This article was written on 04 Dec 2019, and is filled under Actualities, New Ecologies, Performance.

Unlost in Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee

Following a recent reading given at the University of Washington in Seattle by the writer Katja Petrowskaja from her book Maybe Esther, an audience member posed a particularly difficult question. Perhaps provoked by the land acknowledgment that I had given during my introduction, which recognized that the reading was taking place on historical and contemporary lands of the Coast Salish peoples, the audience member wondered aloud whether Petrowskaja’s reading of stories about the displacement and genocide of European Jews was itself not also part of the ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples in this settler colonial state. The question was not so much directed at Kyiv-born and Berlin-based Petrowskaja as it was at all of settlers in the room (including this questioner himself) who in telling and retelling and publicly platforming their traumatic family histories abroad participate in the marginalization and erasure of those past and ongoing histories of settler colonial violence in which we, as settlers, are profoundly implicated. Occurring after an extremely moving reading that imaginatively reconstructed the history of the murder of Petrowskaja’s grandmother by Nazis in Kyiv during the Babi Yar genocide, the audience member’s question, in no way accusatory, was both compelling and unsettling.

I began to consider this question yet again while recently visiting Robert Sniderman’s exhibition, Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee, currently on view through December 7 at the Western Gallery on the campus of Western Washington University. One of Europe’s largest intact Jewish cemeteries occupies the gallery walls in the form of photographic images, video, and inscribed names. In the cavernous space between the walls all manner of objects have been assembled in a kind of vortex of Jewish memory, a patch of debris whose provenance stretches from Berlin to Bellingham: a rusted-off, Shofar-shaped exhaust pipe, Joanna Rajkowska’s book Where the Beast is Buried, a pair of boots, a modified U-boat cart bearing various reading materials including multilingual survey responses and a battered copy of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Biography, a jar of deep crimson liquid that upon closer inspection is identified as beet kvass, a small hoard of hair and toenails, pairs of wooden chairs facing each other in close proximity, a tapestry of compost on which the Hebrew word ל֥וּז (“Luz”) is visible, a soiled shirt with “Gaza” painted on the back in the Latin, Hebraic, and Arabic alphabets. Collectively these objects activate a force field of Holocaust memory. Everything is permeated by it. But the word Gaza also testifies to memory’s permeability, and this is where the exhibition opens lines of inquiry that might begin to engage with the question of memory’s forms of implication and its ability to mobilize seemingly disparate decolonial movements.

Exhibition photo by Payton Dickerson.

Exhibition photo by Payton Dickerson.

A book given to Sniderman by the Berlin-based Kurdish poet, Abdulkadir Musa, who fled Rojava in the 90s. Photo by Payton Dickerson.

A book given to Sniderman by the Berlin-based Kurdish poet, Abdulkadir Musa, who fled Rojava in the 90s. Photo by Payton Dickerson.

The acts of remembrance documented and performed in Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee are anything but monolithic. The disorientation of Sniderman in the cemetery—and the disorientation of the viewer in this fragmented surrogate of that space—provokes a disorientation of memory and its dislocation into something multidirectional, transcultural, and cross-pollinating. An interpretive panel informs the viewer that many of the documents and objects in the exhibit are derived from a series of three long walks (“Counter-Ruins I-III”) undertaken by Sniderman between the Jewish cemetery in Weißensee, an Arabic-Palestinian commercial district, the US Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and ruins of Nazi deportation sites. The trajectories of the walks, and the trajectories of the exhibition, owe their genesis to the intersection of multiple events, as one (all upper case, punctuation-less) wall text in the exhibit gives notice:

On May 14th I was returning to Berlin from Warsaw Poland the city of my great-grandmother’s birth when more than sixty nonviolent demonstrators were massacred marching against their exile and mass incarceration in Gaza On the train I started to envision a public intervention I would eventually call “Counter-Ruin” sourced from an image I had co-manifested with/in the cemetery tens of people picking up stones around the ruins of Anhalter Bahnhof a former Nazi deportation site then carrying them in each hand en mass to place on the graves of the thousand of suicides buried in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee during the 1942 deportations The concurrent Great March of Return and retributed massacres purged and relocated the image In so far as I could be read or read myself as Jewish in Berlin Gaza was written on my back I wished to make this anxiety public to ritualize and provoke its intensity within the larger project’s embrace and thereby insert my body physically and symbolically into the racist transnational discourse that vilifies my position or justifies it and pits traumatized communities against each other in the name of it I meant to communicate geographically and socially in real time the terror of lineal entanglement in the fact of my body moving in relation to other bodies in Berlin I meant to be ambivalent I moved without stopping my reference

The course of the walks links up these two histories of dispossession. Sniderman’s experience of disorientation in the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee develops, through the exhibit, into a decentering of Jewish suffering, or rather, to speak with Judith Butler, a centering of ethical relationality that both interrupts and constitutes Jewish identity; out of this interruption facilitated by the exhibit emerges a subject who is both impacted by the Shoah and who is implicated in the ongoing injustice in Gaza.


Multidirectional memory, the implicated subject: these are also keywords in the scholarship of Michael Rothberg, whose lines of inquiry run parallel to, and sometimes intersect with, Sniderman’s. In his work Rothberg pieces together, in his words, “a countertradition in which remembrance of the Holocaust intersects with the legacies of colonialism and slavery and ongoing processes of decolonization”: W.E.B. Du Bois reflecting on relations between Black and Jewish histories following his visit to the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto in 1949; Aimé Césaire writing on the atrocities of the European “occupation” of Africa and Asia anticipating and preparing the atrocities of the Nazi occupation of Europe; Marguerite Duras juxtaposing, in the wake of the Paris massacre of pro-FLN Algerians in 1961, immiserated Algerians in France with Jewish inmates in Nazi ghettos. (This multidirectional line of inquiry is also featured in Marissa Brostoff’s recent essay in Jewish Currents that links together Benjamin’s messianic mediations, Holocaust memory, Lakota prophecy, and the current climate emergency.)

Sniderman’s “Counter-Ruin” participates in this countertradition at a deeper level than a passing reference to Gaza. For one, the genre of the performance walk has long been mobilized by artists to reflect on their affinities and affiliations with migrant communities. Though encompassing much more than a single walk, Joanna Rajkowska’s Born in Berlin and the burial of her daughter’s placenta in front of the Reichstag might be considered part of this tradition, as is the work of Yael Bartana, both of whom Sniderman has cited as inspiration. I’m also thinking here of Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s iconic performance walk, “Roadworks,” which she undertook in 1985 in the then-predominantly Afro-Caribbean London neighborhood of Brixton, walking barefoot through the market and arcades with a pair of Doc Martens, tied to her ankles by their laces, trailing behind her. (If Hatoum’s walk is nowhere explicitly cited in this exhibit, the former nevertheless resonates in the latter, particularly in the display of Sniderman’s walking boots.)

Photo by Payton Dickerson.

Photo by Payton Dickerson.

Second, while Sniderman undertakes “Counter-Ruin” as a solitary walk—a planned collective walk was cancelled—he is rarely, if ever, alone. Not only are many of the spaces that he traverses crowded with diverse passerbys who visibly engage with him in the film; moreover, as Sniderman puts it, “the walking body collaborates with the site” and that site is never unpopulated. In this regard the solitary “Counter-Ruin” might then be regarded as a mode of “walking-with,” the practice perhaps first elaborated in the Zapatista’s 2005 Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona where they invite others to walk with them as a form of “‘reciprocal respect for the autonomy and independence of organizations” involved in the struggle for Indigenous rights and sovereignty (cited in Juanita Sundberg’s “Decolonizing Posthumanist Geographies”). And as Stephanie Springgay & Sarah E. Truman of Walkinglab point out in their recent book, Walking Methodologies in a More-than-human World, “You could walk-with alone.” While not directly addressing Indigenous struggles in the Americas, “Counter-Ruin” overtly acknowledges and, in its own oblique way, participates in a common struggle against settler colonialism, even if it does not reflect on its own implication in the ongoing occupations on this continent.

If Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee performs a politically consequential form of walking-with, it also performs the minor Jewish genre of getting-lost-with. As a Jew, one is never lost alone in Berlin today; a forerunner is always present. For example, Walter Benjamin, whose critical biography Sniderman schlepped around in Berlin and which can be found in the exhibit’s study, begins A Berlin Childhood around 1900 with the memorable passage: “Not to find one’s way about in a city is of little interest. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires practice.” This school of getting lost in Berlin is also documented in the exhibition in the heavily-thumbed copy of Rajkowska’s Where the Beast is Buried. (Further reading in this genre includes Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s 2012 novel, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, as well as Tomer Gardi’s 2016 novel, Broken German, whose protagonist Abschalom Raucherzone breaks into, and then proceeds to get lost in, Berlin’s Jewish Museum.)

But rather than dwelling solely on and in a condition of disorientation, “Lost in Jüdischer Friedhof Weißensee” seems equally invested in, to speak with Walter Benamin, redeeming what is unlost, what is unverloren. Here the reference the citation from Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” in the exhibit’s explanatory text—a passage about “the chronicler, who recounts events without distinguishing between the great and the small [and] thereby accounts for the truth, that nothing which has ever happened is to be given as lost to history”—provides the most fitting account for the significance of the objects salvaged in this exhibit. This mode of chronicling might also account for the exhibit’s anachronistic aesthetics, in which histories of oppression and dispossession are never confined to the past but are always irrupting in the present and always making openings for new, if provisional, acts of solidarity and walking-with.

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