By Cheryl Kempler
Jewish culture has left its mark on every nation where Jews have settled. Over time, Jewish perception, experiences and thought fuses with, and alters, the creative impulse of the host country; resulting in something entirely original. Perhaps, it is impossible to separate one from the other. Yet, the act of severing all traces of Jewish sensibility and aesthetics from German society, its heritage and traditions, became the Nazis’ obsession.
Their names inscribed on war memorials, and their features, portrayed on statues erected in their honor, as well as their signatures, engraved into the surface of sculptures they created, Jews had influenced both the design, and the inherent message of civic art, conveyed to thousands who looked at them, however briefly, on a daily basis.
Following Hitler’s election as Chancellor of the Reich in January 1933, the removal of these most visible works of art, most considered important sculptural landmarks in large cities, took place within a few weeks. Imbued with a Jewish sensibility, these works had the power to thwart and corrupt what Germany’s new leaders considered its authentic values. After the 1935 passage of the Nuremberg laws, the names of Jewish soldiers were omitted from World War I memorials.
A large granite war memorial by the Jewish sculptor Benno Elkan and completed in 1920, was situated in Frankfurt’s busiest area, near the transit center. Drawing on a variety of Western and non-Western stylistic sources, the work was made up of a single figure, that of a weeping woman crouching, her face and body contorted in anguish and grief. Here, the rhetoric of glory and heroism is meaningless: The aftermath of war leaves only an inconsolable mother in its wake. Integral to both the statue’s visual impact and meaning is the dedication Den Opfern (To the Victims), inscribed directly beneath her body on the pedestal. Many, if not all, who passed by the memorial had lost loved ones and would have identified with its message.
Den Opfern was removed from the site, probably in March or April, 1933, as private residences in Frankfurt were searched for more Elkan pieces. At the Schillerplatz in Mainz, vandals defaced Elkan’s Die Freiheit (Freedom), a large stone sculpture of a semi-nude female. This work, as well as another version of Den Opfern in Völklingen, were probably taken away during this time, and later destroyed. Settling in England, the artist, who died in London in 1960, is today best known for his large Knesset Menorah, on display in front of the Knesset gates.
Although a number of statues honoring the memory of the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine were planned decades before the Nazis came to power, they were opposed by German hate groups. Although Heine converted to Christianity in his youth but later returned to Judaism and treated its traditions as themes in his works. Heine’s lyrical celebration of nature and romantic love inspired some of the country’s greatest music and art. Two of these commissions were awarded to Georg Kolbe, later admired by the Nazis, whose work reflected his interest in the world of ballet and athletics. Evoking the romantic spirit of Heine’s poems, Kolbe’s statue of a dancing couple was a familiar sight in Frankfurt’s Friedberger neighborhood for 20 years. In April 1933 rioting Hitler Youth members pried the figures from their mount with chisels and pushed them off. The sculptor’s second Heine commission was never realized.
Distinguished by its elaborate architectural setting, Hugo Lederer’s 1936 Heine monument became one of the focal points in Hamburg’s city park. Its disappearance is dated to 1933, but playwright Samuel Beckett’s travel diary records a later sighting. Although the sculptor’s style harkens back to that of German medieval sculpture, well within the aesthetic cannon of the Third Reich, Lederer's career suffered after he was suspected of having "Jewish blood."
For centuries, Leipzig, located in Eastern Germany, had been a bastion of cultural life. Constantly apprised of the situation in Germany, B’nai B’rith National Jewish Monthly subscribers would read an editorial that equated the destruction of the city’s monument to the once beloved 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn with the end of civilization. Two musical geniuses, J.S. Bach and Mendelssohn, were identified with the history of the City of Music, where tributes to them were featured prominently. Given pride of place at the plaza at the Gewandhaus, the theater where Mendelssohn had conducted, the composer’s statue had been envisioned as a shrine where the composer could be worshipped by his devotees.
Elevated on a heavenly perch, Mendelssohn’s full-length bronze effigy stood on a high pedestal, where figures of the muse of music and her angels reverently guarded the base. By the 1930s, the memorial had become a source of pride to the city’s prosperous Jewish community. After 1933, local Nazis campaigned for the changing of streets with Jewish names and battled the mayor, who opposed their demand for the statue’s removal. He was absent from the city on Nov. 9, 1936, when London Philharmonic members and their venerable conductor, Thomas Beecham, laid a wreath at the statue to protest the Nazis’ prohibition of the playing of Mendelssohn’s music during their concert tour.
The next day, passers-by saw only an empty pedestal, devoid of the composer’s image, which had been taken during the night. A hastily issued statement to the press announced the figure’s demolition “in accord with the Aryan cultural ideal.” Later that month, another memorial to Mendelssohn was removed in Dusseldorf.
All of the sculptures that disappeared were probably melted down for armaments in 1940.
People killed in a war can never return, but some sculptures are actually brought back to enjoy a second life. Sheltered in the underground passages of the Frankfurt tram depot, even the art hated by the Nazis was protected from the enemy bombs. Den Opfern was saved and displayed in close proximity to its original site, where it can be seen today. Rededicated in 1946, the memorial was praised by Frankfurt’s mayor, a U.S. military appointee, as a timely and relevant statement. From his point of view, all the German dead had been war victims, whether killed by the Allies or murdered in concentration camps.
Germany again embraced Heine’s legacy, reclaiming him as a native son. After the damage inflicted by the Hitler Youth was repaired, Kolbe’s statue was exhibited as Frühlingslied (Spring Song) in the Frankfurt Museum sculpture garden during the 1930s. Like Den Opfern, the statue was sent to an underground location in the train station, during the war. Emerging from its hiding place after the war, it was re-installed in the city to mark the poet’s 150th birthday in 1947. Kolbe replaced the original portrait relief, which had been detached from the pedestal in the in the process of expunging the statue’s Jewish references. Today, it is beautifully set in the city’s Gallus Park. Tributes to Heine by modern sculptors are among the familiar sights in Berlin, Dusseldorf and Hamburg. A controversial statue of Heine executed in 1983 by Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker, finally found a home outside the city hall at Norderney, an island in the North Sea where the writer spent time.
In Leipzig, a small limestone bust substituted for the Mendelssohn monument at its original site. In 2000, plans were finally launched by Maestro Kurt Masur and others for the statue’s reconstruction, which was completed in 2008. Emphasizing the connection between Mendelssohn and Bach, whose works he championed and performed, it has been placed near St. Thomas, the church where the Baroque master worked as music director and where he is buried. The Gewandhaus’ motto, “Edles nur künde die Sprache der Töne” (May the language of music only tell of noble things) is carved into its pedestal. Inside St. Thomas, a stained glass window honors Mendelssohn’s memory.
The 2016 replacement of the Dusseldorf Mendelssohn statue was funded by donations from the city’s residents.
Portrait Bust in the Einstein Tower
Even compared to cutting edge, visionary structures by contemporary architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, the century-old Einstein Tower in Potsdam near Berlin, can still amaze. It is one of the earliest examples of the work of Erich Mendelsohn, and one of only a few extant Expressionist structures, which are easily identified by their unique, hallucinatory qualities.
When Mendelsohn asked the great scientist to comment on the headquarters of the new Einstein Institute, equipped as a solar observatory and as a center for the study of relativity, he provided the perfect, if noncommittal, one-word description: “organic.”
The Nazis’ hatred of the Jewish physicist, his fame and reputation in the world, was magnified by his outspoken criticism of their regime. In keeping with their agenda, in March 1933, an order was issued directing the name of the tower be changed to “The Institute for Solar Physics.” Deemed yet another product of the degenerate Jewish mind, the building was too necessary to be abandoned. His photos removed from the walls, Einstein became a persona non grata. It was believed that a portrait bust that decorated one of the observatory chambers had to be taken away, and later melted down.
After the war, the bust, which had been hidden by staff members, re-emerged from one of the laboratory storage bins. The bust is now displayed near the Tower’s entrance, but a stone is placed at its former location, in remembrance of a time when it could not be seen. Today, part of the Leibniz Institute for the Study of Astrophysics, the Einstein Tower has not moved from its Potsdam campus, now named Albert Einstein Science Park.
After leaving Germany, Erich Mendelsohn lived and worked in Israel, England and the United States, where he died in 1953. Cleveland’s well-known Park Synagogue is one of the innovative buildings that characterizes the architect’s late style.
All photos from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository.