I lived in Berlin for a year just before the wall came down, the only time I lived in Germany as an adult. It was a strange time, for many reasons. But what stood out, unforgettably, were people’s faces. They looked distorted, like George Grosz drawings, as if they had put on a mask, but suffering and fear were breaking through. As if they had lost control of their features. Is this what living in this strange limbo, in a city still physically and psychologically damaged by the war manifested itself in? A sprayed-on normalcy that was peeling off like old wallpaper?
The next time I saw faces like this was in my many visits to Brighton Beach, New York City’s Russian enclave. Emphatic, overdrawn faces that seemed to want to portray indifference but were expressive all the same. It looked like long, difficult fates were inscribed in them, and no doubt they were. Many were Jewish and had been able to emigrate in the 1970s and 80s. Before that, what repression, what shattered hopes, how much putting on a proud face on a hard life, biting your tongue for decades on end, keeping two separate ledgers, censoring what you think.
Orlando Figes, in his wonderful ‘The Whisperers‘ brings to life the repressive atmosphere of the post-war years in Russia, especially for the persecuted and their families, and anyone else with a “spoilt biography”, like many members of the Jewish community.
As someone who is interested in images and their uses, I am fascinated by the new laser technologies that are revolutionizing gravestone design. Here are a few of the faces in Brooklyn’s Washington Cemetery, all members of the Russian Jewish community. Such evocative faces. What are their stories?