Listening to the past

Esther Dischereit reflects on her Holocaust installation in Germany and latest exhibition in Jerusalem.

Dischereit 311 (photo credit: Ann-Kathrin Seidel)
Dischereit 311
(photo credit: Ann-Kathrin Seidel)
‘I’m interested in giving a voice to the voiceless,” says author Esther Dischereit. “My work is influenced by voices. I want to pick up the voices of those who lived and those who died, to intermingle the dead with the living. I want to know what voices do they all have?” Her poetry, novels, stories, essays and plays for stage and radio have earned her numerous grants, fellowships and awards, including the Moses Mendelssohn Fellowship and the Erich Fried Prize, the most prestigious literary prize awarded by Austria. Her work, including Joëmi’s Table, A Jewish Story, Exercises in Being Jewish, With Eichmann at the Stock Exchange, When My Golem Came to the Door, A Slice of Bread in the Toaster and a recently published short story collection, The Morning the Paperboy, has been acclaimed in literary reviews and is set high on the reading lists of university courses throughout Europe, the US and Canada. She has been published in magazines and newspapers in Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Argentina and Colombia.
According to Prof. Mark Gelber, head of the Center for German Studies at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, “Esther Dischereit is considered by many observers to be the most important Jewish writer today who was born and grew up in Germany and continues to write in German in Germany, something that was until only recently considered to be taboo or indecent or inappropriate by many Jews throughout the world.”
Born in 1952 in Heppenheim, to a mother who had survived the Holocaust in hiding with her daughter from an earlier marriage, Dischereit was deeply affected by her silence regarding the experience. “I was in this typical relationship with my mother where she didn’t talk much. And in a way I knew, but I in fact did not know much. I didn’t want to know much. This is the silence I work with. The silence was there, but in a way it was full of words.
Like speaking—I had to pick it up somehow.
There was no story which was told to me. And I’m still picking.”
DISCHEREIT’S ROUTE TOWARDS writing was paved with odd jobs. Although she studied in Frankfurt am Main and was trained as a teacher, she also worked in the metal industry and later as a typesetter and worker for the German trade unions.
One of Dischereit’s many domains of interest is sound. Considered a “rhythmic poet,” she has produced moving radio plays broadcast by major German radio stations and is celebrated for her collaboration with jazz musicians and composers for the project “WordMusic- Space/Sound-Concepts.”
Two years ago, Dischereit succeeded in winning a competition in Dülmen—a small city in the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia—for the most original German-Jewish project honoring the city’s former Jewish inhabitants.
 With a solid concept in mind, Dischereit began the construction of a sound installation in one of its central parks, now named Eichengrün Square after an affluent Jewish department store owner who once lived there. The Dülmen installation, which was adapted into book form in 2009, is now the focus of an exhibition at the Goethe Institute in Jerusalem entitled “Vor den Hohen Feiertagen gab es ein Flüstern und Rascheln im Haus” – Before the High Holy Days the House Was Full of Whisperings and Rustlings.
Collaborating with typographer Veruschka Götz and musician Dieter Kaufmann, Dischereit planned the exhibition, which runs until October 2, to feature a visual representation of her sound installation in Dülmen.
The installation consists of two audio speakers situated in different locations in the park, where, she explains, “pedestrians walk, eat lunch or sit at tables around the square and talk while their children play.” The concept behind the installation comes from Dischereit’s interest in “accidental listening.”
The voice heard from a small speaker placed in a hedge behind a park bench is that of a woman reciting one of 55 “sound-marks,” several of which are first and last names, in no particular order. Read in a deliberate but peaceful tone, the names are ordinary ones.
“You sit here or you sit there,” Dischereit says. “And you don’t know necessarily why. And you sit and talk with people and then you sit back like you always would, and if you lean far enough, you hear a recording for one, two or three minutes. If you like what you hear, you stay.”
Because the recording is manually triggered, she explains, “if you don’t activate it on purpose, it stops. So you hear it for the first time by accident, and only later by choice.”
While preparing the project, Dischereit spent many hours in Dülmen’s historical archives, logging the names of the Jews who lived there in the last few centuries.
Considering that the majority of the city’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, she contemplated collecting the names of those who survived beyond 1942. “I had to decide,” she explains, “would I mention only the people who were murdered? And I decided not to. If I would have divided them, I would have split families. When you think of a family, you think of them all.”
A central challenge Dischereit faced was how to make it known that the names recited were those of the Jews who formerly lived in Dülmen. “The Nazis wanted to make the invisible Jewishness visible by creating the race issue,” she says. “I had to ask myself, ‘How can I myself make these people visible, and not others?’” Her solution was to scramble the first and last names for the recording as a way to reiterate the former Jewish presence in the city without forcefully prompting listeners to recognize them.
“When I decided to include the names of the people,” she recalls, “the actress [whose voice is on the recording] couldn’t differentiate the families from one another. She said I had made a mistake, but in fact I didn’t at all. I wanted it like this, because the way people today think of the Jews of the past has led to the creation of an indefinable mass of people. I wanted to both represent this fact while still including the names.”
The second sound installation in the market square is attached to a lantern and plays a minute-long recording once a day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.; the time changes daily and cannot be predicted.
Resonating from the lantern are cooking recipes that were once prepared by Jews all over Germany.
“It’s only one minute and is something of an intervention in the day,” explains Dischereit. “It jumps over your day, and you won’t know when.
It’s a reference to when Jewish people were eating here; but of course, it’s also a reference to their absence... It’s very clear that many Germans honor these recipes themselves; they are not so different from what the Germans ate in the past.”
The sound-marks from the lantern speaker, unlike the activated recording behind the park bench –which leaves the listener to choose whether or not it sounds – says Dischereit, “never really end. You are never ‘done’ with it; its random activation at any point in the day cannot be turned off by choice.”
The voice of the speaker – a man with a “terrible American accent” – was carefully chosen by Dischereit, who reveals that “the everyday life in Jewish terms comes back through the voice of the stranger, the outsider, the other. It also refers to the liberation of German Jews by the Allies. Making an American voice present in everyday life in this little market square shows one of the realities of the past as well, and one that should also be honored.”
THE DÜLMEN INSTALLATION, she says, is an effort “to create a new discourse about the past, to illustrate how the past intermingles with the present, especially if it’s not asked for. It’s really placed in the middle of everywhere and anywhere, where people do ordinary things – they eat and meet there; the installation itself is not very beautiful or prestigious at all.”
Many had been afraid that Dischereit’s installation might be intrusive – an irksome reminder of the Nazi persecution to pedestrians expecting only to go about their everyday comings and goings. Dischereit disagrees, however, and explains, “I respect that this is a public space for everyone to sit and eat if they want to. And I don’t want to force anyone to feel ugly or bad if they want to come here. I simply say that all these absent people are there, even if you go to there to eat. You can pass, you can go on eating, but you can also stop for a minute, even longer if you’d like.
Still, I know that this is a public space and I do not want to dominate it with ghosts who have not chosen to be there.”
She also strays from any direct reference to the Holocaust and focuses her attention on recalling the past in a way that respects the dead, without placing blame on the Germans of today. “I always had in mind while working,” she says, “that if someone would come over, an immigrant or a dead person, and could listen, would they ask if this is the right voice? Would this be respectful to them? Doing this work, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to be both respectful toward the dead on the one hand, and also toward the everyday life of the pedestrians there.”
Her role is neither to educate nor to present numbers and dates, she explains. “I can do what others do,” she says, “like teachers and historians who try to pull out the biographies of people.
But I just show what happened, that the identities and biographies have all become intermingled – they have all become the same.”
Dischereit’s decision to record the names in no particular order drives this point home – the Holocaust has indeed become an event that is often perceived to have happened to a nameless mass.
Her work simultaneously depicts and rejects this idea by delivering fragments of names and the recipes that those behind the names once followed.
She adds that coping as a second-generation Holocaust survivor played a crucial role in the project. “I think that I would not have been able to do this if I would not have been the child of a Jewish mother who survived in hiding with my older sister,” she explains. “I myself had to look for splinters.”
Dischereit’s complete installation in Eichengrün Square is lastly a response to the countless Holocaust memorials and museums throughout the world that serve to “victimize the Jews, rather than to encourage the existence they once had and the places they populated.”
“I wanted this intermingling between the dead and the living,” she explains, “because it’s not interesting to build one monument after the other for deadness...
For me, such displays seem like the Germans’ attempt to fulfill the ritual of burial. The Germans did not bury their brothers and sisters, and there’s no way to do it now. So in a way I’m saying that whatever side you were on– and most families were on the side of Hitler – you didn’t manage to get rid of the Jews. And if you feel sorrow about it, that’s fine. But even if you don’t, they were there.”
The visual depiction of Dischereit’s work at the Goethe Institute, created by Veruschka Götz, is an intriguing reflection on Before the High Holy Days the House Was Full of Whisperings and Rustlings. Several placards line the walls of the exhibition, each riddled with text, much of which is incomprehensible at first glance. The words are often split in half; full sentences are truncated, leaving only words that, unless combined with words from later sentence fragments, cannot be deciphered on their own.
Götz, a professor of design and typography in Mannheim and the author of several internationally-recognized books, is pleased to have been chosen to create a textual adaptation of Dischereit’s work. “I’ve known Esther for a very long time,” she says, “and one day she came to me and asked me if it was possible to find a typographer interested in the subject of her installation.”
As Götz is not Jewish, the two women questioned the possibility of a shared understanding of Dischereit’s concept, but came to a point of agreement; Dischereit left the rest up to Götz.
The fragments on the walls of the exhibition are a solid representation of the complexities of memory in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Dischereit could not help but hear the voices of the lost lingering in Dülmen to this very day. Her attempt is not to scare or ostracize, but rather to remind not only the population living there now, but somehow the city itself that though the Jewish people are absent, they can nonetheless be heard through the recipes they once prepared and the families of which they were part.
Her desire to “know how the absent are present, even if they are not looked for,” has led her to create an exceptional installation that summons not only the Jewish ghosts in Dülmen, but of those throughout Europe.
The original Before the High Holy Days the House Was Full of Whisperings and Rustlings installation can be viewed on-line at
The Jerusalem exhibition runs until October 2 at the Goethe Institute, Rehov Sokolov 15. Go to for more information.