Making art to ease the pain in a city of sorrow

Artist Monica Petzal reveals how working in Dresden helped her come to terms with her family’s tragic past


By Monica Petzal, April 4, 2013
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Monica Petzal at work in Dresden on the project depicting the lives of her grandparents and mother before they  fled the Nazis

Monica Petzal at work in Dresden on the project depicting the lives of her grandparents and mother before they fled the Nazis

I first came to Dresden in 1985 as part of a family “restitution” visit to my father’s birthplace of West Berlin. It was before the re-unification, the “change” as they call it there, and we crossed the Berlin Wall into the German Democratic Republic at Friedrichstrasse.

My mother was traumatised from her encounter with the border guards, so reminiscent of her flight from Germany in 1936. The brief visit to her beloved home city of Dresden, bombed by her “saviours” the British and at the time still largely unreconstructed, was a disaster and she died the following year following a severe breakdown.

I returned briefly to the city after re-unification, and in 2001 started to consider the plethora of family photos, documents and artefacts in my possession. As a British citizen, a Jew, whose parents had fled from the Nazis, my father having lost his entire family in the Holocaust, I was more than apprehensive about exploring these issues. As an artist I found it difficult to transform this powerful material into meaningful pieces of art. It took another 12 years to find the clarity of mind to return to Dresden and make work there.

The former East Germany is the historical home of printmaking; the Dresden Grafikwerkstatt, owned by the city, is a remarkable example of how this tradition is sustained. The excellently equipped workshop is staffed by an exceptional group of men, all highly trained under the GDR as master printers. Radical in outlook, they are a fund of knowledge not only about printmaking but about the city and its history.

I am working there for four weeks, making five large lithographs about my family and their lives up to the spring of 1936, when they left for London. I am working in a demanding, unorthodox and time consuming process on a large old offset litho press, initially making monoprints which are like paintings and superimposing photo-based images.

Besides making prints, my project also includes visiting research archives and participating in the commemoration of the destruction of Dresden by Allied bombers on the February 13 1945. The anniversary is Dresden’s diem horribilem, in which the horrors of the past are exacerbated by the neo-Nazis attempts to hijack the occasion. It is a tense day of demonstrations by the right and counter-demonstrations and blockades, largely by young people. I will make this, as well as the destruction of the city, the subject of further work.

I am invited by the City of Dresden as their guest for the official commemorations. The group includes members of the Dresden Trust and John Witcombe, the new Dean of Coventry Cathedral. We are taken out of town to the wooded Heidefriedhof, the cemetery where many of the 25,000 victims of the destruction are buried. Picturesque in the deep snow this is a state occasion, with uniforms, immaculate white roses, a sole violin player and a significant police presence.

The mayor Helma Orosz is fierce in her commitment that the city reclaim this day from the neo–Nazis. This is a divisive point, for the right-wing NPD party are allowed to attend the ceremony and so it is boycotted by members of the Left and of the Jewish community. Roses are laid at the memorial and at the Rondel, where 14 pillars commemorate sites of atrocity from Coventry to Auschwitz.

A symbolic candle to mark the devastating Allied bombing of 1945

A symbolic candle to mark the devastating Allied bombing of 1945

By 5pm Dresden is swarming and there are 3,500 police on the streets. Orosz gives an upbeat speech and the crowds disperse to form the Menschen Kette, the symbolic human chain against extremism. I walk to the synagogue, where many of the 800-strong Jewish community are standing, including the young rabbi, Alexander Nachama. At 6pm, for 10 minutes the entire city is silent and at a standstill, blockaded by a human chain of over 10,000 men, women and children with linked arms.

At 9.45pm I stand on the Neumarkt — the New Market square — besides the rebuilt Frauenkirche, a giant candle projected on the cathedral’s baroque facade. Then every church bell in the city tolls for 15 minutes. This was the time on a warm spring-like night in 1945 when the first of 1,000 British Lancaster bombers appeared in the clear skies over the city. I feel strongly that I am not interested in apportioning blame or taking sides, only to join the vast majority of the citizens in the need to move peacefully forward.

Two days later I am invited by Rabbi Nachama for Friday evening service. The community, which had dwindled to 60 elderly members in 1989, has grown over tenfold, with most of the newcomers of Russian descent. For them, as for many Dresdners, the other significant date for commemoration is November 9 1989, the day the wall came down.

Their new synagogue is breathtakingly sparse and beautiful, the service largely sung and transliterated into German as few of the community read Hebrew. The lengthy kiddush reflects their roots, with borscht, baked potatoes, stuffed egg, herring and piroshki, a kind of Russian sandwich.

Dresden has numerous archives and quangos dedicated to its recent history and I am doing the rounds. They were largely developed since re-unification and are increasingly digitised. At every encounter my hesitant German is met with helpfulness and interest in my project. At the Saxon Memorial Foundation Gabi Atanassow, who works on the archive of Jews deported from Dresden, shows me our family files, and provides new pieces of the puzzle and leads to follow. She puts me in contact with my mother’s former school, the Gymnasium in Plauen, which would like to have copies of archive material I have to develop a project with its students. We also discuss the profound importance of I Shall Bear Witness, the three volumes of diaries by Victor Klemperer, the Jewish literature professor who chronicled events of the Nazi period in Dresden. The diaries reveal much about my grandparent’s and mother’s lives from 1933-36.

With Susanne Ritschel I discuss the Stolpersteine-Project, a European-wide effort to place small commemorative stones in pavements to commemorate victims of the Nazis. I am interested to have a “stumbling block” — for that is what it means — in front of my grandparents’ and mother’s last home in Dresden. Neither the street nor the house exists, but the archives show where it stood.

Dresden is full of ghosts for me and a palpable sense of tragedy seems to permeate the city. It is my hope that the artwork which will emerge from this visit will help to exorcise some of those ghosts.

The Dresden Project will be exhibited at Printroom, London N6 from June 25. See www.monicapetzal.com for details

Last updated: 11:42am, April 4 2013