Photo Essay
November 30, 2021

Travesty Show

An illustrated correspondence

All photographs by Nicholas Muellner unless otherwise noted

January 2021

Dear Nick,

For a long time, the online encyclopedia entry on Balta, Ukraine, featured a single photo, of a green hill with buildings in the distance. The caption read, “Jewish cemetery in Balta, Ukraine.” But if you clicked to get a larger version of the same image—you had to, if you wanted to actually see the crests of the tombstones hidden in the tall grass—the caption would change to “Panoramic view of Balta, Ukraine.” It was a case of thrown focus. Or like one of those lenticular postcards, Jesus winking. Angle left it’s the city; angle right it’s the cemetery. You could never see both at once.

I visited that page often, searching for information about the place where my father’s parents had spent the war, but—as I told friends in the winter of 2017, before you and I met in Ukraine—I never thought I’d actually go. My notion of the city was as a place too fixed in time to reach. In Balta, during the war, my grandfather had signed letters orchestrating the escape of Jewish children from Axis-occupied territory, part of a larger operation that, he told my father, was the reason he’d been sent to Siberia after the war’s end. In video testimonies, I’d watched strangers call him a lawyer or a businessman, a humble man or a man in an enviable long fur coat, a bad man or a hero.

I was searching for traces of the Jewish past, and you were searching for signs of what you’d call the queer future. Our trajectories would meet in Odessa: at a hotel called Geneva, on a street called Jewish, a few blocks from the gay bar called Libertine, across the street from the offices of the former KGB.

H



January 2017

Dear Helen,

Before I went to Simferopol last year, Marat told me about his sister, a journalist and photographer he wanted me to meet. He arranged for us to get together on my first day there, at his best friend’s café, where she managed the books. On our way, Marat explained that his sister was not actually his sister, but his first cousin. The distinction was immaterial; they were very close. Then, approaching the café’s darkened door, Marat delivered a second, more urgent piece of information. My sister, he said, does not know that I am gay. Please don’t say anything to change that.

In fact, his sister, who was his cousin, also did not know that her handsome boss, who she’d been in love with for years, was gay. And that the roommate he’d lived with for over a decade, with whom he’d built a house—a flamboyantly performative professional singer—was his lover. As a journalist, she’d investigated Russian repression of Tatar activists, and bravely documented Tatar political protests and rallies. She’d been harassed, arrested, and threatened by the new Russian government. But in these matters of the heart, the investigative journalist was uninformed.

We are trying to articulate the shape of the hidden, so I’m sending you a picture of nothing. Or rather, the picture of a subject that we will never see. For me, Man Ray’s The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse is the ur-photograph. The plain-sight fact of its hiding is absolutely the point. Hiding, after all, is a form of being. The story is the draping of the blanket, the elaborately wrapped twine. Without this narrative, the form is nothing.

Marat’s sister looked at her brother, her boss, and his roommate, and saw their strangely wrapped shapes. She accepted these forms as her subjects, even though there was clearly something underneath. How can we say that she is wrong? And yet Man Ray wanted us to know that there was hiding.

On an otherwise blank page of my notebook, I find these words: I am also a shape.

N

Man Ray: L’enigme d’lsidore Ducasse, 1920
Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY / ADAGP, Paris 2021

Every New Year’s Eve, at midnight, the leader of a certain Soviet satellite state would speak on TV. And all across the country, families would beat on the tops of their television sets—ostensibly because they weren’t getting good reception, but actually . . . Another case of thrown focus. In one fist, a
flute of champagne. In the other, your pounding rage, “hidden” for even a child to see.

An old Soviet saying: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” The journalist pretends not to know that her “brother” is gay, and he pretends not to know that she knows he is gay. Or would it be simpler to say that he pretends not to be gay, and she pretends not to know that he pretends not to be gay? Those older Ukrainians who claim they have no idea what happened to the Jews, I am told, are precisely the ones who know: Their knowingness is signaled by their pretending not to know.

So here is a postcard that features two photos, two views. The city and the cemetery. The world of the living and the world of the dead. We’re sorry, but it won’t be possible to see both.

H

When I wrote them to say we’d be visiting, my best gay friends from Odessa told me they had recently moved to Vinnitsa, a city that conjures nothing to me except for one awful photograph: The Last Jew in Vinnitsa. It haunts me, this image and its title. A figure suspended above his own imminent murder, above the heap of bodies he’s about to join. He is not looking down at the pit in front of him, or off to the side to flee. The gun is already aimed at his head, but he is poised—and posed—as if for posterity. He appears to be taking in the act of photography. That makes the title all the more chilling, as if he knows how the portrait will be titled. And so it almost feels like he is not inside the action (all around him, focused on him), but inside subjecthood, inside portraiture.

The Last Jew in Vinnitsa is perpetually there, and always already gone. He is presence and absence, alive and dead, a lenticular of terrible fate.

N

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Sharon Paquette

I can hardly stand to look at the picture. But even when I close my eyes, the title lingers, its terrifying propaganda: The man is not, was not, Vinnitsa’s last Jew, but someone badly wanted him to be. When I type last jew into Google I get last jew in vinnitsa, last jew in afghanistan, last jew of treblinka, last jew in vinnitsa fake. The image is not fake as in staged, although, in some sense—photographer as audience, camera as frame—the image is staged. The image is fake because the title, which is not actually a title but an inscription on the back of the original, is a lie.

You can’t go knocking on the door of the KGB, are you crazy? my father says when I tell him I am planning to ask, in Odessa, for the file on his father that we’ve already been denied permission to see. You’ll never leave! They will not talk to you in English and probably will not talk to you at all.

(And it’s true, the whole language is a code, an Iron Curtain to me—a blanket hiding an elaborately wrapped shape.)

They wouldn’t give it to my father, why would they give it to you or to me? They’re afraid that you will make a story out of it, which you obviously want to do. If somebody gives it to you and you make a story out of it, that person will be in trouble. They will give the file and somebody will make a story. That’s what they worry about.

(A story is also a shape.)

H

March 2017

Helen,

In Vinnitsa, my friends tell their landlord they are brothers, though they speak with different accents and look nothing alike. At home, they call each other Mama and Papa, and their dewy-eyed Rottweiler answers to Daughter.

In Balta, the synagogue that became the phone company is becoming the synagogue again. The construction site is a resurrection, a cemetery in reverse. The orphanage is a nondescript home. The theater is a museum that houses a stage.

In Vinnitsa, the water smells foul and tastes tainted. There are bodies under the park, more mass graves in other places. You and I sat on top of them, in Radu and Ruslan’s comfortable home, talking about good people and bad people, homemaking and escaping abroad. We heard about the friend they called Laura Ashley. A tramp, they said, pointing to a photo on their kitchen wall of a slim, dark-haired man seated among them. Laura is a whore and an ugly bitch, they insisted. By which they meant: We love her.

In Vinnitsa, as we followed our friends blindly through the town, you leaned in and told me you imagined the last Jew was buried—where?

I remember I answered, without thinking, that the murder must have happened where a shopping mall now stands. I had no idea that, at that moment, we were on our way to the mall. Inside, the coffee kiosk sold flat whites, and cell phones were hawked by young men dressed as hot pink spheres. The T-shirt I bought said, in faintly gothic all-caps, RICH GANG. There was a café called FORTUNE; in Balta, there had been a market called CHANCE.

N

A forest! That’s where I thought the last Jew must be buried—in one or the other of the forested parks flanking Radu and Ruslan’s street. I got the idea because in The Last Jew of Vinnitsa—behind and around Vinnitsa’s not-last-Jew—I remembered seeing tall trees.

But this takes some effort to recall, because your statement about the mall was such a corrective, because it immediately felt true, the chill of those white walls, blank and new, and Ruslan’s latte sized XXX-Large, so much milky froth, everything an overlay. Until then, I had failed to imagine that the pit of bodies was “now” anything but itself.

The Ukrainian word balka supposedly means both ravine and place where Jews were killed. A homonym, I’m told, though now I have trouble believing this; I wish we’d asked Ruslan and Radu. Still—and maybe this was the haze of hangover, or the rainy gray, or the food poisoning I got from the café〞in Vinnitsa it seemed to me that everywhere, underfoot, were mass graves. You may remember that I looked it up while we were there: Vinnitsa hosted several such executions, and not only of Jews; one took place in the park now called People’s Park. If I hadn’t wanted to avoid explaining my curiosity, I might have asked your friends where People’s Park was. But maybe that’s what balka is for. One word, two meanings, to prevent us from seeing or having to speak of mass graves.

H

In Ukraine, the gay couples we befriended may not kiss in public, or hold hands, but that doesn’t mean their queerness can’t be seen. Could the waiter in the Georgian restaurant in Odessa possibly not see Igor and Lyosha as gay—Igor in his country gentleman fox-hunting garb, and Lyosha sporting a mauve mock-turtleneck side-buttoned sweater that he could have borrowed from his sister (had he had one) or Barbara Bush (had they met)?

And the waitress who knew and joked with Radu and Ruslan in the Vinnitsa café〞didn’t she see them for what they made no effort to disguise? Radu, after all, said that he had moved from Moldova to Ukraine because it was more open. People, he said, could see that you were gay, and leave you alone. It is there to see if you are willing. You just have to tilt the postcard into the right light.

N

In Vinnitsa, in 2017, the man who calls himself Papa works for a Chinese media company, programming GIFs that Facebook users can purchase for hundreds of dollars to show they’ve won money in a casino where they haven’t won any money, where nobody wins any money. The man called Mama makes us a giant Ukrainian borscht that we are to eat for breakfast after drinking too much vodka the night before. Beneath their T-shirts both men wear Stars of David, though neither is Jewish. The symbols stand in for wedding bands, an aesthetic and sentimental choice, you speculate, though later we’ll realize: They’re also a rejection of the crosses everyone else wears. Over borscht, I ask you to ask them what they know about the Jews of this place. Papa lowers his voice and tells us: During the war, my grandmother hid three Jews. Mama interrupts him: All people are just people, and what’s past is past.

In Balta, in 1917, my great-grandparents hid from pogroms in a basement until, my father says, his grandmother couldn’t take it anymore, and went out. Are you Jewish? asked a Ukrainian nationalist. No, she lied. Then where is your cross? She tugged on the chain on her neck without revealing the pendant attached—probably a locket, my dad tells me. Then, before she was asked to show any more, a non-Jewish stranger came out his front door: Leave her alone, he shouted. That’s my wife.

H

I often look at tilled fields and think that I can see their value—as if darkness means richness and pallor means poverty. As if the surface knows what’s inside. I am only a little ashamed to say that I feel the same way about faces: the face as the freshly tilled surface of the heart and core of being.

Igor’s is a classic face of long suffering. Lyosha’s of long hope. The former’s skin sags under that historical weight. The latter’s is still taut with promise and possibility.

They were born 20 days apart. And they met at 33—the same age as Jesus, they said. I note they didn’t say: the same age as Jesus on the cross. The two were drawn into contact by the ruthless gravitational pull of the same bad man—who, Igor told us, had left him “like a suitcase without handles,” heavy and broken, but impossible to throw out. After ten days of chatting, from cities several hours apart, Igor came to see Lyosha. After three days in bed, they were in love. A month later, Lyosha moved to Odessa so they could live together. A month from now, they will have been together for a year.

They hold up their left hands, rings glinting in the restaurant’s dim light. Twin beacons, signaling dreams and plans. Lyosha will learn English, quit his restaurant job, and go abroad to earn money for six months a year. Igor will stay behind, working his 14-hour shifts at a shashlik café near the train. In two years, they’ll buy an apartment. After that, their own restaurant. In Balta, I had listened as our friend Vadim pointed out sites of lost synagogues and lovingly restored graves, his present littered with the rubble of the past. Igor and Lyosha stand atop this rubble without looking down, eyes fixed on the mirage of tomorrow. One sees only the past in the present; the others see only the future. Jesus dead, Jesus winking. Sunset or sunrise, but never the living day.

N

After you left Ukraine, Nick, I felt like a dog. Meaning I walked the streets of Odessa thinking, I feel like a dog—aware, in a constant and pre-verbal way, of the presence of your absence at my side. I was going to the Jewish Museum, two crowded rooms in the back of a building, where a man with a face as lovely as Vadim’s would, like him, seem to want something from me I didn’t know how to provide.

I asked if the museum got many visitors, and the man said fewer since the 2014 revolution, because there are fewer tourists, and tourists are their visitors. Many from Germany, he said, and looked at me meaningfully. Interesting, I said in English. Then, because he had not dropped my gaze, I reached for the Russian: Interesno, I tried. It’s good, he said. I nodded, since on the face of things I agree, but I was remembering the way Auschwitz teemed with German families and tour-guided teens; I was thinking, fuck, even here. How Germans love a tour of the damage they’ve done! So much to see and so much that cannot be seen; so much to find in what cannot be found. As soon as I left the museum, I got lost.

The American romantic narrative about Jewish survival demands a dramatic transformation, a clear crossing to freedom. Liberation, or immigration, or immigration as liberation. But walking past Odessa’s main synagogue tonight, all lit up all over again, I thought: Maybe it’s only for the sake of story that, in the American telling, some threshold must be crossed. Maybe the Jewishness that persists in Ukraine—a Jewishness squeezed through centuries of repression, such that antisemitic posters from 2013 are displayed in a Jewish museum in 2017—maybe this is simply how it’s always been and always will be. Maybe “freedom” is a faulty caption for a photograph of Jewish survival that doesn’t exist.

When we asked our friends in Vinnitsa what they knew about the history of Jews in Ukraine, I may not have understood Radu’s exact words—he may not have said, All people are just people, which is what I thought I heard, the alarm bells of my post-Soviet sleuthing clanging, aha! But I didn’t have to know Russian to know his meaning: Stop talking about it. Right? Maybe he was tired. Maybe he wanted to take Ruslan’s story of his grandmother hiding three Jews and cover it up with a clean, quiet mall. The mall will be full of T-shirts with English letters. On the steps of the mall a young man will have the most Jewish face anyone has ever seen. He is a drawing made by Hitler, a perfect target, so alive he is blushing: bullseye.

Ruslan stood from the table to end our conversation, saying, It’s horrible, I hate it, people killing people—and then, to fully sever the subject, he made another joke at the expense of their so-called “ugly” friend: I want to kill Laura Ashley.

Laura Ashley and the bright mall are the decoys, and the boy on the steps is the bullseye. The mall is the mass grave, and the mass grave is the forest. The forest for the trees, I want to say, but I can never remember what that means.

H

Nicholas Muellner is a Los Angeles-based photographer, writer, and founding co-director of the Image Text MFA and ITI Press. Travesty Show is his book-length collaborative image-text project with Helen Betya Rubinstein.

Helen Betya Rubinstein is a writer, educator, and writing coach. Her book Feels Like Trouble: Transgressive Takes on Writing, Teaching, and Publishing is forthcoming from the University of New Orleans Press.