These photographs are all from a project entitled "In My Mother's Footsteps". To see more photographs from this project and others by Yishay Garbasz please visit:
I am the youngest of three brothers, born 16 years after the middle one. The connection between my mother and me is very intimate, and at times it feels like I am in fact her daughter and not her son. As I grew up, my mother passed on everything about herself to me, from the very good to the very bad, this includes the things she got from her life in the Holocaust. In many ways, the Nazis broke her. The only two roles available to her growing up were those of victim and perpetrator. Her complex behaviors made it very difficult for me to love her, and I had to dig deep in order to uncover my true feelings, and the reasons that had created this behavior.
It has been over 60 years since these events happened to my mother, yet their emotional legacy has shaped our family in many painful ways. Most people like my mother survive only to suffer the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as they rebuild their lives. It is everywhere, in everything. Even though most of her generation is dead or dying, that does not mean that the trauma dies with them. It continues on to the next generation. Neither life nor society equipped any of our family members with the tools needed to deal with it.
The only reason my mother wrote about her life was because my father, on his deathbed, asked her to do so. Several hours before he died, he gave her a partial outline of what he wanted her to write about. He made her promise she would do it. This was in January 1995. A year later, she finished the manuscript. At that time, I was not ready to read it. It was only after spending some time during my two and a half year residency in Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York that I began to read what she had written.
I began then to see how my motherıs Holocaust experience had affected my experience of the world. I began to see how it affected even the simplest interactions. I took a vow to end the cycle of passing on the trauma. I said it would stop with me. I would transform it. I would not pass it on.
In order to do this, I needed to see first hand what was left of my motherıs memories, and experience the emotions it stirred within me. My mother lost parts of her soul in those places and I had to go back to collect them. I could only do this through intimate familiarity with the locations. As I am a photographer, the camera was going to be my tool to help me see.
I decided to use a large-format view-camera. This is a cumbersome, bulky, old-fashioned-looking camera which requires a dark cloth in order to focus. The quality and depth of large format pictures is far more detailed and vivid than those taken with a hand- held camera. Most important though, is that the working process would be very slow and careful, forcing me to focus my mind, and let go of any preconceptions of what I would be seeing. This act of letting go allows me to return to what is really there. Thus, the picture comes to the camera by itself rather than me forcing a picture onto the landscape. The pictures are not a result, but rather the feedback from the process of seeing that I employ. Furthermore, I could not take the camera and run away from the shot. I could not escape the consequences of my presence. I would become vulnerable to the places I would be trying to see.
When I learned that I had received the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship for this project I called up my mother excitedly. Her reaction was: ³Oh thatıs nice. But if you get a real job you should take it!² Until it was finished, and she could actually see what I had done, she did not understand why I wanted to dig so deeply.
The journey itself took a whole year. It took me from Berlin to the Netherlands, into Poland, the Czech Republic, and back again into Germany, much of it spent walking. When I set out I had no idea what was going to happen. In the end it came to represent for me something very large in understanding who my mother was, and therefore, who I am, myself.
My mother passed away on Nov. 14th 2006. This was two weeks after she had received the completed book, which was two and a half years after I had set out to follow her footsteps. When she called me after she received it, it was to say that she was speechless. It was the first time I have ever experienced her speechless. I think she understood what I had done just as much as I had understood what she had done. The following two weeks she would call up people and tell them to go look at the book in her apartment even when she was not there. This became very tough for her, because everybody who saw it wanted to talk to her about it.
When I arrived for the funeral the book was still in the middle of the table of the sitting room. Anybody who came by could see it. To protect it, it was covered with a towel of matching colors.
During the seven days of mourning I spent a lot of time with my aunt Minna, her sister, looking at a few pages each day. The two had survived the Holocaust together. There was a sense of camaraderie. Before my mother died, the two sisters used to argue about every detail of what had happened. Now, I was the only outsider who could talk to Minna about it on a different level. And it was the same for me, regarding her. While it lasted it was great. But unfortunately, as my motherıs death opened up wounds inside our family, the presence of the book also caused some unsettlement.
I am sad my mother will not see the official publication of this book, or the exhibitions, or the documentary film which will be made about it. I am sad that I could not talk to her about it face to face.
In the course of following my motherıs footsteps, a lot of my anger towards her was transformed into love, and an increased capacity to love in general. I understand her better now - the parts of her that were broken, as well as the parts of her that remained unbroken and unbent. My love for her is great, and I respect all of the lessons and the heritage that I have received from her.
As I continue to learn from this project, I find myself wishing I could say I have finally reached the stage where I do not have to deal with all of this. I have to admit I am still not there yet.