As relevant and as fascinating as ever, the art of Romanian-American artist Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) continues to be seen, discussed and enjoyed. It could be observed that his work straddles many lines: two and three dimensions; illustration and painting; art and architecture; literary and visual, and more. However it’s categorized, and interpreted, Steinberg’s oeuvre is always detached, despite his sometimes dark subject matter, but also ironic, comic and mysterious. Inviting prolonged scrutiny, his drawings, paintings, collages, sculptures and environments still defy conventional analysis, or rather, cannot be explained adequately, even for those who can cite and identify his salient imagery.
Beginning last year and continuing through 2022, Steinberg’s multimedia creations have been and will continue to take center stage in no less than 12 exhibits mounted worldwide, including an 80-work retrospective at Paris’ Centre Pompidou and an installation, “Saul Steinberg: Milano New York,” on view through March 2022 at the Milan Triennale in Italy. A recent in-depth analysis, Jessica R. Feldman’s “Saul Steinberg’s Literary Journeys,” has been available since February, while the November 2021 issue of the Paris Review published a hitherto unknown interview in which the artist talked about baseball, a subject from which he drew visual inspiration during the early 1950s.
After World War I, Steinberg’s father, Moritz, ran a print and book binding shop that specialized in the production of decorative packaging. His designs for cosmetics and candy containers almost certainly incorporated engravings, florid lettering and motifs produced from stencils and the rubber stamps that were commonly used at that time. It was there that the young Saul would begin to develop his own technique, influenced by his exposure to and familiarity with ornate fonts and the stamps which gave his art its personality. Although his tools remained the same later on, his perception of the world would be filtered by his own experiences, as well as through Dada and Surrealist lenses, which, coincidentally, also made use of automatic writing, words and random markings; both also appropriated the conventions of advertising to turn bourgeois morality on its head. Steinberg’s artistic evolution, however, would produce results that could not easily be categorized.
With his erudite visual acumen and knowledge of literature, it’s no wonder that Steinberg would feel at home in Italy, where he came to escape Rumania’s rabid anti-Semitism and academic quotas that barred Jews from specialized training. As an architecture student in Milan, he contributed (like another visual genius of this generation, the film director Federico Fellini) to several of the Italian satirical periodicals that proliferated during the 1930s. But his adopted land would betray him: After the fascist racial laws were enacted in Italy in 1938, Steinberg was an outcast, an undesirable Rumanian Jew, now compelled to emigrate. Lacking the appropriate paperwork, he remained in peril for another two years, living with the constant threat of arrest, imprisonment and ultimately deportation to a concentration camp.
Entries in Steinberg’s diary delineate the suffering he endured during a period of imprisonment and describe an aborted escape to America via Portugal, where officials rejected his expired transit visa and forced him back to Italy. Learning about these experiences comes as a shock to many who have laughed at his art over the years but never considered that he had a history outside of New York.
Finally immigrating in 1942, Steinberg would become renown through his drawings and covers that would transform the New Yorker magazine: His work was instantly recognizable. Over the years, his other projects included designs for murals, stage sets and textiles. He was also a gifted maker of masks.
Above all his subjects, Steinberg’s New York pictures continue to define him. From his iconic poster of Manhattan, “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which envisions the island as the only civilized place on earth, to his brilliant female personifications of the borough’s West side streets: prissy, blowsy, elegant, or—embellished with blackened smears and erasure marks—downright salacious, Steinberg altered the perception of what his audience experienced of their environment. Here too, he straddled the line between the observer as flaneur and the fully engaged participant in the life of the city.
Beginning in the mid-1930s, worldwide efforts were made to bring persecuted Jewish children out of Germany. As Hitler set his sights on conquest, the lives of boys and girls from other nations were put in the Nazis’ path.
Racing against time, the Kindertransport, initiated by religious and nonsectarian humanitarian groups in Britain, aimed at delivering as many German, Polish, Austrian and Czech children as possible out of Eastern Europe before it was too late: a bill passed in Parliament extended safe heaven, to the children alone. Between November 1938 and the September 1939 declaration of war in England, the transit and housing arrangements for 10,000 children and infants in Holland and Britain were coordinated by the Kindertransport committees.
Choosing to remove their families from danger, many Eastern European and German B’nai B’rith members hoped that British lodge members would care for their sons and daughters. The London women’s auxiliaries actually did supervise these children, arranging for accommodations in hostels or farms in the countryside. The Executive Committee in the United States contributed funds for food and clothing. B’nai B’rith would enable many of the older children to resettle in Israel.
Revealing this dramatic narrative through artifacts, dramatization, letters and oral histories, “Kindertransport – Rescuing Children on the Brink of War,” was curated and exhibited in 2018 by Yeshiva University Museum and the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. In July 2021, the display traveled to the Minneapolis American Swedish Institute, where it runs through Oct. 31. The show has been augmented in this venue with a separate exhibit, “The Story is Here,” about the refugee children who came to the Midwest in the 1930s, and an audio component that historically contextualizes the events covered in the show.
On view at the Jewish Museum in Vienna from Nov. 15, 2021, until April 30, 2022, “Without a Home: Kindertransports from Vienna” explores the fate of Austrian children who were sent to England, but also to Holland, France and Belgium, where many became Hitler’s victims. The exhibit also addresses the trauma experienced by the children, thrown in with strangers who were sometimes unkind or worse. They suffered from the long-term effects of parental deprivation, the loss of their childhoods and the guilt they felt at being alive. Today, the sons, daughters and grandchildren of Kindertransport members are actively involved in educating others about the Holocaust and learning about their parent’s memories.
Filmmakers Pamela Sturhoofd and Jessica van Tijin incorporate animation, historic World War II footage and interviews with Kindertransport survivors into their documentary “Truus’ Children,” celebrating the achievements and legacy of courageous Dutch rescuer Geertruida “Truus” Wijsmuller (1896-1978). Singlehandedly bringing children out of Germany from 1933, she led the Austrian Kinderstransport after Norman Bentwich, a B’nai B’rith leader involved with the rescue plan, asked her to meet with the infamous Adolph Eichmann. Thinking she would fail, he allowed her to take children between the ages of five and ten from Nazi occupied territories by train, beginning with a group of 600. Seemingly fearless, as well as formidable, Wijsmuller corralled everyone that she knew into assisting her, whether they were willing or not. Released in 2020, “Truus’ Children” garnered an overwhelming response during its Dutch television premiere in May. It continues to be viewed and discussed via various websites devoted to Jewish history and culture.
Sturhoofd and van Tijin have launched another project, an online digital online archive which will house all the research materials used in the making of “Truus’ Children,” to function as an educational resource and lasting tribute to Wijsmuller’s deeds.
As we experience the trajectory of anti-Semitism in history and during one’s own life, it’s natural to feel hopeless. Hate will endure, but it’s still possible to celebrate and enjoy the efforts made to acknowledge the legacy of the Jewish people, as well as to take pride in the end result: contributions that improved life for all.
The city of Goerlitz in Saxony, a part of East Germany after World War II, had a Jewish population between 600 and 700 in 1888, when its B’nai B’rith Victoria Lodge first met. Fewer Jews were living there when a new synagogue opened in 1911. Adopted from the basilica plan, the structure was far from standard, boasting attractive modern additions. Contributing to its unique visual interest was a centrally located structure containing a space which congregants used. Its tiled, domed roof had been topped with a Star of David mounted on a pole. A then-cutting-edge feature of the building was the Art Nouveau and Secessionist elements applied to the exterior and places in the sanctuary. Yet, even in 1911, few of the assimilated Goerlitz Jews worshiped there.
Only 300 Jews remained in Goerlitz when the Nazis set the synagogue ablaze on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938. Thanks to the local firemen who disobeyed orders and extinguished the fire, it was the only synagogue in Saxony to survive. Farm animals roamed the damaged structure for years after the war, but eventually the East German government repurposed the space for public events. Genuine preservation efforts only began after the 1991 reunification. Now, thanks to efforts by Goerlitz’s 30-member Jewish community, its Christian groups and civic associations, the synagogue has been brought back to life. Known as the Cultural Forum Synagogue Goerlitz, it’s intended for both worship and performing arts, and its July 2021 opening was celebrated with a stellar concert, attended by German political leaders, clergy and other notables. Speakers included the prime minister of Saxony, Rabbi Akiva Weingarten of Dresden and the Mayor of Goerlitz.
Millions of euros for the 30-year project came from government grants, foundations and several anonymous philanthropists. Alex Jacobowitz, a cantor and president of the Goerlitz Jewish community, will pay to re-enforce the domed roof to support the Star of David. Parts of the synagogue, including the Exodus verse formerly inscribed on the lintel over the entryway—“And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”—intentionally remain in disrepair to evoke Kristallnacht. Jacobowitz, the historian of the Goerlitz Synagogue, has observed: “I have always found it important that the synagogue has continued to show its scars …”
As much as London was pivotal to the history of Zionism for its important Jewish leaders and as the location of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the city of Manchester is even more connected with the genesis and the fruition of this important event. In the years before World War I, Zionist leader and German émigré Chaim Weizmann, teaching at Manchester University, served as the first president of the city’s constantly growing B’nai B’rith lodge. Its members—both emigres that had come to join him, and wealthy and influential merchants and manufacturers native to this industrial city—were all supporters of Weizman’s mission, the creation of a Jewish homeland. More than any other Jewish leader in England, it was his efforts that culminated in the signing of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.
Although Manchester’s reputation as a working-class city held true for many decades, gentrification has been impacting its changing neighborhoods. Dating to 1874, its oldest synagogue, located in a warehouse enclave, served as the Manchester Jewish Museum.
Funded by a two-year Capital Development Project, the synagogue/museum was restored and the museum space was expanded into a newly constructed adjacent building, highlighted by an attractive exterior fabricated in weather resistant, patinated steel. The eight-pointed star motifs punched into the façade, intended to welcome people of all backgrounds into the museum, also serve to emanate shafts of light from the museum’s interior. Its weathered, shed-like appearance harmonizes with neighboring warehouse buildings.
In addition to revamped exhibits and innovative spaces including a kitchen for interactive cuisine demonstrations, the museum has partnered with the 2021 Manchester International Festival to commission Turner Prize-winning British artist Laure Prouvost’s “The long waited, weighted gathering,” a site-specific installation fusing video, sound, and fine and decorative arts together with found objects from the synagogue and textiles woven by Manchester’s women congregants, which can be viewed this summer in the women’s gallery. Prouvost wanted her vision to meld to “the beautiful textures and architecture, to the history of this amazing place. I was inspired by the ideas of ceremonies and rituals that we bring from histories.”
Two talented individuals from Israel channel their response to the natural world as the inspiration for their works of art. Raised on a kibbutz in Northern Israel, Zemer Peled is a maker of fine and decorative art who draws her imagery from the complex anatomies of fossils, flowers and marine life. French-born architect Ben Gitai incorporated raw materials from the Negev Desert to design and construct a shelter/observatory there intended for the contemplation of the night sky.
Dangerous, playful, brutal, sharp, soft, silky, furry, fibrous—all of these seemingly contradictory qualities can be used to describe Peled’s wildly colorful porcelain objects, plates and sculptures. In her hands, the shards, that fragment of glass or pottery unearthed at the archeological digs she often witnessed as a child, are transformed and enervated, becoming petals, leaves, tentacles, stems and thorns imbued with more than a hint of the animal or the human. From all this aliveness will eventually come decay and its aftermath, regeneration, a theme which Peled is constantly exploring.
In Peled’s temporary site-specific installations, process becomes inseparable from the environment that she envisions. For “Suspension” (2017), commissioned by the North Dakota Museum in Grand Forks, the artist built up dense tangles of tendril-like porcelain skeins and arranged them as cascading “spills” on the walls and near the ceiling of the space. The resulting effect of lightness and delicacy was an illusion that deceptively masked the precarious nature of the resulting constructions, all of which were in danger of toppling from their own weight. That the experience of “Suspension” was as ephemeral as music was demonstrated during a concert by Peled’s brother and collaborative partner, cello virtuoso Amit Peled, profiled in October 2018 during his concert “Journey with My Jewishness,” which was performed in the same space.
Peled studied at the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem and obtained a degree from London’s Royal College of Art. She is now based in the United States.
Words conveying the essence of Gitai’s work might include “transformative,” “elemental” and “pure.” He heads a team of architects and designers in Haifa and Paris who assume an interdisciplinary approach to the inside and outside of a space, conceived as a total aesthetic entity, and which is also mindful of the heritage and work of local artisans. These projects, according to Gitai, invite “us to think beyond the traditional frames of architecture, landscape and building models. This supposes us to be open to new perceptions of know-how and technologies that rely on life models, that is to say on exchanges between materials and their elements…”
Just large enough to hold two occupants, Landroom, commissioned by the municipality of Mitzpe Ramon, is the name of his 20-square-foot shelter/observatory in the Negev. Distinguished by an austerity, almost a naturalness, which seamlessly blends the structure with its environment, the building seems to have emerged organically from desert sand and rocky terrain at its location to the west of the Mitzpe Ramon Crater. It is made from “rammed earth,” a moistened mixture of sand, stone and other elements—which were taken from the Mitzpe Ramon Crater—that is forced into a mold.
Landroom has been situated to provide shade throughout the day, while its circular interior and roof opening offers an optimal view of the sky. Aside from the built-in bench, the only embellishment is a stone bell suspended from the top of the window, whose ring functions as an accompaniment to the sound and sensation of the blowing wind.
In recognition of the still-innovative thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright and other leaders of the early 20th century Prairie School, the Jaffa Roof House, completed by Gitai and his associates in 2020, envisions the surrounding land and sea views of the ancient port city as integral components of the apartment’s interior. Strategically placed glass windows and multiple balconies “create an in & out spatial experience, where the outdoor merges with the indoor to create a unique flow based on light and nature.” Both the exterior and interior of the apartment are constructed with soil, straw and lime plaster—building materials which were “sourced from the local area” and which continue to be associated with Jaffa’s history.
The pages of the Winter 2020 issue of IMPACT contained a From the Vault column focusing on the cleaning, repair and rededication of the 19th century Moorish-style synagogue in Verdun, France by American soldiers during World War II, who were the first to revive Friday night worship services there. The building had been destroyed by the Nazis before the American troops arrived.
The story of the events in Verdun had originally been published as a first-hand account by Army officer, surgeon and B’nai B’rith member Col. Joseph Haas in a 1945 issue of B’nai B’rith’s American Jewish Monthly.
With funds raised by France’s heritage organization, Fondation du Patrimoine, the synagogue has now undergone a major restoration by the architectural firm Grégoire André. A short film on the foundation’s website details many aspects of this project and includes footage of the restoration process, as well as visuals of the building’s exterior and sanctuary.
Designated as an historic landmark, the Verdun synagogue is owned by Verdun’s Jewish community. Many dangerous leaks from the roof and elsewhere had forced the synagogue to close to the public.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
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