We need to create alternative moments of commemoration

14 May 2013

A conversation with YAEL BARTANA about “Two Minutes of Standstill”

“Two Minutes of Standstill” aims to interrupt the daily life of the city of Cologne for two minutes. What is the idea behind this collective performance?

I was thinking about what it would mean to lend the ritual of the Yom HaShoa – the Israeli memorial day for the victims and heroes of the Holocaust – to Germany. Every year on this day sirens in public spaces sound all over Israel, and the whole country comes to a halt to observe two minutes of silence.
I have been exploring state and social rituals for many years in order to understand how they form national identity. The first work I made about this was Trembling Time (2001), a video about the Yom haZikaron, the Israeli Soldiers Memorial Day, which functions in practically the same way as the Holocaust Memorial Day. These rituals are national ceremonies and anchored in state law. In Trembling Time I tried to come to a more distant and at the same time more personal interpretation of this very emotionally charged ritual.
What does it mean for an individual – for me as a citizen of the state of Israel – to be raised with such collective rituals? How can one stay an individual and self-responsible within this situation?

So do collective commemorations make sense for you at all? Or is it something that can only be done individually anyhow?

Well, the purpose is to create a narrative of a nation, an identity for the state – that is not unique to Israel. I am not against that but I want to question and to analyze it.

The regulations on how to commemorate are quite defined, there is only a small established path on which one can move. It means that commemoration becomes a pre-formulated routine – instead of being lived and lived up to.

I strongly feel that Germany needs to create alternative moments of commemoration which, for example, also include newcomers – a ritual that refers to the present day and future and not only to the history. Thousands of younger Israelis have moved to Germany in the last years. And many of them – like me – live in mixed relationships. That makes it even more obvious. We have to deal with our history together. So rather than talking about guilt, it is more about being aware of what is happening around us. We ought to commemorate the past but to recognize the present. By this we can recognize the chain of effects caused by the Second World War in the Middle East as well as in Europe up till today – for example that in today’s Germany there can exist a terrorist movement like the NSU that sees itself clearly in the tradition of the Third Reich.
In this regard the performance seeks to make the act of commemoration available to other cultures, not to minimize the significance of the Holocaust. It also wants to give thought and respect to the tragedies still taking place today. This is how we can give the past meaning in the present.

Isn’t there a danger of relativizing the crimes and horrors committed by Germany during the NS-regime when you connect them this way with other events such as the murders of the NSU?

It seems that for some people in Germany drawing a line between the NS to the NSU is politically incorrect. Just as it seems to be impossible to commemorate Jews, Roma, homosexuals together as victims of National Socialism. Maybe it’s true, and each group needs its own memorial. And of course this will continue to be an important discussion: How to commemorate without relativizing. But also without exclusion. After all, it is not about numbers. The NSU is an active fascist movement in today’s Germany. So we are talking about an ideology that still is alive.

The case of the NSU points right to the core of the problem: How could they act for so long without being identified as a right-wing terror cell? That would not have happened in the case of left-extremist or Islamist terror… Apparently the generally strong sensitivity towards German history did not help in this case – or even made us more blind. We can recognize right-extremist terror easily if it comes in a conventional form that we know and learned about. But we don’t recognize it or don’t want to recognize it when it appears in a different way.

We only commemorate but did not learn to understand the threats of the present.

But isn’t there also a danger of instrumentalizing the Holocaust with this work?

In Israel today, there are many interesting options available for those uninspired by the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies. Artists, intellectuals, journalists and musicians take the stage to share personal thoughts and views on the Holocaust. The performance in Cologne is not an act of utilizing the holocaust but rather an act that puts a focus also on alternative rituals.

Isn’t there a contradiction? On one hand the rituals that exist became an empty and shallow duty to fulfill. On the other hand you are proposing another ritual.

But it is not a ritual. It takes the form of a ritual but in fact it is a performance in public space. It is not an existing German holiday. If one day it became a national holiday that would be of course quite an achievement. Because it would be a holiday started by the people. But for now it is a performance, an experiment – a call for attention.

The Yom haShoa is a very early experience in your life – long before you can contextualize or understand it intellectually. First you understand it with your body, it is inscribed into you.

Yes, it is a very physical and emotional experience and for a child also a bit embarrassing. It becomes a sensual memory of the body. As a kid you don’t understand why you have to stand still and keep silent but you definitely experience it very strongly.
And it is a clearly performative moment – and as such it has to be public. Many people go on the balconies when the sirens sound. You could do it in your home, but that does not count. It has to be visible.

For Impulse of course that is an important aspect. After all, “Two Minutes of Standstill” is part of a theater biennial. It is a collective, performative moment – and it reaches back to the roots of theatre as ritual. And it is a serious moment. Its performativity is not a mimicry, not a theatrical “as if”. It is a statement.
But while in Israel participating is the expected thing to, in Cologne it is quite an individual and probably not easy decision. It is an active contribution: standing still as an action.

It is an act of interruption, which is not ordered by the state. But at the same time it is important that it is linked to the ritual in Israel. The Holocaust does not belong to one side – it is a shared history. We have to commemorate it together to be able to really deal with the present and the future. We have to think of new generations, this is our task. So how can we do that? This action is a proposal to actively think about that.

How has your experience been so far with realizing “Two Minutes of Standstill” in Cologne?

Since the early stage of the project we have been searching for partners. We have had conversations with many organizations working around the same issues of history and memory, but most of them are extremely careful about joining the project. It seems that everybody wants to keep his/her own way to commemorate and to deal with that history. But we are happy that more and more people are getting engaged.

So what do you expect of these two minutes? What do you aim for?

People have to find out themselves what it means for them, they have to have their own experiences. I cannot tell people what to think and feel. I am creating a situation. Maybe to some it means nothing and for others it will mean a lot. The responsibility is in the hands of each individual.

Interview: Florian Malzacher