On September 16, 1975, the 1924 Leningrad-born artist Boris Lurie boarded the Lermontov. This Russian ship would take him from America back to Riga, the capital of Latvia, where he had spent his childhood and where the most important people in his life were murdered because they were Jews, one of his sisters, his mother, his grandmother , his first lover. The massacre took place in the Rumbula forest near Riga. On November 30 and December 8, 1941, about 25,000 Jews were shot there by the Nazis and Latvians who collaborated with them, mostly women, children, and the elderly.
In Lurie’s work, in the texts about his work, the word Rumbula appears again and again, almost as an incantation, but also to indicate that there was one before and one after Rumbula. (By the way, probably the largest mass murder of Jews in Latvia took place in the Biķernieki forest near Riga, where between twenty and forty thousand Jews, Russian prisoners of war and political opponents of the Nazis were murdered.)
“I thank you, Adolf Hitler”
Lurie became an artist after the war when he lived with his father in New York, where he made money as an advertising artist. In his spare time, he made drawings about the ghetto and the concentration camps. His drawings are still reasonably realistic, he still trusts that the radical destruction can be depicted in a relatively conventional way.
He became a writer when he returned to New York in 1975 after his visit to Riga and the Rumbula Forest and began writing his memoirs in English, German and Russian, totaling approx. 700 pages, with the title in Riga† Dream image and reality, fantasy and eyewitness account can hardly be distinguished from each other.
The first volume of these memoirs was published in 2019 and begins with a dedication from Lurie: “I thank you, Adolf Hitler, for making me who I am, for the fruitful hours I spent in your hand, for the precious experiences you have learned through your wisdom, for all the tragic moments that dangle between life and death. ‘
The camp, as you know, can become part of one’s identity, but to my knowledge, none of the survivors has gone as far as Lurie in saying that he is Hitler’s creature, from which I deduce: Hitler’s child. And I think we can only understand Luri’s comprehensive and complex oeuvre if we take his statement seriously.
Lurie’s father, Ilya, was an industrialist who had to leave Leningrad after the Russian Revolution because industrialists had become enemies of the peasants’ and workers’ paradise, Boris’ mother was a dentist. They fled to Latvia.
After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Latvia became a Soviet republic in the summer of 1940. A year later, the Germans arrived, who were warmly welcomed by a significant part of the Latvians.
Lurie divides the victims in Latvia into four categories.
The Jews who were murdered almost immediately after the German invasion in the summer of 1941.
The Riga ghetto Jews, who, as I said, were largely murdered in two days, November 30 and December 8, 1941.
The working Jews from the ghetto, who were put to work in the so-called Arbeitslager near Riga. When the Red Army advanced, most of them were ‘evacuated’ to Germany. About a thousand survived, including Boris Lurie and his father.
Then about five hundred Latvian Jews are still in hiding or have lived under a false name; of them, only a handful survived.
Furthermore, between fifty and one hundred thousand German, Austrian and Czech Jews were transported to Latvia during the war, almost all of whom were destroyed there.
It is worth describing some of Lury’s sparse memories from the time before he became Hitler’s child, that is, before Rumbula.
Yesterday’s ‘fuck parties’
Boris was called “Borya-why” because he always asked questions. The maid at Lurierne was named Bronya, and according to Boris, she was constantly flirting with him. He designed a mirror system so he could spy on her while she was taking a shower, and he collected clothes she was wearing to smell and fantasize about her. She was eventually fired by Boris’ mother because she feared her son would conceive the maid.
He also describes what he calls ‘fuck-parties’ of Latvian youth. The girls choose the boys, after which they all disappear into their own room. Boris is chosen by a girl from what he calls the ‘working class’ – he writes that during attempts at lovemaking she makes sounds ‘like he has never heard’ – but when he tries to put on a condom, she gets furious and shouts him: ‘You fucking, am I not good enough for you?’
Lurie’s grandmother was the only one in the family who was Orthodox. As a child, he detested her because of her advanced age and her religiosity. He enjoyed eating pork, precisely because it was the only remaining Judaism taboo in his family.
His memoirs are a series of major and minor border crossings with war and mass murder as the border crossing of border crossings.
In the so-called Arbeitsjuden ghetto, where Lurie ended up with her father after the rest of his family was massacred, a lively trade in food and sex developed, partly due to the arrival of German Jews. According to Lurie, the German-Jewish women, because they did not speak the language and needed protection and food and their husbands were often murdered, were available for sex. The German Jews were seen as ‘replaceable’ by the Latvian Jews, writes Lurie.
He adds that even then he must have had the subconscious imagination that all women were doomed to death, that they were all chosen to die, and that the survival of the almost exclusively male working Jew would increase if all women disappeared. Although this fantasy would be unconscious, it deserves to be taken seriously, if only because there is some aggression against women in Lurie’s work.
The biggest striptease ever
Now I have to name Ljuba Treskunova, the girl Boris calls her “true love.” For years he had coveted her in vain, but shortly after the German occupation their love blossomed.
But on December 8, 1941, Ljuba, along with his sister and mother, Boris’ mother, Schaina, his grandmother and youngest sister, Josephina, and thousands of other women and children, had to march through the icy cold to Rumbula, where they were to undress. to be finished.
In her memoirs, Lurie writes that Ljuba did not die in the Rumbula forest, but was only seriously injured. From the outside, she seems unharmed, but she can not keep her pee and Boris has to change underwear every day at twelve o’clock. Visitors who are apparently there are barely aware of the couple, they are just mumbling, ‘Life must go on.’ The nightmare of reality turns into comfort in a dark hallucination.
Elsewhere, Lurie stated that he has “a stunned attraction to the art of striptease” and that he continues to relive “the greatest striptease ever, the one in Rumbulabos”, but that “he did not know it then.”
What did he not know then?
He calls his sister Jeanna, who was shot and killed, Miss Rumbula.
One of Lury’s most famous works of art is a collage with the title Railway to America from 1963. In a photo of probably Margaret Bourke-White of corpses, probably from a concentration camp, stacked on an open freight wagon, Lurie has pasted a photo of a pin-up in braces, her face facing the corpses. She is in the process of taking off her panties, her long dark wavy hair falling over her shoulders.
Of course, not all striptease is mass murder, but all mass murder is also striptease.
But anyone who has read Lurie’s memoirs can no longer see this collage without thinking of his imagination. This is Ljuba, apparently unharmed, she rises from a pile of corpses.
There is no real solidarity either in Lurie’s memoirs or in his works of art, for the living there is only substitutability. This is how I also explain Lurie’s obsession with striptease, where substitutability speaks for itself, both for the nude dancer and for the visitor; all are interchangeable.
In New York, Lurie has always been a stranger, he was also an outsider in the art world. Nevertheless, he kept in close contact with some artists, including Wolf Vostell, whose extraordinary exhibition Boris Lurie & Wolf Vostell, Art by Auschwitz testifies that it can be seen in the Art Museum in The Hague until 29 May. Those who think of Vostell’s 1970 installation in Cologne, which can also be seen at the exhibition, will not be surprised.
Grind of forks and spoons
The visitor walks across a sea of forks and spoons along the fence wire, the iconic image of the camp. Before that he has been given a suitcase and a chewing gum, a microphone is attached to the cheek, so that his slap mixes loud and clear with the squeak of forks and spoons.
The question is how shocking it still is, in times when concentration camps like Auschwitz have become tourist destinations that I do not pass judgment on, perhaps rather a tourist destination than completely forgotten.
And it’s not about shocking either. Art that will shock after Hitler is grotesque; where everything is desecrated, the fear of desecration is also desecrated. Where trust in reality has been radically swept away, the horror of that breach of trust has also become unreliable.
The work of Luries and Vostell is about the breach of trust, about the insight that only the dead are irreplaceable.
Border crossing of border crossings can only be represented by continuing to try to cross new symbolic boundaries. Total desecration is a fact, but must be staged in any work of art, so that one can almost always go towards the total desecration again and again.
Lurie did so by relying on her fantasies. He did not fear it, probably because he knew he was Hitler’s child. For example, he writes that the surviving victims and perpetrators should meet in Rumbula and eat snacks there, says a rabbi Shema of Israel. Countless barrels of vodka must be turned into soldiers until victims and perpetrators roll on the ground and vomit and giggle so that the dead can at least feel the vibrations.