Conditions of being a child
Thoughts on a series of pictures by Almut Quaas
Twelve children, twelve victims – the same violence.
And yet: in life, how conceivably distant from one another!
Children of those in power the one, the other declared to be “sub-humans”. The one nameless, having grown up without the support of a family, the other stylised to be a “model family”, elevated as national icons by their parents, their number and the first letter of their names a fatal alliteration: Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Hedwig, Holdine, Heidi – Hitler’s darlings. Misused for propaganda purposes and virtually ritually sacrificed to a system, an ideology whose demise they were not destined to survive. Whereas: The mass death of those who were stamped by this ideology per se as “unworthy of life” and killed with mechanical routineness.
Victims of the same murderous ideology, yet what unites these 12 apart from this is alone the fact that they were children. Potential bearers of the future, the forming of which was denied to them by violence. Today between seventy and eighty years old, they would have had the chance to encounter one another in a different world, - as children of the victims and children of the perpetrators, and no one would be entitled to pass judgement upon which burden would weigh heavier for each of them. The question: “What if?“, does not arise against the background of these pictures of visualised, “ascertained” childhood, and the cheap determination of “equality” in death does not lead into its core.
The reason behind these was shock. The film “Der Untergang (The Downfall)” by Bernd Eichinger, had – as one crucial scene – described the murder of the six children of the Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, in the Berlin “Fuehrer’s air-raid shelter” in detail. It does not matter whether, as staged by Eichinger, the mother Marta Goebbels, or – historically controversial – the dentist Stumpfegger crushed the cyanide capsules onto the gums of the sleeping children: this “Medea murder” has lost none of its horror; it indeed represents the fatal consequence of a way of thinking that only functions in the dimensions of either/or, of victory or destruction. Destruction of the others or, should these against all historical odds gain the upper hand: Self-destruction, as the defeated “master race” has along with the historical chance passed up its right to live. Victory or downfall – this hybrid logic was put into bloody practise on different levels: In battle, until the final contingent of children and old men, in Hitler’s order of the razed earth, by the flight of the functionaries from personal responsibility by more or less heroically staged suicide. What he had acquired, dragged the hypotrophic dictator into his own downfall.
No one asked the children. They bore neither guilt nor responsibility, even if they would never have freed themselves from the burden of their names. However, it must be considered more than doubtful that the concern for their future stood in the foreground in an act that took every chance for this future away from them. The question is rather whether the murder conducted “on one’s own brood” does not show similar traits to Hitler’s killing of his beloved sheepdog called Goldi. What is near and dear to someone, even more so from ‘one’s own blood’, it is worth – along with its master and creator – it perishing. Sarnapal’s logic. A final gesture of ursurpation. What kind of parents are those who wish the death of their children because they cannot imagine life worth living after the end of their venerated system, after their own demise?
The artist and mother of four children, Almut Quaas freed herself from the filmed version horror by devoting a portrait to each of the six children murdered, liken to a small epitaph, which for understandable reasons will never be granted to them officially. Almut Quaas presents the children of the perpetrators not collectively, as “the Goebbels Family”, but as individuals, - the eyes directed towards an imaginary future. It is for the observer to ask how much internalised “master race ideology” is already in these heads. Whether in the look of Helmut with his severely parted hair there is an implication of his revered model.
The age of those depicted does not allow the concept of guilt. Even if they were privileged beyond all measure, - they count just as much amongst the victims of Hitler as the 200 foster children of the famous Polish doctor, writer and teacher Janusz Korczak. Korczak’s decision, which in his writings repeatedly demands the rights of and respect for the child: “Respect for the unknowingness of the child, respect for the thirst of knowledge of the child, respect for the failures and tears of the child, respect for what belongs to the child”, whose most important book bears the title: “How one should love a child”, Korczak’s decision to accompany those under his protection voluntarily from the Warsaw Nasz Dom Orphanage to the concentration camp Treblinka, stands diametrically to the act committed by Marta and Josef Goebbels and other parents of the NS command elite. Korczak followed his doomed children, whereas those once in power took them blinded with them, depriving their own offspring of their right to live just as rigorously as millions of Jewish children before.
The fatal analogy gave Almut Quaas the idea to confront such different children’s faces, definitively denying the difference between the children of victims and perpetrators. In doing so, this goes back less to the mournful look, and certainly not to an historical putting into perspective of the suffering, but the conditions and possibilities of being a child in front of the horizon of hate and violence – in our time as well. It is about the presumption of stealing or obscuring the life of those who could perhaps make the world a little better.
The artist shows her interest in the question of how innocent childlike joy of life, openness and spontaneity grind to a halt, and how it – even under the most inhuman conditions – still claims tiny, sad personal freedoms.
The focus is not meant to be the description of the fates, but rest on the face of the child - perpetrator-child, victim-child, child-victim, - and what the relationships have inscribed into it: self-certainty, pride, uncertainty, coming to light of the future role, pure joy of life or plain fear, horror, fatalism and defiant self-assertion. And always visible behind all this: the insistence of each being a child, which was always a matter of great importance and a purpose in life of the teacher and mother Almut Quaas to protect and foster.
The question concerning the being of a child, its conditions and hazards – this is posed in Almut Quaas’ portrait series very directly and emotionally, - regarding the concrete historical victim situation of the 12 portrayed, but with the timeless urgency, which is more important to the artist than any commemorative plaque.
These words by Janusz Korczak speak more than any epitaph:
“You say: ‘Being with children exhausts us’. You are right. You say: ‘For we must climb down to their system of concepts. Climb down, bow down, bend, and make yourself smaller’. You are wrong. It is not this which tires us. But – that we have to climb up to their feelings. Climb up, stretch ourselves outwards, get up on tiptoe, and reach out. In order not to cause harm.”