August 17, 2006
Elizabeth Rosner's Backstory
Blue Nude: a Self Portrait
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I participated in a project called Acts of Reconciliation, created by a drama therapist in Oakland, California named Armand Volkas, a son of Auschwitz survivors. Volkas brought together groups of descendants of Holocaust survivors, like me, with descendants of Nazis, gathering us to exchange stories and enact scenes from our childhoods. Using psychodrama and improvisational theater, Volkas encouraged us to discover the threads of our shared legacy, the complex burdens we had in common, despite our seemingly disparate histories.
Bluenude1 I remember my curiosity and dread as I sat in a circle of strangers, all of us waiting to introduce ourselves. Invisible and palpable tension filled the room; we were wondering if we could tell one another apart without hearing accents. When we had to say aloud the names of our parents, I was surprised into nervous laughter to realize how easily I could have been “mistaken” for a German myself. “Frieda and Carlheinz,” I said. My mother was from Vilna. My father was from Hamburg. Then we had to name ourselves. ‘My name is Elizabeth,” I said. “I am a Jew.”
There was Rudi, the son of a high-ranking Nazi official whose brother, Rudi’s uncle, was a Communist who died in Buchenwald--the same concentration camp in which my father was imprisoned. Rudi was a police officer in Berkeley; he had a PhD in Medieval German and a Jewish girlfriend. There was Hans, a psychotherapist with a house-painting business he called German Quality Painting. He too was married to a Jewish woman, and he was a writer.
We talked about our parents and about ourselves, finding to our astonishment and discomfort and, ultimately, relief, that we were more alike than we were different. As we recognized one another’s pain and mistrust, we began slowly to understand that the simple formula of Us and Them was not simple at all. We had inherited a war that wasn’t truly ours, a set of beliefs and nightmares that might be transformed if we were willing to reach out to one another with courage and hope.
I wrote a poem addressed to Hans, calling it “Speaking to One of Germany’s Sons.” “Did any of us ask/ to be born into this place/ or that one?” I asked. “None of it and all of it/ belongs here.” This was the beginning of a practice that has lasted to this day, my desire to write across the vast and confusing gaps between others and myself, even and especially those I’ve been warned to avoid.
Years later, I kept recalling one of the group’s most haunting stories. Ingrid was a German woman whose mother, as a child during the war, had been touched by Hitler. When I began to write my second novel, Blue Nude, and to imagine the early life of one of my main characters, I found myself there, inside that German girl’s skin. When Ingrid told me that she “always felt dirty” because Hitler had touched her mother, I wept. I embraced her without her permission, offered her forgiveness she hadn’t asked for and may not have felt able to receive. What made me think I could comfort her? I offered it anyway.
I believe that Blue Nude is where that offer led me: into the landscape of art and healing and transformation. I want to use compassion and imagination to allow us to move closer together instead of farther away. The very separateness that led ultimately to the murders of so many, the genocide that would have killed my parents and extinguished me? I knew this was a message I had to refuse. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote, not long after one Great War had ended. Can we remember the past and move beyond it, creating art in the process? I hope so.