Perplexing legacy

With her works for our art vending machines, Deborah Wargon exposes things that got swept under the rug

portrait of Deborah Wargon

Portrait of Deborah Wargon © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Gelia Eisert

A cordial welcome, the wafting flavors of a freshly-cooked meal, a light-drenched room with a high ceiling, full of brightly-colored books and pictures, and a piano with a sign-post ‘to Australia’ sitting on it… My first encounter with Deborah Wargon in her live-in atelier in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood is a far cry from the rather severe, somber associations that the term ‘testament enforcer’ brings up for me. Wargon – a musician as well as visual and theater artist born in Melbourne in 1962 – describes herself this way on the package insert that comes with the small-scale artworks that she created for the art vending machine in our permanent exhibition. Those artworks bear the title “The Legacy of Friede Traurig” – where Friede Traurig doubles as a proper name and, in German, to mean peace sorrowful. And Deborah Wargon, who is best known for her paper cuttings inside former insect cases, says that she would rather be sorrowful.

With a little good luck, you may get one of her works from the vending machine: for instance, a little human figurine made of rail track ballast (gravel), wire, and newspaper. Aside from the expressive name Friede Traurig, the materials invoke woeful stories of train transports and barbed wire fences, particularly because the newspapers she used are from the Second World War. But for the artist, it’s clearly not only about the specific time the Nazis were in power and the Shoah. It’s also about the legacies, the inheritance, the stories that we all carry with us. She explains her choice of materials: “For me, wire is a fascinating material. It’s also used for cages. So you can use to suggest the ways that we’re all captive.” The rail track gravel, which normally lies on the ground, relates for Wargon to the ground that we all walk on, as descendants of the people who came before us. “Besides, in both German and English there’s the expression ‘to sweep something under the rug’”. The gravel, or grit, that we bring into the house on the soles of our shoes, and then sweep under the rug, stands for something that we don’t want to face and deal with.

 continue reading


Generation “kosher light”— On the Lifestyle of Young Jews of Russian Descent

Tomorrow evening, 9 September 2014, the cultural anthropologist Alina Gromova will present her book “Generation ‘kosher light’” (transcript Verlag 2013) in the Academy of the Jewish Museum Berlin. As in the case of the many other authors whose “New German Stories” we recently discussed, we put three questions to Ms. Gromova prior to her reading:

A woman with glasses, black clothes and long brown hair looks directly at the camera

Alina Gromova © Judith Metze

Alina, for your study of an international group of young Jews in Berlin you took the city itself as your springboard. Exploring the locations where your subjects live, hang out, mingle and party enabled you to chart their diverse notions of identity, tradition and religion. Why did you opt for such an explicitly spatial focus?

Identity and tradition are terms often difficult to grasp, because they are interwoven with symbols, values, wishful thinking or memories. A space, however, has not only a symbolic but also a physical dimension and is therefore more palpable. Personally, I don’t see a space as a 3-D void waiting to be filled by people or things. On the contrary, people and things are what create a space in the first place. And urban space is especially fascinating, I find, because a broad cultural and religious spectrum often occupies one and the same spot, however tiny; and different elements simultaneously give rise there to their own spaces, so the result is a palimpsest of spaces that then interconnect.

 continue reading


Peddlers with Caftans, Sidelocks – and Umbrellas: Images of Jews around 1900

In Germany, you cannot rely on the weather being consistently sunny, even in the summertime. In the fall at the latest – dare we think of it already? – we will need to shake open our umbrellas again. Axel Stähler (comparative literature, University of Kent), has shown that the umbrella was once considered a Jewish attribute. He recently offered to share with Blogerim his research on the umbrella’s discursive significance in Wilhelminian Germany.

Dr. Stähler, how did you spot the “Jewish umbrella”?

A dark-skinned man sits with an umbrella

Mbwapwa Jumbo from “Briefe aus Neu-Neuland”, Schlemiel 1.1 (November 1903), p. 2

I was first struck by an umbrella in the hands of the “Big Chief of Uganda,” Mbwapwa Jumbo, a fictitious reporter in the Jewish satirical magazine Schlemiel, who acted as a correspondent from a new Jewish colony in Africa. In fact, in 1903, the British government had proposed to Theodor Herzl to commit land to Jewish settlers in the British Protectorate of East Africa. This proposal, which came to be known as the Uganda Plan, was vehemently disputed in the Zionist movement, and rejected in 1905. No concerted colonial Jewish settlement of Uganda ever took place, although individual Jewish immigrants had built homes there earlier.

In nine letters published over the course of the magazine’s brief lifespan, from 1903 to 1907, the chatty and naïvely amicable Mbwapwa tells of the first Jewish colonists – Orthodox Mizrachi – and of what became of them: in funny prose spotted with Anglicisms, and increasingly also Yiddishisms, he describes how he and his countrymen converted to Judaism. He relates the murder of a reformist rabbi who had been smuggled into the country, and the reformers’ ensuing punitive military expedition. He reports on the colony’s political and cultural trials and tribulations, and, finally, on the emergence of the Zionist movement—since Uganda was not, after all, the Promised Land.  continue reading