History is a Nightmare

Jacqueline Rose

What is a return? In her film trilogy And Europe Will Be Stunned, Yael Bartana pushes to their furthest point, almost beyond endurance, the pained preoccupations of her earlier work. Born in Jezreel Valley, south of lower Galilee, Bartana lived in New York and then Amsterdam for several years before returning briefly to Israel in 2006. Since 2000, Israel-Palestine has become the focus of her work. And yet, in every artistic gesture she has made since what might seem like a partial homecoming (she describes herself as an ‘ongoing returnee’) she has mounted the fiercest challenge and rebellion to the concept of return as a final, redemptive destination which is its overwhelming meaning in the language of Israeli nationhood. We cannot talk here about ascent — aliyah — the word already indicating the elevated status accorded the Jewish daughter who ‘returns’ to the land of her ancestors; nor precisely can we talk of descent — yeridah — the word used to describe those who fall, decline, betray the nation by choosing to live elsewhere (although some would doubtless choose to describe her in these terms). Perhaps nowhere as much as in Israel is the concept of return so freighted with the baggage of history; nowhere else does a nation’s demand towards its people belong so transparently in the realm of desire. Against the cruel, reductive, alternatives on offer, Bartana situates herself and her work in a place in-between. It is a place of belonging and not belonging; a place of suffering — ‘I suffer because I am trapped in between’ — and of freedom (1). It is perhaps the hallmark of her work that the latter is not out of touch with the former.

In this film trilogy, freedom is a type of delirium that in fact summons up the very violence that it seeks to redress. What does it mean to call publicly for a return of the repressed? Psychotherapy for a whole people or nation? When Freud ventures into this territory, he knows he is entering uncharted, mostly unyielding ground. Groups are obdurate; historically, they tend to define themselves by finding ways to believe, unconditionally and innocently, in themselves. (Viewed in these terms, Israel’s reluctance to acknowledge its founding violence against the Palestinians is just one version of an old story.) We need therefore to be wary. Warning against the dangers of ‘inflamed xenophobia’, Edward Said explains that he has always connected the task of the humanities with critical inquiry ‘rather than with what Julien Benda calls the mobilization of collective passion’ (2). Said calls for a return to philology — the painstaking investigation of the meanings through which we police and transform our world. Evoking Theodor Adorno, he outlines the three greatest dangers as nationalism, religious enthusiasm and ‘identitarian thought’ (3). What they have in common, one might say, are their forms of arousal — the enticing prospect, or rather enactment, of being fully in command of who we are. That is why the speech of Sławomir Sierakowski in Mary Koszmary (Nightmares), the opening film of the trilogy, is such a tour de force and such a danger.

Spoken into a void (a tiny audience in a vast stadium), as if aware that the message might not be heard, he uses the form of public exhortation — so familiar and discredited — to call for the hardest, agonized identities of the twentieth century — Poles and Jews — to soften and lay down their arms: ‘When we look each other in the eye, the armour will fall and together we shall achieve things the philosophers didn’t dream were possible’(4). It is an impossible, barely conceivable challenge that defies the history it also evokes. ‘The gap that still divides the two communities’, writes Eva Hoffman at the end of her study of Polish-Jewish relations in shtetl, ‘is the most persistent fact of their common history.’ (5). The question is whether these two peoples have ever fully seen each other. From the beginning, she observes, the two groups ‘existed below the level of meaningfulness to each other’ (6). They did not admit each other into what she terms the ‘sphere of true moral life … They did not share a world.’ (7)

Can, therefore, this message be heard? Or to put it in the famous formula of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan: does the letter always arrive at its destination? The key phrase of this project — ‘and Europe will be stunned’ — played interestingly in its Swedish translation for Bartana’s 2010 exhibition ‘Och Europa kommer att häpna’, ‘hör ach häpna’ meaning ‘listen and be amazed’. Above all, this is a call to listen. It is a truism to say that psychoanalysis offers the patient the at-once traumatic and enabling possibility of being listened to for the first time. Psychoanalysis, one might say, is the discourse in our culture that best understands both the necessity and the intractable pain of speech. In a no less fraught and creative environment, Daniel Barenboim writes of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (founded with Edward Said to bring together musicians from Israel and the Arab world) that it requires each participant not just to listen but to hear: to hear the contested narratives of Israeli and Palestinian history and self-determination, but also to hear every musician playing, with no hierarchy other than that imposed by the music.

We should not, however, underestimate the risks of such an endeavour. Sierakowski evokes them from the opening seconds of the first film. ‘Since the night you [the Jews] were gone’ the old woman who sleeps under a threadbare quilt left by the Jewish escapee Rifke, ‘has had nightmares. Bad dreams’. The escapee, clutching her battered suitcase, appears in Zamach (Assassination), the final film of the trilogy: ‘I am the ghost of return. I am here to reveal the destruction of the understood through the tongue.’ (8). She is bearing witness to history’s destruction of words. This is not a new theme in Polish writing, which has long known that the dangers of the dead returning are nothing compared to the danger that they might return unable to speak. ‘Good God! How horrible! He balks / He neither goes away nor talks … Good God! How horrible! How queer! / He’s silent, and won’t disappear’ — a moment in Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), the famous play by Poland’s national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, which summons the dead to account (9). For me, it is to the immense credit of Sierakowski and Kinga Dunin (a left-wing Polish activist with whom he composed the speech), as well as to Yael Bartana, that from the title and opening premise of these films we enter the world of nightmares. This is a project fully aware that true historical transformation can only occur by tapping into the unconscious of nations. The call for return strikes, therefore, at the heart of Polish-Jewish history, obliging us to trawl back through the debris of the past.

In his famous book, Bondage to the Dead — Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust, Michael C Steinlauf cites an official of the Polish underground who wrote to the government-in-exile in August 1943 (in what can fairly be called one of the worst moments of Jewish history) that ‘the return of the Jews to their jobs and workshops is completely out of the question’, even if the numbers were to be ‘greatly reduced’ by the ‘non-Jewish part of the population’ who had filled their places — a change that he described as ‘fundamental, final in character’ (10). ‘The return of masses of Jews’, he continues, ‘would be experienced by the population not as restitution but as an invasion, against which they would defend themselves, even with physical means.’ (11). This fear has not diminished with time. In 1992, an old peasant woman interviewed by Poland’s Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) observed: ‘In Miedzyrzec many houses were Jewish, but no one today comes [for them]. People have settled in these houses and live there. How will it be in the future, we still don’t know; maybe they’ll still ask for them back.’ (12)

As well as indicating what Bartana’s project might find itself up against, her words evoke all the subsequent histories and meanings that have accrued to the concept of return. Is it because the refugee always has this ghostly status that she or he is so feared? This might suggest that it is a nation’s dread of its own hidden violence that makes the idea of ‘return’ so impossible to contemplate. It might suggest too that the buried memory of Israel’s 1948 expulsion of the Palestinians, as much — if not more — than realpolitik or demographic panic, is the real reason it cannot bear to countenance the return of the Palestinian refugees (13). ‘Palestinians,’ Ariella Azoulay proclaims in a dream after seeing Mary Koszmary — picking up on a connection so powerfully latent to this trilogy, naming addressing, the Palestinians — ‘since you have been expelled no one here ceases to dream about you at night.’ (14)

To grasp fully the wager of Bartana’s artistic venture, we need to probe the history a bit deeper. We know that Polish-Jewish relations did not ease, far from it, with the end of the Second World War. In fact, we know that the process of constructing the memory of the Polish nation in relation to the Shoah, far from redeeming that history, more or less repeated the competing and hostile narratives that had characterized the relation of Jews and Poles before. It is now known that on at least one occasion during the Second World War, in the town of Jedwabne, Jews were massacred by their own neighbours. In response to this revelation, which struck like lightning when it was exposed by the historian Jan T Gross in 2000, some insisted that Polish victimization by the Nazis was equivalent to that of the Jews; that many — and this is true — risked their lives to save individual Jews (15) At its worst, the exposure of the story was seen as another chapter in the Jewish oppression of Poles.

At its very worst the Shoah became a German-Jewish conspiracy against (and thus repeating) the historic martyrdom of the Polish people who — again it is true — have been a nation torn to shreds by its occupying powers (Mickiewicz’s writing gives poetic voice to that tragedy) (16). ‘If the Nazis had eradicated Jewish life in view of stunned and traumatized (rather than mostly indifferent and partly complicitous) Polish neighbours,’ writes Steinlauf, ‘postwar antisemitic violence would have been a practical and psychological impossibility.’ (17). His vocabulary echoes uncannily the title of these films: And Europe Will Be Stunned. As if to be floored by history — the English ‘stunned’ has the implication of losing consciousness — is the only way, paradoxically, to be fully cognisant of its horrors. But that is not the whole story. In a way that resonates deeply with Bartana’s project and explains perhaps why she was chosen as the first non-Polish artist to represent Poland at the 2011 Venice Biennale, other memories have started to surface. Other tales have begun to be told.

In his subsequent book, Fear, Gross tries to understand why Poles who sheltered Jews have felt ashamed or even feared for themselves if their stories should become known. He encounters those who are retrieving their own blindness, seeing it, as one might say, for the first time. ‘I remember two things’, writes Halina Bortnowska, in an essay, 144 ‘The Evil Shadow of the Wall’, published on the eve of the sixtieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943: not from books or recounted stories, but the way one remembers a recurring bad dream. Spring, sunlight, April clouds; dark, imposing, and swirling black snow is falling, flakes of soot. ‘It’s from the ghetto’, says my mother, wiping this black snow from the windowsill, from the face, from the eyes. Of course one could hear during the day, and especially at night, explosions and distant shooting. It was not very unusual in Warsaw at that time, but it always brought fear. ‘It’s nothing. It’s in the ghetto’ (18)

Today she feels ashamed of the distance, viewing it as ‘the evil shadow of the wall cast over one’s soul … It’s as if the perpetrators of Warsaw’s Holocaust managed to remove the Jews from the realm of human solidarity’ (19). (Remember Eva Hoffman: ‘they existed below the level of meaningfulness to each other’.) What did she feel, she asks, when the black snow fell over her face, over her eyes? ‘Nothing. Nothing, really? [Czy naprawde nic?]’ (20) Bortnowska’s story gives flesh and blood to the nightmare of the old woman hiding under the quilt in the opening lines of Mary Koszmary. This is the nightmare — the recurring bad dream — that the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland wants to bring to an end. ‘Do you think the old woman who sleeps under Rifke’s quilt doesn’t want to see you? Has forgotten about you? You are wrong. She dreams about you every night. Dreams and trembles with fear.’ (21). Only the Jews — 3,300,000 of them returning to Poland — can chase the nightmares of 40,000,000 Poles away. If these propositions are, in the words of Joanna Mytkowska, inutterable ‘incantations’, then Yael Bartana knows only too well the price that can be paid for speaking the unspeakable, for breaking the silence and violating such a taboo (22).

It is axiomatic to psychoanalysis that the mind — the world — will resist its most needed insights with all its might. Even in the second film, Mur i Wie˙za (Wall and Tower) which, full of the energy of the Zionist pioneers, recreates an Israeli kibbutz next to the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, where we see Israelis learning the Polish words for land, freedom and peace, it becomes impossible for the mind not to roam. As we witness the barbed wire and the building of the watch tower, memory splinters among its myriad associations: from ghetto to concentration camp to kibbutz, and from there to the checkpoints and the wall in Israel today that scars the landscape in the name of security, seizing the land and cutting off Palestinian villagers from their schools, fields and homes. To many, for whom no such link is permissible between the persecution of the Jews in Europe and the Israeli government’s policy today, such a mental trail would be pure scandal. And yet Bartana does not completely relinquish the earliest Zionist vision — it is the unresolved clash of these histories, rather than some neat, false analogy between them, that makes this second film so troubling. Zionism was ‘an experiment for which I still have a huge amount of respect’, she states (23). Even if it always contained its dark side: ‘a dream-nightmare that became just a nightmare’ (24).

If only subliminally then, the second film prepares us for the third. How, given the violence of such associations — nightmares pushing at the gates of emancipation — can we really be surprised by the assassination of Sierakowski, although it is also deeply shocking? It occurs as he stands in front of a painting by Bruno Schulz, thus enacting the ultimate identification called for by the trilogy between modern Pole and murdered Jew. For all the fierce optimism of his young followers — ‘When astonishment and mourning pass, we shall once again raise high the banner of the movement’ — the film can only stage, alongside a grief-stricken affirmation, the wrenching impossibility of its own ideal (25). Although it was an act of courage to give him voice, the film does not in fact need the Israeli/Zionist spokesman at the funeral to make it clear that history is demonic and that solving the worst of history — ‘Cure us of our nightmares’ — might instead, or also, conjure its repetition: ‘For us the Jews,’ he states, ‘this isn’t a hopeful promise, it is a nightmare’ (26). Today, it is a historical irony that in Israel, the country that was meant to be a safe haven for the Jews, more of its citizens than ever before are applying for second European passports, out of fear for their nation’s future (27). Israel’s Law of Return, which allows a Jew from anywhere in the world to live in Israel, is of course the other shadow that falls across this trilogy.

As I watched the films, struggling to find the ideas that would most closely capture the range of feelings that they provoked, two moments from psychoanalytic thought came to my aid. One was Jacques Lacan’s concept of the future perfect, as the tense of analysis: not what I was and am no more (repression), nor what I still am in what I was (repetition), but what I will have been in the process of what I am becoming; he is describing a futurity, neither simply backwardlooking nor forward-looking, that gathers the shards of the past as it moves forward in time. Perhaps even more pertinent (and they are not unconnected) is D W Winnicott’s concept of a transitional space between the mother and infant, which emerges as they each slowly and painfully relinquish the other from omnipotent control. A space of disillusion, it is also, for Winnicott, the only site of creativity and the germ of culture. In the life of a child, the first sign will be some object or toy that she clings to for dear life, as a way of mediating the cruel transition into the separateness and loss that is the foundation of all subjectivity. Never ask the child, Winnicott insists, whether the object she is clutching is real or unreal. To do so is to violate the space of her freedom. There is no limit to the scope of Bartana’s vision: ‘We direct our appeal not only to Jews. We accept into our ranks all those for whom there is no place in their homeland, the expelled and persecuted. There will be no discrimination. We will not check your identity cards or question your refugee status’ (28). Our question should not be: Is it possible? But, what is it already, now? What, simply by dint of being created, does Yael Bartana’s work force us to acknowledge as already pulsing deep inside our histories, together with the other, better future we must not stop struggling to invent?


  1. ‘A Conversation between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat and Charles Esche’, And Europe Will Be Stunned (Exhibition catalogue, Moderna Museet Malm., Sweden, 2010), p. 48.
  2. 2 Edward W. Sa.d, ‘The Changing Bases of Humanistic Study and Practice’, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (London: Palgrave, 2004), p. 50.
  3. Ibid., p. 50.
  4. Yael Bartana, Mary Koszmary, 2007.
  5. Eva Hoffman, Shtetl — The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews (London: Secker and Warburg, 1998), p. 247.
  6. Ibid., p. 108.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Yael Bartana, Zamach, 2011.
  9. Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), translated by Count Potocki of Montalk (London: Polish Cultural Foundation, 1968), pp. 26–27.
  10. Ringelblum Archive — Polish-Jewish Relations, p. 257, cited in Michael C Steinlauf, Bondage to the Dead — Poland and the Memory of the Holocaust (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1997), p. 87, my emphasis.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 129.
  13. Ariella Azoulay, From Palestine to Israel — A Photographic Record of Destruction and State Formation 1947–1950 (London: Pluto, 2011).
  14. Ariella Azoulay, ‘Come back! We need you! On the video works of Yael Bartana’, typescript, p. 9.
  15. Jan T Gross, Neighbors — The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001) and Antony Polonsky and Joanna B Michlic, The Neighbors Respond — The Controversy Over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  16. Steinlauf, p. 84. See Steinlauf for the complex details of this history, especially in relation to the occupation of Poland by Russia, Nazi Germany and then the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
  17. Steinlauf, p. 191, my emphasis.
  18. Cited in Jan T Gross, Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz, An Essay in Historical Interpretation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), pp. 174–175.
  19. Ibid., p. 175.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Bartana, Mary Koszmary.
  22. Joanna Mytkowska, ‘Return of the Stranger’, And Europe Will Be Stunned: The Polish Trilogy (London: Artangel, 2012).
  23. ‘A Conversation between Yael Bartana, Galit Eilat and Charles Esche’, p. 94.
  24. Ibid., p. 95.
  25. Bartana, Zamach.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Gideon Levy, ‘Fear is driving Israelis to obtain foreign passports,’ Ha’aretz, 2 June 2011.
  28. Bartana, Zamach.