An Eye in a Plank - by Navah Semel
It might be the end of time. A single eye on a narrow plank. Wide open, as if straining to trap the ungraspable. What does it see which we do not yet see? Nothingness - everything.
We traveled together to a distant land. In Poland our friendship grew. There, of all places. In a dark and overcast foreign country. The first Israelis after generations, diving into the heart of loss and absence.
In the cemetery Haim Maor closed his eyes and caressed the gravestones with his fingertips. Gravestones like these had been chiseled by his blind grandfather in that place at another time. We dived into the seam. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say "beneath the seam." Poland is scorched and there are no Jews. From underneath lace curtain local eyes peeped at the returners. We were like their murky memories. The doubles of the others for a brief moment.
Haim Maor creates the game of simulating doubles. But this is no game. For a moment he substitutes the quick for the dead. Who would willingly agree to undergo a trial of this kind? Haim Maor volunteered. He also volunteered his family. They all become faces which he conjures up daily, from present-day reality. He takes the people around him as a random sample whose purpose is to hint to you that it could easily have been you too.
The point of departure is the immediate circle: father, mother, son, and the number in between them. A number which hovered like an eagle on the ceiling of the home. But the family stood firm, as much as it could. Then come the son's children and friends. Not only in this country but in Germany too. Haim Maor pulls the trial rope at both ends, not an easy test. He does not make the work of identification easy for you. You do not know who is who. It may be a random list of people, but it can be expanded to encompass all the branches of Adam who, for a long moment in history, lost the divine image.
Stealing the individual's face, robbing him of his identity, is perpetrated by means of the camera, which produces standard black and white photographs. Haim Maor obliges his circle of people to traverse the conveyor belt of the condemned, like the "rogues gallery" filed on the wall, and only in space is their innocence registered.
The march of faces continues across the planks of rough, industrial, unvarnished and unembellished wood. The portraits are not in consecutive order or any fixed pattern, and one does not know who belongs where. From all sides people flow to one shining spot. On the level of drawing and color the physical dimension fades. The figure divests itself of the weight of flesh, of the burden of time and place. There are Germans and Israelis in the difficult equation "people", as an unequivocal reminder of the face that the holocaust was perpetrated by people on people.
In his basement, a fall-out shelter where there is no daylight, beneath the fertile expanses of a kibbutz, he envelops planks in paint. Paint is the escape hatch for complete isolation. By this the artist also joins the column of marchers, accompanies the large mass of nameless people who walked without obtaining compassion or kind ness. But no one here is really nameless. He knows each and every one. This is no fable, here reality is placed beneath the magnifying glass of memory. From the here and now he reconstructs what was lost, as it were possible to reconstruct it in any way. It is an act of despair. Will the wind drop? Will life's guilt feelings close the shutters of the house so that there is no possibility of penetrating that fortress? Is there any possibility at all for the magic ceremony of turning family and friends who are very much alive into reflections on the slope of disappearance? The soul disappeared long ago, after all. Only its reflection has been impressed on the plank. The profile of the plank is as thin as real people were then. In the cycle of life they will once again become the tree which produces the plank.
The plank is scarred. The paint cannot conceal cuts, holes and scars. There are nail-inflicted wounds on foreheads and at jugular arteries. A human being is such a fragile thing, and how banal it is to say that again... Only the warm sand of Faiyum preserved the corpses from the beginning of the first millennium. The wind scattered the burning ashes from the crematoria.
We also share in that farewell ceremony, after four decades, accompanying them without coffins or shrouds, and sealing the cycle of mourning which has not yet ended. Because we did not dare weep for them properly. We internalized the pain, substituting rituals and official memorial days for the scar. Beneath the invisible coffinlids the dead seek their mourning. That of the dream and the shout.
The number which was tattooed in the flesh also pushed life on by virtue of immense vitality, by the power of the return to the trivial and the banal. The family portraits, taken from the personal story of someone called Haim, are the impact of the daily routine which reinforced itself since it had no other alternative. To live, to live, out of to die, to diet At the end of the path the portraits fuse into one face. My own face is revealed in the echo chamber of reflections. It is I, who was the embodiment of others, who will be the embodiment of those to come after me. In the darkness, in complete isolation, you look at what other people say is you, a face you will never really see, and it is like a blow in the stomach. You dare not reject and classify people because you yourself are condemned to exile from the tempo of evermoving life. At the edges everything recombines. The end and the beginning are one and the same. The portraits are light-houses sending distress signals to the sky, disintegrating and recombining in a new form. Nose, mouth and eyes. By one flicker of an historic moment that could easily have been me. On the other side of the fence. Victim then-hangman then. From the pack of shuffled cards I must examine closely "who am I?" And reply: ecce homo. And not merely in its literal translation: "this is the man!" But, "this is man!"
If there is a being which our collective language terms "God", and if after that crevice he has not abandoned his step-image, it is also his Sisyphean duty to attain the lost image and save the portrait from the absence of features. It may be possible to salvage something only by means of the thin plank of memory. Everything comes down to one thin plank and the observing eye.
Navah Semel - November 1987