Through April 2005
Shoshana S. and Jerome Cardin Gallery
The Jewish Museum of Maryland
15 Lloyd Street, Baltimore
The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s “Lives Lost” exhibit offers a meditation on a “dramatic but little known story” – according to the museum Associate Director Anita Kassof. The museum explores how the Jewish Baltimore community specifically came to accept the German Jewish refugees, and the refugees’ challenges in integrating into the wider community while preserving their identity.
Perhaps the exhibit’s most fascinating component is the presentation that employs a multimedia edifice in which viewers walk through a model sukkah (one family turned a transporting crate into a sukkah) and examine a variety of historical objects.
Viewers see a sewing machine and a rescued Torah; the original spice grinder that the Gustav Brunn family used to found the Baltimore Spice Company – now called Old Bay Seasoning (my grandmother has some on her shelf); black album binders with old pictures; and a network of passport papers and affidavits whereby local residents ensured that the immigrants would be economically cared for. These affidavits were a prerequisite to the immigrants’ entry into the United States, and they demonstrated a tremendous sense of responsibility, as the local residents often found themselves vouching for people they hardly knew.
The curatorial technique that organizes space by leading the viewer through a contextual framework has a lot to do with interactive curating. This technique allows the visitor to relate to the work through dialogue, rather than one-sided lectures. It is the equivalent of “Reader Response” in literary criticism. Like all techniques, it implies certain advantages and disadvantages.
One of the greatest proponents of “Reader Response” is the American literary critic, Stanley Fish (b. 1938). “Reader Response” means that texts are viewed as malleable structures that the reader molds to a large extent, rather than a fixed, concrete creation upon which the author enjoys a monopoly of interpretive powers.
Fish’s “Surprised by Sin: The Reader in ‘Paradise Lost'” (1967) argues that Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” which explores the expulsion from Eden and the events immediately surrounding it on both chronological ends, presents Satan as an appealing, heroic character with whom the reader can hardly help but sympathize. Satan is proud, intelligent, persistent and sly.
At some point, though, Fish argues that the reader wakes up from a literary slumber and realizes that s/he sympathizes with Satan, who is clearly evil, over G-d. After realizing this “sin,” the reader launches a process of appeal for clemency. Ultimately, then, Milton aims to send the reader through the Adamic development of sin-realization-atonement. This trajectory of interpretation resembles a “form follows content” model, and “Lives Lost” uses it to involve the reader in a meaningful way.
“Lives Lost” leads the viewer through a maze of information that allows for projection of the self back into time. This move allows the viewer to interact with the museum pieces in a way that proves very rewarding, though hardly intuitive. Museums used to project an “ivory tower” image to their visitors. The viewers who came into the museum had to check “real life” at the door, for the museum set itself starkly in opposition to life by suggesting that it contained a certain orderliness and maturity. Post-modern curators have begun to realize that they must change the way in which they set up exhibits to present their diverse viewers with a venue that allows for different individuals to respond differently to the material, thus making for a more interesting space.
Catch phrases in the museum world are now “dialogue,” “interaction” and the like. This ideology is especially appropriate to a historical museum, which aims to preserve the past in a way that is personal and relevant to viewers.
New media and technology has ensured video and multi-media documentation, especially useful in cataloguing Holocaust victims’ testimony. Although “Lives Lost” does not employ videos (a failure on its part, and the real strength of venues such as the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park, and the like), it does feature a computer screen that lists names of the victims in a continuous fashion that conveys the tremendous number of the Baltimore immigrants, while stressing each one’s individuality.
Founded in 1960, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is the perfect venue for this sort of thing. According to its website, the museum eyes the Jewish-American experience “with special attention to Jewish life in the state of Maryland.” The museum combines the historic Lloyd Street Synagogue and the B’nai Israel Synagogue, joining them together with a museum building in the middle. This cultural and historic venue, with an eye for religious ritual in the synagogues, combines the perfect elements for exploring complicated identities.
Items I noted with specific interest were a Torah Scroll, opened to the “Song at the Sea” (Exodus XV: 1-21) rescued by Louis Kleeman before the Nazis vandalized Gaukonigshofen; a pocket watch stripped of its gold casing (as per a February 1939 law); and a silver kiddush cup that Jewish community of Ober-Remstadt bestowed upon Abraham Wartensleben, its last president. The cup shows a dent from having been thrown from a window (in Wartensleben’s house) by the Nazis during Kristallnacht. But “Lives Lost” is more than a mere amalgamation of objects.
In the catalog introduction, Avi Y. Decter, the museum’s executive director, argues that “The flight of the German Jewish cultural elite has been extensively chronicled,” but the common people often faced anonymity in the curatorial scene. “In contrast, the journeys of ordinary German Jews have received only modest attention.”
“Lives Lost” then aims to record the refugees who came to Baltimore between 1933 and 1945. In fact, as Deborah R. Weiner writes in “The Third Wave: German Jewish Refugees Come to Baltimore” further in the catalog, many immigrants resented the term “refugee,” for it invariably classified them as “other.”
It appears that not only has history written itself around many of the immigrants who did not enjoy social or economic distinction, but the language itself that welcomed them upon arrival to America seems to have aimed to disenfranchise them. “Lives Lost” also illustrates how German Jews were accustomed to anti-Semitism, and had trouble anticipating that the Nazis’ platform would actually become so murderous.
The exhibit also investigates how many Baltimoreans resented the immigrants to an extent, finding them real people rather than the idealized persons they had held them to be. Further, the exhibit tells of the Baltimore Chevra Ahavas Chesed (still effective today), which maintained cemeteries, aided the needy and the sick, and provided a venue for social interaction amongst the immigrants.
However, “Lives Lost” affected me most acutely not only because of its tremendous research and exhaustive images, paper trails and objects, but because it meditated on the local and highly personal elements of trauma, and cast me right in the middle of a totally engulfing, interactive network that was highly particularized and understanding enough to be just intrusive enough, and just open enough to allow me to enter the dialogue, rather than preaching history.
Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at: email@example.com
CORRECTION: I would like to extend my apologies to Elena Makarova, who curated and wrote the catalog for the Friedl Dicker-Brandeis exhibition at the Jewish Museum. In my last column, I neglected to acknowledge her name, and the credit is most certainly due to her.
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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