Oct 16, 2020
On my way to the new exhibit “Fragmented Narratives” at Berlin’s arts and event space alpha nova & galerie futura, I am thinking about the issue of fragmented historical memory. The exhibit opened September 26 and features two female artists, Sharon Paz and Elianna Renner, whose works are united by the theme of cultural memory, different interpretations of the past, and Jewish history. The gallery, which focuses on contemporary feminist and emancipatory art, is located on the shore of the Spree and the Flutgraben channel, once a border territory between East and West Berlin. A couple of decades ago, no one would have wanted to live so near the Berlin Wall and armed guards, and after the wall fell it was an area of anarchy and abandoned houses. But today it’s a hipster hub full of bars, cafes, art galleries, and concert halls, where the rent is unreasonably high.
The alpha nova & galerie futura space itself leaves much to be desired. I climb the concrete stairs to the third floor (no elevator, so unfortunately the exhibition is not accessible to everyone) and finally reach the heavy door. It opens to the small gallery consisting of one big room divided by temporary walls into sections and a room for staff (no bathroom spotted). Well, this looks like a typical Berlin minimalistic art space.
Upon entering, I hear a voice speaking in Yiddish. This is a part of Elianna Renner’s project “Pitshipoy,” which is the reason I am here. The voice—several different voices—read children’s poems and sing songs that use the word Pitshipoy. But what is Pitshipoy? Throughout my relationship with Yiddish, which has lasted for more than eight years, I have never encountered this word.
After my visit, I spoke with Elianna Renner about her work, starting with how she came across Pitshipoy and became interested in the concept.
“I first heard about Pitshipoy in the novel But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens,” 1 1 French Jewish writer who spent one year in Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the memoir But You Did Not Come Back (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2016), she wrote about this period in detail. she told me. “There Pitshipoy was related to the Drancy internment camp. The word fascinated me. An imaginary place, a place of hope. A playful word. A word that reminds me of a nursery rhyme. But it is also a word whose sound is not reminiscent of a language, but a melody, a game, a puddle. I became curious. And I wanted to know how this word got to Drancy. How could it be that Pitshipoy slipped into the collective memory of its almost 70,000 inmates? None of the inmates knew anything about Auschwitz or any other concentration camp; they did not know where they were going to be deported. So they said that when the trains passed, they would go to Pitshipoy… I felt the need to track down Pitshipoy.
“Pitshipoy appears today on the Internet, as a soccer club, as a hairdresser, as a restaurant, as an animation studio, in different cities and countries without any Shoah reference. My journey led me to the history of folklore… [and] the nursery rhyme/song “In a Shtetele Pitshepoy.” Sefra Burstin from Melbourne sings one version, another version is sung by her mother Helen Burstin, and another version by Bobbi Zylberman. Sefra learned the song from her father. I liked hearing the different singing patterns and voices that sang out the Pitshipoy spirit in mameloshn. For me, this is the moment when Pitshipoy releases its power and becomes audible and tangible.”
Before the exhibition, Renner created an air performance also titled “Pitshipoy.” On August 14, an airplane with an attached banner with the word Pitshipoy flew above Berlin. Perhaps today Berlin is also a kind of imaginary place, a place of hope that attracts thousands of immigrants from all over the world. The layouts of history and different narratives that are being constructed around Berlin are a vivid example of the metamorphosis of collective memory.
The footage of the air performance is part of the exhibition. It is the first screen one sees when entering the gallery. As Elianna Renner explains, “The focus of the film is on the word and the resulting choreography in the air.”
Next comes a video installation on a table with a glass top which reminds me of typical museum displays. Under the glass is research material Renner has collected: old photos, archival documents, and textual information, all related to the history of Pitshipoy.
Above the museum case, a book hangs on the wall. “The book consists of descriptions, stories, poems and historical events about the research and the word Pitshipoy. The design plays with the onomatopoeic character of the word,” explains the artist. The word Pitshipoy is transliterated throughout the exhibit, but in the book there are Yiddish letters; a visitor can learn how the word looks in its original language. I find out that Pitshipoy comes from French “petit pays,” a small land.
Finally, opposite the video of the air performance, there is a vasisdasBox (German for “what is it?”). Renner explains: “A small box with a peephole hangs on the wall. Inside you can see a film. The sentence “Pitshipoy iz azoy groys vi a floy” (Pitshipoy is as big as a flea) is written with a pen on the skin again and again, cleaned away with a sponge, and rewritten. With time, the sentence leaves traces of memory on the skin.”
Audio, video, and text beautifully intertwine with each other in the exhibition. On the one hand, they give you complete information about the word and demonstrate Renner’s thorough research. On the other, they leave new questions. What is this place that is simultaneously small like a flea—and huge and borderless like the sky over Berlin? Does it belong to the past or the present? What can its story teach us today?
I asked the artist about her relationship with the Yiddish language: “My grandfather, who lived with us in Zurich during my childhood, spoke Yiddish and assumed that he spoke German. Our ‘home German’ was based on Yiddish along with other languages spoken around the dining table. In 2010 or so I organized a Yiddish course in the Jewish community in Bremen, Germany with a handful of other interested people. We engaged Dorothea Greve from Hamburg as a Yiddish teacher. Once a month she used to come to Bremen and teach 5-7 people for 8 hours. We sang, played, read, chatted, and ate together—in Yiddish. She fell ill in 2014 and died in 2016 and so the course was over. In between, I attended the YIVO summer program in Vilnius twice… I studied a lot of Yiddish for my interdisciplinary art and history project “Tracking the Traffic.”
“But in the last few years, my Yiddish has suffered a lot. I was too slow in reading. So I got a consultant on board for the Pitshipoy art project: Mio Hamman. The word Pitshipoy is not used very often; when it appears here and there, the context had to be established every time. For example, Pitshipoy once appeared in a Yiddish newspaper that parodied a person involved in a lawsuit. I was only able to find out all this because I called a friend of mine who is a lawyer. It was a detective project with many pins in various haystacks.”
Renner’s project is an amazing example of how Yiddish can be incorporated into contemporary art, and especially into discussions about the politics of collective memory: the ways we see the past today. The other project featured in the “Fragmented Narratives” exhibit, Sharon Paz’s “Dare to Dream,” continues and accelerates this idea. Paz invites visitors to reflect on the Jewish history of Berlin, the problem of racism, and the rise of ultra-right movements today. The artist presents an interactive video installation based on her research on two women who took part in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin: Jewish high jumper Gretel Bergmann and propaganda movie director Leni Riefenstahl. Their stories are transferred into the present. A viewer can create their own story by choosing different responses.
The exhibition “Fragmented Narratives” is open at alpha nova & galerie futura, Am Flutgraben 3, Berlin, through November 6, 2020.