Review of Paroles d’artiste by Ceija Stojka, translated by John Doherty, Fage Editions, 2017
Ceija Stojka (1933-2013) was born in Austria, the fifth of six siblings in a family of Roma horse traders from Lovara. Deported at the age of ten with her mother and other members of her family, she survived three concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen.
It was only forty years later in 1988 that she began to share her experience. Although considered illiterate, she wrote several powerful works in a searing poetic style. This made her the first surviving Romani woman from the death camps to testify about her experience.
Ceija Stojka (Paroles d’artiste) is one of these harrowing collections. Most of the text (62 pages in total) is extracted from Je rêve que je vis? Libérée de Bergen-Belsen. Translated from German to French by Sabine Macher, then French to English by John Doherty, it clings fiercely onto the original’s metaphoric flair.
The dead fly off in a rustling of wings. They rush out, they
shake themselves. I can feel them. They sing, and the sky’s
full of birds. It’s only their bodies that are lying there. They’ve
left their bodies […] we’re carrying them along with our own lives.
The vivid reflection weaves into fragments of conversation and interview answers, albeit haunted by their own impossibility. ‘You can’t imagine the smoke that came gushing out’, Stojka says of the Auschwitz chimney. ‘The real truth, the fear and poverty, and what they did to us, I can’t tell you.’ There are no words that could possibly communicate the horrors of being imprisoned in three concentration camps, but that’s where her paintings come into play.
The book presents an innovative poetic-visual dialogue, animated by Stojka’s poignant artwork. The most haunting is the helpless eye that gapes from the page, Untitled (1995). It’s feathered by a fringe of eyelashes representing the forest’s boundary, then bloodshot with barbed wire snagged with a human skull (‘during the night, the fog settled on the barbed wire, and in the morning we sucked the moisture’).
Elsewhere, she depicts chilling ghost-scapes of drooping faces (‘pain turns to melancholy’), occasionally brightened by idyllic homages to pre-war tranquillity; roaming care-free in a caravan across the Austrian countryside.
Increasingly, her reflection becomes snagged on the struggles of reintegrating back into daily life. The notion of duality lurks behind each line, revealing a split and broken self that cannot be pieced back together (‘Why did they | steal my childhood from me?’).
She appears caught between the need to forget the horrendous ordeal (‘I was always sitting among dead people. It was the only place | that was calm’) and to step forward to the future (‘I want to say, “I’m free, and I’m going to put plants on my balcony. It’s all very well.”’). But of course, any forward-motion is tugged back by the need to share the truth (‘we have to come into the open. We have to open up’), which is to step back into the past.
For me, it’s as though it’s always just behind me. I turn round, and I’m back there again. Nothing has changed.
The freedom to testify, to at least try to share the truth, resounds with utmost importance. ‘Most of the women ate their blankets’, she writes, but Stojka refuses the suffocation of silence. ‘There’s a hope that, before losing my way, those who are still silent will find a voice.’
– Jade Cuttle graduated from Cambridge with First-Class Honours in French & Russian. She was selected as a Ledbury Poetry Festival Emerging Critic of 2018 and named Best Reviewer (Editor’s Choice) in the Saboteur Awards 2018.