Friday, March 17, 2017

Circus Freaks and Tom Thumb--The Rock Star of the 19th Century





(First posted this exactly seven years ago--one of my first "Story Behind the Photo"  essays that I hope will soon be collected into a book to be called "Sepia Shadows--The Stories Behind Historic  Photos."  Links to many more of these essays are in the list at right.  Click on the photos to enlarge them)

Circus Freaks are having a moment.

Recently my friends Andy and Veronica mentioned that they’re preparing art for an upcoming show "paying homage to circus freaks, carnies, and sideshow misfits" that will be held at Space 242 on East Berkeley Street in Boston from April 30 to May 21, 2010., called “Get Your Freak On!”

Then I read about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” called “Love Never Dies” which will open on Broadway in November. It takes the Phantom to Coney Island, where he runs a freak show.

All this talk of Circus Freaks, who basically fell off the radar back in the 1970’s, when we all realized it wasn’t polite to stare at people who are different, reminded me of a category of antique photos that I had nearly forgotten about—the rabid collecting of cartes de visite and tintypes and cabinet cards of circus freaks back in the 1800’s, especially during the Civil War era . These freaks were mainly working for P. T. Barnum. The most famous of all was “General Tom Thumb”, who never grew more than three feet tall.

I never have collected antique photos of freaks like Barnum’s “Fee-jee Mermaid”, which was a mummified monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered in papier maché-- for the same reason I don’t collect those post mortems of dead babies—they give me the creeps. But I do have several photos of Tom Thumb in my collection (above). Most of these were originally taken by Matthew Brady. (The signatures on the backs, by the way, are printed, not originals.)

During the Civil War era, Tom Thumb was more famous than, say, modern stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Angelina Jolie all put together. His wedding stopped traffic in New York City and on his honeymoon Tom Thumb was invited to visit President Lincoln at the White House and then Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. I think the midget was the most photographed man of his time—even more so than Lincoln.

If you add up all the business-card-sized CDVs that were purchased and put into Victorian photo albums, maybe Gen. Tom Thumb was the most photographed man who ever lived.

His real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton and he was born on Jan. 4, 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His parents were first cousins. When he was born, he was a large baby—9 pounds 8 ounces-- and he developed normally for the first six months, but then he stopped growing at 25 inches high and 15 pounds.

By the time he was nearly five, he was still the same height and weight.

P.T. Barnum was a distant relative of the little boy and he contacted the child’s parents and said he would teach him to sing, dance, mime and impersonate famous people and would pay him $3.00 a week to appear in New York at “Barnum’s American Museum” on Broadway where several “giants” were already part of the show.

The boy was a quick learner and his tours, as he impersonated characters like Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte, made him a huge success. (Barnum named him Tom Thumb after a character in English folklore. He claimed he had found him in Europe and brought him to the U.S. “at great expense.” He also said the five-year- old boy was actually 11. “Tom Thumb “ found himself drinking wine and smoking cigars before he was six.)

When the boy was six, Barnum took him on a tour of Europe and Tom appeared twice before Queen Victoria. She was enchanted. According to Barnum, the Queen took him by the hand and led him about the gallery of paintings and asked him many questions, “the answers to which kept the party of nobles in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

As they were leaving, the Queen’s poodle suddenly attacked the little man and Tom Thumb used his formal walking stick to fight off the dog, to everyone’s amusement.

The boy was an immense success in London and Barnum had a miniature carriage made to take him around.

On Feb. 10, 1863, when he was 25, Tom Thumb married Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, called Lavinia Warren. Matthew Brady photographed the wedding party, which included an even smaller best man, known as Commodore Nutt, and the bride’s tiny younger sister, Minnie Warren.

The wedding was front-page news. The streets between Grace Episcopal Church and the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway were completely jammed with onlookers. The couple stood on a grand piano to greet their 2,000 guests. After the wedding, they were received by President Lincoln at the White House.

In the late 1860’s the couple embarked on a three-year world tour that included Australia. Later they were photographed holding “their baby” which was one of several they borrowed for photos. They never had children and that was wise: in 1878 Lavinia’s tiny sister Minnie died in childbirth.

Stratton became a wealthy man with a house in New York another in Connecticut and his own yacht. When Barnum got into financial distress, the petite former employee bailed him out and they became business partners.

On January 10, 1883, Stratton and his wife were staying at the Newhall House in Milwaukee when one of the worst hotel fires in history broke out, killing more than 71 people, but Tom and Lavinia were saved by their manager. Six months later, Stratton died suddenly of a stroke. He was 45 years old and 3.3 feet tall. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral.

Two years later, Lavinia married a younger man, an Italian midget named Count Primo Magri. He and his brother and Lavinia formed the Lilliputian Opera company which toured and even appeared in some early motion pictures. Lavinia died in 1919 when she was 78.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Young Boy Transformed into Carnival Bride in Mexico


For the third time in nine years I am in Oaxaca, Mexico for the Carnival Workshop taught by my friend Mari Seder and her colleague Humberto Batista.  We are here to explore painting and photography and to enjoy the unique Carnival celebrations in this part of Mexico.

Last Tuesday, Feb. 28, we traveled to the village of San Martine de Tilcajete where the carnival celebrations include a parade led by a mock bride and groom (both men) who lead a noisy and ribald crowd through the village followed by “Devils” and costumed celebrants and a brass band.

Usually the man who is dressed as the bride—a great honor—is in his 30’s and plays the role comically.  I’m told it began as an annual parody by the peasants of the richer classes and their behavior.  The parade stops at the Mayor’s house and involves lots of drinking and sharing of local gossip in rhymed couplets. But this year the role of the bride was taken by a young boy of 13, Zutiel Jimenez Ortega, who had caught the bouquet thrown by last year’s bride.

 
For the first time I was at the home  in the primitive cluster of stucco huts that make up his family compound, along with about 20 other photographers, early enough to see the boy prepared by his family members for the transformation into this all-important Carnival role. 

Clearly he was nervous, scared, and reluctant to put on the garb of the bride.  I can’t remember ever before crying while photographing a story, but seeing him/her sitting on a bed surrounded by dolls and toys, all alone in this new persona, brought me to tears. 

His  mother (in the turquoise top) came into the room to advise him and she proudly showed the photographers outside a photograph of the boy, four years before, (on the left) when he was only 8 and was one of the grease-covered "devils" who tagged along in the parade. 

  
But as the morning progressed, after encouragement from family and friends, the Carnival bride rose to the occasion and took her part at the head of the parade with great élan.

The "mock wedding" is a tradition in many countries at Carnival, when roles are reversed and cross-dressing is encouraged.  (Witness the two six-foot-tall cross-dressers below, with friends.)  The bride role played by the boy here is not about homosexuality, but it is more poignant than usual, it seemed to me, because the person playing the starring role was at a threshold, considering with mixed feelings, the life that lay ahead of him as an adult.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Goodbye Paris Cinema—from Palace to Porn to Worcester Icon

I just read that the wrecking ball is coming for Worcester's famed Paris Cinema next Wednesday.  If I were at home, I'd try like crazy to get photos of the interior of this Worcester icon before it bites the dust.  But since I am now in Mexico, all I can do is re-post something I first posted seven years ago, as part of an essay about an art exhibit featuring my photos and other prints of famed Worcester icons at the Futon Company (which is now also part of Worcester's history.)


I already knew about the saga of the Paris Cinema (originally called the Capitol Theatre) which is on Worcester’s Common, behind City Hall. I first researched it for Preservation Worcester back in 2005. By then, what had begun as a palatial movie palace in the 1920’s had deteriorated into a seedy “Adult Cinema” offering gay porn. In January of 2005, according to an article in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, “a series of police raids resulted in the arrests of 22 men for engaging in sexual acts in the theater, some in groups and others by themselves.” City Manager Michael V. O’Brien said that the cinema “painted an ugly picture of downtown at a time he’s pushing for revitalization.”

In January, 2006, the Paris Cinema was closed down by the authorities and has sat empty ever since, awaiting the wrecking ball, but Preservation Worcester has been trying to save it from this fate. The theater was once the pride of Worcester. Inside, much of the original architectural splendor is still there, although in a dilapidated condition.



As I wrote in my summary for Preservation Worcester’s “Most Endangered” list, the Capitol Theatre (now Paris Cinema) is a rare surviving example of the “atmospheric” theaters that were popular across the United States during the movie palace era of the early 20th century. Architect John Eberson developed the atmospheric style of theater design in 1923. He wanted to distract Americans from life’s problems by creating an atmosphere of rest and beauty, “a magnificent amphitheatre under a glorious moonlit sky in an Italian garden, in a Persian court, in a Spanish patio or in a mystic Egyptian templeyard, all canopied by a soft moonlit sky” as he put it.

Eberson had his own alliterative slogan for what he was doing: “Prepare Practical Plans for Pretty Playhouses—Please Patrons—Pay Profits.”

(Don’t you love the alliteration and the optimism of the era—it’s a far cry from being raided by the police for encouraging public group sex.)

Originally seating 2,500, the 1926 Capitol Theatre was the first of three atmospheric palace theaters built in Worcester in the late 1920’s. It allowed its patrons to live the fantasy of attending a show in an outdoor amphitheater in Spain.



Not only was its interior elaborately detailed with decorative plaster and wrought iron in the Spanish style, but the impression was enhanced by projectors that created the effect of twinkling stars and moving clouds on the arched ceiling of its auditorium and second floor mezzanine lobby. Although the building was converted to a multiplex cinema in the 1960’s, much of the interior and ornamental detailing still survives. But no one knows in what condition….

When photographing the Paris Cinema, I made one photo which shows the place in the rather grim (yet graphically sophisticated) condition it’s in today, incorporating an empty storefront and an African hair braiding shop, but in the other photo I’m submitting to the show, I used color to suggest the fantasy palace that it was at the beginning—a place designed to distract the citizens of Worcester from the harsh realities of the Depression by providing them a fantasy for a few hours that they were viewing the glamorous world of 1930’s Hollywood from a seat in a Spanish amphitheater, under the twinkling stars and moving clouds.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Saving the Planet with Pig Poop in Mexico


I'm back in Oaxaca, Mexico and soon will be posting photos of this beautiful city during Carnival, but today I want to re-post a story that I first wrote exactly seven years ago when I was in Michoacan, Mexico, on a tour to see the unforgettable swarming of the Monarch butterflies who come every winter from thousands of miles away.  This tour, led by chef Susanna Trilling of "Seasons of my Heart", introduced us to two indigenous women who are true heroines and feminists, and the way they help the people of Mexico is an inspiration to all women, especially today.  (And I apologize to all my friends who have told me how much they hate the word "poop". I got it from my granddaughter, Amalia, who at the moment is obsessed with poop.)

 Here in the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan, on a tour called “Michoacan Cuisine and Monarch Butterflies” led by the Oaxacan chef Susana Trilling, I’ve met a lot of remarkable people. Two of the most interesting are women from the indigenous Purepecha tribe native to this region. Both women have used their talents and courage to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

 First we met Benedicta Alja Vardas, who came with her 16-year-old daughter Graziella, lugging her carbon-burning grill, from her small village of San Lorenzo to the  Colegio Culinario in Morelia to teach us some of the dishes from her people’s pre-hispanic roots. (Both the cuisine and the music of Michoacan have been declared non-tangible World Heritage Treasures by the Mexican government.)

Benedicta, who speaks the Purepecha language at home, was an orphan who married at 13.  She had two daughters after the age of 20 and rarely left her village.  But seven years ago, in the first  “Encounter of Traditional Chefs” in Morelia, she won first place and has won first place (and often second as well) every year since. Last year the judges decided to make her a lifetime honoree and let others compete.  Although Benedicta had never traveled, in October of last year she was flown to San Antonio, Texas to demonstrate her cooking methods before the Culinary Institute of America.

Wearing her traditional Michoacan traje of  pleated velvet skirt, lace blouse and lace-edged apron, Benedicta cooked several dishes for us.  The recipes were all labor intensive and involved lots of grinding things on the metate—pumpkin seeds, chili seeds, herbs, flowers and of course corn,( including masa dough), which is the  foundation of the local pre-hispanic diet.   Her speciality is Molé de Queso—cheese molé—and a pumpkin-seed-based Atapakua, which is stirred only in one direction until it thickens enough for the spoon to stand up in the pot.

For a grand finale she made tri-colored tortillas our of blue, white and red corn dough.

The second and even more remarkable Purepecha woman chef we met was Calletana (also spelled Cayetana) Nambo Rangel, whose home we visited in the village of  Erongaricuaro.   She has been fighting  for women’s and children’s rights most of her 66 years. One of 12 siblings, Cayetana says, “I get lawyers for abused women and children. I don’t want any woman to be abused because I was abused myself.”

Cayetana was employed as a social worker in her village when, 13 years ago, the Mexican government sent a group of men “all doctors and engineers,” to Colombia to learn about the revolutionary method of using animal waste to create a natural gas that could be used to power a family’s heat and electricity at no cost—and  in a way that emits no carbon into the environment and even  sterilizes the residue to provide nutritious fertilizer for crops. (It can work with the waste from pigs, cows, goats, and even humans.)

“The government wouldn’t pay for my ticket to Colombia because I was a woman,” she says,  “but I wanted to go, so I sold two cows to pay for my ticket.”  When the group returned from Colombia, the only person who understood the technology and installed it in her own home was Cayetana.

Since then, she has spread the word about bio gas and biodigesters (look it up) throughout her part of Mexico.  She has been visited by people from Peru, Israel, Russia, Canada and many other countries, who came to learn the process.  Cayetana can be seen preaching her  gospel on YouTube (in Spanish).  She shows us a letter written to the U.S. State Department in an effort to get her a visa to come to the Illinois to lecture hog farmers on “improving and implementing technology in hog farms,” but the request for her visa was turned down.

On Friday, when we visited Cayetana in her large, immaculate kitchen and watched her cook several pre-hispanic dishes (again grinding on the metate) she insisted we get hands-on experience and learn to wrap corn leaves around a dough of masa and frijoles for corundas.  She also created a stew-like soup, all cooked on her stove which is powered by gas from the waste produced by her three pigs .  She cooks using “Quatros Fuegos—four fires” namely burning charcoal, burning wood, propane gas. (she says she can’t remember the last time she bought a tank) and using the bio gas from her pigs.

 She took us outside to show how the waste from the pigs is mixed with water from a hose, (“You don’t  even get dirty”) and then the waste runs into a tank where it  is converted into gas which fills a huge plastic bag.  The gas is then sent by a tube into the house to the water heater and stove.

 Cayetana insisted we work before we got to eat the feast we’d prepared.  in her flower-filled courtyard we toasted her with sweet lime water flavored with Chia seeds before she and her aged mother Lupe hugged and kissed us and waved good-bye.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Valentines in the U.S. --It all started here

(I posted this last year but have been collecting new antique Valentines since then-- I LOVE the Victorian German-made ones  because they're  so elaborate and fragile and full of romance.  Why can't some modern card company reproduce them in all their three-dimensional glory? ) 

    Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon.
And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”
    Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.
    The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.
    Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.  She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.
    In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

    On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst; notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”
    In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)
     This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.
It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)
     In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.
     When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory.
     Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

     In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Brave Young Mother's Thoughts Before Surgery

I had completely forgotten that on Feb. 8, five years ago today, our daughter Eleni went into surgery in Florida to remove one of her ovaries that had been swallowed up by a possibly malignant cyst.  While I stayed in her apartment with six-month-old Amalia, the rest of the family were at the hospital waiting to hear the report, and the suspense was unbearable.  When I finally got the phone call, I posted on Facebook: "Who was it that said the most beautiful word in the English language is 'benign'?"  The happy ending to this story is that three years later, Eleni and Emilio were able to add Amalia's little brother Nicolas to their family.   But today, I re-read the essay Eleni managed to write and post on her blog "The Liminal Stage" before going off to the hospital.  I'm re-posting it here, because I think it's so eloquent and brave, and to remind us how blessed we are.

Same Same, But Different

February 8, 2012 by 11 Comments
Almost exactly 10 years ago I had a cyst removed from my right ovary. It was discovered during my annual gynecologic exam, which I had scheduled early because I was about to move to Greece to oversee the rebuilding of my grandparents’ house, which had fallen into ruin after the Greek Civil War, an experience would form the basis of my travel memoir, North of Ithaka. 

My doctor assured me that the cyst was probably nothing to worry about, that it was most likely water-filled, or a benign growth like afibroid or a dermoid. But a post-surgical biopsy showed it to be a low-malignant potential tumor, which isn’t cancerous, but isn’t benign either, and a CT-scan revealed that I still had two small cysts on the back of that ovary.

Some people counseled me to have that ovary removed, pointing out that your chances of getting pregnant are the same with one ovary as with two (because the remaining ovary steps up its hormone production and releases an egg every month instead of every other). But I was young (27) and very single, and didn’t know what the future held, so I wanted to keep both ovaries just to be safe. So I opted to have routine ultrasounds to make sure that the cysts hadn’t grown in size.

They stayed the same for the next ten years, even throughout my pregnancy. Then last week, in my six-month post-delivery checkup, we did the usual ultrasound and it revealed an 8-cm cyst on my right ovary (actually, the cyst is so large it has sort of swallowed the ovary). Everyone agreed that it (and, this time, the dwarfed ovary) had to come out. It was déja vu all over again.

Only this time everything felt totally different. On the one hand, I was much better off than I had been during my first surgery, when I was young and single and had no idea if I’d ever have children. I now have the incredible husband I wasn’t sure existed, and we already have one very funny, highly adorable baby. A baby who came partly from an egg that the problematic right ovary had dropped (I know because during my pregnancy ultrasounds we saw the corpus luteum cyst, which remains when the egg is released, on the right).

But that’s where things get complicated. That what’s changed the most since my last surgery–this little baby. She depends on me for everything, down to the food she eats. The truth is, she’d get by just fine if I weren’t around–she has her papi and three grandmothers and loving aunts and grandpas and all the rest–but she’s also such a delight to be around that I don’t want to miss watching her discover the world, not even for the day I’ll be surgery. She gets so excited feeling the wind or watching the rain or when a stranger waves at her, and I want to see every one of those smiles and hear her guttural little laugh.

The oophorectamy I’m having today is an outpatient procedure. If all goes well, I should be in and out the same day, and after three days of pumping and dumping (and Amalía’s grandma giving her milk I’ve stored) the anesthesia will be out of my system and I can feed her again.

So I’ve been trying not to get all Terms of Endearment about what I hope what will be a minor procedure. The doctor told me that there’s a 20% chance the mass is cancerous, given my history and the tumor’s size, but I’ve been trying to focus on the 80%. And eighty percent is pretty good odds, even though it’s a B-, and nobody likes a B-, not even in gym class. That’s probably my problem–my life is the equivalent of grade inflation; I have the family I always wanted (although I would like to keep adding to it), and my novel is coming out in a week; maybe I’ve been too lucky and now I want everything to be A+ all the time without the interference of clear-liquid diets, surgery, and whisperings of mortality.

But I’ve been talking to some of my girlfriends, and I think it’s not just me and my unrealistic expectations. One friend was about to go in for dental surgery when I called her, and, knowing she was about to be put under general anesthesia, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about who would raise her child if something were to happen to her, where her husband would move, and what influences would dominate her baby’s life. It may be maudlin, but it’s also natural and unavoidable. Everyone tells you that everything changes when you have a baby; this is just one of the unexpected ways in which that is true.

I think that’s one of the most significant things that changes when you have a child; you become aware that if something were to happen to you, you would miss out not only on experiencing your life, but also on witnessing his or hers. The joy of life doubles, but then, so does the risk, the potential loss.

I realize this blog’s a bit of a downer. And that’s how life has been lately, but only in moments. Because every day there are incidents that are so amazing, watching Amalía laugh at her grandparents who are visiting, as she tries to bite their knuckles to soothe her teething, or they pinch her nose. And those moments are so purely fun that they’re not even outweighed by the fear of missing out on them.

So I’m trying not to worry too much, to stay calm until the surgery happens and to hope everything goes well. I do what I can to feel in control, employing the rituals that give me comfort. I pray. I went to church and took communion. I bought my mother a necklace with an image of Ganesh, remover of obstacles, on it. And I had my toenails painted, because every time I look at them while I’m having a medical test they cheer me up.

 I also see signs everywhere, or I hear them rather; “the Rose” was playing on the muzak system during my MRI, and I remembered singing it with my sister in the backseat of the car on a drive across Greece with my parents. “Dynamite”, which was sort of a theme song of our wedding reception, played on the radio the way to one doctor’s appointment, and I had to laugh out loud that I considered a cheesy disco tune to be a message from on high. I saw a big rainbow en route to my pre-op blood typing. And every time Amalía chuckles her vaguely evil little chuckle I think it’s a promise that I’ve got a lot more of those coming to me.

Because after the initial appointment when I learned I need surgery, I rushed home to relieve the babysitter, who was already late for her next appointment, since what was supposed to be a routine doctor’s visit took so long. Then I wheeled Amalía’s stroller down to the beach to show her the ocean and to promise that there’ so much more we’re going to discover together in the future, and she laughed to show she understood what I was trying to tell her.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Holocaust Memorial that Pulls You Into the Story

Last month in Miami Beach I was riding in a taxi when I saw out of the window a remarkable sight—a forty-two-foot-tall sculpture of a hand reaching skyward out of a reflecting pond.  And scrambling up the wrist were what seemed to be life-sized human figures.

One of the things I collect is images of hands—everything from a door knocker to anti-evil eye talismans to a wooden “Hand of God” with a saint perched atop each finger and a gash in the palm.  I have patterns for the henna designs painted on the hands of an Indian bride, for example, before her wedding, in the mehndi ritual.  So I knew I had to learn more about the gigantic hand I had come across while riding on Meridian Avenue near Dade Boulevard in South Beach.

I learned that it is a memorial, dedicated to the six million Jewish victims of the holocaust. After four years of construction, it was dedicated by Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel on February 4, 1990.
 Entrance is free. As I walked through the sculpture garden, like everyone else who has seen it, I was deeply moved by a history that I had heard many times before, but never in such a personal way.  As I followed the trail through the sunlit sculpture park, I was walking from the beginning to the end of the  holocaust years and retracing the journey of so many victims—beginning with  fear and foreboding and ending in despair and death. 

Because I found myself walking through a tunnel that becomes narrower, and then emerging into a scene of desperate agony, surrounded by life-sized naked figures in bronze, the experience seemed terrifyingly real, despite the towering  palm trees and the water lilies in the serene reflecting pool-- an ironic contrast to the hysterical grief and fear portrayed within.
The huge bronze hand (which has an Auschwitz camp number carved on the wrist) and the one hundred figures were designed by Kenneth Treister and cast in Mexico City by Fundicion Artistica. 

While walking through the exhibition, I felt as though I was interacting with the statues—sharing their fear and agony.  And after the visit, I felt changed, certainly in my understanding of the holocaust.  I think  that is the definition of successful art—you interact with it and it leaves you changed.
At the beginning of the journey is this statue of a mother and two children beneath a quotation from Ann Frank: “…that in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Then you walk along a black granite wall that summarizes in words and photographs the history of the holocaust from 1939 to 1945.  At the end of the wall is engraved a poem and a hymn from the ghetto. 

Next you enter a tunnel, starting with a dome that has a stained glass Star of David overhead with the word “Jude”.  As the memorial’s historian Helen Feigen writes, it’s “the patch of ignominy”.


You’re now in the square tunnel, carved with names of the death camps, that becomes smaller as you continue.  You hear the sound of children’s voices singing songs from the concentration camps.  All you can see at the end of the tunnel is a small, seated child, wailing and reaching out for help.  As you walk toward the light, the voices of the children get louder and louder.  Then you emerge from the tunnel to find yourself staring up at the immense hand, crawling with people in agony.  You walk among free-standing figures who are all reaching for help.
According to Helen Feigen, the historian, “A giant outstretched arm, tattooed with a number from Auschwitz, rises from the earth, the last reach of a dying person. Each visitor has his own interpretation ... some see despair ... some hope ... some the last grasp for life . . . and for some it asks a question to God... ‘Why?’”
At this point, you walk around the giant hand, examining the family groups, young people trying to comfort their elders, children trying to soothe their younger siblings, mothers trying to hand their babies to safety.  But no one is safe and there is no way out.  And the visitor is a part of the scene.


Then you notice the black granite walls engraved with names of the victims.
Finally, when you’ve had enough of this scene of despair, you continue on to the final piece of sculpture, which is the same mother and two children seen at the beginning, but now they’re lying dead underneath another quotation from Ann Frank: "ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us only to meet the horrible truths and be shattered:"
Then you are free to contemplate the peace and beauty of the reflecting pool and the sunny sky, and eventually to return to the tropical scenery of Miami Beach. But you can’t shake the feelings that you had standing below that giant hand, imagining the stories of all those victims who were still trying to help each other in the hour of their death.

Maybe this is why I’ve always been fascinated by representations of hands—because they can be so indicative of the creativity and strength  of the human being, and yet so vulnerable—think of the hands of a baby.  And in almost every culture, the image of the human hand seems to be a symbol, an invocation, a magical talisman, or the seal on a pledge.  Or a cry for help.