world of faster and ever more intimate communication, it would be difficult to say who or what brought Modern Art to America, or what defused its original revolutionary nature.

But in 1928-29, the art by the likes of Kandinsky inspired and was plagiarized into my translucent "Color Orchestrations", to the music of Beethoven and Mozart. While I used the classics as accompaniment for my moving pictures, I was, however, stirred more by music of an altogether different beat. I don't recall where it began or how, but somehow I came to love and be moved by military march music, the louder and more martial the better. It was, perhaps, in step with my new, Hollywood inspired, charades of "swashbuckling and heroics". My parents, confirmed pacifists, were shocked. They could not understand what had gotten into their son. But to me, military march music sounded "strong and heroic" and evoked, apparently, everything that I dreamed to be but was not. I would picture myself part of an army, marching off to fight for "justice, liberty and - revenge." "Rache ist Blutwurst" goes an old German saying, which roughly translates as "revenge is sweet". It was revenge which began to fill my mind and fantasies - revenge for all the abuses, insults and assaults.

I had noticed that whenever I would play music, our pet canary perked up and began to sing. The bird, a present when we moved into our new home, was meant as a reminder, perhaps, of all the birds left behind in Fichtengrund. One day, trying to provoke the bird's singing, I began playing one of my favorite military bands. The canary began to sing, at first as sweetly as he always had, but then, more and more agitated, he began flapping and flying about his cage. I shut off the phonograph, but the bird continued flapping wilder and wilder within the wire cage and then collapsed. I could not grasp what had happened. When I realized that the canary was dead, I knew that the music was responsible for its death. "The bird was probably too sensitive", father said, "he couldn't stand this sort of noise." Every record of military music was thrown out, and never again would I tolerate "that kind of music", even the most distant sound of it, even "Rock and Roll", which I would come to consider its kin: "They all stir our basest instincts". There was a solemn funeral for the canary. Into a decorated shoebox I wrapped him in colored tissue paper, everyone added a note, and then we marched to the park and buried our lemon colored song bird.

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