Tag Archives: Jewish art

An Art Ritual to Remember Jewish Neighbors

On May 4, the Day of Remembrance of the war dead in the Netherlands, the fourteen huge chestnut trees on the Kastagneplein witnessed a moving secular ritual on a sunny, coolish spring day.

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After attending a related program at the local  library, I stumbled upon what turned out to be a remarkable experience in memory of the 5500 Jewish people who were deported from the six streets leading to the open square of the Kastanjeplein.  From a distance, I saw people sitting at long tables doing some kind of art project in one direction, and piles of suitcases and files in another.  The day was ideal for an outdoor project:  sunny and bright, the chestnut leaves limp with spring, the air cool but not cold.  I approached one of the many volunteers hanging out by the art area and asked her to explain what was happening.

It turns out that the Kastanjeplein is at the heart of what was once the densest population of Jewish people in Amsterdam before the Holocaust.  “We are helping our Jewish neighbors who were murdered come back here, where they belong, to their own streets,” a woman in her twenties explained to me.  “In the center of the square we have made a map on the ground of the six streets where they lived.  Everyone who wants to is making a nameplate for one person, and then they lay it on the map where the person lived.  If you go over to the Archives, they’ll help you find someone.”

IMG_3514So I approached an artistically arranged mountain of antique suitcases and old fashioned file boxes.  Another young volunteer with the demeanor of someone in charge of important information greeted me.  Had I lived in the neighborhood, she would have found someone on my street, and very possibly at my address.  Instead, she assigned me a street that few had chosen earlier, the one which runs along the Oosterpark.  I sat down and read all the names of people who died on that street. It is only a few blocks long, but there were so many:  whole families with several generations, single people, old and young.  An X marked anyone whose nameplate had already been made.  In the end, I chose Flora Nerde-de Levie because her first name was the same as my Great Granny Munroe’s.


Returning to the long tables of art materials, I was struck by the diligence with which people approached their task.  Apart from a little quiet conversation asking for materials or advice, it was a meditative group, perhaps a dozen people at once, and of all ages.  I was moved to see a fully dressed Muslim woman come with her children.  When I chose a fabric with flowers for the background of my sign, a volunteer helped me staple it on.  Now for the name.  I’d assumed that I’d find a straight edge and do it freehand, but this is the Netherlands.  Piles of stencils were available to ensure that the letters were properly shaped, as well as rulers and other tools.

IMG_3512As I, not an artistic person, sketched and measured on paper before transferring the design to cloth, I thought about Flora Nerde-de Levie.  I wondered if the street were as busy then as it is now, how long she survived after the Nazi invasion, what she believed or didn’t believe about her fate.  What did she look like? Did she fit the Nazi stereotype so she was harassed in the streets? How did she feel as she sewed the stars onto her own clothes and perhaps those of her family?  When I had written her name as nicely as I could with the stencils, I colored in some of the flowers, and added some yellow stars around them, trying to represent both the joy in her life and the calamity which ultimately befell her.

The next station was near the archives, a woman standing alone with a kind of drum.  She asked me to close my eyes and think of the person’s name, and to think of her returning home.  She played music that sounded like a rain stick, which helped with the other worldly feeling.  For the first time, I shed tears.  After a few minutes, she directed my attention to the curb around the square.  Every inch at the most, the volunteers had chalked in train tracks, all the way around.  She invited me to follow them to the next stage, retracing the journey the Jewish neighbors had made.  The tracks were marked with each step and the distance:  Muiderpoort (the local station), Westerbork Transit Camp, Sobibor, Auschwitz.  It was chilling.

At the next stage, more suitcases were piled up with papers inside.  A friendly older woman asked if I would like to go ahead and put my nameplate in place, or if I would like to hear a story.  That was an easy choice.  She read me, first in Dutch and then translating into English, a poem by  Mrs. C. van der Hulst, who learns that she is living in a house where Jewish people once lived, and is now doing the same chores, cooking for her children, washing the dishes, and thinking of them.  She lays flowers for them on Remembrance Day.  How completely she expressed my experience, when I began to feel the presence of the people who hid where I lived in 2002, and ultimately gave 12 years of my life to researching and writing a novel about people like them.

IMG_3516Finally, I went to the area where the map was laid out on the stones of the Kastanjeplein, an area at least 10 meters long and three wide.  Among the brightly colored bells, I chose sky blue to ring for Flora, and with help laid her nameplate down on the map, exactly where she lived.  I looked at the others, so many too many of them, beautifully marked by nameplates decorated in every possible way:  elaborate lettering, vines and flowers, geometric patterns, all in the full array of colors, so that what we saw was a collage of LIFE not just of murder and death.  A tall woman with brilliant red hair saw how moved I was.  “There are so many,” I said.  Her answer:  “5500 from just these six streets.  We have to bring them back here, where they belong.”  It still makes me cry.  Surely that is what my work is all about, through every poem I have written on this theme, and through all these years of the work on my novel.  To bring them back, where other people can see and feel them the way I do – even though I never knew them, and this is not my country.  But it is, somehow, my story to tell.  But for an accident of time and space, I would have been their neighbor here in Amsterdam, the city I love..

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The last stage was being presented with a divine cup of herbal tea, in a real teacup, and sitting down for a chat with whoever happened to be there.  In my lucky case, it was Nicoline Snaas, the choir director who planned to have six choirs converging on the square that evening, singing in preparation of the two minutes of silence which happens everywhere in the Netherlands at 8:00 p.m.  Even the trains stop.

 

Nicoline asked me, “What’s your connection to all this?” and I tried to tell her about my great love for this city and how that led to my connected to the people whose descendants should be here, but are not.  Then I walked to the street where Flora Nerden-de Levie once lived.  Along the way, I saw a sign someone had put in their window with the names and birthdays of the Jewish people who lived in their house, and the date they were murdered at Auschwitz.

Oosterpark 13, Flora’s house, had been torn down.

 

Unpacking Kitaj at the Jewish History Museum

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Should I feel abashed that I’d never heard of R.B. Kitaj before today, when I stumbled on an exhibit about him at Amsterdam’s Jewish History Museum?  He was an American who lived mostly in England, making friends with David Hockney, Lucien Freud and other figurative artists whom he dubbed the London School (not original, but it stuck).  This exhibit, titled “Unpacking My Library“, shows his paintings, and prints derived from the covers of books which have inspired him.  What’s he doing in Amsterdam, and at this museum?  Sure, he visited the city a number of times and was influenced by Rembrandt and Van Gogh — but who hasn’t been?  The answer lies in his origins and what he made of them.



R. B. Kitaj was brought up in a secular Jewish household in Cleveland, Ohio.  His own father disappeared, and his mother remarried an Austrian Jewish refugee who influenced Kitaj deeply.  He went to Vienna to art school, and visited his stepfather’s village.  For the first time, he realized that it didn’t matter whether he felt Jewish or not; he would have been deported and murdered by the Nazis had he been there at the time.  Kitaj then wrestled with Jewish identity, particularly as an artist attempting to express what he called “the condition of Jewishness.”  He read widely and found soulmates among authors, particularly Hannah Arendt, Kafka, and Walter Benjamin.

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When Kitaj and artist Sandra Fisher married, they chose an orthodox synagogue ceremony, surely a statement of how far he had moved from his secular roots.  The event is pictured in one of Kitaj’s most striking paintings from the exhibit, although he never considered it fully finished.

As a person, Kitaj faced some of the worst trials a human being could go through.  Despite numerous accolades (the Royal Academy, prestigious exhibits), his life retrospective at the Tate Gallery was reviled viciously and personally by critics.  Soon thereafter his second wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, died of a brain aneurism.  (His first wife had also died young, of suicide.)  Deep in the study of Jewish mysticism, Kitaj found Sandra again by painting the two of them together again and again.  He moved to Los Angeles and lived out his life near his children, reading and working until the end.

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Through all this, books were great friends, alongside some of the leading artists and writers of his time.  Kitaj lived with Parkinson’s for a few years, but ultimately took his own life in 2007.  He did write two “Diasporist Manifestos” exploring the question of what it means to be Jewish after the Holocaust, particularly for an artist.  Kitaj said, “Diasporism is my mode.  It is the way I do my pictures.  If they mirror my life, these pictures betray confused patterns.”

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The painting to your right, The Jewish Rider, uses a Rembrandt painting of The Polish Rider as a model, and shows a Jewish man who is reading and traveling through the landscape of postwar Europe, with a conductor holding an upraised whip in the background.  This disquieting image comes as close as anything to expressing Kitaj’s ambivalent view of the Jewish artist in our time.

 

The Stedelijk Museum and WWII

 

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Even if you just went to look at the art, the Stedelijk Museum’s exhibit on its experiences during World War II would be more than worth it:  a Picasso cubist still life, a Matisse odalisque, several Klees, and German Expressionists including Max Beckmann’s famous double portrait with his wife painting in Amsterdam during the war.  But there is so much more to the exhibit than that:  a soul searching examination of the many dimensions of the Museum during the war, beginning with a chronology complete with photographs that show, among other things, Nazi marches right on the Museum Square with the Concertgebouw in the background:

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The Museum supported German immigrant and Jewish artists before and during the war, including commissioning work from them, as well as “degenerate” avant garde artists throughout this period, and immediately after the war.  Curator Willem Sandberg foresaw the need to protect art in wartime when he visited Spain after the German attack on Guernica.  The Stedeljk began construction of a bunker at Castricum in the dunes to stow away treasures even before the Nazi invasion.  Eventually, this bunker held more than 500 collections, both public and private.  Because some of the latter were from Jewish owners, records were deliberately not kept to avoid seizure by Nazi authorities, which led to complex issues of ownership after the war.

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Sandberg concocted an exhibit on “City and Country” so that he could travel on a “study trip” to Germany in 1941 and gather information for the Resistance, as well as commission photographs from independent artists (including Jewish Emmy Andriesse, part of the Underground Camera group) including those of power stations and other potential targets.  This was one of only two propaganda-style exhibits at the Stedelijk during the war.  I should mention that the Museum’s one Jewish employee was dismissed, but over protest.

Because he had helped to organize the March 1943 bombing of the Population Registry (which enabled the Nazis to locate Jewish citizens), Sandberg was on the “wanted” list and had to remain in hiding for the rest of the war.  A respected graphic artist himself, he created a series of books titled “Typographical Experiments.”  This one, with apparently random letters, signifies the names of each of his comrades who were caught and executed by the Nazis.

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Something I learned in researching this post is that the large tiles in the Waterlooplein Metro Station are done in Sandberg’s typography, especially appropriate/ironic since much of the Jewish neighborhood was destroyed to build the Metro.

The room devoted to questions of provenance is fascinating — asking which paintings legitimately belong to the Museum and which are in question, which means the case is submitted to a specially appointed body which adjudicates them.  Some of the dossiers are available for Museum visitors to peruse and draw their own conclusions.

IMG_2443Many stories are told in that room, but let one stand for the others.  Here’s a modest but pleasing little painting, Pears Packed in a Glass Preserving Jar, by Sal Meijer.  What’s most unusual about it is a part of a typed label which remains on its back, “Goudst—.”  What does this mean?  Unlike some other significant Jewish art collectors and dealers in Amsterdam, Jacques Goudstikker was a native of that city.  He was among the most important dealers of Old Master paintings between the wars, if not the most important.  He fled Holland by ship to England along with his family just after the Nazi invasion, leaving behind an immense collection of priceless art in his gallery in the care of his employees.  In a ghastly irony, Goudstikker fell on the ship to Liverpool and died of a broken neck.  However, he did have in his possession the notebook in which all of his acquisitions were noted, which became the basis of the biggest effort to recover art by a Dutch Jewish family after the war.

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Within days of the dealer’s death, Hermann Goering and a Nazi banker had managed to pay the gallery employees off.  They acquired virtually the whole collection for a tiny fraction of its value — over the strenuous objections of Goudstikker’s widow.  (The exhibit doesn’t point this out, but restitution of this collection only happened in 2006, after an investigative journalist published a book on the subject and the scandal became ever more public.)  However, research showed that this particular painting was returned to Goudstikker’s widow in a timely way, and she sold it to the Stedelijk Museum, so it was not in the controversial group.

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All in all, this is a sobering but also engaging exhibit that illuminates the many aspects of the museum’s relationship to the occupying power and the situation it created in Amsterdam during the war years.  While I’m sure some people will come forward with other versions of the truth, the Museum deserves credit for putting this information before the public just before the 70th anniversary of Liberation.