My grandmother and the Holocaust

NB: I have put this post on this blog because I don’t have anywhere else to upload it. It is not directly relevant to architecture.

Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 documentary film Shoah took eleven years to make, six of which were dedicated to gathering testimony in the form of recorded interviews. Originally commissioned to make a two-hour feature film, Lanzmann ended up amassing over three-hundred and fifty hours of footage, which, after five further years of editing, he managed to pare down to just over nine hours. Those nine hours are the form which the finished film took (the outtakes themselves have been made into four separate feature films). The film’s length is one of its most vital attributes: the Holocaust, it is suggested, was such a vast, sprawling historical evil – such a colossal, world-shattering catastrophe – that a serious attempt to create a documentary account of it must contort itself far beyond and out of the established forms of conventional filmmaking.

I think of this fact when I think of the life of my paternal grandmother, Ruth – ‘Nanny’, as I knew her (‘Nanny’, perhaps, to her numerous great-grandchildren too). Born in 1929 in what was then the city of Gleiwitz, on the border between Upper Silesia (then German territory) and Poland, she was part of a Jewish family, and was herself Jewish – Kapitza was the family name. Gleiwitz would become known to posterity through the ‘Gleiwitz incident’ of 1939, during which members of the SS posed as Polish militants and attacked a German radio station in order to provide a pretext for their invasion of Poland later that year. Of her childhood in Gleiwitz (now the Polish city of Gliwice) she said very little – or, at least, very little to me. Her reticence on the subject is completely understandable, of course, but the truth is that I was, for most of the time in which I knew her, too young to understand her experiences during that time, or, later, not appreciative of their extent and profound importance. In 1938 (one year before the Gleiwitz incident), along with her mother (her father had died some years earlier from tuberculosis), she fled Gleiwitz for England, settling eventually in Preston, Lancashire, where she remained for the rest of her life. She converted to the Catholic faith, something which for her possessed a deep and abiding importance. She also met my grandfather Ronald – ‘Grandad’ – in Preston, and in due time her surname was changed from Kapitza to Spurrier. In 2015, on the shoulders of her children and grandchildren, her coffin was carried into the graveyard at St Mary’s church in Fernyhalgh, a small red-brick building of the eighteenth century, surrounded by fields, where she was buried next to the primary school at which she had once been a teacher.

I think of my grandmother when I watch Shoah because that film has led me to understand something about the importance of her experience. I have sometimes felt as though my family’s connection to the catastrophic historical wound of the Holocaust is somehow insufficiently direct. There are scores of people alive today who had parents or grandparents murdered, who had sisters, brothers, wives, husbands or children murdered; who came close to death themselves. Neither myself, nor my father, nor any of his siblings are Jewish in a religious sense, though the bizarre and arbitrary system of Nazi racial classification would identify my father as ‘Mischling [‘mixed blood’] of the first degree’, and me as ‘Mischling of the second degree’, theoretically barring us from higher education and restricting who we could marry (if we had lived in German-annexed Poland at the time, as my grandmother did, it is likely that we would have been classed simply as ‘Jewish’, and exterminated).

What watching (and then re-watching) Shoah has taught me is that to attempt to establish any kind of hierarchy of suffering when speaking about the Holocaust is to view it in fundamentally flawed terms. Lanzmann refused to structure his film in chronological order, arguing that to do so would be to impose an artificial sense of order on a historical cataclysm so sprawling and horrific as to defy sense-making. The Holocaust is not a singular historical event, the details of which can be sifted through and neatly ordered into categories, and neither can it be made sense of in isolated parts (though the thorough study of its every minute detail, from its earliest causes to the specifics of its organisation, is, of course, an absolute necessity). The Holocaust was, and remains, an incomprehensibly vast ocean of grief and anguish, a knotted, tangled, boundless forest of acute human cruelties and centuries-old oppressions, a teeming mass of trauma on a huge and complex scale. Yitzhak Zuckerman, one of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, spoke the following words to Lanzmann in an interview for Shoah: “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” That poison is spread deep and wide, and one affected part cannot be separated from any other.

Related image

Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985)

My grandmother avoided the onslaught of the Wehrmacht by one year. That act of escape – which meant exile, at the age of nine, from the country she had known since birth, as well as separation from her entire family, most of whom, I am told, were murdered in the succeeding years – led eventually to the creation of a very large family of her own. It also led to my existence. I never asked her about her life before I knew her, nor did she readily speak about it. What I know about her life – which is still not very much – I have pieced together through other people: I learned at her funeral that she often remembered the horse-drawn carts that would clatter through the streets of Gleiwitz. She remembered also being pelted with stones as a young girl on her way to school.

In 2016, my brother and I returned to the country of my grandmother’s birth. We did not visit the city now known as Gliwice, though we passed through its immediate neighbour, Katowice, on our way from Poland to Vienna. We had been staying in Kraków, from where we visited the concentration camps at Auschwitz – now Oświęcim – which were only thirty-five miles or so from Gliwice. We had arrived on an impossibly slow, impossibly antiquated train. In the main camp – Auschwitz II, or Auschwitz Birkenau – neither of us spoke much. I was fixated on just how industrial the entire place appeared, and could not help but contemplate how many of my ancestors had ended their lives within its confines (a contemplation in which, so some of the faces around me seemed to suggest, I was by no means alone). We returned to Kraków on a bus laden with tourists. In the cathedral at Vienna, my brother lit a candle.

About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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1 Response to My grandmother and the Holocaust

  1. Michael Molyneux says:

    Another great piece, and a nice tribute.

    (If This Is A Man also worth reading)

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