In My Mother's Footsteps



Bergen Belsen 2005
"When the British soldiers came, they transferred us by ambulance to the barracks formerly occupied by the SS. I could not speak English. The soldiers took off my clothes and wrapped me in a blanket sprayed with D.D.T., but I did not want to leave my loaves of bread behind. They refused to let me take them though, because the bread was already so mildewed. I started shouting, but nothing helped. I really did not know what was happening, and was too weak to put up any resistance. I remember that the soldier put me on a table, and a German nurse sponged me. While she cleaned me up, she shook her head and said to the soldier, “We didn’t know… you must believe me.”"


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I was 18 when I discovered that my mother had been born in Berlin, Germany. I only found out because I had been required to provide the information for the army, and the news shocked me deeply. How could she have hidden this from me for so long? Yet even then, we did not break our habit of silence about the Holocaust.

Later, as an adult, I began noticing that other people remembered more about their childhood than I did. My memories had gaps. I also noticed lapses in my emotional vocabulary that seemed related to the gaps in my memory. I started to ask myself why?

I am the youngest of three children, born 14 years after the middle one. The connection between my mother and myself was the intimate kind often shared between a mother and daughter. As I grew up, my mother passed everything about herself on to me. This ranged from the very good times to the very bad during her life in the Holocaust. In many ways the Nazis broke her. The only two roles available to her growing up were those of victim and perpetrator. Her complex behaviours made it very difficult for me to love her and I had to dig very deep in order to uncover my true feelings and the underlying reasons for her behaviour.

It has been over 60 years since these events happened to my mother yet their emotional legacy has shaped our family in many painful ways. Most people like my mother survived only to suffer the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they rebuilt their lives. It is everywhere, in everything. Even though most of her generation is now dead or dying the trauma does die with them. It continues on into the next generations. Neither life nor society equipped any of our family members with the tools needed to deal with it.

The only reason my mother wrote about her life was that my father, on his death bed, asked her to do so. Several hours before he died, he gave her a partial outline of what he wanted her to write down. He made her promise she would do it. This was in January 1995. A year later, she finished the manuscript.

At that time, I was not yet ready to read it. It was only later, after I had embarked on my own route to self-discovery, and had already spent part of a two and a half year residency at Zen Mountain Monastery, a training monastery in upstate New York, that I was able to take on the manuscript.

I began to see how my mother’s Holocaust experience had affected my experience of the world. I began to see how it affected even the simplest interactions. I took a vow to end the cycle of passing on the trauma. I said it would stop with me. I would transform it. I would not pass it on.

In order to do this, I needed to see first hand what was left of my mother’s memories. My mother left parts of her soul in those places and I intended to go back to collect them. I could only do this through intimate familiarity with the locations. And as I am a photographer, the camera was going to be my tool to help me see.

I decided to use a large-format view-camera. This is a cumbersome, bulky, old-fashioned-looking camera which requires ducking under a dark cloth in order to focus. The quality and depth of large format pictures is far more detailed and vivid than those taken with a hand-held camera. Most important though, is that the working process is slow and careful, forcing one to slow down one’s mind, and prising loose any preconceptions of what one would be looking at. This letting go allowed me to return to what’s really there. Thus the picture came to the camera rather than me forcing a picture on the landscape. The pictures are feedback, and not a result of this process of seeing. Working in this way made me vulnerable to the places I was trying to see.

When I learned that I had received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for this project I called up my mother excitedly. Her reaction was: “Oh that’s nice. But if you get a real job you should take it!” Until it was finished, and she could actually see what I had done, she did not understand why I wanted to dig so deeply.

The journey itself took a whole year. It took me from Berlin to the Netherlands, into Poland, the Czech Republic, and back again to Germany, much of it spent walking. When I set out I had no idea what was going to happen. In the end it came to represent for me something very large in understanding who my mother was, and therefore, who I am, myself.

My mother passed away on Nov. 14th 2006. This was two weeks after she had received the completed book, in turn two and a half years after I had set out to follow her footsteps. When she called me to say she received it, she was speechless. It was the first time I have ever experienced her like this. She wanted to speak but no words came out. I think she understood what I had done as much as I had understood what she had done. Over the following two weeks she would call people up and tell them to go look at the book in her apartment even though she was not there. This became very tough for her, because everybody who saw it wanted to talk to her about it.

When I arrived in Israel for the funeral, the book was still on the middle of the table in the sitting room. Anybody who came by could look at it. To protect it, it was covered with a cloth of matching colours.

During the seven days of mourning I spent a lot of time with my aunt Minna looking at a few pages each day. A sense of camaraderie developed between us. Before my mother died, the two sisters used to argue about every detail of what had happened. Now, I was the only outsider who could talk to Minna about it on a different level. And it was the same for me, regarding her. While it lasted it was great. But unfortunately, as my mother’s death opened up wounds inside our family, the presence of the book also caused some disturbance.

I am sad my mother will not see the official publication of this book, or the exhibitions that acompany it. I am sad that I could not talk to her about it face to face.

In the course of following my mother’s footsteps, a lot of my anger towards her has been transformed into love and an increased capacity to love. I understand her better now - the parts of her that were broken as well as the parts of her that remained unbroken and unbent. My love for her is great, and I respect all of the lessons and the heritage that she has passed on.

As I continue to learn from this project, I find myself wishing I could say I have finally reached the stage where I do not have to deal with all of this. I have to admit I am still not there yet.

Yishay Garbasz

My Book 'In My Mother's Footsteps' can be purchased here:

English US (us publication date is September the rest of the world April 09)

English EU


Japan (or on sale at all Nadif stores as well as at Wako Works of Art and Tokyo Wonder Site)