Only in Berlin

Another day, another news story about a Palestinian refugee living in Berlin, representing the city to the federal government, her office on Jüdenstraße, realistic about Israel’s existence and fighting German anti-semitism.

 

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Music, Light and Dark

This past week I went to hear Daniel Kahn and The Painted Bird perform at Studio R — actually Studio Я — an indication of the venue’s edgy politics.  Kahn, originally from Detroit, an avid yiddishist, and his band, named after the Jerzy Kosiński novel, play an amalgam of intense, dark and political lefty klezmer partisan lieds.  Think Woody Guthrie meets Nick Cave.

They were backed up by powerful visuals, which included German translations of their provocative, anti-capitalist, Brechtian and existentialist Yiddish and English lyrics.  It remains surprising and odd to me to hear Yiddish sung in public in Germany, since, as usual, the crowd appeared to be mostly non-Jewish, according to an Israeli sociologist friend whom I ran into at the show.  She thought many of those attending were from the former DDR, celebrating the day along with the concert, intentionally scheduled for Befreiungstag (Liberation Day), May 5th, the day the Nazis capitulated to the allied forces in 1945.

Check out some of the songs from the latest album, including a Yiddish hymn to the 99%.  If only most leftists still had this kind of humor…

Freedom is a Verb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QFu0o8NB5Io

March of the Jobless Corps: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KFVVKFxr60

Nayn-un-Nayntsik: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6VUKdSJMf28

The Butcher’s Share: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B7EgQXMV8nM

In the spirit of Yiddish Verfremdung (making foreign), I am adding for your pleasure a photo of a sculpture in a Platz that I came across today.  The square is named for Leon Jessel, a composer of operettas.The sculpture, by Emanuel Scharfenberg, is named Wasserpilz (Water Mushroom).  I’d call it Big Public Phallic Ejaculating Mushroom, but I wasn’t asked.

A query to Dr. Google turned up the following information from Dr. Wikipedia: Jessel was born Jewish.  His operetta “Schwarzwaldmädel [Black Forest Girl] was a favorite of Hitler and Himmler. Because of this, and because of his own conservative nationalistic ideology, and because his second wife Anna joined the Nazi party in 1932, Jessel expected acceptance in Germany even during and after the Nazi rise to power. Instead, he was rejected by Nazi leadership because of his Jewish descent, even though he had converted to Christianity in 1894, and performances of his works were banned in 1933. Jessel’s last major work was his 1933 operetta Junger Wein (Young Wine), and his biographer Albrecht Dümling believes that he was a victim of targeted boycott measures as early as 1927.

In 1937 he was forced out of the Reichsmusikkammer (the State Music Institute), and recordings and distribution of his works were prohibited. In 1941 a house search turned up a 1939 letter to his librettist William Sterk in Vienna, in which Jessel had written: ‘I cannot work in a time when hatred of Jews threatens my people with destruction, where I do not know when that gruesome fate will likewise be knocking at my door.’ On December 15, 1941 Jessel was arrested and delivered to the Gestapo in Berlin. He was tortured by the Gestapo in a basement of the Police Bureau at Alexanderplatz, and subsequently died on January 4, 1942 in the Berlin Jewish Hospital.”

Beneath the surface of a sweet public square, hell.  Perhaps the sculpture is the sculptor’s nod to the Black Forest and Jessel’s Black Forest girl.  Perhaps it is a sly acknowledgment that, like mushrooms, everyday life hides the underground network of the majority of the organism — memories, torment and trauma.  The mushroom feeds off of, processes the dead matter of ecosystems.  Now I look at my photograph and envy the mushroom its tranquil processing.  The silly public sculpture of a mushroom has wrung tears from me.  A water mushroom indeed.

The real Liberation Day remains in the future, equally beyond sight.

 

Some Corrections and Additions

Some kind and loyal readers alerted me to some items in need of correction in my last posts.

The clock tower with the Hebrew clock face that I mentioned when discussing Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die belongs to the Jewish Town Hall of Prague.  Thanks to my dear teacher and friend Rabbi Martin S. Cohen for noting this.As noted by my dear friends Barbara and Wolfgang Jordan, the “Hangman of Prague,” whose assassination Lang and Brecht treat in the movie, was named Reinhard Heydrich, not Richard.  By the way, the same theme — Heydrich’s assassination and the pitiless Nazi response — was revisited in the pitiless 2016 film Anthropoid.

While I’m still on the subject of the movies I discussed, the ubiquitous tough-guy actor Edgar G. Robinson, who played the Nazi hunter in Welles’ The Stranger, was born in Bucharest as Emanuel Goldenberg.  That what the G. in his name stands for in yet another Hollywood story of assimilation.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to my sister Naomi, who was the one who told me about Kanopy, the free movie website (if you have a library card from the U.S.).  Thanks, Naomi!

One more photo for you:

Three Girls and a Boy is the name of this fun 1988 sculpture along the Spree by Wilfried Fitzenreiter.  A visiting colleague wanted to do a boat tour of the famous Berlin river, channeled into canals within the city, so I agreed to accompany him.  My first such excursion here, a leisurely way to take in the city on a brisk late April day.

 

Intermediate Days

Before pesach I caught a show of my friend, Arik Strauss, a very talented Israeli jazz pianist now living in Berlin.  His wife Sigal sings with him, including on a piece in which they set a Leah Goldberg poem to music.  He has just released a new CD, named Closing the Circle (check out his website for samples of the tracks).  The title alludes to the fact that his coming to Germany marks a return to his family roots.  Somehow it came out in a past conversation that he is the great grandson of Martin Buber.  Funnily, I already knew another great grandson of Buber’s living in Berlin.  Of course the two know each other.

Browsing around on Kanopy, the amazing free film website available if you have a U.S. public or university library card, I stumbled across Orson Welles’ film from 1946, The Stranger.  Not exactly a Passover film on first glance, but perhaps a perfect noirish reflection of the spirit of the holiday.  It is overwrought as Welles can often be.  But I was unprepared for the way Welles, playing remarkably on presumed distinctions between innocent, optimistic “America” and the morally bankrupt Nazis, seems to have been prescient and visionary in this film.  Edgar G. Robinson plays a Nazi hunter who tracks down Orson Welles, the escaped Nazi war criminal Franz Kindler, who is living as the history professor Charles Rankin in Harper, Connecticut.  Robinson’s character, Mr. Wilson, tries to get Mary, the professor’s wife, to understand that her beloved husband is actually a Nazi perpetrator.  Mary is the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.  At one fraught dinner conversation Rankin gives himself away to Wilson by denying that Germans harbor any spirit of equality — presented as an American fetish and a litmus test of civility — citing the example of Karl Marx, whose egalitarianism could not represent the German spirit because he is Jewish.  In one amazing scene — keep in mind that this is 1946 — Wilson shows Mary and her father film footage documenting Nazi atrocities in order to turn her to the truth.  I caught a quick glimpse of a mass grave.

Wilson pins his hope that Mary will recognize the true identity of her husband on her subsconscious.  At one point, trying to test his wife Mary’s mettle when she promises, out of love, to cover up his misdeeds, Rankin says: “In failing to speak, you become part of the crime.”  Amen.  Right out of Deuteronomy.  Is this what Moses said to himself before striking the oppressive Egyptian overseer?  How many of us are according to this standard guilty?

Then, in the mood, I watched “Hangmen Die Too,” a rousing if bleak 1943 anti-Nazi film directed by Fritz Lang that treats the assassination of Richard Heydrich, known as “the hangman.”  “Bert” Brecht was one of the screenplay writers, while Hans Eisler composed the music for the film.  All three at the time German refugees in Hollywood!  I can’t believe that I had never heard of this work before, either.  Some of the Czechs taken hostage by the Nazis after the assassination wear yellow stars on their sleeves.  In a climactic scene toward the end, the church bells of Prague ring.  Lang provides shots of various churches and church clock towers, and includes a shot of a medieval (?) clock featuring Hebrew letters at each hour.  The heroine protects the identity of the assassin, as does almost all of Prague, despite the terrible price of numerous innocent hostages being executed by the Nazis.  Her father, a mild-mannered but unflappable professor of history who like so many other Czechs resists the Nazi occupiers with subterfuges and petit marronage, the weapons of the weak, tells her pointedly in what turns out to be the last time she will see him: “Don’t forget — that freedom is not something that one possesses, like a hat or a piece of candy.  The real thing is fighting for freedom.”  Amen again.

The east side of Berlin contains many indications of people continuing to fight the good fight, as can be seen in the following works of street art that I came across the other day.

What a brilliant way of capturing economic cause and effect.  Consumerism causes child labor.  Child labor is not some kind of accident.  It is the direct result of producers demanding high profits and consumers demanding plentiful, cheap goods.  I love the poster’s powerful, creative graphic juxtaposition.Another brilliant public commentary/satire.  Nothing new under the sun here.  But right back into the heart of pesach and the question of liberation.  God bless Berlin.

 

Midnight in the Birch Forest

An errand took me to the furthest north place in Berlin that I have been so far.  Walking from the U-Bahn to my destination I passed through a beautiful stand of birch trees, perhaps a remnant of a larger forest.

The sight moved me, feeling almost like a visitation to another world, and hit me as a reminder of the unpredictable oases of transcendence to be found within our ordinary existence.

As Passover is about to arrive, I want to pass on to you Nigel Savage’s thoughts on the holiday.  He meditates beautifully on the four children from the haggada and their relationship to the ways we do and don’t act politically, particularly in response to climate change.  Nigel is the founder of Hazon, probably the preeminent Jewish environmental organization, and a dear friend.  My wife had shared his annual letter with me.

My own cogitations on what pesach jars in me this year complement Nigel’s lessons.  I have been dwelling on the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching about the midnight at which God emerges to strike down the first born of Egypt, a moment dreadful and fearsome.  Moses reports (Ex. 12:4) that God will pass at midnight (כחצות הלילה) and the Besht seems to understand the Hebrew as if it meant that God will pass “like midnight.”  For the Besht this play on words arouses the existential import of every moment of decision-making we face.  Each decision before us forces us to clarify whether we are acting for the sake of heaven or for its opposite.  Continues Ya’akov Yosef of Polonnoye, the Besht’s disciple: Which way will our decision turn the hands of the clock, forward or backward?  Will we move into a new day or backward to the old one?  Every moment of choice is momentous, every crossroads a midnight.  When I think of the crises challenging us today — environmental, horrific inequality, the continued and now renewed disregard for human rights — the Besht’s image fills my mind.  What will we choose?  What kind of world do we want?  And if we have clarified our intentions and goals, are we willing to move with courage, surety and determination to do what it takes to try to undo an unhealthy, unjust, oppressive and dangerous system?

Walking midday through an urban patch of birches, can we tell that it is midnight?

Chag pesach sameach ve-meshachrer!  A happy and liberating Passover to us all!

 

This Jew is Back

Hello my dear readers!  I abandoned you — and Berlin — for seven blissful months of being together with my wife and children back in the old country.  New York, that is.  But I am now in Berlin again.  Since I am living alone once more I have little to do besides working and whiling away my free time writing up my experiences here of the few occasions when I dare leave my apartment.  Cue the violins…

What I want to share with you today is a truly disturbing story — aren’t you glad to hear from me again? (where are the darn emoticons on this machine?) — about an aspect of the German-American relationship most people probably don’t know.  A legal scholar in the U.S. published a book in 2017 that describes the influence that racialist law in the U.S. had on the formation of Nazi racialist law in the 1930s.  Here is a recent review.  Read it and weep, as I did.  The reviewer skillfully shows how the mutually-agreeable xenophobic exclusivism shared by the U.S. and Nazi elites remains all too influential today, has indeed been resurrected by all too many self-deluded people on the still-almost-always-wrong political “right.”

 

A Sunday Dive Into Antiquity

I went with a visiting friend to the Neues Museum, which features (absconded) archaeological finds from the ancient Near East, Mediterranean and Europe, collected by some of the giants of 19th-century European archaeology.

Above is a depiction on limestone of the Pharaoh Akhnaten and his wife Nefertiti, with three daughters, from the Amarna period, ca. 1340 BCE.  According to some scholars, Akhnaton, who founded a monotheistic cult of the sun god Aten, may have either influenced Moses or been him himself.  Akhnaton, originally named Amenhotep IV, built a new residence in Middle Egypt after marrying the commoner Nefertiti.  He reigned for 17 years, after which his town was abandoned and Egypt went back to polytheism.

The style of drawing figures is apparently typical of the Amarna period, but I am struck by how aged the royal family is made to look (even the kids!).  Have they been withered by their god, the sun?  Are they being depicted as odd Egyptians?

Here is a portrait of Akhnaton that shows him as a rather more powerful, elegant, even youthful man.  The detail and artistic skill of this rendering seems like it could have come from the hand of a 20th-century modernist.

Another proto-modernist image, this one from a Cretan bowl, if I remember correctly.  I love the markings and suggestive minimalism.

Back in today’s Berlin…