Retracing a Journey Through Europe
It is the first days of April 1945, and a convoy of American military vehicles is driving along the Autobahn from Frankfurt heading northeast to Weimar. In one jeep are American author Meyer Levin and French photographer Eric Schwab. Both are Jewish, both are on a quest. They are rushing eastward - it has been several months since Eric Schwab last received news from his mother, from Theresienstadt.
Meyer Levin's search is less personally motivated, yet nonetheless existential. He had come to Europe in l943 to report on the war, the fate of European Jews, and on Jewish and non-Jewish soldiers of the American army and their fight for the defeat of Nazi Germany.
He had come to Europe to find his own place in a devastated world. This is what is usually called a search for "identity", a quest for "belonging" to a specific value system or a social group, an expression of a deeply rooted insecurity.
Meyer Levin had already witnessed firsthand the Battle of the Bulge. To the news agencies he was working with he sent reports about fighting and death on the front lines, but also on topics such as the difficult relationship between black and white soldiers. He reported about courage and fear, hatred of the Germans, and about the soldier's insecurities facing the murdered enemies.
On April 4 the convoy reaches Gotha. In the early morning hours of the following day an emaciated prisoner leads Meyer Levin and Eric Schwab, who seem to be visitors from another planet, to Ohrdruf, a smaller camp of the Buchenwald complex outside the city. "Ohrdruf" will soon become a familiar name around the world. Meyer Levin, Eric Schwab, and later other photographers write reports and take pictures of mass graves and emaciated corpses. Images the world had never seen before.
"There is not often a meaning in being first," wrote Meyer Levin, "in getting somewhere fist so as to rush out a moment ahead of the others with the 'news'; but today I somehow knew that I had had to find and experience this without anyone's having told me what it would be like. This was part of my personal quest. This was the source of the fear and the guilt in every human who remained alive. For human beings had had it in them to do this, and we were of the same species."
In 1995 Mikael Levin traveled to Europe, following his father's search, visiting the same places along the way, from Paris to Prague. 50 years have passed since the events Meyer Levin witnessed, since these events that were only alluded but not fully captured in Eric Schwab's photographs. Today's silence resonates in Mikael Levin's images of Ohrdruf and Buchenwald, Dachau and Theresienstadt, of the Ardennes and the Alps, Paris and Prague, of Frankfurt, Cologne, and Leipzig. How to visually capture time passed? How to account for that time during which Europe has thoroughly changed, but where much that seemed long forgotten has now resurfaced?
What is he looking for, following in his father's footsteps, and what does he want to find in the places from which his father returned with a crack in his memory?
Mikael Levin, born in 1954, wa still a child when he took up photography. In his work as a photographer the non-place was an issue for him from early on, the space between things, time in slow motion, movement out of time. His projects always dealt with the knots in the time-space-continuum that resist a straight, perspective perception.
A Swedish landscape with lakes, leaves moving ever so slightly, a shivering of the lake's surface, water looking like a broken mirror between aquatic plants. The Dead Sea, a place below the surface of the sea, an environment in which only a few microorganisms can exist. French agricultural landscapes, soil eroding in a slow motion only made visible by Mikael Levin's photographs.
European borders, which still exist, without being controlled, meeting places between political and cultural spheres, that became porous, invisible but still there, somewhere between two houses, in the middle of a street, on a meadow. Images of a space that is still fragmented and resonates insecurity. there are airport transit areas, artificial spaces and borders that don't fit in, imaginary, out of place, but important for those who have to pass through them.
Mikael Levin's landscape photography portrays not only spaces and topographies, but people getting lost in the landscape's invisible maze; for instance asylum seekers who are getting caught in transit spaces, unable to make the transition from one place to another. Mikael Levin immersed himself in landscapes, revealing fragile borders and identities. And with this project, taking up his father's search, he extends that line of work.
In Levin's photographs, places and sites constructed by people to transcend time and its perseverance places of worship, statues, monuments go through a metamorphosis. Churches rise like mountains, monuments open up to cave like structures. Levin's gave makes places, especially those haunted sites pretending to be well designed memorials, morph into landscapes older than human memory can account for: sites of a horrible primal scene before humanity. The image of Buchenwald is reduced to a line on the horizon, interrupted by a few visitors who seemed to have gotten lost in a deserted landscape between heaven and earth.
The traces of interventions and destruction one might be looking for in these landscapes are barely visible, as if absorbed. At the same time, however, these places seem haunted by evil witchcraft. What are the ghosts Mikael Levin is hunting, what secret is he attempting to uncover? Are ghosts residing in these landscapes or do we make them up, because we can not stand that the dead have died, even if we could not bury them?
After 1945, Meyer Levin continued his double career as an American author writing about Jewish topics and as a Jewish author writing about the American society. He ventured out to meet what caused fear, to confront himself with death in a so-called "just war." On this quest Meyer Levin experienced something beyond what can be captured in slogans and metaphors.
Something had happened that obstructed his way back, made it impossible to continue where the promising books of the thirties left him, such as the novel The Old Bunch (1937), which is about a group of young immigrant Jews from Chicago seeking success in the U.S., or his Citizens, a description of the Chicago metal workers' strike and bloody defeat, published in 1940.
After the war Meyer Levin devoted his energy to the fate of the survivors in Europe and their struggle to emigrate to Palestine. In 1946, while in Tel Aviv as a correspondent, his main project was the making of two movies: My Father's House is the story of a child who survived the camps and embarks on a journey through Palestine searching for his parents. The other movie, The Illegals, is a docudrama about illegal immigration to Palestine. The movie follows groups of Jewish refugees on their journey through Europe and their odyssey across the Mediterranean, focusing on a young couple that is accidentally separated and finally reunited on its way to Palestine.
Tereska Torres plays the lead role in The Illegals. She is Mikael's mother, the same Tereska whom Meyer Levin fell in love with in 1943 in London, whom he had already known in Paris in the twenties.
In August of 1950 Tereska gave her husband the French translation of the dairy of a Jewish girl born in Frankfurt, a girl who was soon to become a symbolic icon of the victims of the Holocaust. Deeply moved by the reading, Meyer Levin was seized with the idea of dramatizing the dairy and this bringing the murdered Anne Frank's words to life.
He got in touch with Otto Frank and convinced him that a staged version had the potential for great success. He contributed significantly to the promotion of the American edition of the diary. But he did not get his turn on Broadway. He got obsessed with the subject: He worked on his dramatization of the diary and identified himself with this girl who became a symbol for all the victims but she was also a young author, murdered before she had had a chance to win professional acclaim. Levin tried to bring to life an image of Anne Frank including all her psychological contradictions, focusing on the theme of her struggle for a Jewish identity during the extinction of the European Jewish population. He demanded that the Holocaust should not be turned into an indistinguishable "universal issue."
It was impossible for Meyer Levin to present his understanding of the contents of Anne Frank's diary and what he believed really moved her, as opposed to the myth she had become. The conditions he did not have the rights to the play, but firmly and desperately believed in his absolute moral right to pursue his project trapped and haunted him as a swirl of assumed conspiracies, and almost drove him to paranoia.
He used legal means, public campaigns, and even petitions to fight for the rights to stage "his" Anne Frank; an obsession that became a tragic trap which he could not escape until his death in 1981.
In the self reflective narrative of his later book The Obsession (1973) he openly and ruthlessly but also not without self-righteousness reflects on this lost battle. Through his identification with the victim he became a victim himself.
Meyer Levin's In Search had originally been rejected by many publishers, so that he finally self published it in 1950. Since then it has been unjustly forgotten. In Search had been conceived as an open resume of his search for identity; as a summing up of his creative production, his reflections on what it meant to be Jewish in a public as opposed to a personal, specific sense. The book did not intend to present a finished account, but rather to give a report of a continuous quest.
In the first part of the book Meyer Levin, son of Jewish-Lithuanian immigrants, describes how he left his petty-bourgeois roots in Chicago, where his family had suspiciously observed his early poetic ambitions. Levin, disregarding criticism of publishers and reviewers, wrote about Jewish-American issues and characters and articulated the contradictions underlying Jewish-American consciousness. this was long before the American literary scene began to pick up the topic.
Europe: the Witness, the second part of In Search, focuses on the odyssey through a devastated Europe, through the camps and the mass graves, the bombed out cities. Meyer Levin searches for himself and finally finds his obsession: to lend a voice to the dead.
The third and final part of the book describes Levin's film work after the war, talks about the survivors and about Palestine, about the world's disinterestedness and the chaos in the British mandate territory, about the human aid campaigns and the first American reactions to the Holocaust.
In Search, during which Eric Schwab and Meyer Levin, this uneven couple, have to cross Europe together, can be compared to a road movie that has never been produced, a road movie exploring an invisible jungle, inhabited by the undead and by time holes.
Once Meyer Levin sketched out a brief treatment about this journey, but he never got beyond the storyline of a sentimental male relationship. Until his death in 1975, Eric Schwab remained close friends with the Levins, who divided their life between Paris, Israel, and New York. His widow gave his cameras, among them a Rolleiflex he used on his journey through Europe, to a young photographer: Mikael Levin.
Mikael Levin found his own mode of expression: the gaze resting on the aura of these places like the gaze of a scout searching for the imperceptible signs of the enemy's motion.
On April 4, 1945, Meyer Levin had cast a similar suspicious gaze on those places, when he and Eric Schwab used the evening hours to embark on their search for the camp Ohrdruf: "After about half a mile the road began to have that strangely forbidden atmosphere so soon recognized on the front. There were twigs and leaves from trees that had been hit; nobody had passed here, since. We pulled up. It was too dangerous. The road was possibly mined, or we might still run into Germans."
The next day they found what was hidden at the end of that road. It was the first camp, the first mass grave of this particular kind that was found by the soldiers of the western allies and by reporters. The first of places, whose published images ended the perception of history as continuity. Only after that were the images of Auschwitz, liberated by Russian troops earlier in January, noticed at all.
Mikael Levin did not uncover any secrets in these places, and he did not intend to. He searched for what is inscribed in our memory and what moves us. The mire on Ohrdruf's territory, where for one hundred years German and Russian armies have held maneuvers, this mire of Ohrdruf is nothing more than a slippery cover shifting as we step on it. And that might still hide one or two blank mines.
Mikael Levin is done with his father's story.
But the story is not over.
Hanno Loewy is the Director of the Fritz Bauer Institute, Center for Holocaust Studies, Frankfurt-am-Main.
Translation by Anya Grothé