Extracts from the Nov 2015 Journal
The British royal family has long held a special place in the hearts of AJR members. The monarch acts as the figurehead of the nation that admitted the Jewish refugees from Hitler after 1933 and, as head of state, is the symbol of the national community whose citizenship most of those refugees chose to acquire after 1945. While the British politicians and civil servants responsible for dealing with the Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s were almost all associated with the complexities, ambiguities and straightforward shortcomings of the immigration policies of those years, most refugees have almost automatically assumed that the monarchy - standing above politics - can be respected without reservation.
The AJR has since its earliest days been eager to show its respect for and loyalty to the monarchy, taking pride in the fact that in the post-war years most of its members came to regard themselves as loyal British citizens. For example, when King George VI died in February 1952, the AJR sent a devotedly loyal message of condolence to his widow, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), which appeared on the front page of the March 1952 issue of AJR Information: ‘On behalf of the Jewish Refugees from Nazi oppression who have found a new home in this country we beg leave to express to Your Majesty and to the Royal Family our deepest sympathy in your sad bereavement. The reign of His Majesty King George VI was of special significance for the community we represent. While he was King, Jewish persecutees from the Continent were admitted to this island and later granted British citizenship.’ [more...]
When you read that the Ben Uri’s centenary exhibition Out of Chaos at Somerset House represents, in Chairman David Glasser’s words, ‘a snapshot of less than 5% of this wonderful but hidden collection’, the word ‘hidden’ says it all.
It’s wonderful to gaze again on David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre, with its tragic desolation, Soutine’s wistful Soubrette, Jacob Kramer’s melancholic Day of Atonement, or Mark Gertler’s prophetic Merry-Go-Round (now in the Tate Collection). It‘s like meeting old friends you know you won’t see again for years.
The exhibition, which includes a short film on the Ben Uri’s history, is illuminating, well curated and full of artistic surprise. But I ask once again: why is this art hidden? What’s wrong with the Jewish community that nobody of generosity, imagination and creative spirit can muster the resources to find a permanent London home for these treasures?
And these are treasures, make no mistake – locked away in storage, out of sight, in a virtual replica of the dark times in which so many of these fine works were painted – often courageously in the shadow of pogroms, anti-Semitism, Nazism, condemnation, mass murder. In the time of the Nazis, many fine Expressionistic and Symbolist works were banned as ‘degenerate’ and even exhibited as such.
In the freedom of 21st-century Britain, why must these paintings be hidden at all? They should be available to us all because every work, painting or sculpture has a soul, a meaning beyond the mere making of it. Each one tells us a story of leave-takings, of uprootings, of fierce challenges, of deprivation and - most important - of the loss of family life, of together times forever splintered as the artist makes his or her way across the seas to a new homeland, hopefully secure against past anguish. That was true at least for the survivor artists. Others were martyred. All the more reason to honour their courage, their dignity in the face of the disaster that second-generation Jews of the 21st century hope never to have to face as they did.
But it’s not just the question of Jewish art that the Ben Uri in its centenary is celebrating today. David Glasser and his colleagues, and the patrons and scholars associated with the Ben Uri, are also mindful of the Gallery’s place within the whole panoply of immigrant art. In his preface to its programme, David Glasser dedicates the exhibition to all the immigrant artists who came to Britain in the 20th century.
But this view begs a different question. Is there a Jewish art? The pogroms and the Holocaust answer that with a resounding yes. If you pick only one painting at the exhibition, take Josef Herman’s Refugees (1941), in which an aggressive cat with a mouse in its teeth is poised on a rooftop above a terrified couple with a child, eyes round with terror.
The Ben Uri began life in 1915 in London’s East End with 80 works. Today, it counts over 1,300. Let’s hope its centenary will herald a progressive new phase.
A remarkable and successful life I WAS HITLER’S NEIGHBOUR by Edgar Feuchtwanger Bretwalda Books 2015, 172 pp. paperback, £11.99, ISBN 978-1-910440-00-1
Perhaps it is worth noting initially that there is no connection between Edgar Feuchtwanger, eminent academic and historian, and Wilhelm Furtwängler, German composer and conductor! Edgar is, however, the nephew of the late Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the well-known Jud Süss and Erfolg (Success) and one of the earliest writers to realise the danger of Nazism, especially to the Jews.
Edgar Feuchtwanger was born in 1924 and lived in Munich in the same street in which Hitler had a private flat. Occasionally as a child he actually saw Hitler and remembers that from his window he could see Mercedes motorcades leaving Hitler’s home.
Edgar’s family was Jewish but fully assimilated and very much part of German intellectual life. His father was a successful publisher and the author describes how various well-known literary figures came to the family home. Although he did have a bar mitzvah, religion did not play an important part in his upbringing. He had a happy childhood within a large family and had many Jewish and non-Jewish friends. He also enjoyed visiting the lakes of Upper Bavaria with his parents. The rise of Nazism seems initially to have had little impact on him. This applied also to his early schooldays, but things changed dramatically after Kristallnacht, when his father was arrested and taken to Dachau.
Soon afterwards Edgar was sent to England and, due to good family connections, he managed to obtain a place at Winchester, one of England’s top public schools. His parents were able to follow early in 1939. He enjoyed school and seems to have easily fitted into his completely new environment. With an enviable memory he recounts many anecdotes of his time at Winchester and writes of the numerous interesting and well-known people he encountered there. The school also influenced his interest in the Church of England, within which he felt quite at home, and in later life he had little, if any, contact with the Jewish community. Ironically, early during the war, Edgar’s father, who had been interned in Dachau a year earlier, was again interned, this time on the Isle of Man, but fortunately under entirely different conditions. He was also one of the earliest to be released. During the war and after finishing school, Edgar was drafted into war work, helping to turn trees into railway sleepers - quite a contrast to life at Winchester!
After a few months he won a scholarship to Magdalene College in Cambridge and he again describes the many people, some later to become famous, whom he met there. There are interesting descriptions of life as an undergraduate in Cambridge at that time and of the philosophical discussions with tutors and colleagues. He mentions that during this time he was gradually moving from his earlier leftish views and tending more towards the right.
After graduating, Edgar Feuchtwanger began his academic career, mainly at what became Southampton University. As well as teaching at the university, he became involved with the Workers’ Educational Association and lecturing to military personnel both in the UK and, later, in Germany.
During his career Edgar often visited Germany and observed the gradual changes in attitudes among the population from the time immediately after the war and after the reunification. Besides lecturing and writing, during the later stages of his career he was also frequently engaged in organising conferences on security and international relations.
Throughout the book Edgar recounts anecdotes, both serious and amusing, about his life and makes frequent - possibly too frequent - references to the many different people he met. At times, this drifts into digression and confusion of timing but it does not detract from the overall story of a remarkable and successful life. Only in the last chapter does he refer to his private life, including his happy marriage to the daughter of a brigadier, and to the successful careers of his children. Overall, the book vividly describes his remarkable journey from childhood in pre-war German-Jewish intellectual circles to life within upper-middle-class society in England.
There had been Mama, who died in a tragic accident when I was four years old. I remember throwing a tantrum shortly after her death, demanding to know where she was and when she would be back and being told by my father that she was in heaven. And people who were in heaven were blessed but unable to return to earth.
Then, when I was five years old, came Claire, whom I called Mutti and who looked after me, loved me, and made sacrifices for me until I left Vienna in September 1938 almost 19 years old.
It took me about half a century to find out what had happened to Claire, my stepmother. A cousin who, with a dead Jewish father (my uncle Bruno, who died of a war wound in the 1920s) and a living fully ‘Aryan’ mother, had survived the war in Austria, told me that Claire had been deported. My reluctance to make further enquiries was due to a mixture of cowardice and guilt: I was afraid of what I was going to hear and I felt partly responsible for her death. Although I had done my best to get her to England on a domestic visa, my best hadn’t been good enough. I had let her die.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that I, supported by a Viennese friend, went to see the curator of the Landstrasser Museum (the museum of the 3rd District), who told us that Claire had been taken, from some address in the 9th District, to Izbica on 12 May 1942. He gave me a slip of paper on which he had written the information – which I promptly mislaid. A Freudian slip, no doubt. I didn’t really want to know.
Another quarter of a century was to pass until Vera, an American with very little German, decided, after the death of both her parents, to settle in Vienna to teach English. Vera is the daughter of Lisl née Schorr, who was my best friend throughout our childhood and adolescence until we both emigrated, she to the USA and I to England. Lisl and her parents, Emil and Selma (Herr and Frau Schorr in those formal days when only children were called by their first names), lived just around the corner from where we lived and Claire befriended Selma.
Selma was a forceful woman with strongly held left-wing views. It was she who first instilled in me a horror of capital punishment. She was also an excellent needlewoman and she and Claire produced very wearable clothes from cheap remnants for Lisl and me. She came from Boskowitz in Moravia; Emil, a reserved and quiet man, was from Lemberg in Poland.
Back to the present: Vera wanted to know what had happened to her grandparents and it emerged that they and Claire were on the same transport to Izbica. Vera found the website for me and I forced myself to read it.
Between 9 April and 5 June 1942 four transports with a total of 4,000 Jewish men, women and children were taken from Aspangbahnhof in Vienna to Izbica in Poland. Izbica, of which I had never heard, was a small town with a population before the start of the deportations of 6,000, 90 per cent of whom were Jewish. Not far from Izbica was the death camp of Belzec, which operated from 17 March 1942 to the end of December of that year. In that period, the Nazis murdered almost half a million Jews there.
They didn’t keep any records at either Izbica or Belzec so I will never know if Claire died from exhaustion, starvation or mistreatment at Izbica or was gassed at Belzec. It is a fact that none of the 4,000 Viennese Jews taken to Izbica survived.
In June this year Vera had a stone laid in memory of her grandparents in front of the house where they had lived. It was inscribed with their names and dates and places of birth and the words ‘Vertrieben, beraubt, ermordet’ (Expelled, robbed, murdered). Both Vera’s children and her brother came from America for the occasion.
I won’t have a stone laid for Claire. There is no one left to mourn her but me and I need no stone to remind me of her. I remember Mutti.
Edith Argy [link]
Throughout the month of September Jews all over the world celebrated their high holy days followed by the harvest festival of Sukkot, the Festival of Booths.
Living in Israel one is unable to escape being bombarded by media coverage of the holidays, whether religious or secular, though a large segment of the population uses the opportunity to escape all this by going abroad. Of course, the fact that schools and many places of work are closed for much of this period makes going away even more attractive as no gainful employment or vacation time is lost.
When I first came to live in Israel, over 50 years ago, I found the festive atmosphere, the messages and programmes broadcast over the radio (there was no TV here then) and the feeling that the whole country was united in celebrating the festivals enjoyable, even inspiring.
I also realised that whereas in the diaspora one needs to belong to a Jewish community in order to preserve one’s Jewish identity, in Israel this is no longer necessary. The festivals are marked as a matter of course and simply by living in Israel I demonstrate that I belong to the Jewish nation. My logical conclusion was that there’s no need to bother any more with all the niceties of Jewish observance. I won’t go so far as to call on my compatriots to abandon all that silliness and regard simple residence in Israel as sufficient proof of their allegiance to the Jewish nation, but nor will I consider myself to be in any way inferior to those who adhere to every jot and tittle of what they consider to be Jewish observance (and on which no two Jews are in agreement anyway).
However, time, age, cynicism and the increasing awareness that certain elements are making use of the Jewish religion for their own ends, whether ideological or political, have caused me to feel more than a little disillusionment with the idea of ‘togetherness’ and ‘unity’ that the festivals once aroused in me.
On Yom Kippur the population of Israel is divided into two clear-cut camps - those who dress in white, spend the day fasting and going to synagogue, on the one hand, and those who may or may not fast and dress in white but get out onto the roads on their bicycles, skateboards and other similar means of purely muscle-driven wheeled transportation, on the other. Of course, if you don’t own a bicycle or skateboard you can simply go out and stroll around and enjoy the party atmosphere, though that’s hardly in the spirit of the day on which one is supposed to engage in soul-searching and seeking forgiveness for one’s sins (and getting into the good books of the Great Accountant in the sky).
I live just outside Jerusalem so am somewhat cut off from the events in the city, and even more so from those in the Tel Aviv area, but I gather from the media that the situation is pretty much the same in those places. The fact that some Jews chose to use the occasion to go up on the Temple Mount and some Arabs chose to react to this by resorting to violence has left me wondering what each set of people was thinking would be the outcome of their actions.
Now we learn that certain elements are aspiring to build the third temple in Jerusalem. Bearing in mind the fact that the second temple was built by a tyrannical non-Jewish ruler and was destroyed primarily because of internal strife within the Jewish population, this does not bode well for Israel’s future, with or without a temple. I find it difficult to believe that in this day and age there are people who would happily revive the practice of animal sacrifice simply because that was done 2,000 years ago. But then, what is the hope for a society based on practices and principles that are over 2,000 years old?
Fortunately, and going against all the Jeremiahs, the majority of Israel’s population is still avowedly secular. One can only hope that the pernicious electoral system that allows the minority to impose its will on the majority because of the need to form coalition governments will one day be amended to enable a more accurate reflection of the composition of the country. [more...]