Theater of Cruelty

Ruins in neat rows

Ruins in neat rows
PROXIMITY / Why are we concerned with memories? And who are we if we don't remember others, and no one remembers us? What Hélène Cixous wants is to speak out against oblivion, to show what it means to be persecuted. She asks: Where did the humanity go?


We little girls had memory books, a small book that basically had blank pages. On birthdays, the memory books were brought out. Each guest was asked to write their little thoughts there, to be remembered. We didn't have much life experience, these first years we learned to write, we wrote on templates. Very few wrote in person, but some did. In a corner of the sheet it almost always read: Three words on snow, never forget me (often written as 'mei'). Was there a hunch, passed down from the adults, that most would be forgotten, erased in the memory of others and by history?

Photo helps to evoke minner. Grandma, who was a keen hobby photographer, wrote the names of those who were in the picture, on the back or in the album with the date, year and place. Mum was the one who took pictures of us as children – with a black cash register she looked down into. In the photos from mum's youth, she is with her friends and looks happy. I don't know who any of them are, except my best friend Margaret, and another called Solveig, whom I had met. They were people Mum related to. Today, I wouldn't have recognized any of them in a photo. The faces are erased from memory, but mom would have remembered them.

Why are we concerned with memories? Memories give room for feelings and closeness. Sometimes we are afraid that the inner archives, those that connect us to our own and other people's lives, will disappear from us. Who are we if we don't remember others, and nobody remembers us, or doesn't remember ourselves? It is most difficult to remember for the person who has been tormented. The worst thing is to be deprived of one's human dignity. Then it can become a strategy to suppress memories, to look ahead, to survive. Anyone who becomes an archaeologist in their own life will also find something they don't want to find. Who hasn't felt a twinge of pain from coming into contact with a painful memory? Memories are rooted in reality, in the individual's life, and they can be linked to other people's memories. Here, those who survived the holocaust, or live through a war, will have something in common.

Byen Osnabrueck

Words, photos and places can make us remember people who are no longer. The French writer Hélène Cixous describes in Ruinar in neat rows the mother's home town, Osnabrück, like this: "It is still unexpected that a town in these parts is so beautiful, it is located in Lower Saxony, a geographically cold area which historically is the water of bloody rivers and tears like my mother's family tree."

She was ready to leave, to flee, at any moment. The suitcases were always ready.

byen Osnabrück is located in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany. Here the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648 – the Thirty Years' War, one of the most disastrous periods in European history, was over. But the city would later witness another calamity. Anyone passing through this city today will encounter the Alte-Synagogen-Strasse (Old Synagogue Gate) in a prosperous part of the city. There you will see a pile of pale stones held together by chicken wire between two fashionable houses. This is the rest of the synagogue. Behind these remains, one stares into an empty space – a place to remember and to forget. Four polished plaques tell the story of the horror-filled night, 9–10 November 1938, known as the crystal night, when the synagogue then standing there was desecrated, looted, set on fire and finally demolished by Hitler's troops. 99 of the town's Jewish inhabitants were imprisoned by the Gestapo and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The home was also located in Osnabrück Eve Klein, a member of the city's Jewish community at the time and mother of the author of the book, Hélène Cixous.

Helene Cixous

Mother's story

For Cixous, her mother's story is a place to write from: "Without a centre, it is almost impossible to create anything. There must be a fixed place, an anchorage." Hélène Cixous tries to find order in the family with the help of mother Ève's memories: "Ève cleans and stores everything so as not to lose it. Hieroglyph for Ève. She has carved them in to prevent Gløymsla from swallowing the tragedy." The mother has left lists of 24 shorthand points for her self should remember what happened to her. It was too dangerous to write unambiguously in the time in which she lived.

Cixous wanders around his mother's and family's hometown, Osnabrück. The times, the memories pile on top of each other and link together. Mother Ève fled to London, was stripped of her German citizenship aged 25, trained as a midwife in Algeria when she became a widow in 1948. She was stripped of her French citizenship in 1962, during the Algerian liberation struggle against France. In 1971 she was arrested, imprisoned and deported from Algeria. An elevator attendant at the clinic had made false allegations against her. She flees to Paris dressed as a Berber. Mother Ève was never safe. She was ready to leave, to flee, at any moment. The suitcases were always ready.

In the middle of the book appears a photograph from the Osnabrück Zeitung, June 8, 1985 with the title: "Mini-Klassen-treffen, in the garden of Ria Kruse. The meeting with the returnees, says the newspaper.» 75-year-old Ève is pictured with school friends from the gymnasium. They have been invited to the town hall in Osnabrück, "because-they-were-Jews-from-Osnabrück". "We replaced the dead. And we replaced ourselves», said Ève. In the town hall, they come face to face with their former persecutors. At first there is laughter and the joy of seeing each other again between the ladies, then Grete, one of them, remembers that she was called to, in the food distribution queue. "'No bread for Jews, get away!' I was chased.»

 The memorial of the synagogue

What makes the biggest impression on Hélène Cixous is the memorial to the synagogue, built in 1906. Her great-grandfather was then leader of the congregation. The synagogue: "Stacks of stones, no structure. Honestly, I don't like this memorial. One shows the stones and hides the destruction. Death is not here. And it's not a ruin. They have removed the ruin […].” The sight of the monument makes the author weep: "The leaded glass windshield collapsed, broken glass in a heap, above the arched entrance were words from Psalm 113 written down in large Hebrew letters, from sunrise to sunset it said that the name of the Lord should be praised , never has the face of the dying and dead synagogue had a more endlessly puzzled expression, completely incomprehensible […].” It occurs to her that Nazione wanted to wipe out every single one Jew in the city, that the culture of the Jews in the city disappeared: "These well-kept remains, marked and locked in a cage, are the image of my inner ruins."

The Synagogue of Djerba

When my husband and I were traveling around Tunisia in March 2002, we visited El-Ghriba-
the synagogue on the island of Djerba, one of the oldest in the world. It was just us and the caretaker in there, and outside a little girl with expired shoe soles. The girl and I smiled at each other, we made some sort of connection before she ran on down the dusty road. I remember her well, in a red little skirt and with matted hair. A few weeks later, on 11 April 2002, we hear on the news that a suicide bomber had attacked the synagogue in Djerba on the same day with a natural gas tanker loaded with explosives. 21 were killed, more than 30 wounded. Since then I have carried with me the memory of the little girl and asked myself, was she a victim? Six of those killed were defined as locals. For the reader, too, the memories stack on top of each other.

Hotel Valhalla

Sometimes I get lost in Cixous's non-chronological method. I start digging, like her. She mentions Hotel Walhalla. Is there a hotel in Osnabrück called Walhalla? Yes, it does. The author lives there while researching facts about her mother's family history. Hitler is said to have stayed at the hotel. In Norse mythology, Valhall is the festival hall of the gods in the castle of Åsgard. I notice that the name presses; this is my culture, the discomfort is growing. The misdeeds of the Nazis, the ghosts of history, are so active in the author that they become physical: She sees Hitler walking towards her in the restaurant.


The grief the author feels over mother Ève's fate, she expresses via the story about the orangutan Hope and her three cubs in Sumatra. "[T]his reminds me of Hope, this orangutan that people in the city chased through the streets of Subulssalam in Sumatra, she fled with her cubs, a flight that was slowed down because of the little ones, she lost first one, then the other, persecutions, boycotts, arrests, insults, violence, beatings, shots, she lost the third, then they poked out her eye in 38 and poured petrol over her, there is a photo, they put out the eye in her infinitely sad face..."

It is most difficult for Cixous to touch his mother's degradation.

What kind of memory book is what Hélène Cixous has written about bro? Mother made it, she lived to be 103 years old, because she left Osnabrück in time. It is most difficult for Cixous to touch his mother's degradation. Then the author makes use of a substitute, the orangutan. What she wants is to speak out against oblivion, to show what it means to be persecuted. The span between synagoguens remnant, bricks piled in orderly rows, and the believers taken from days, create an irreparable gap. The collapse of German civilized society is reflected in the total exposure of a mother, a family.

Cixous wonders where humanity became – where was God?

Karin Haugane
Karin Haugane
Haugane is a Norwegian poet and translator. In addition to her own lyrical production, she has translated poems by e.g. Arthur Rimbaud and Ingeborg Bachmann into Norwegian.

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