A table set for none
A conversation with Dvora Morag about her exhibit, “And You Shall Tell Your Daughter”. Curator: Ktsia Alon
By: Mali DeKalo
01/2014
Genia Kovalski, Dvora's mother

Tell us about the exhibit in Zochrot’s gallery, a location which has a very clear political identity.  What was your first decision when you started working on the exhibit?

In my conversation with Eitan Bornstein Aparicio, Zochrot’s founder, he suggested I create a video installation telling my mother’s story.  At that point I realized I wanted to let her tell the story through my work.  So what happened was that a story I’d been told a long time ago wound up as a film.  I began filming my mother as she talked about the apartment in Jaffa; that became the main work in the exhibit.  Together with Ketzia we decided to add a number of earlier paintings and two new ones based on Shaul Golan’s photographs.

What do the photos show?

An Israeli soldier in uniform, holding binoculars, looking out the window of a Palestinian home, through a curtain.  The second painting was of an army helmet on a woman’s dressing table.

An Arab woman’s dressing table.

I found those two images extremely powerful.

I remember you telling your mother’s story in the exhibit “The history of silence,” because it was connected to your earlier paintings.  Would you agree that this exhibit is in some way a continuation of “The history of silence,” or perhaps a follow-up exhibit?

To some degree it’s a continuation, but also something more – it delves deeper.  The subject of “The history of silence” was silence.  There was a feeling of something behind the paintings, behind the words, but it wasn’t visible.   In the video (watch here) I allowed my mother to tell the story herself, in her own words.  I think that’s a kind of exposure to things I’ve said in various ways but never dared uncover so explicitly.  My mother’s story clarifies some of the images in my work, connects to them in a different way.

Tell us about the connection between painting and the video “Tell your daughter.

”The story connects to the images of the bare table which appears repeatedly in my work.  The bare table which represents to my mother absence and loss.  The abandoned table represents to her the invasion of her home by the Germans while she was eating supper.  The family pulled away from the holiday table which was left empty, orphaned, is the image that has pursued my parents for their entire life.  For them, that was the moment of their great loss, the rupture.

You take that rupture, the family table, and continue to represent it through your work.

Yes, I was raised on it, on the importance of the family table.  It wasn’t only where we ate and sat together; it was a table linked to memory.For many years, when I was a little girl, there was a glass-covered wooden table at home with a crocheted doily.  There were photographs beneath the glass that my parents obtained after the war of family members and relatives who died in the holocaust.  We ate every meal, every holiday, on the dead.  Literally.

What you’re telling me is the table somehow represents the family, its unity, but also its absence.  The abyss of history.  Could we see the empty table as a key image in your work?

Yes, I think a fair number of works deal with it, whether directly – as in the sculpture installation “The hanging table – Seder table,” or indirectly through the tables in the paintings.  Among all the images of home I use, the table is central.

Let’s talk about your mother’s story in the context of the exhibit’s setting, your decision to exhibit here at Zochrot.

Eitan asked me how I felt about the location – Zochrot.  I told him I agree with Zochrot’s approach, its goal of uncovering and commemorating the Arab villages, returning them to collective historical memory.  It’s easy for me to identify with their struggle against denial that Arabs lived here, their uncovering memories of the Arab localities that once existed here before and after the establishment of the state.  I object to attempts to erase them from our consciousness but I don’t support the right of return.   

I decided to make the video because of Zochrot while I was working on the exhibit - the location, the context it provided.  I’m not sure that a different context would have brought it out, neither from me nor from my mother.  The story she told me years ago when she agreed to talk about certain things was that when they arrived in the country they were brought to the Pardess Katz transit camp, placed there, and she told me how terrible conditions were in the camp, that in some way they reminded her of the concentration camps and she refused to remain there.  After many requests they were approved by the Jewish Agency to receive an apartment.  It gave them an address in Jaffa and a key, they went to Jaffa, entered a large Arab house which was surrounded by a fence?  She said it was a nice house but that a large dining table and chairs stood in the courtyard, set with plates on which were remnants of food.  They felt it had been hurriedly abandoned and were thunderstruck.  They refused to live in a place that reminded them of the invasion of their home in Poland and their expulsion from it.  They returned the key and went to live in a packing house.  I asked my mother to talk in the film about what had happened to her, where she came from, how they got to Israel.  I taped her telling the story.

And you wove it into the film?

Because of Zochrot I wanted my daughter to do the filming.  “Intergenerational transmission” was very important to me.  The film is a work by the three of us.  It was clear to me that we’d film in my mother’s home, in surroundings most comfortable for her, as she’s seated at that table, of course.  I wanted her to sit so that the camera points toward the curtained window.  We filmed for three hours, from which I created a segment four minutes long.  I wanted something short; I thought that if I succeeded I’d be left with the core.  It was important to provide the background to the story, that my mother is a holocaust survivor, she’d been put in the gas chamber and taken out, and they came to Israel in 1949.  It was important for me to presence the holocaust in the film but I wasn’t sure how: I didn’t want it to overpower everything but only to provide the background to what happened in Jaffa.  I chose a few sentences from her story.  I began with “We were naked” to emphasize the feminine aspect; I also wanted to stress the genocide in her second sentence in the introduction: “They said to us, you see that chimney; that’s where you’re going.”  And then the story of how she came to Israel, and about the table.

An entire life told in four minutes.

When I started to think about the images I’d use it was clear to me I wouldn’t show what happened there; I’d leave the screen blank – it seemed more appropriate to hear only her voice.  Otherwise, I used images – of the table, the window curtain, the open window through which children’s voices were heard, street sounds – it was important to bring in the outside.  And my mother’s hands, her physical presence, were important.

You mentioned intergenerational transmission, a continuity that allows the story to be told.  Your mother tells the story through you, and is filmed by your daughter.  “The history of silence” was about what can’t be told.  In this exhibit your mother’s story breaks the silence.  Perhaps it’s your mother’s story that allows not only her voice to be heard but also moves you one step closer to speaking.Your previous exhibit contained allusions to the memory of the holocaust.  Here you take the opposite tack with your mother’s story.  Her story, told in her own voice, provides an opportunity for your own voice to be heard.

The art world always had reservations about works dealing with the holocaust.  That’s still the case today, unless the reference is ironic, comic, pornographic or almost completely hidden.

Kupferman, for example, denied almost until the day he died any connection between his work and the holocaust, and only at the end of his life was he willing to accept such an interpretation.

That’s right.  I remember visiting him; he sort of admitted there was something to it.  I still make what seems to me an appropriate distinction.  After all, it’s not my story, it’s my mother’s.  True, it strongly affected my own life.  I thought it was appropriate to present it as her story.  I was relieved that I got her to tell her story and was able to connect it to my own daughter.  I think that’s expressed through this work we did together.  To allow her to tell it in her own voice, which immediately lets me express myself.  They’re very closely connected…

Is that explicitly connected to the political aspect of your work which up till now has been primarily personally political, but whose references may now become broader, more historical and geopolitical?

It turns out there are other stories like that but they’re not part of the Zionist ethos; there are efforts to hide them, to avoid mentioning them.  I believe it’s very important to uncover them.  To emphasize that there’s a place in the state of Israel not only for the survivors’ desire for vengeance, but also for the compassion they felt.  That found no representation, no reflection because it didn’t serve the goals of the Zionist ethos.

About two years ago I began participating in meetings of Israeli and Palestinian artists which had been organized by the Bereaved Families Forum.  They were very intensive and the discussions were very difficult.  They helped me understand how important it was to express an opinion about the conflict.  I was asked to lead a group of bereaved Israeli and Palestinian women.  For about half a year I helped them create books which told their life story.  Each created a book which was comprised primarily of images, and a little bit of text.  The books were exhibited and made a very strong impression on people who viewed them.  That experience led me to become more active on the issue, but it was apparently also the start of my effort to tell my own story by means of the film.

Let’s talk a bit about the visual techniques you use in the video.  I would argue that your painting as well as your video employs a masking strategy.

Using the image of the curtain – it was important to dismantle the images and reassemble them, which is why we filmed directly into the light, filmed the ceiling, the curtain.

In the video it’s the curtain; in the paintings it’s the stripes.

I like the curtain’s presence in the film; I have no doubt about including it.

This is the first time you’ve permitted yourself to include a painting based a photograph taken in the camps.

The truth is, those paintings are old.  I painted them thirteen years ago.  They lay in my “personal” drawer.  They were based on photographs.  Twenty years ago my parents went back to Poland and to Auschwitz and photographed each other.  The two photos were very important for me because of the sharply different gendered representations of my father’s and mother’s experience.  My father had planned in advance to bring an Israeli flag which he would unfurl and carry in the camp.  In the photo he appears as a proud, official representative of Israel.  My mother, on the other hand, was transported emotionally back in time.  You can see that in her expression.  She was experiencing anew what she’d gone through as if no time had elapsed.  When she arrived it all came back to her.  It was important to me to say this, to paint it, to presence it.

The decision to display these paintings, which show the entrance to Auschwitz, in Zochrot gallery is simultaneously an act of opposition and of identification.

It’s a statement that not only Jews suffered a holocaust.  Everyone expelled from their home, everyone who loses their home, suffers a kind of holocaust.  But what happened to the Jews was genocide; that’s not what happened to the Palestinians. I don’t doubt that what happened to most of the refugees and those who were expelled was a kind of holocaust, but it wasn’t genocide; they weren’t systematically put into gas chambers, but they were dispossessed of their lands, sometimes brutally.  That’s what I said here; I know it elicits strong reactions, but now’s the time to make this statement.  It stimulates arguments – that’s a good thing.

I have a feeling the time has come.  That it’s the right time.

Too bad it didn’t happen earlier, but that’s the reality, that’s how the process works.  It’s also happening in the context of what’s going on here, the moral bankruptcy, the lack of compassion – a word that’s been erased, has disappeared from the public lexicon.  It was important for me to walk in the other’s shoes, view him as a human being just like us.  That doesn’t make decisions any easier.  It’s not at all simple for me to live with the feeling you seized someone else’s place.  We hide that fact because we’re uncomfortable with it, but that’s not the way to behave.  We must be compassionate toward them; perhaps then things will be different.

Translation to English: Charles Kamen

Zochrot online