The following text is derived from an interview with Mikael Levin that was conducted by Susanne Partoll on the occasion of the showing of "War Story" at Kunsthalle II in May 1997. A similar version of this text was published in History of Photography (see resume). The interview itself forms the basis of the "War Story" video.
My father arrived in Paris in the fall of 1944. During the first years of the war he had worked on propaganda films for the Army, first in Hollywood and then in London. It was only after the invasion of Normandy that he managed to get himself accredited as a war correspondent.
He did a few stories in Paris, then got assigned to a front-line press-camp in Luxembourg. There, really by accident, he found himself in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge. Since he was one of the few journalists to witness this surprise German counter offensive, his reporting was in great demand, and even Army commanders were after him trying to get information about what he had seen, trying to figure out how far the Germans had advanced. So this was a very significant time for my father; though he was no big-time correspondent, suddenly he was the only one out there with the story.
My father was writing for two small news agencies: the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) and for the Oversees News Agency (ONA). While the JTA was only interested in "Jewish" stories, the ONA had a broader coverage. But actually the ONA was a sort of cover organization to the JTA; it had been set up by the same people already in the 30s to facilitate Jewish correspondent's access to news events from which they would otherwise be bared as Jews. So for the JTA my father had to do "Jewish stories", which consisted mostly of looking for Jewish soldiers to write about.
When he set out his real interest was in writing about being on the front lines, about the soldier's experience of the war, so really the Battle of the Bulge was his big break. Already in 1940 he'd sensed that the war experience would be the central event of his times. He felt that as a novelist, if he was going to write about his own time, he had to experience the war from as close as possible. He was too old to be in a combat unit but as a war correspondent he could witness what the soldiers were going through. That is why he came to Europe.
All this was to change. As it became clear what had actually happened to the Jewish communities of Europe, as the magnitude of the disaster became more and more evident, he realized that the story of the Jews of Europe was the thing he had to write about, and not only to write about, but to devote himself to completely.
As the war continued he seemed to loose interest in the actual fighting, except when it lead to the liberation of the concentration camps. As soon as he heard of another concentration camp being liberated he would rush over there. He was writing about the situation in the camps, but also he was organizing these lists of survivors, and in each camp he visited he would circulate these list. He started doing this because at first when he would arrive at the camps, survivors would scrawl their names on his Jeep and soon it was completely covered with the names of survivors. Every time he entered a camp survivors would gather around it, searching the names for someone they knew. In Theresienstadt a women actually found her husband's name on that Jeep.
I should tell you that my father was from Chicago, of Lithuanian immigrant parents. So he very much identified with European Jews. At one point he says: "These people are the sons of the same parents as my parents." He spoke Yiddish, and he was also pretty familiar with Europe because he had already been there several times before the war. In fact he had even been in Palestine; he had done stories there for the JTA in the '20s, about the first Palestinian riots against Jewish settlers. So those contacts helped him to get an assignment from the JTA in l944.
During the Battle of the Bulge my father teamed up with Eric Schwab, a French photographer. At the time it was common for two or three correspondents to share a jeep going out on assignments. Eric Schwab was on his own and so was my father so the Press-camp officer kind of threw them together. Usually a journalist didn't want to travel with a photographer because a photographer always wanted to stop and take pictures of the action while a journalist only wanted to get to the field headquarters to talk to the commanding officer. But my father didn¹t care so much for the officers; he always wanted to get to the front lines and be with the soldiers who were actually doing the fighting. So it was fine with him to be with a photographer. And there was also the connection that Eric Schwab was Jewish. Schwab's mother had been deported in l943; as the concentration camps were liberated, my father would go in to circulate his name lists and Eric would go searching for his mother. The remarkable thing about this story is that, in Theresienstadt, Eric actually found her! Eric and my father became very close, and remained close for their whole lives, and growing up I of course came to know Eric too. As the Allied Armies advanced in to Germany my father and Eric witnessed the fall of Cologne and then of Frankfurt, and then they witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps. The first camp was Ohrdruf, and that was a turning point because when they reached that first camp they saw what had actually been going on there and from then on, as my father said, "nothing was ever the same anymore".
My father never wanted to talk about the war. If I asked anything, he would only say that it was all there for me to read in In Search. So I don't remember his ever telling me anything about the war. There is one thing I do remember: I must have been six or seven years old and I was trying to tickle my father, I was climbing on him, trying to tickle him and he wasn't ticklish at all. I couldn't understand why and when I asked him he told me that ever since the war he was no longer ticklish. That was something that impressed me.
I think that one could safely say that all of my father's work from after the war was directly influenced by his experiences during the war. In his early, prewar writing one sees a conflict between his identity as a Jew and his desire to identify as an American. This sort of conflict is actually very common among first generation immigrants. But what is interesting is that when I was going through all the articles my father wrote during the war I noticed that early on, before the Battle of the Bulge, he always signed his stories "Meyer Levin". Then during the Battle of the Bulge suddenly the name "Mike Levin" appeared. This was at the time of his big scoop, when he found himself in the middle of the German counter-attack. So he Americanized his name, and now all his articles, instead of being about G.I.'s called Saul and Adam, were about guys called Jo and Sam. He went on signing "Mike Levin" until he got to Buchenwald, then "Meyer" reappeared. It was as if he then realized: No, my identity is as a Jew. Maybe an American Jew, but a Jew. And for the rest of the war practically all his articles had to do with the situation of the concentration camp survivors.
When the war was finally over he continued to be involved with the plight of the survivors, the D.P.'s. One project was a movie about a boy, a war orphan, who goes to Palestine to look for his parents, because his parents had told him that after the war was over they would meet in Palestine. Then he made a film about the illegal immigration to Palestine called The Illegals, where he actually filmed the entire journey of a group of D.P.s making their way to Palestine through Europe and then across the Mediterranean.
My idea to do War Story came when I was photographing a bridge that reminded me of a scene in The Illegals. It might very well have been the same bridge. I was doing a project about the disappearing border crossings in Europe and I was photographing in Alsace, along the French-German border. One border crossing was an old steel rail-bridge over the Rhine, and there was a scene in The Illegals of refugees crossing just such a bridge. This started me thinking about my father's experiences and also about the traces of the war in the landscape. I thought it would be interesting to see how the events of the war were remembered in the landscape. I wanted to see if a place in itself, just of itself, can carry the memory of what happened there or if it has to be something built that carries the memory. In retracing my father's journey that's what I was looking for.
I reread In Search and realized that though his descriptions were very vivid often he was very vague about the exact place where the event took place. But then I found all the articles he wrote during the war, and there the information was much more precise. I even found carbon-copies of the original drafts of my father's articles, which he had saved throughout the war! Once I'd started looking, it was amazing how much material I found. I also found many of Eric Schwab's photographs, photographs that he himself had said were lost.
Meanwhile I was also looking for funding to do this project. It took a while to find a sponsor, but then the Fritz Bauer Institute, in Frankfurt-am-Main, responded to my proposal. They were of great assistance in helping me organize the project and they raised the money I need to carry it out. Subsequently we also developed the exhibition and the book together. I really could not have done this project without them.
When I set out retracing my father's journey I was very anxious about how it would be in Germany. I'd always been very uncomfortable in Germany and now I'd be spending several weeks there, not only in Germany, but basically going from one concentration camp to another. I was approaching Germany from Belgium so already in Belgium my apprehension was growing. In the western part of the country, which is French-speaking, there was a lot of war commemoration. This was just after the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge and there were places where it seemed like war commemoration was an actual industry; there were museums and souvenir stores and organized tours of the battle fields. But as I was going east towards the German border one would see less and less of this. I remember arriving in a village called St. Vith, this was already a German-speaking area, and here there was nothing at all in terms of war commemoration. I asked in the tourist office but they didn't know of any war monuments, which was surprising because I knew there'd been some big battles there. Finally I found this small monument and there on the base was a chalked swastika! I went to the police station to report it, the policeman there was very nice and said they'd immediately go clean it off but by the way he responded I could tell this wasn't the first time.
The next day I was crossing over into Germany so after this I was pretty tense. But I have to say that actually my time in Germany was fine. I guess because of the circumstances, the people I met were very supportive. I think that in having done this project I have gotten over my discomfort with the country. Many Jews have this discomfort of course, maybe in having confronted the issue I've learned to deal with it.
This was not a documentary project, I wasn't out to do a historical photographic survey of important battle fields. I wanted to do a personal journey and investigate what memory is on a personal level.
I wanted to photograph the places that were important to my father's experience. In many situations I couldn't tell exactly where the specific site was, I could only find the general vicinity. For example he might have written about a skirmish at an intersection of two roads in the middle of nowhere, maybe two soldiers are there and one of them gets killed and the other will always remember that his buddy died in that place. That place will be a central experience to the surviving soldier, but the place in itself there probably won't be a monument there, there won't be anything there and the only trace I have is my father's story. In certain spots I could imagine that this was the kind of place where something like that happened. It was just a very personal reaction to that spot at that moment. Given the light just then maybe, or maybe because there was a fence or a house that suggested a certain feeling in the way it was sitting in the landscape. The landscape in itself doesn't say anything, its always our projection into it that creates those impressions.
Of course I also went to the important places, but here again, what is "important"is a notion that changes. I think that the past is very much influenced by the present, just as the present is influenced by the past. The situation we are in now affects the way we look at what happened before.
When I arrived in Ohrdruf - Ohrdruf was a concentration camp, a branch of Buchenwald. It was the first camp liberated by the American Army and because of that it was the first camp where a lot of press came and the first where atrocities were photographed extensively. Auschwitz had of course been liberated earlier by the Russians but that was in the east, the stories just seemed too incredible to be believable. But because Ohrdruf was the first camp liberated by western forces, it was extremely well known in l945. If one looks at the newspapers from that time, Ohrdruf was as well known as Buchenwald and Auschwitz. But today no one has ever heard of Ohrdruf, its completely forgotten. That is because after the war it was in East Germany, in a closed military zone, part of a huge Russian army base. Even today its still closed, you still can't even get there without an escort from the German army.
As I spoke of before, Ohrdruf was the first concentration camp my father came to. He was among the first to enter it, and, as I said, "nothing was ever the same again". When I went there, it seemed to me that the whole area was infused with this tremendous sorrow. Yet here was a place that was well documented, where five thousand men had died of disease and starvation, or had simply been executed, and there was nothing there! The German army officer who took me there knew exactly where the camp had been located but there wasn't a trace of it to be seen. When he showed me the hilltop where the mass grave was located I just felt an immense sadness for those forgotten people whose grave is never visited.
In more anonymous places I wondered: Is this a place where something really happened or is it only a projection in my mind. And curiously enough in some places I photographed according to intuition and only later did I find out that I was correct, that it was actually exactly the right place. So its kind of a question of: Are there ghosts or not? I believe there are ghosts but they aren't everywhere. When I stayed in Weimar in the room that had been Hitler's personal suite, I didn't feel the presence of any ghosts. If Hitler's ghost is somewhere it is not in the Elephant Hotel in Weimar! But in other places I certainly felt very strange sensations.
It has been common among survivors of concentration camps that for years they didn't want to tell about their experiences; it was too painful, or too incomprehensible. Now that the survivors are getting old, many are making efforts to tell their story now, they know that soon there won't be anyone alive to tell it anymore. We are at a point in time when the war is changing from being personal memory to being history. History in the sense that it is written down, that it is not something which an individual can relate "I did this and this happened to me". I feel that when you make this transition, this transition is made through remembrance. That is the point we are at now, where what happened in the Second World War is changing from memory to history.
For me the only history that has significance is that which has a personal link, like a personal memory. In doing this project I was working with this idea of remembrance. If I was photographing a field, lets say, it was because of my association of that place with something written by my father; he could have written about that specific field, or about another one. But for me that photograph become an expression of my father's text. It is no longer the place itself that is significant, but the picture of it. When you make a photograph you are creating a memory. Photographs are memories in themselves.
Then also I would hope that the person viewing my photograph will also relate to it in a personal way. I don't mean for this person then go and see the place where I made the picture. In this project it is the photographs that express the associations to a memories, not the places.
Another thing I was doing in War Story was photographing manifestations of other peoples memories of the war, or other peoples attitudes towards the war, as I would witness them along my way. This was also a way to contrast my journey through today's Europe with my father's of fifty years back, by showing things which speak of today, which could not have existed then, but which never-the-less could not exist today without what happened then.
I think that one looks at an old photograph in a very different way from a new photograph. When you look at a recent picture you tend to focus on the immediate subject, while in an old picture you look much more at all the details, all the incidental information that is also there in the picture. There is one photograph of Eric Schwab's from Buchenwald that I find remarkable in just that way. He captioned it "Survivor holding torture instruments." You see a man standing in front of a building holding some torture instruments, he is looking at them with a very painful expression. For Eric Schwab that was the picture's subject, since he captioned it that way. I think that most people looking at the picture in the years just after the war must have seen it that way too, but when I look at that picture now I see that man and then I realize that he is actually standing next to a pile of bones about three feet high! Just bones...human bones that were cleaned out from the ovens in the crematorium, I guess. On that pile of bones there is an ax just lying there, strangely, and looking further I notice that this man who has just been liberated is wearing perfectly clean, freshly pressed clothes, and that is hair is perfectly combed. I imagine that for him, the first thing he wanted to do when he was liberated was to get clean and to get back into real clothes to affirm his individuality. Certainly he wanted to be presentable when being photographed, when the press toured through the horrors of the camp. Looking at the photograph I also notice that there are some thread-bare rags hanging on a line in the background; one starts to wonder what those rags are. All this additional information becomes much more vital to us over time. I would like to make this kind of pictures, where every detail holds information, feeding our memory as we look at the photograph.
So far the exhibition has been shown in eight places, often in cities that were along the route first taken by my father, then retraced by me. Each place has prompted various reactions, further inquiries, adding material to the project as a whole. As a result of the show in Innsbruck, for example, the village of Itter, which is nearby, opened up a whole inquiry into its war history. The village castle was a branch of Dachau during the war; several important French politicians were held there and my father witnessed the castle's liberation. When I was there in l995 I tired to locate the site where Eric Schwab had photographed a tank approaching the castle, and a farmer helped me find the exact spot. Then when the exhibition was on in Innsbruck the mayor of the village became very interested in the story, and this prompted him to set up an archive about the castle and the village during the war. The people who brought the exhibition to Innsbruck researched the story of the castle in great detail, interviewed villagers who remembered the war, organized discussions in the village about the war. It was amazing that the children in the village didn't even know that their castle had an important role during the war, no one had ever talked about it.
When I did this project I saw it as taking place in two time frames: my father's journey and mine of fifty years later. Now it seems like actually the project has a third time frame, that of the exhibitions. As with this instance in the village of Itter, each showing has in effect been a continuation of the story.
In doing War Story I learned a lot about my father. I hadn't realized the extent to which he was trapped by the events of the war, even traumatized by it. In many ways he acted more as a survivor than a witness. I don't think that he was ever able to overcome the emotions that he experienced then. I almost feel as if during this journey that he made in l944-45, at some point my father made a wrong turn, and that I had to to back to that same place and take the other turn, go in the "right" direction, to be able to come out of all this and to go on.