February 2016, I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to research and write the first draft of Blestemat (Cursed). The plan is to travel in Eastern Europe, particularly Romania, and see what is left of the Second World War and the Communist Era.
I will be starting my journey in Poland, where it all began. I will visit Auschwitz to where some of the worst atrocities of the Nazis were committed. I hope to gain some understanding about how trans-generational trauma affects the people of Poland.
Next I will travel to Romania, starting in Bucharest, where I will spend time at Opera Nationala Bucuresti ( Bucharest National Opera) to get a sense of a day in the life of a dancer. I will also research Romania's part in the Second World War, and the Iron Guard, and life during Communist Era both before and after Ceausescu.
Then I will travel by train to Bucovina and take the journey that my main character, Ana, would have had on her way to Bucharest from her village - though backwards. I will be visit Romanesti, the village where my grandparents were from, and I will spend time in the Village Museum.
KRAKOW - POLAND
The scars are deep. One can feel it in Kazimierz, the revitalized Jewish neighbourhood just south of the Old Town, where I stayed. It is the area where the majority of the Jewish community lived after having been expelled from Krakow in 1495. They thrived until the Germans invaded in the fall of 1939.
In 1941 the Jewish people were relocated to the Krakow ghetto, and most never returned. The area fell into disrepair during the communist era, and remained that way for a while, but it has area has now been transformed into a living, breathing, bustling world of historical sites, atmospheric cafes, and art galleries.
On one street, remnants of the set from Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List still stands.
Oscar Schindler’s factory, which has been turned into a fascinating / terrifying museum, is within walking distance.
AUSCHWITZ - BIRKENAU
What struck me at first was how surreal it felt to be there. A member of the group remarked that it felt like a movie set. My generation has seen Auschwitz in movies and pictures, so that is the association, but I think it feels unreal because the atrocities committed here are beyond what one can imagine as real.My group was interesting by virtue of what brought them there. Many were trying to digest what their relatives had experienced, or find out how they perished, others were simply trying to understand how this could have happened at all.
This particular day made it even more difficult to fathom. It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was shinning, the birds were chirping, and the foliage and grass had the bright green glow reserved for new life. The people imprisoned here would have seen those days, and I wondered how they reconciled the beauty of their surroundings with the horrors they were living.
It was clear that our guide was affected. Her grandfather had been a prisoner in one of the labour camps, and she spent much of the tour explaining that the Polish people had done their best to help. It seemed that the trauma she inherited was a double-edged sword. Not only was she upset about how the Polish and Jewish people had perished, but she also carried guilt that the Polish people had not been able to help the Jews more than they did. I truly felt for her.
Even though it was early in the tourist season, and I chose to do the study tour, there was a sense of rushing through the camp turned museum. This added to the unreality of the place, until I arrived in the room where the human hair shaved off the victims is kept. It is only a fraction of what they found, but it was then that I had a visceral reaction which developed into a sickening feeling that stayed with me for days. I had finally connected in whatever limited way I could and thought about those people as individuals for the first time. I thought about my Step-Grandmother, who survived the Holocaust, never to talk about it again. This connection went deeper when I saw the shoes and envisioned the personalities they reflected.
By the time we reached Auschwitz II (Birkenau) the reality had sunk just in time to gasp at the enormity of the operation. On seeing the size and scale of the camp, our group got quiet, and I couldn’t help but wonder at my own place in it all. I am human and humans committed these acts. It is a terrifying equation. I don’t think I am able to talk about it yet, I still get vertigo when I think of its size. Is there really any wonder or question as to how, generations later, there is still so much healing that needs to be done? In only a few decades, a hundred years will have passed, but somehow it still feels like it happened yesterday.
On my way to Budapest the train stopped at Oswiecim Station in the middle of the night. Whether I was still haunted by what I had seen earlier or whether it was a lack of sleep, I don’t know, but it felt like a million souls were trying to board that train and leave that place forever. It was chilling.
I debated long and hard about whether to bring my camera. In the end I decided not to bring my DSLR. I couldn't imagine taking photos. Once I got there I felt differently. Everyone takes photos - to ground or distance? I don't know. I decided to discreetly use my iPhone. The pictures here are those. I tried to capture the vastness of Birkenau, but it was unrecordable.
OPERA NATIONALA BUCURESTI, BUCHAREST, ROMANIA
I was warmly welcomed by the Bucharest National Opera, and spent three days watching classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon. This talented mix of foreign and Romanian dancers spend six hours a day training, rehearsing, and performing - six days a week. The contractual six-hour limit is comprised of class and rehearsal, class and a show, or any other combination, as long as the hourly limit is respected.
The dancers physical skills are tremendous to watch but I was relieved to see some imperfections as the dancers challenged themselves. It gives me permission to fail at my attempts at multiple pirouettes in the future. Really, I thought that the perfection executed on stage was a constant but dance, like any sport or art, is a process. It helps that the dancers encourage each other, clapping at the impressive feats of their colleagues especially those of the soloists and principal dancers. But, while the corps de ballet shows respect for the principal and soloist dancers, there is no deference. They are all there to work, and they do!
Morning classes are fun because the atmosphere is like a cafeteria at lunch time. As the dancers split up - in no discernible order - to do the exercises at the barre, the rest of the dancers mill about stretching, socializing, and practicing their assigned choreographies. Personal belongings: Rollers, elastics, leg and body warmers, bags, and an inordinate amount of bananas, are strewn on the floor between the barres and dancers, until it comes time for centre work. Then the studio is cleared of all debris. Frankly, I had imagined a more regimented daily class - but these are professionals who are responsible for their own training. Still, their respect for their Romanian ballet Master is obvious, no one leaves class without bowing to him first.
There seems to be a good camaraderie between the Romanian and foreign dancers despite the current managerial and political issues that would pit them against each other. While these issues are beyond the scope of this blog, and beyond the control of the dancers, they came to a head when the performance of The Dream was cancelled because the orchestra refused to play. It was disappointing not to witness the performance of a ballet that I had watched in rehearsals, but it was much worse for the dancers who waited on stage, in full make up and costume, to see if they would be allowed to perform or not. While the tension was high during my visit, everyone still hoped for a favourable outcome. As for me, I had done what I came to do, which was to examine a day in the life of a Prim Ballerine with the National Opera of Bucharest.
DULCE BUKOVINA, ROMANIA
Bucovina hosts an incredibly beautiful and bucolic landscape, perfect for shooting, a great backdrop for my film.
THE VILLAGE MUSEUM, BUKOVINA, ROMANIA
VILLAGE LIFE: PHOTOS OF MY FAMILY IN ROMENESTI, BUKOVINA
My grandfather's house, before it was taken down. It is a traditional village home from that area, similar to those that can be found in the Village Museum in Bucovina.
My aunt and uncle in traditional clothing. My uncle was born in Romania, though my mother was born in Canada.
My mother's grandmother, her aunt and uncle, and her cousin.
MEMORIAL OF THE VICTIMS OF COMMUNISM AND OF THE RESISTANCE, SIGHET, ROMANIA