“Galitzian Jew Stuck In Sint Martin, Makes A Life And Has A Heavy Problem” is the headline given to the letter written by Isaac Gerstenbluth (my great-grandfather) published in the advice column of the New York-based, Yiddish newspaper called ‘the Forward’ (or ‘Forverts’ in Yiddish). The message and it’s response, titled “Don’t go back to Poland”, are both dated January 1938 (eight months beforeWorld War Two officially started) and have been kept in family photo-albums in Curaçao for over 70 years in Curaçao. The story goes that, without them, our history would have probably looked very different (or, more likely, non-existent).
Where the letter, as well as the story from various family members, recount a laborious life, detailing religious exile, isolation, a want to return home, the loss of a child and an ill-adjustment to the intense climate, colours and people on the island — images that were kept in photo albums in New York paradoxically show my great-grandfather and his family in white linen clothing and lounge chairs surrounded by flourishing tropical gardens in St. Martin. These images, scanned and captioned by other great-grandchildren of Isaac in New York, show the family as successful and comfortable in what is actually a completely new and foreign world to them. Meanwhile, in the recorded audio that accompanies the work, the slow and confusing methodology of translating Isaac’s letter and the answer he received from Yiddish to English by my mother, brother, uncle and myself, can be heard. Vowels, words, and, eventually sentences, slowly escape their mouths. Yiddish is hardly spoken in the family anymore, let alone read. The story that has been watered down for more than 70 years through word of mouth and partially translated bits and pieces comes to light — and is told as if it was for the first time.
In this project, specially made for the exhibition "IDENTITIES: Contemporary Caribbean Perspectives" (Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam), these dialectic stories are told together for the first time. The images, all taken on Sint Maarten and Curaçao, follow the same emotional and saturated colour- and visual language. The very personal experience of translating these letters, the repetition and overlapping of words and conversations that have continually popped up throughout the process - form the base of the work. Similar images are literally repeated, each giving a different perspective of the same moment, and images are physically overlapped in two plexiglass layers. These layers, almost invisible when walking by, create physical space within these contemporary and scanned family album images to introduce new combinations from each angle. Between these contemporary and “new” older monochromatic images, and the letters that bear witness to a time that is now set in ink, this project is somewhat of an ode to the inconsistencies in translation, the personal touches within family archiving, and how histories can be mutated, watered down and resurface within several generations — and tell a completely new story with each reciting.
“IDENTITIES: Contemporary Caribbean Perspectives” at Wereldmuseum, Rotterdam
This work would not have been possible without the generous funds of Research Center for Material Culture (Leiden) and Wereldmuseum (Rotterdam)