Day 3: Judische Museum

Day 3: Judische Museum

Judging from several private responses to my last post, it seems that the prospect or reality of getting locked inside a cemetery (as I did yesterday) is not uncommon. This evening, I attended an author reading and interview at the Jüdische Museum with Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron, promoting his latest book, Eighteen Lashes, which has just come out in German translation. 

Evidently, a key moment in the book comes when the taxi-driver protagonist—also an amateur detective working on a historical mystery from the British Mandate period—gets locked inside the Trumpeldor Cemetery in Tel Aviv and has to scale a wall to get out. Gavron admitted that he used artistic license in the scene, since Trumpeldor’s gates actually stay open all night. I’ll keep that in mind for when I go to Tel Aviv and visit the several Spektor family members buried at Trumpeldor. By the way, I have always loved that name, but now it sticks in my craw. 

The reading came at the end of my visit to Jüdische Museum Berlin, which was just as stunning for its architecture as promised. Unfortunately, the museum’s permanent exhibit on the history of German Jewry was closed for renovations. I had hoped that I would gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances and attitudes of Prussian Jews like our Wohlgemuth family that is the focus of my trip. Instead, I toured and thoroughly the temporary exhibition, Welcome to Jerusalem, which is housed in the museum’s old building. Highly recommended.

The lower level of the new building, containing the three intersecting axes of Exile, Holocaust and Continuity, was open and from that I was better able to grasp the intent of the architecture. The three-dimensional angles produced by the axes leave numerous void spaces, representing the absence in culture and history left by the destruction of Jewish life in Europe. The voids are used to present stunning artistic interpretations of that concept, including one in the photo selection above.

Each axis also presents exhibit installations with objects illustrating the concepts, and some of these touched on subjects of interest to our Wohlgemuth-Ringel story. In the exile section, there is a case about Nazi regulations limiting the items that could be legally taken out of Germany by so-called emigrants. It was very specific: You could take items only if they were owned prior to 1933. Each person could take eight pieces of silverware. Most precious metals and jewels were not allowed to be taken, with a couple of exceptions. You could take your wedding ring, and that of a deceased spouse. Also pocket watches were specifically exempted. 

When Elly left in 1938, it was not via an approved emigration but in an illicit human smuggling operation. So she was not necessarily subject to the regulations, but it is interesting that one of the few jewelry pieces in her estate that can be traced back to Germany was a gold pocket watch. Perhaps Joanne can tell us if Elly’s wedding ring, and even possibly Hermann’s, were also in the collection. 

The other exhibit of interest concerned the widow of the artist Max Liebermann. Her last letter written to a friend in London in March 1943 was a desperate plea for help. But before the friend was able to contact her, Martha Liebermann was found dead of an overdose of Veronal, one of an estimated three to four thousand German Jews who took their lives during the period of the deportations. I think Betty Wohlgemuth was another of this number, and apparently Veronal was the preferred method where you simply went to sleep and didn’t wake up. 

I’m still hoping the Zentrum Judaicum that I mentioned before will help me solve that, but there is also a possibility of finding information at the Leo Baeck Institute Berlin branch, which is also housed in old building of the Jüdische Museum. It wasn’t open on a Saturday, so I will return for a visit there during office hours next week.

I browsed in the museum bookstore on the way out and purchased a couple of items, a catalog of an earlier exhibition called “Die ganze Wahrheit” (The Whole Truth) and a drink coaster with a hilarious image of Albert Einstein as a modern Berlin hipster. Then I headed out in the evening for a planned walking tour of Kreuzberg and Neukölln. 

The weather had changed. As I walked alonged Oranienburger Straße into the bohemian and international district of Kreuzberg, the sky grew dark and there was a blustery wind. There was rolling thunder and then the rain started. I stuck it out for a few blocks but finally took cover in a beer garden at Kottbusser Tor. I took at seat at an empty table but was shortly joined by local man who turned out to be a very friendly expatriate from Chile. We both enjoyed our suds and I also ordered a plate of fish and chips. I know, not very German but it was what I wanted. 

Roberto told me about his life as an aspiring filmmaker in Berlin and then he was joined by four of his friends, young men and women, who were all Spanish speaking, one other from Chile and the rest from Spain. Roberto had praised my German but chided me as a California for not speaking Spanish. Still I was able to enjoy their comraderie until well after the rain had subsided and I took my leave, after exchanging Facebook contacts with Roberto. 

So that was pretty much my Saturday, except to mention several email exchanges that are relevant. First, I heard back from Uwe Westphal, the expert on the history of the  Berlin Jewish fashion industry. He is on vacation on the Baltic, but was interested in my quest for information on Hermann’s businesses. He was not familiar with the name of Ringel, explaining that his focus is primarily on the haute couture fashion houses centered at Hausvogteiplatz, and not the wider industry of garment ready-wear manufacturing. However, he is interested in our story and offered that there was still time to include information about it in the forthcoming next edition of his book. The new book will also come out in English translation, for which Westphal is currently raising funds. Anybody know someone, possibly in the fashion industry, who might want to help pay for the translation? 

I heard back from Donna Swarthout, the author of the book about Jews returning to Germany that Joanne and I ended up not contributing to. She is out of town, too, but we may be able to meet on Friday, my last day in town. Her book is finished and due for publication in December. There will be a launch event at the Leo Baeck Institute in New York. Also, I heard from well-known Jewish genealogist Logan Kleinwaks. Among his areas of expertise is the history of Jews in Danzig, and he heads the JewishGen Danzig special interest group, He had a number of tips for me and we made plans to meet in Warsaw. So there will be more about Logan on this blog next week. 

That’s all for now. After the rain, the weather should be nicer tomorrow.