The Persistence of Memory: Text and Image in the Art of Arnold Daghani

According to those who knew him best, the artist Arnold Daghani (1909–1985) had an exceptionally retentive memory for events, names, dates and places. For him, as for other survivors, memory became what Laurence Langer, in his study Holocaust Testimonies, calls an ‘insomniac faculty’, implying that the process of remembering is not one of reviving memories, for ‘there is no need to revive what has never died’. What makes Daghani’s commemorative works distinctive is that they combine words and images in such varied, complex ways. Although he created visual images without words and wrote texts without images, he would often use written inscription to heighten the visual impact of an image — a parallel discourse rather than an explanation — in much the same way as he would set an image in counterpoint to text.

While in Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? A Singing Play (1941–1942) words and images are combined from the start, Daghani often presented the media side by side, complementing each other. This is the form adopted in his original slave labour camp diary, which records the experiences of Jews deported to the Mikhailowka labour camp (south-west Ukraine) and the Bershad ghetto (Transnistria). However, the two media became more closely interconnected in later works, notably his micrographic designs in which tiny words are set out in visual arrangements, or fused into hybrid hieroglyphic forms of an impenetrable hermetic language.

In his book The Building in which We Had a Narrow Escape, Daghani refers to his experiences in the slave labour camp at Mikhailowka, to which he and his wife, Nanino, were deported in June 1942. The notes that he made secretly in the camp formed the basis of a number of post-war diaries in which he combined his wartime material with later memories and reflections. When the 1960 German-language publication of his diary prompted legal investigations into the widespread killings in the camps in Ukraine, Daghani incorporated passages from the gathered testimonies into his diaries, further challenging the conventional separation between document and memory.

The Building focuses on one particular episode in their escape from Ukraine in July 1943, a nail-biting sequence of fateful events and near misses. The text ends with a quotation from Exodus, as a form of thanks for their survival, and part of a letter from the engineer Werner Bergmann. In August 1943, Mikhailowka was attacked by partisans and, while some escaped, the remaining slave labourers were relocated to the nearby camp of Tarassiwka where, as the Red Army advanced, they were all shot by their German captors. They were buried in the mass grave in the cherry orchard, forming the poignant title of Daghani’s diary: The Grave is in the Cherry Orchard.

The text of The Building is handwritten in the artist’s characteristic neo-Gothic script, rendering it highly visual and almost granting it the status of a legal document or sacred medieval manuscript. So obviously time consuming to produce, it signals a work of particular value or significance as well as authenticity. At the same time, the aestheticized writing and ornamentation may be seen as a distancing device; rather than write in his own hand, Daghani adopted a stylized form that enhances his authority.

In transforming words into images Daghani drew on the tradition of micrography in which minute words are written as abstract or representational forms. It is a practice found in medieval Hebrew and Islamic manuscripts and decorations, often as a means of overcoming the prohibition on images in religious contexts. In Hebrew manuscripts, for example, micrographic forms may be found in the writing of marginal notes or Masorah, adding a decorative border to the Biblical text. Daghani’s micrographic works are presented as autonomous word-image configurations rather than as supplementary decoration. In his most striking example he inscribes the names of dead slave labourers from Mikhailowka into the contours of a woman’s face, creating a very human form of memorial.

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The book also contains eighteen sketches in black ink on silver paint, many of which are based on the drawings and paintings Daghani managed to smuggle out from Mikhailowka and the Bershad ghetto. Some of these drawings are memory-based; he not only rewrote his diary but remade many wartime images later on, appending to them further memories or new thoughts, often reworking them in materials previously available. Indeed, the persistence of memory is central to Daghani’s practice as evident in the book’s dedication: ‘To Nanino — this playback 1942/1943’.

These images are sketches and function as fragments, detail or quotation rather than as finished works. Each has a suggested narrative of its own: the face of an unknown slave; a guard; an SS officer, his status just visible on his collar; a guard with his rifle, dressed warmly against the cold; the misshapen feet of a sick person; figures huddled in prayer; the hands of a mother reaching out to her son, randomly shot by a guard; a wrapped body, handed down from an upper bunk in the camp accommodation. These last three images demonstrate the artist’s complex religious identity. In addition to the images of Jewish prisoners at evening prayer, his visual memories use Christian iconography, alluding to Christ on the cross and the Deposition from the Cross.

Primo Levi wrote in The Drowned and the Saved that: ‘Except for cases of pathological incapacity, one can and must communicate […] because silence, the absence of signals, is in its turn a signal, but it is ambiguous, and ambiguity generates anxiety and suspicion. To say that it is impossible to communicate is false; one always can.’ Through his continual playback of words and images, Daghani attempted to provide not a definitive work but rather an acknowledgement that words and images can only be approximate to experiences. His legacy is a wealth of approximations in words, images, narrative and documentation in a practice that crosses stylistic borders, mixed media, materials and forms of representation. In them is a synthesis of past and present, private and public, history and memory. To those expecting a catalogue of sensationalist violence, Daghani’s art will seem understated, but through visual understatement he is able to transcend atrocity and accentuate the dignity of the prisoners. In portraying the daily routines — from working parties and soup queues to sleeping quarters and evening prayers — he returns to the human subject a sense of meaning and a spiritual dimension beyond the squalor and brutality of the camp.

Deborah Schultz is Research Fellow in the Centre for German-Jewish Studies, Department of History, University of Sussex. She is co-editor with Professor Edward Timms, of Arnold Daghani’s Memories of Mikhailowka:  The Illustrated Diary of a Slave Labour Camp Survivor (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009) and co-author with Edward Timms, of Pictorial Narrative in the Nazi Period: Felix Nussbaum, Charlotte Salomon and Arnold Daghani (London: Routledge, 2009) first published as a special issue of Word & Image, vol. 24, no. 3 (July–September 2008).

The Arnold Daghani Collection is housed at the University of Sussex. To visit contact or phone 01273 678157.

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