Protegida/Watched Over

Protegida | Watched Over

A photographic installation with sound

Auvergne-Ave Maria

When I went to the Institut St. Joseph in the Auvergne region of France in 1996, I was haunted by the voices of my childhood—repeating Ave Marias summoning the ultimate protection from all things bad and evil. I had gone there following an elusive memory of my mother’s. Ballet lessons and Ave Marias. She was two. Or three. Hiding from the Nazis. Did she stay there two weeks? A month? No one seems to remember. Except, she admits, she could still recite the Ave Maria by heart…

In 1991, I attended a workshop at the 1st International Gathering of Children Hidden during World War II. I listened, hyperventilating and with tears welling up, while a tall woman with a French accent recounted how, earlier in the day, a journalist had said to her: "What kind of Jew are you!" as she talked about her warm feelings toward Christianity and her Christian rescuers.

I had prayed fervently too, as a Catholic child, seeking redemption, protection. I would go on to heaven if I prayed. My family would be protected if I prayed. But down deep inside, I felt caught in a bind. Not quite right. Disloyal. Ashamed of my prayers, of my need to pray, as if I, or any other child, could have done anything but live what was passed down through the generations.

Auvergne-Hélène

I have visited Le Mont-Dore and my great aunt Hélène numerous times. The first time, I had no idea that she held such a repository of memories. In 1993, I became aware of the treasure she carried. She brought out a pre-war box carved lovingly by her Polish boyfriend, now long lost. One by one, she dug inside to name those in her family photographs. Each naming was a faded flash of warmth and pain, tarnished details that have become her testimony. One of the last ones left.