Tuesday, 17 August 2010

1992: A Year of Bitter Memories

Berlin: For European Jewry, 1492 wasn’t the year of Columbus’s fluke discovery of America, under the aegis of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. For them, rather, it was the year those same monarchs decreed that the Jews of Spain must either convert to Catholicism or leave.

It was the beginning of the European Diaspora, which would culminate in the horror of the Holocaust 450 years later. For 1942 is also a year of bitter memories. That was the time of the odious Wannsee Konferenz, during which Hitler’s henchmen, in a lovely lakeside villa, plotted the final solution to the “Jewish problem.”

For the French Jews, it was the year of the first trains from France to Auschwitz—an event that Parisian lawyer Serge Klarsfeld remembered this year by organizing a train full of concentration camp survivors and their descendants from Paris to the Polish camp.

He also organized an exhibition, “The Year of the Roundup,” drawing solemn files of rememberers to the reception area of Paris City Hall. It’s moving one subway stop up the Metro line, to the Tomb of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, to better accommodate the crowds anticipated in the tourist season.

The Berlin commemorative exhibition at the Martin Gropius Bauhaus, “Patterns of Jewish Life,” completely fulfills its difficult agenda of revealing how Jews have taken their spiritual heritage all over the world for going on 4,000 years: 200,000 visitors thronged the show in its first two months.

The Berlin city government and the Federal Republic put up a whopping 10 million marks ($6.25 million) to field this exhibition. Even with such a generous subvention, a few dreams of the show’s designers came a-cropper.

Architect Christian Axt, who designed the show, told me they wanted to bring over Philadelphia’s huge Monument to Six Million Jews, but that would have cost them almost two-thirds of their total budget, an obvious impossibility. Still, Philly is well represented by Rodin’s bust of Joseph Pulitzer, one of numerous examples of how detailed and comprehensive the American section of the exhibition is.

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For example, there’s Ben Shahn’s “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” (1932), a lovely 1899 high-angle photograph of Hester Street, the astonishingly rococo Torah Ark (1899) from Adas Yeshurun Synagogue (Sioux City, Iowa), and perhaps even a little too much of Boris Aronson’s theater designs.

There’s a time line from 1654, when twenty-three Portuguese Jews arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, to the unprecedented Broadway success of Fiddler on the Roof in 1964. I suspect many American Jews were learning new things about their distinguished predecessors, even to the D. in Louis D. Brandeis’s name (it stands for Dembitz).

And the America section is but one of twenty-eight visual essays dealing with everything from the history of the Jewish people in antiquity, to the religious foundations of Judaism (especially illuminating to a non-Jew like me), the Sephardim (on the Middle Ages in Spain), Moses Mendelssohn and the Enlightenment, as well as a great commissioned painting by Larry Rivers on the history of the matzah.

The section on temple architecture was particularly fascinating. It began with the assertion that the Jewish religion centers on the book and, strictly speaking, doesn’t need a temple at all—only ten men to legitimize a religious service. Yet the protean ways that synagogues (from the Greek word for “gathering together”) picked up the accents of the local community in places as diverse as Prague, Ernakulam (India) and Kaifeng (China) is truly remarkable.

For English speakers who can’t make it to the exhibition, there is a well-printed guide, “Patterns of Jewish Life,” available permanently at the Martin, or from the publisher, Argon Books, Potsdamer Strasse 77-87, 1000 Berlin 30.

If you can read German, there are two great books of essays by specialists on the topics of the exhibition. It’s a great pity the show was too expensive and too complexly assembled to travel, for it’s the kind of manifestation on a substantial subject that you encounter perhaps two or three times in a lifetime.

It’s popular without being insultingly condescending. And it’s but a small part of a city-wide arts/science festival approaching the issue of world Jewish culture from every imaginable angle. If intellectual seriousness is the ultimate compliment to pay those lost in the Holocaust, then “Patterns of Jewish Life” is worthy of its high assignment.

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