“Was Goethe a Jew too?”

When you do a search of our library catalog for Goethe you could get this idea: 70 hits for works by or about the German poet (by contrast, Schiller only gets 16). And until a few years ago the impressive 1867 Cotta’schen edition of Goethe appeared in our permanent exhibition. Many people used to ask the visitor’s desk: “Was Goethe Jewish?” No, he wasn’t. But for many Jews he was the paragon of German culture, and his works symbolized membership in the German educated middle-class.

a bust of Goethe and books in the museum

Former Goethe installation in the permanent exhibition
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Marion Roßner

A few months ago, the Richard M. Meyer Foundation gave us more than 100 books by and about Richard M. Meyer himself. The son of a banker, art collector, and man of letters was a Goethe scholar. Meyer never acquired a proper professorship, but his 1895 biography of Goethe won awards and was published again and again – as a single volume, in multiple volumes, as a people’s edition and a reserved edition. According to the biography, Goethe saw “nationalities merely as transitional forms” (Volksausgabe [People’s Edition] 1913, p. 352). Statements like this illustrate the dilemma of German-Jewish assimilation during that period. If a Jewish reader of Goethe placed the poet’s cosmopolitanism in the foreground, he exposed himself to the accusation of misunderstanding the German essence of his writings. But when he explicitly recognized just this quality in Goethe’s language, his very right to have a say was contested.  continue reading


Forgotten Women Artists

An Appeal for Recognition and Dignity

“We used to throw stones at her – we thought she was a witch.” With these words, a former resident of Rishon LeZion ruefully told me of her childhood encounters with the sculptor and doll maker, Edith Samuel. Edith wore her long, dark, European skirts under the searing Middle Eastern sun and suffered from a physical deformity. The daughter of a liberal German rabbi, Edith and her sister Eva were both artists who left their home city of Essen in the 1930s and immigrated to Palestine.

photo of a pottery wheel and other equipment

The pottery wheel belonging to Paula Ahronson, Eva Samuel’s business partner, is preserved in private hands and untouched since her death in 1998
© Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Michal Friedlander

The Samuel sisters worked long hours, struggled to earn a living and did not gain the recognition that they deserved, during their lifetimes. The exhibition “Tonalities” at the Jewish Museum Berlin aims to bring forgotten women artists back into the public arena. It presents Eva Samuel’s works and that of other women ceramicists who were forced to leave Germany after 1933.

My search for transplanted German, Jewish women in the applied arts began many years prior to my encounter with the Samuel sisters. It was Emmy Roth who first captured my attention. Born in 1885, Roth was an exceptionally talented and internationally successful silversmith, who worked in Berlin. She immigrated to Palestine and fell into obscurity, ultimately taking her own life in 1942. Her male refugee colleagues, Ludwig Wolpert and David Gumbel, were appointed to teach metalwork at the Jerusalem New Bezalel School of Art in the late 1930s. They are feted in Israel today, whereas Roth is still completely unknown there.  continue reading


A Letter from the Museum

An Interview with Alex Martinis Roe

Artist sitting at a desk in an nearly empty room

Alex Martinis Roe, Encounters: Conversation in Practice, performance still, 2010.
Image courtesy of the artist.

To obtain a letter from a vending machine – even from an art vending machine – is rather unusual. In this interview, Australian artist Alex Martinis Roe explains what motivated her to create the artwork “A Letters to Deutsche Post.”

Christiane Bauer: Alex, you drafted a letter to Deutsche Post, asking the officers to reissue stamps depicting Rahel Varnhagen and Hannah Arendt. When our visitors purchase the letter, are they supposed to send it to Deutsche Post?

Alex Martinis Roe: I don’t expect visitors to send the letter to Deutsche Post, because I didn’t ask them to. They can do whatever they like with it. If they send it off, I’m happy. If they keep it, I’m also happy. (laughs) What I hope, is that they read the letter and become interested in the story.

Why did you choose to make a letter for the art vending machine?  continue reading