Review: In My Mother’s Footsteps by Yishay Garbasz


Book Reviews, Photobooks

MothersFootsteps.jpg Yishay Garbasz’s mother was born in Berlin, Germany, four years before her family fled from the Nazis to Holland. During the war, she was deported first to Westerbork, then on to Theresienstadt, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, to Christianstadt, and finally - via a death march - to Bergen-Belsen, where she was liberated by British forces in 1945. “It has been over sixty years since these events happened to my mother,” writes Garbasz, “yet their emotional legacy has shaped our family in many painful ways.” And: “Her complex behaviors made it very difficult for me to love her, and I had to dig very deep in order to uncover my true feelings and the underlying reasons for her behavior.”

On his deathbed, Garbasz’s father made his wife promise to write down her story. It was this account the photographer began to come to terms with: “I needed to see firsthand what remained of my mother’s memories. My mother left parts of her soul in those places, and I intended to go back to collect them. And as I am a photographer, the camera was going to be my tool to help me see.”

Upon receiving a grant, Garbasz set out on her journey, most of it on foot, using a large-format camera to document what she was seeing (and using the slowness of the large-format process to be able to grasp things). Two weeks after seeing a book of the work, which is now seeing its publication as In My Mother’s Footsteps, Garbasz’s mother died.

If there ever was any more need to show the power of contemporary photography, In My Mother’s Footsteps would be an excellent example. As is obvious from the preceding, this power goes beyond that of the images - it includes the vision of the photographer, the relation of the photographer to her work and the way she uses it, the way individual images work together to create something even bigger… Contemporary photography can be so much more than just big, expensive prints on the walls of galleries or museums, and in our ubiquitous jadedness we better step back every once in a while and take in what is really there to be experienced.

In My Mother’s Footsteps presents Garbasz’s photographs next to the original quotes of her mother’s account. As those familiar with such accounts know, the text is almost a bit sparse and, given its contents (or actually what this contents really means), very matter-of-factly (“Near the barbed wire, Minna and I saw our father. He was a distinct figure, and we shouted ‘Daddy, Daddy!’ but we were with a thousand women all dressed alike in gray. Even if he had heard us, he would not have seen us. That was the last time we saw him.”). The sparseness of the words matches the photography in In My Mother’s Footsteps - just like no words could possibly truly describe her mother’s experiences, no photos could depict them. It would be fundamentally wrong to mistaken the photographs’ seeming coldness with emotional detachment.

And while there is a fair amount of photography dealing with the Holocaust, In My Mother’s Footsteps goes beyond what one could call the visual conventions and tells a story, connecting back what happened almost seventy years ago with our time, with us: A true landmark achievement.