Extracts from the Aug 2013 Journal

Across the divide to Eastern Europe

The great bulk of the AJR’s membership has always consisted of Jewish refugees from the German-speaking lands of Germany and Austria that were situated to the west of the Iron Curtain after 1945 and formed part of Western Europe for the entire period of the Cold War. That also applied to East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when the reunification of Germany brought about the reintegration of the former GDR into a reunited Germany; from then on, Jews who had been born in Leipzig, Dresden or East Berlin could look back on their native cities in much the same way as those who had been born in Frankfurt or Hamburg.
That was not the case for those refugees who were born in the formerly German areas to the east of the Oder-Neisse line, since 1945 part of Poland, or, in the case of the enclave of Kaliningrad (formerly Königsberg), of Russia, for the entire German element in those areas was systematically removed after 1945. If they had returned, Jewish refugees from Silesia, East Prussia and eastern Pomerania, areas that had been part of Germany until 1945, would have seen only cityscapes from which everything German had been erased. The same is true of the port of Danzig (now Gdansk), which enjoyed the status of a free city between the wars, of the provinces of Posen and West Prussia, most of which became part of Poland after 1918, and of Baltic cities like Memel (now Klaipeda in Lithuania) or Libau (now Liepaja in Latvia) that were mainly or partly German-speaking until 1945.
The German and Austro-Hungarian Empires that extended across Eastern Europe before 1918 contained large concentrations of Jews in their eastern reaches, communities that were often German-speaking and in many cases identified themselves more with German culture than with that of the local nationalities surrounding them. Their admiration for Germany, the country of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven, is one of the ironies of history, given that it was Nazi Germany that destroyed the Jews of Eastern Europe, often with the willing assistance of the local populations. This article will concentrate on the eastern territories of the German Empire, and next month’s will cover Austria-Hungary.
Those areas of the German Empire the population of which was in the majority Polish, Posen (Poznan) and West Prussia, became part of the newly re-established state of Poland after 1918. Posen had long been a source of abundant Jewish emigration to the cities of Germany to the west, and that increased after the First World War, as Jews opted for Germany in preference to Poland. The family of Herbert Friedenthal, who was born in the city of Posen in 1909, became Herbert Freeden after emigrating to Britain and was one of the founding editors of this journal when it first appeared in 1946, was typical of the middle-class, German-speaking Jews who moved to Berlin to avoid Polish anti-Semitism and to demonstrate their preference for the liberal, progressive values and the high intellectual and cultural standards with which pre-Hitler Germany was synonymous for Jews across Eastern Europe.
Small towns in the province of Posen often contained Jewish communities from which emerged impressive numbers of famous figures. The small town of Rawitsch (now Rawicz), for example, was the birthplace of Marcus Brann (1849-1920), the noted Jewish scholar and historian who succeeded Heinrich Graetz at the head of the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1891; the mathematician Alfred Loewy (1873-1935); the sociologist and Zionist Arthur Ruppin, who was born there in 1876, moved with his family to Magdeburg in 1886 and was to play a pioneering part in the creation of the city of Tel Aviv; and Max Auerbach, who moved to Berlin, where his son Frank, a Kindertransportee now celebrated as one of Britain’s greatest artists, was born in 1931.
Most of West Prussia, including towns such as Thorn (now Torun) and Graudenz (now Grudziadz), was allocated to Poland after the First World War. It became known as the Polish Corridor, the area that divided the main body of Germany from East Prussia, which, with its German majority, remained part of Germany until 1945. However, Danzig, the largest city in the area, situated at the mouth of the River Vistula, had a large majority of Germans and could not be allocated to Poland without seriously breaching the principle of national self-determination that underpinned the territorial settlement created by the Treaty of Versailles. To give the new state of Poland, which would otherwise have been landlocked, an outlet to the Baltic Sea, the victorious Allies declared Danzig a free city under the control of the League of Nations, thus ensuring that German territory could not block Poland’s access to maritime trade and commerce.
Danzig, a classic Hanseatic city, had a Jewish population of some 10,500, residing amidst a German majority whose language and culture it largely shared. In the interwar years, the city became an important place of refuge for Jews fleeing Poland and the Soviet Union since it was both a free city to which entry was not limited by visa restrictions and a port of emigration. Though the Nazi Party took control of Danzig after 1933, the city remained separate from Germany – Hitler’s attempt to incorporate it into the Reich by force in September 1939 led to the outbreak of the Second World War – and the Jewish community was to a small extent better placed than its counterparts within Germany. Many of Danzig’s Jews shared the fate of Sigismund Markus in Günter Grass’s novel The Tin Drum who commits suicide to escape the marauding Nazis, but many more succeeded in emigrating, probably because it was somewhat easier to emigrate from a free port than from Nazi Germany proper. The chairman of the Jewish community of Danzig was then Ernst Berent, who played a major part in organising the emigration of the community before escaping to Britain in November 1938, where he became an active member of the AJR.
Of these eastern provinces, it was Silesia that played host to the greatest concentration of Jews. Its largest city, Breslau (now Wroclaw), contained the third largest Jewish community in Germany after Berlin and Frankfurt, numbering over 23,000 at its peak. Breslau’s Jews excelled in a wide range of professions and activities, from the scholar Heinrich Graetz to Ferdinand Lassalle, founder of Germany’s first workers’ party. Abraham Geiger, one of the founding fathers of Reform Judaism, held the post of Chief Rabbi in Breslau in 1840-63, during which period he helped to found the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first modern rabbinical seminary in Central Europe. But the city was also the setting for the widely read novel Soll und Haben (Credit and Debit) (1855) by Gustav Freytag, Silesian-born but not Jewish, in which honest, virtuous Germans are contrasted with the mercantile villainy of Jews and the uncivilised wildness of Poles. It is perhaps not surprising that the Viadrina, the first Jewish student fraternity, was founded at Breslau University in 1886, becoming the model for Jewish self-defence organisations across Germany.
Among the Silesian Jews who fled to Britain were Nobel Prize-winning scientists like the physicist Max Born and Fritz Haber, a chemist whose work made possible the fertilisers that feed the world (and the poison gas used by the German army in the First World War), the sociologist Norbert Elias, Alfred Kerr, Berlin’s premier theatre critic, and the spinal injuries specialist Ludwig Guttmann. Hans Reichmann, chairman of the AJR in 1954-63, came from a Silesian family, while his wife, the historian Eva G. Reichmann, was born in Silesia, as was her sister Elisabeth, who in Britain married the writer Max Beerbohm.
Far to the east, stretching along the Baltic coast as far as the Lithuanian border, was East Prussia, which had been colonised by the Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century and whose indigenous population had been largely germanised. In the sixteenth century, this Duchy of Prussia came under the rule of the Elector of Brandenburg, who ruled from Berlin. Only with the partition of Poland in the late eighteenth century was the predominantly Polish region of West Prussia acquired by Frederick the Great, thus linking East Prussia to the rest of his realm. It nowadays requires an effort of the imagination to recall that the Russian city of Kaliningrad was until 1945 Königsberg, capital of a German province and city of the philosopher Immanuel Kant.
The most easterly of the major German cities, Königsberg also contained a significant Jewish community, its numbers boosted by Jews fleeing from neighbouring Tsarist Russia. It was a centre of liberal, progressive politics in the nineteenth century, when Jews like the outspoken left-winger Johann Jacoby (1805-77) and the Liberal Eduard von Simson (1810-99) were notable players on the national stage. Jews also lived in the vanished German towns of Elbing and Allenstein (now Elblag and Olsztyn in Poland), Insterburg and Tilsit (now Chernyakhovsk and Sovetsk in the Kaliningrad enclave of Russia), or Heydekrug (now Silute in Lithuania).

Two dear friends, two very different fates

I attended an unusual book launch in Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum in June this year. The book* was dedicated to the memory of some 1,000 Berlin Jews who were deported to the Minsk ghetto in 1941-42; all but a few were murdered there, together with thousands of others from other German cities and tens of thousands of Russian Jews. These lives would have passed into oblivion had it not been for the commitment of students from Humboldt University, who in 2009 began the heroic undertaking of uncovering the fate of some of these Berlin Jews and reconstructing their lives. This book encompasses 59 biographies, remembering a total of 129 people, and careful research has yielded not only their life histories but also documents and photographs of them and their families. Of the 1,000 Jews deported in 1941, only three men and one woman survived. The woman was Margot Aufrecht (see below).
The launch was attended by hundreds of people and was extremely touching. The introductory greeting came from Dr Hermann Simon, the Director of the Centrum Judaicum, and he was followed by Dr Michael Wild, Professor of Twentieth-century History at Humboldt University. The two editors, Anja Reuss and Kristin Schneider, who had also written the chapter about Margot Aufrecht, then explained how the book had come about.
In 2009 a group of students had decided to embark on the research that led to the book. Initially their findings were displayed in a travelling exhibition in 2011 and this was eventually expanded into book-form. The book has several introductory and informative historical chapters providing background information and details of the deportations, which were carried out with customary Nazi brutality. Shamefully, the collection point was the synagogue in Lützowstrasse, which had already been desecrated. The building was kept in total darkness and the overcrowding, with appalling sanitary facilities, was hideous. Each person had been allowed one suitcase or bundle and most were robbed of valuable items such as jewellery and watches. Those carrying money preferred to throw it into the toilets rather than hand it over and the toilets soon became clogged. Personal details were ascertained with the utmost bureaucracy. Men, women and children were required to strip naked for body searches; for orthodox women, this was a particularly humiliating procedure in the presence of men.
Two nights had to be endured in the synagogue. Representatives of the Jewish community did their best to ameliorate conditions for the elderly by providing mattresses, but there was little food and hygienic conditions soon became catastrophic. The 1,000 detainees were then taken to Bahnhof Grunewald and sent in 20 overcrowded third-class carriages, with wooden benches, to Minsk, a journey that took four days. On arrival, they were led into the ghetto, which was already vastly overcrowded with Russian Jews. Many of the Russians were shot in order to accommodate the new arrivals, who also included Jews from Vienna.
The editors read excerpts from three of the biographies. The high point was a speech, given in somewhat imperfect German, by Dr Felix Lipsky, a Russian Jew who was one of the very few survivors. He had been taken to the ghetto with his family as a three-year-old and he recounted some of his still vivid memories of hunger, deprivation and mass shootings. Striking among them was his account of the problematic relationship between the indigenous Russians and the more highly educated and generally better-off Jews from Berlin, some of whom entered the ghetto with jewellery and watches they were able to trade. Their fate was, of course, ultimately the same. Dr Lipsky mentioned the name of Margot Aufrecht as one who had also survived.
Why was I at the book launch? Margot Aufrecht had been a close pre-war childhood friend of Ruth Albert, née Loeser. Ruth had come to England on one of the last Kindertransports and we had become friends. She died in January 2013 (see my obituary of her in the May 2013 issue of the Journal) and had left among her possessions three letters written to her by Margot towards the end of 1945, when Margot still resided in the rebuilt Bergen-Belsen camp, to which she had been taken three months before its liberation by British troops. Ruth’s daughter Franny Swann does not speak German and she asked me to translate the letters for her. Needless to say, they were incredibly tragic as Margot, for whom Ruth represented a lifeline, described not only her life in Bergen-Belsen but also some of the extreme hardships she and her brother had to endure in the Minsk ghetto.
There is no record of the letters Ruth had sent her but Margot’s first letter was clearly in response to one joyfully received from her friend. How could Ruth have known that Margot was in Bergen-Belsen? I think I can provide a clue. Margot and her younger brother Herbert, who was shot in Minsk together with his parents, had attended as day pupils the school in the Berlin-Pankow Jewish orphanage for boys when they could no longer continue their education in their local primary schools. One of the teachers there was Heinz Nadel, who escaped to England in 1939 and joined the British Army soon after his arrival. He served in the Intelligence Corps and his unit entered Bergen-Belsen within a few days of its liberation by British troops. He was instrumental in supporting the surviving children and organised schooling and entertainment for them. One day he ran into the emaciated and very ill Margot, who recognised him. Heinz Nadel, by then Harry Harrison, kept in touch with several former pupils of the orphanage after the war and Ruth Albert must have been among these. I recall this encounter in my autobiography (Sunday’s Child? A Memoir, Bank House Books 2009, ISBN 9781904408444), in which I devoted a chapter to Harry Harrison with the title ‘Quiet Hero of Berlin’, a title The Guardian had given to my obituary of him in 1989.
Having translated Margot’s three long handwritten and badly faded letters, I felt emotionally so engaged that I decided to discover what happened to her subsequently, the correspondence between the two friends apparently having ceased. Several approaches proved futile until my friend Karin Manns in Berlin discovered, after many hours spent on the internet, that a book about Berlin Jews incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto was due to be published in June and that one of the 59 chapters was devoted to Margot and her family! A frantic email correspondence between one of the editors and myself ensued and, as a result, the letters, together with a photograph of the young Ruth, were incorporated into the chapter at the very last moment.
And so the two friends were re-united - at least on paper - although both were already dead, Margot having died in 1988. She had emigrated to Australia in 1948 to join an uncle mentioned in one of her letters and there she had married and had two children. I have exchanged emails with her daughter, Ruth Lismann, and it turns out that Margot had left her children completely in the dark concerning her wartime experiences, which she was evidently determined to put behind her once and for all. At Ruth Lismann’s request, I sent her my translation of the three letters her mother had written and, not surprisingly, she and her brother were deeply shaken by these revelations and by the information in the chapter devoted to their mother in the book.
What had seemed an impossible task that I had set myself was, surprisingly, accomplished and several weeks of searching and several nights of lost sleep were amply rewarded. The book’s editors are hoping that an English translation will appear in due course.
* Unvergessene Lebensgeschichten. Ein Gedenkbuch für die nach Minsk deportierten Berliner Jüdinnen und Juden (Unforgotten Biographies: A Memorial Book for Jewish Women and Men Deported from Berlin to Minsk), edited by Anja Reuss and Kristin Schneider, Berlin-Minsk: Metropol Verlag, 2013, hard cover 496 pp., ISBN 978-3-86331-116-2, 224 Euros

Art Notes

If you ask people living in Manchester or Salford today if L. S. Lowry’s paintings resemble their home town, they will probably look blank. His northern cities with their ‘dark satanic mills’, the dour heritage of Britain’s industrial revolution, have disappeared. In Lowry’s early-20th-century mill-towns, with their smoking chimneys, etiolated white streets and skies, people are swept, bowed down with responsibility, towards the factory, the protest march or the football club. Even the church offers no sanctuary - just a dour and gothic sense of swallowing up mankind. Far-sighted Jewish industrialists, impressed by his record of what would become a swiftly changing world, are claimed to have been the first to snap up Lowry’s paintings.
Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life at Tate Britain (until 20 October) seems a strange title for an exhibition that so totally reflects the past. But in this regard Lowry was a modernist and, more importantly, a symbolist, a socially aware artist who shows us how the machine age dwarfs humanity against the looming edifice of the mills and the tiny, back-to-back tenement houses of the working poor.
Originally influenced by Utrillo, Lowry was encouraged by his teacher, Valette, to instil a more rounded, European atmosphere into his work. His skylines, with their reeking chimneys, were dark and threatening. Eventually commercial interests persuaded him to lighten the background, using flake white and raw amber. Against this pallor, Lowry’s walking masses possess no individuality. And yet it is the plight of man that engages him.
Most of the work here is repetitive, with no sign of his more emotional paintings of mining tragedies. But in the repetition he is really on-message, drawing you into his world - his panorama of little people crushed by the machine age. Finally, in two panoramas, Lowry accepts some grandeur in the industrial development which has subsumed the countryside - but they don’t quite come off.
This is all a far cry from artists like Diego Rivera, whose paintings of Mexico in all its primary colours and dour restraint, inspired by Mayan art, reflect the country’s early-20th-century turmoil. The Royal Academy’s exhibition, Mexico: A Revolution in Art, 1910-1940 (until 29 September), conveys the cultural renaissance spawned by revolution and political unrest in a series of photographs and paintings redolent of the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Between 1910 and 1920, presidential assassinations and revolution are depicted in an artistic obsession with death – hanged skeletons are photographed rotting on trees, or ritualistic imagery, whose brilliant colours tell a more sombre and symbolic story.
Artists from Europe and America flocked to Mexico in the wake of a new political invitation to restore art to the desolate country; political correctness was observed at first but was soon disregarded in favour of freer expression. Roberto Montenegro’s Mayan Women are almost reptilian in character, with dotted houses and trees as inscrutable as their faces. David Alfaro Siqueiros’s portrait of assassinated revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata has a terrifying ghostly appearance: there is death in his eyes beneath his heavy eyelids. Probably Philip Guston best captures the upheaval in his 1940 painting Gladiators, in which faceless bodies writhe in a work suggestive of Picasso’s Guernica.

Letter from Israel

In Israel it is a matter of routine for the majority of the population that when a child turns 18 they enlist in the IDF in order to give two or three years of service to the country. Now it is the turn of my grandchildren to serve.
So it was with mixed feelings that I attended the passing-out ceremony of my oldest grandson, Gil. As I look at his impressive six-foot frame, it is with a pang that I remember him as a toddler who always had a healthy appetite, grew at a rapid pace, played football and basketball with his friends, and wasn’t a great one for talking. In fact, in common with many of his generation, he seems to have developed a special way of talking and a unique vocabulary that makes it difficult to understand him even when he does speak.
Like many of his friends, on completing high school, Gil was eager to join a combat unit. Not for them the life of the backroom boys who sit before computer monitors or in offices. These boys are only too eager to launch themselves into military training of the most rigorous kind, testing their ability to endure hardship and prove their mettle.
The passing-out parade was held in a grassy area surrounded by woodland. At the centre was a memorial for soldiers from the force who had fallen in battle, fronted by a small parade ground. As is customary at such events, the parade was preceded by a meeting between the families and the soldiers, who had just completed one and a half years of training. Each family had come laden with food and drink for the young men, who fell eagerly upon the feast set out on tables among the trees. The mothers of the soldiers in Gil’s unit had organised themselves into a group which was in constant contact through the ‘WhatsApp’ application. This means that throughout the training period they shared information, even got together at one stage, and served as a support group for one another.
Another Israeli tradition on such occasions is to have special shirts printed denoting the family’s pride in their offspring. This too had been co-ordinated by the mothers of Gil’s unit and each mother had a pale mauve T-shirt with a cartoon of a soldier saluting a mother on the front and the slogan ‘OK, YOU’RE A FIGHTER BUT YOU’RE STILL MY SON!’ and her son’s name on the back. The mothers had also ordered special cakes iced in the force’s colours, decorated with army boots and insignia made out of sugar. An amazing sight!
Following a brief ceremony and speeches by officers, the families were treated to a film showing some of the training the soldiers had been undergoing in the preceding 18 months. It was then that I felt like passing out myself (in the other sense of the phrase). The training was extremely strenuous and demanding. Not everyone who began the course had the strength and stamina to complete it. By the end, it was clear that the participants had been toughened up and were no longer boys but men: they had also developed a special bond, becoming a band of brothers, each of whom would be prepared to lay down his life for the others.
After a brief respite, the real work of being a serving soldier begins for Gil and the others in his special unit. This means that for the next 18 months the family will tune into every news broadcast, keeping its eyes and ears open for information about the political and military situation, knowing that Gil and his companions are on the front line and that their lives may well be in danger at any given moment. Our emotions are a combination of pride and fear. We’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for a peaceful time.

Art Notes (review)

Years before Photo-Realism, the rapt intensity in Dame Laura Knight’s portraits of war-workers and military personnel has a rare immediacy. Her group portraits of women members of the auxiliary air force are part of the National Portrait Gallery’s first major exhibition of Knight’s work (until 13 October). Some subjects, like the portrait of Ruby Loftus in green hairnet and blue overalls screwing a breech ring, have gained immortality through her art. There are airmen preparing for a sortie, their faces a study in concentration. Undoubtedly these unusually honest portrayals are a social documentary of the British at war.
But Knight, one of the leading artists of the 20th century, departs slightly from Realism in her large courtroom painting of The Nuremberg Trial, which she covered in her late sixties as a war correspondent. While the defendants, including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Albert Speer and their lawyers, are all clearly depicted, there is a surreal war image of a city burning in the background, a reminder that this is no ordinary trial.
Aged 13, Knight was the youngest student at the Nottingham School of Art. With her artist husband Harold Knight, she moved in the early part of the 20th century to an art colony in Cornwall, where she painted landscapes in an Impressionist style. Her most famous painting from this period is a self-portrait, in which Knight, in red coat and black hat, appears with her artist model Ella Naper. It is a landmark of the exhibition in that both she and her model (also mirrored) are shown only in back view, the artist appearing as a voyeur.
In the 1920s Knight famously painted actors and dancers backstage at the Ballets Russes, gypsies and circus performers. Her dancers contrast strongly with Degas’s Impressionist vision, though one, with long red hair, recalls Vermeer. A rugged-faced gypsy who appears to be wearing everything she possesses stares out at us as if there’s nothing in life she hasn’t lived.
Although very much in the tradition of Realist painting, Knight ventures further, catching a sudden change of mood or expression in her sitter. Typical is her 1926 profile of the pianist Ethel Barlett, caught in mid-conversation, lips pursed, one hand grasping the other.
I was particularly struck by her 1914 portrait Rose and Gold, a strikingly pretty girl with a halo of shimmering red gold hair. Tragically the beautiful model was murdered by her jealous lover soon after.
And now for something really different. Looking In: Photographic Portraits by Maud Sulter and Chan-Hyo Bae at the Ben Uri is the Gallery’s take on migrant artists from other communities. Ben Uri Chairman David Glasser refutes the concept of Jewish art and this show examines other immigrants equally seeking identity in an adopted homeland. The young, sadly late artist Maud Sulter examines her Ghanaian-Scottish roots in historical costume portraits on the theme of the Greek Muses. But, rejecting the female passivity which she finds implicit in classic Western imagery, her Muses are powerful and assertive. Chan-Hyo Bae’s work is entirely self-portraiture. His severe, whitened face under huge wigs or hats is a lavish, though ultimately self-indulgent, blend of Tudor courtliness and Japanese ritual.

Letters to the Editor

[more ...]