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.

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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


“Now we’ll follow the intrepid path that Lassalle led us to!”

Dark Red Booktitle with golden letters

“Enthüllungen über das tragische Lebensende Lassalles” (An Exposé of the Tragic Death of Lassalle) by Bernhard Becker © Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Leonore Maier

150 years ago today – on the last day of August, 1864 – Ferdinand Lassalle died as a result of injuries sustained in a duel. The German politician and journalist was a founder of the first workers’ organization in the country, the General German Workers’ Association, which had come into being the year before his death and is today still considered “the birthplace of social democracy”. Ferdinand Lassalle’s duel pistols were on display at the exhibition “150 Years of Social Democracy”, presented a year ago by the Moscow State Archive.

Both a politician and a charismatic agitator for the organization of workers, Lassalle was only 39 years old when he challenged Wilhelm von Dönniges to a duel because the latter had refused to grant Lassalle his daughter’s hand in marriage.

After his abrupt demise, a veritable cult of personality developed around his memory: there were poems, songs, even rituals carried out during the widespread commemoration ceremonies, as well as various pieces of memorabilia that circulated among his followers. The first book with “An Exposé of the Tragic Death of Lassalle” appeared in 1868, by one of his close political comrades.
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