Exile: Belonging

Language as a vision of reality, and fictionalizing reality

My Macedonian mother could only rely upon the memory of her sisters, and of her impressions while growing up in Macedonia’s orphanages (Former Republic of Macedonia), consequently relocated since her flight from her natal village bombarded in 1948 when the Greek Civil War was at its peak, she’d spent ten years of her childhood separated from her family. To the existentialist question of “Who am I”, she never could find an answer in the eyes of her parents, mirrored in that of hers.

She had to reconstruct or rather re-invent an identity based upon what was told to her, by her parents, when they reunited once she was already an adolescent girl. In her adult life she corresponded with both her sisters and through their writing she received many written testimonials as a result of their physical separation, ever since she left to work as a seamstress in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, at the age of twenty, to then touch base in Amsterdam.

Her identity has been built from these mental ‘ruins’, voids of memory, since there wasn’t a real image to go with it. The idea of a mental ruin, so it appears, is an intriguing ‘image’. Navigating through thoughts, words, to indulge the imagination or rather distort the perception of reality, thence finding parallel universes digging up symbolic language. Regarding the latter Aby Warburg writes: « [..] les images de la mémoire sont entassés consciemment sous forme d’images ou de signes [..] que l’on peut désigner comme une forme de pensée symbolique1 ».

Extract from Masterthesis by Ilse Frech (2013), “Language as Image – Image as Language”, Work.Master, Master of Fine Arts and Contemporary Artistic Practices, major Visual Art, HEAD-Geneva, Switzerland (2011-13). Aby Warburg, German cultural theorist, philosopher and art historian.

  1. N. M. Alter, Mourning, Sound, and Vision, Camera Obscura 44, Volume 15, Number 2, Duke University Press, 2000, p. 88.
My mother, Veselinka, Trutnov, Czecho-Slovakia, 1962.

I have been focusing on the theme of Exile: Belonging since I decided to depart from a genealogical point of view in 2011, as to set the territory of my practice and research within the familial strata. Family identity whilst conceptually belonging to the ‘Inner-Exile’, being the result of the ‘migrated’ identity or identity in flux, is at large connected with a sense of estrangement.

In coming to understand the meaning of the word exile emotionally, physically and psychologically, I’ve been exploring the perception of image and the translation of reciprocity either disruption between the concept of ‘memory-image’ and ‘language as image’.

It is in this realm, finding common ground in a filmic narrative of both language and image, where re-appropriation of testimony and memory, both physically and verbally, are performed through an embodiment of the innate experience of the past and that of an imaginary reality. Be the experience of imaginative memory personal, either collective or multi-directional, set within the greater context of geo-political history; its perpetual existence resonates within the actual political and public realm.

Wander’ is a poetic text, based upon my mother’s biography growing up in orphanages in Macedonia in the fifties and living and working as a seamstress from 1967 in Wilhelmshaven (Germany). ‘13 Women, December’  is the story of 13 women from the former Republic of Macedonia, some of them already friends, who would bond for a lifetime, all transported by train to work  as seamstresses – in exile, at BAWI, a textile factory in Wilhelmshaven. All, but one – as the Gypsy ‘The Visionary’  predicted, would never return to resettle in their homeland again. Written and directed by Ilse Frech, performed by Leili Yahr, theatre actress and play-director (Geneva, Switzerland).

Recordings at HEAD-Geneva, Switzerland (2012), during Work.Master Program 2011-13), MFA HES-SO in Fine Arts and Contemporary Artistic Practices.
A family portrait of my grandparents with three of their four children; Cena (on the right), Gera (on the left) – the eldest sisters, and Stojan, their son, sometime after 1953 in Czecho-Slovakia. In all these family portraits my mother is the missing person, while residing in Macedonia (Former Republic of Macedonia), she couldn't join the family in Czecho-Slovakia due to political administrative legislation. Which is why it took another five years before reunion with her family, to take place.

The family portrait shown at the interactive project page of Exile: Belonging, dates from 1953, Brno, Czecho-Slovakia where they had their picture taken just after the reunion, as the familymembers are clearly older in this photograph.

My mother, her sisters and their parents had to flee from their natal village upon bombardments in 1948 during the Greek Civil War. At the time the village’s name was German – in what was then Aegean Macedonia, up until the Second World War, it lay peacefully on a slope surrounding the fertile valley of lake Prespa. Living as an ethnic minority in Greek Macedonia, Slav Aegean-Macedonians, just across the border from Yugoslavia, it was winter still, as they left by foot, passing through the mountains. They would cross the border with many others, known as ‘DECATA BEGALCI’, the exodus of Greek children, generating at least 55.881 political exiles – and many more hereafter, of which the exodus of the Greek children in 1948.

Children were transported by the Red Cross, by bus and train to many of the neighbouring communist countries. The family was reunited five years after their separation – with the two eldest daughters, to a decade later with my mother. My grandparents , Stoja and Boris, were traced in Poland with their son, Stojan – at that moment for years of age, and their fourth child.

The eldest daughter, Poli-Cena, later gave an oral- and written account of the moment of separation in German, Aegean Macedonia, 1948 (Epilogue). ‘Sweet Terror of Memory’ (15′, 2018), a film and visual poem created hereafter, inspired by my mother and the family’s biography and that of other female exiles, witnesses and survivors of The Greek Civil War, sparked by WW II.

Filmstills archival footage, 'In Kontinuo', documentary film by Macedonian filmmaker, Trajce Popov. Source Cinematheque of Macedonia, Skopje, The Republic of Macedonia.
Greek Civil War (1946-48), filmstills from Ze Svobodnédho Recka, s.d. silent movie. Source NFA – National Film Archives, Prague, Czech Republic (Kratki Film Archive, Czecho-Slovakia).

My mother is an exile of war. A lifetime refugee. Her parents, of Slav Aegean Macedonian descent, were born and raised on a milestone distance from each other, their villages overlooking the enchanting and legendary lake called Prespa in the northern province of Greece, Macedonia. Veselinka, born in the summer of 1945, and the youngest of three daughters, would not live her life in her motherland, for World War II had ended, when already a new war announced itself… In 1948, the three were separated from their mother and father, escaping their natal village, German, upon bombardments in 1948, whilst the Greek Civil War was raging, fierce bombardments threatened thousands of civilians and innocent children, in this northern region, as resistance was known to have its headquarters here.

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Is there a place you dream of before ever have set foot? Is there, in one’s imagination place to wander, to have a look around, without ever have set foot there? I wonder. I’ve been asked to leave. I wonder if I’ll like it there, elsewhere, or not. I wonder. Life doesn’t cease to create expectations, does it? During daytime, when working, I’d rather concentrate, than to wander away, in my mind there’s nothing at first, then there’s quietness. I come home after a long shift, first thing on my mind is to make myself a nice warm meal. A nice warm meal. Potatoes and meat. Yes, a nice slice of meat. I let my eyes catch the last rays of light playing around joyfully with shady leafy contours on the wall, besides the little window. I can see the sky, peril air, turning into blue and purple… My thoughts linger, hearing the sounds still of machinery buzzing in my ears. I look at my hands, with which the textile slides endlessly through my fingers, over and over again as one long meditative vision. Submerging into the nothingness of my soul. I feel happy. Am I missing someone? Is someone missing me? As in an echo, vaguely still, I suddenly find myself in my parent’s living-room. My father, smiling at me, with this slight absent, yet worried, mimic on his face, doesn’t speak to me. I hear a soft tinkling melody of kitchen   utensils, my mother’s preparing something. The smell of milk, sweet, touching my nostrils. It’s my father’s breakfast. Warm milk, with bread to soak in it. Every day, this ritual. Hmm… It makes me smile. My own morning ritual is that of eighty girls, and some boys at least, getting up all together. Sometimes we were even more, we would be there with hundreds, all bown above rows of hand basins. We washed ourselves with our hands, soap and a small towel. That’s all I possessed really. My hands, soap and a small towel. And my pyjamas of course, that I would fold neatly into the steel cabinet next to my bed, waiting for me when we would be sent to bed, at eight in the evening. Anyway, after we washed ourselves during the 10 minutes that we were given to do, we then dressed ourselves, all having garments somewhat alike, to then hastily descend to the refectory, where tables with linen cloth waited for us. Always the same ritual. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Doors would swing open, women coming from the kitchen would bring us our meal. Ten, fifteen minutes at most, I had to eat quick! I see myself running outside. I grab a tree, go up fast its trunk, faster than the boys, as always, to sit on a big branch. I triumph and laugh out loud. A sudden knock on the door pulls me out of it. Damn! My potatoes!

‘Wander’ (4’52, video) , written by Ilse Frech, performed by Leili Yahr, Geneva (2012).

Working as a seamstress for about a year and a half, my mother was contracted by a textile company, BAWI in Wilhelmshaven (1967, Germany). In 1961 her parents settled in Skopje, Macedonia. As refugees they had lived in baraks in Trutnov, Czecho-Slovakia, working in a factory, Tekslen. As she grew older, there was no employment to be found in Skopje when her parents retired and she needed to make a living. Once more she would be separated from her family and with a group of 13 Women, they left Yugoslavia by train. My parents met in Wilhelmshaven, in a nightclub. Photographs from the family-album were taken mostly by my father. The irony of life taking its own course, destiny would take them both in different directions.

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