Marione Ingram, born in Hamburg in 1935, is a survivor of the Gestapo and the 1943 firebombing of Hamburg (which created one of the largest firestorms in history, killing around 45,000 civilians and wounding. 37,000). After the war, she emigrated to the U.S. and became a civil rights activist in Washington D.C. and Mississippi. Her memoir, The Hands of War (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), is a powerful and intimate account of some of the last century’s most devastating events. Ingram is also a fiber artist of international stature. She currently lives in Washington, DC with her husband Daniel.
CA: You state in The Hands of War that you did not know that you were “precocious, only that the imminence of violent death demanded an absolute commitment to life.” When you were a child, you had to make decisions typically reserved for adults. How has losing your innocence at such an early age shaped the way you write?
MI: I think it has enabled me to see avoidable injustice and injury where others see regrettable necessity or collateral damage, which is a shift in perspective that probably influences the way I write—style—as well.
CA: You and your mother managed to remain calm even while explosions were shattering your windows, tearing up walls, and dismantling your roof. Was this a gradual calm that overcame initial fear, and if so how does one become accustomed to such chaos over time?
MI: I wasn’t really calm, but terrified the entire time. I took my behavioral cue from my mother, who was also probably terrified but terribly angered by the loss of her mother and brother and other beloved relatives and was resolutely determined to save us no matter what it took, including her own life. Also, by the summer of ’43, we had lived through more than a hundred bombings without being allowed shelter.
CA: It seems to me that languages have been an important part of your family history. For example, your father was fluent in Russian, English and German. You learned Hebrew, and you mentioned that you spoke a little French growing up. Did you end up picking up any Italian during your stay in Tuscany and Levanzo? How has your knowledge of multiple languages affected the way you create art?
MI: An interesting question. Yes, I did become fluent in Italian (although almost no foreigner can speak Sicilian) but I think an interest in languages reflects and stimulates a broader appreciation of art, which is both universal and ancient. One of my most influential experiences was a private tour of closed areas of Pompeii, which wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been able to tell an attendant in Italian how distressed I was at the lack of care and respect shown priceless art. When I studied Hebrew, it was almost a lost language–a work of art.
CA: You were an active participant in the Civil Rights movement during very difficult, violent and racist times in U.S. history. How does it feel to be back in Washington, D.C. with Barack Obama in office? Did you envision in 1960 that the United States would one day have an African-American president?
MI: My dream in 1963-64 didn’t go much beyond ending segregation and restrictions on voting rights. But before I campaigned for Obama in Virginia, I campaigned for black peace candidate Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) in Florida. I was known as the happiest woman in Foggy Bottom when Obama won, but as a survivor of Nazism, I’ve been terribly alarmed by renewed voter suppression with enormous help from the Supreme Court, by restrictions on unions, by reliance on killing and enhanced surveillance, and by the transition from democracy to geldocracy. My dream today is that your generation will deconstruct the tyranny of greed and replace it with global justice.
CA: After reading your account of Alfried Krupp, who had murdered countless Jews in cold blood, yet was pardoned by the Allies after only two years in prison, I was angry about how quickly the Allies forgot the great evils he committed. That’s why I’m so grateful for books such as The Hands of War that remind us that Anti-Semitism is very real. How aware do you think people are of anti-Semitism in the modern world?
MI: I fear that, after a brief remission, anti-Semitism is growing and spreading and will continue to expand and entrench itself if we rely almost entirely on force of arms, taking the word of those who insist that nonviolent efforts to defeat it are too difficult and too risky.
CA: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MI: Yours is the first generation to be born with the scientific proof that there is only one race—the human race. In my lifetime, Aryanism, or the notion of a superior race, tribe, nationality, religion or you-name-it, has been responsible for the slaughter of uncounted millions of children, often by the hand of those asserting the right to kill a killer. Although the Nazi government was defeated before it killed all European Jews, it was not defeated because it was trying to kill all of us, and the racialism, including anti-Semitism, it embraced is everywhere and capable of killing the entire race. It’s a large order, I know, but I expect that you will use the nonviolent tools now available to make the global village much less dangerous and more just.
Steve Castro is the Managing Editor of Café Américain and an MFA student in American University’s graduate program in creative writing.
Photo by Marione Ingram