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Circularities

Fiona Flynn and Lewis McGuffie, Aizpute, Latvia, August 2012

In the closing decades of the 19th century large numbers of Jewish emigres boarded steamboats in Eastern Europe and set sail for the West. Leaving ports such as Riga, and Libau in Latvia and arriving in London and Southampton, this large-scale migration was as a result of increasing restrictions placed on the Jewish communities in the east. These communities sought refuge from the introduction of ever-more discriminatory laws, periodic assaults on their property and violent state sanction attacks in the form of pogroms. What they were leaving was called the "shtetl". The shtetl describes the villages and towns, away from the promised land, which the Jews had lived in since the 1700s.1 Amongst the families boarding those steamboats bound for the west were the Grinkers, from Aizpute in Latvia. They would arrive in London and take up residence in a Victorian housing block named Navarino Mansions.

One Jewish family who did not leave the east were the Hoffmans. Until the outbreak of WWII they lived in Poland, were upon they undertook a joinery to the Ukraine to hide the organised tyranny that had spread throughout Eastern Europe at the time. Then in 1945, having returned to a decimated and occupied Krakow, Ewa Wydra was born. In 1959, the Hoffmans undertook a journey similar to the one taken by their relations several generations earlier. They arrived in Vancouver, Canada and 15 year-old Ewa took on the anglicised name, Eva Hoffman. She would go on to become the literary editor of the New York Times, and write in detail on the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Throughout the early 20th century large numbers of Baltic Jews had also made their new homes in Johannesburg. Following the Jewish communities who had been chased out of the neighbourhoods of New York by Irish immigrants, they set about creating a thriving community in South Africa similar to those their ancestors had lived in a century before. In the wake of this migration, taking advantage of their influence in the UK shipping industry, the Grinkers also moved on from Navarino Mansions in London to Johannesburg.

Navarino.JPG

Over half a century later, in a gallery next to Navarino Mansions, in 2012, the writer and theorist Simon O’Sullivan gave a talk on the production of subjectivity. At this event O’Sullivan discussed his research into ideas that deal with a search for a new kind of subjectivity. A personal subjectivity, he explained, that moved away from the traditional Cartesian self, that could enable us as individuals, or as communities, to become active participants in the world around us and be able to make our own, independent lives. In essence, he described the concept of migration. Of engagement with ourselves and communities, and of re-imaging of the self through sometimes cathartic means.

In 1997 Eva Hoffman published her book Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. In this book she speculates on the possibilities of an Eastern Europe that had not first suffered the mass migration of the Jews and then the systematic eradication of the communities that remained. Here are some of her remarks in the epilogue of her book:

The more hopeful lesson of Polish-Jewish history maybe that when conflicts of interest are not exacerbated or extreme, when fanatical notions are not willfully fanned, the instinct of tolerance, surely as basic as that of prejudice, can find breathing space.

Why couldn’t these phases of concord and comity be better sustained? Over the span of centuries, Poles and Jews did not construct an effective underpinning of shared structures and convictions, and it seems to me that what the Polish-Jewish experiment suggests – to put it in the most general terms – is that “identity politics” may be inadequate without a sense of solidarity. If we are to live together in multicultural societies, then in addition to cultivating differences, we need a sense of a shared world. This does not preclude the possibility of preserving and even nurturing strong cultural, spiritual, and ethnic identities in the private realm, nor does it suggest collapsing such identities into a universal “human nature”. But if multicultural societies are to remain societies – rather than collections of fragmented, embattled enclaves – then we need a public arena in which we can speak not only from our particular interests, but as members of a common society, from the vantage point of the common good.

It is difficult to know what would have happened to the Polish shtetl had the thread of its history not been so peremptorily severed. On the eve of World War II, it was a world rife with new energies and potentials. Its descendants in Israel, the United States and Western Europe have amply shown the vitality of the shtetl heritage. Given time and change, Poles and Jews of the small towns might yet have found a new accommodation, and the increasing interpretation of their cultures, as well as the grafting of modernity onto traditional Judaism, might have once again resulted in something unique and rich. (2)

The port town of Libau in Latvia, which had seen a large part of this exodus and later renamed Liepaja, remains a significant port of the Baltic Sea. A short distance in land, on the long road from Riga, lies a village called Aizpute (once known as Hazenpoth). Between and including Liepaja and Aizpute, in towns such Grobina (Grobin), large numbers of the Jewish population who remained in 1941 were murdered in the forests and on the beaches by the occupying Nazi forces and ultra-Nationalist Latvian collaborators. This atrocity was carried out with startling speed and willingness from the local, Nationalist Latvians. So much so, that nearly every village and town in this few hundred square kilometres in the west of Latvia has a mass grave, some marked with memorial inscribed in Hebrew.

One of these graves in the village of Aizpute is marked with the name 'Grinker'. An ancestor of the family who had moved to Johannesburg. A deeply disturbing reminder that the lucky families are now thousands of miles away. The ones that lacked the means to escape, to leave and create another community elsewhere, are now the subject of memorial after memorial after memorial. By 1942 the Third Reich had been driven from Latvia by the vast Red Army.

The Soviets left in 1994, and in the wake of their practice of militarising the landscape around them, left large-scale combat infrastructure, designed to defend the Eastern Bloc from an invasion via the Baltic Sea. In just over 100 years the landscape had evolved from shtetl to grave yard to military fortress. A cartographic web of trajectories and transitory spaces. The landscape that Simon O'Sullivan might have related to in his discussion near Navarino Mansions about the finite and the infinite.

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Explosion schematics

At a few of the points on this map, in August 2012, we chose three sites from which to make our explosions: a Soviet surface to air missile (SAM) battery site near Pavilosta, the beach by the northern Czarist forts next to the Nazi bunker sinking into the sea in Liepaja and the airfield in Aizpute, the site where 300 local Jews were taken and murdered before their remains were re-interred after the war in 1950, in the Christian cemetery on Misin Hill, over the Jews’ Bridge by the old synagogue and the mikvah, the ritual bathing house.

Explosion images

As we thought and talked about it, we realized that each of these sites is a base for projection, of weaponry, of sight and surveillance and of our selves, potentially, from land to sea, from land to air, from air to sea. Sites for trajectories of human subjectivity into the liminal spaces between good and evil, sites for passive spectators and, potentially, sites for projection of ourselves as active participants in making our own change.


  • (1) movinghere.org.uk/galleries/histories/jewish/journeys/journeys
  • (2) Eva Hoffman, Shtetl, The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, 1997, Secker & Warburg, p256-7