On the Other Side of the Torah

On the Other Side of the Torah: Wartime Portraits from Tübingen
Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, 6 September — 6 November 2012

Jason Francisco, Lead Curator

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The following was originally published in the Times of Israel, September 3, 2012

In January 2011, a pair of unique objects turned up in the ancient university town of Tübingen, Germany, when a Christian theology instructor and his wife bought a new apartment, occupied by an elderly, reclusive man. Shortly after the purchase, the man died, and his possessions fell into the hands of the new owners. Among these possessions were two original oil paintings depicting a uniformed Nazi German soldier and his wife.

On removing the paintings from the walls, the new owners discovered that these likenesses were painted on the back of sections of Torah scrolls. The texts of the scrolls were perfectly legible. One could clearly read from Sefer Shemot, parshiyot Ki Tissa and Vayakhel (Exodus 34:9-35:16), and from parshiyot Vayakhel and Pekudei (Exodus 37:13-39:6).

The paintings depict Alfred Mayer and Hedwig Mayer, the parents of the deceased tenant, Heinrich Mayer. Alfred Mayer was an electrician originally from Stuttgart, who served in the Wehrmacht from fall 1939-spring 1945, attaining the rank of sergeant first class. Formally recognized as a master mechanic, he was decorated with the War Merit Cross for his service on the Soviet front in the winter of 1942.

The origin and age of the Torah fragments bearing Mayer’s and his wife’s likenesses have not been determined, though it appears that the two sections came from the same scroll. Likewise, the precise date of the paintings is unknown. The identity of the artist also remains unknown, as does the question of how Mayer or the artist came into possession of the scrolls. What is certain is that the painter did not work from life, but from photographs Mayer provided him, which have been discovered among Mayer’s negatives and prints.

The painting of Alfred Mayer. On the right  is a view of the back of the painting -- a section of Torah scroll. Click to view full size. (photo credit: courtesy)

The painting of Alfred Mayer. On the right is a view of the back of the painting — a section of Torah scroll. Click to view full size. (photo credit: Jason Francisco)

What to do with the discovery was not at first clear. The owners considered many options, including donating them to a local museum, to a synagogue or a Jewish community in Germany, or possibly ritually burying them. I came to know of them not long after their discovery, and strongly favored some form of public display. It seemed to me that when they were part of intact Torah scrolls, these objects contributed to one sort of teaching, and having been violated in an uncommon way – defaced precisely by being enfaced – they now promised a different and no less relevant teaching.

When I brought the objects to the attention of Jakub Nowakowski, Director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków, he recognized their uniqueness and was immediately interested in an exhibition. Ultimately the owners elected to donate to the pieces to the state historical museum in Stuttgart, which agreed, in turn, to lend them to the Galicia Jewish Museum.

The Galicia Jewish Museum invited me to lead the curatorial team that would develop the exhibition. The show we have created is unusual. The team agreed that our task was not to curate the objects so much as responses (and relationships) to them, and we conceived of a guided encounter with them as the multifaceted and contradictory things that they are. Specifically, our goal was to bring visitors into an awareness of at least four aspects of the scroll-portraits: as relics, icons, texts, and symbols.

As relics, they are unusual in that they fuse together the cultural remains of victims and perpetrators, becoming objects of veneration that emphatically cannot be venerated – relics that are also anti-relics.

As icons, the idealized, albeit poorly painted images of the two Germans recall the “banality of evil,” to use Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase. At the same time, they call to mind other images of the genocide and its aftermath, visions as raw and violent as the portraits are stylized and controlled.

As texts, the Torah portions interrogate the images, and vice-versa. By a remarkable coincidence, one of the texts contains the dramatic passage in which God commits to an eternal covenant with the Jewish people through Moses, and the other contains the detailed instructions given to the master artist Bezalel for the construction of the menorah.

As symbols of conquest and survival, these scroll-paintings concentrate within themselves enormous contradictions: between the heights of Jewish religious and ethical teaching and the abysses of Nazi crimes, between promise and futility, specificity and ambiguity, remembrance and the effacement of memory, the coupling and decoupling of the visible and the invisible, the sayable and the unsayable, and other polarities.

The team at the Galicia Jewish Museum recognized many dangers in presenting these objects. It is imperative, of course, not to honor the murderers unintentionally. It is equally imperative that the museum remain a space in which visitors can expect not to be tormented, which is of course different from  being challenged. In Kraków, we solicited opinions from Rabbis Boaz Pash and Tanya Segal, representing Orthodox and progressive perspectives, respectively, and both affirmed that public exhibition of these objects is religiously legitimate in their judgment, and more – that the exhibition stands to make a salient contribution to remembrance of the Shoah in the heart of Poland.

The painting of Hedwig Mayer. On the left is a view of the back of the painting -- a section of Torah scroll. Click to view full size. (photo credit: courtesy)

The painting of Hedwig Mayer. On the left is a view of the back of the painting — a section of Torah scroll. Click to view full size. (photo credit: Jason Francisco)

The exhibition design that we developed attempts to avoid unwanted outcomes by situating the objects in a rich interpretative environment. The exhibition opens with the basic context for viewing the objects: a brief historical overview of the Shoah, an explanation of Torah, and a short account of the discovery of these objects. Moving around a partition, visitors directly encounter the recovered objects, which are visible from both sides.

On the walls surrounding the objects are translations of the Torah fragments in Polish, English and German, as well as short, open-ended questions for reflection, also in three languages. Between the objects and the walls are a series of listening stations containing audio responses from distinct perspectives, communities, nationalities and age groups: Jews, Catholics, Protestants, secular humanists, Poles, Germans, Americans, Israelis, old, young, famous scholars, and non-specialists in Jewish and Polish history.

The final section of the show presents an illustrated wall text that raises deeper philosophical and historical complications surrounding the objects, as well as touch-screens containing extended segments of the interviews from the middle room, now including the faces of the interviewees. Finally, in the effort to hand the interpretive task forward, we invite visitors to make video recordings of their own responses, which are continuously uploaded to the adjacent touch screens.

To our knowledge, this exhibition will be the first time that any such objects will be exhibited in Poland, and the Polish context is essential to the exhibition’s power. Kraków’s Kazimierz district, home of the Galicia Jewish Museum, was famous as a Jewish community from the 14th century through the Second World War, and today is the best preserved Jewish town in Europe. Less than an hour’s drive from Auschwitz, it is one of the key locations in Europe where the Shoah is encountered and taught.

As an American Jew, it is clear to me – but bears repeating – that the Shoah is more than a Jewish inheritance. It is a Polish, a German and an international one as well. I see this exhibition as creating an intersection of engagement around a highly unusual relic and symbol of the genocide, much as the Galicia Jewish Museum itself functions as a crossroads where new understandings of the Jewish past in Poland can emerge.

Jason Francisco, Lead Curator

______________________________________________________________________________________________

From the Evidence, Questions  [one of several wall texts by Jason Francisco for this exhibition]

There are few remnants of the genocide that fuse perpetrators and victims as these painted Torah scrolls do.  Their complexity exists on several levels, beginning with the tensions between what we do and do not know about the facts of their origin.  We know that the paintings depict Alfred Mayer and Hedwig Mayer, of Tübingen, Germany, and that Alfred Mayer served as an enlisted man in the Wehrmacht from autumn 1939-spring 1945, attaining the rank of sergeant first class.  We know that these Torah scrolls hung as paintings in the Mayer family home in Tübingen before the end of the war, perhaps as early as 1942.  We know that the artist worked from photographs, not from life.   We do not know who the artist was, where the paintings were made or exactly when, or at whose initiative.  Likewise we do not know where the Torah fragments come from, or who obtained them, or how.  We do not know what the act of using a Torah scroll for a painting canvas meant to the artist or to the Mayers.

Even if we had answers to these questions, however, the objects would still be volatile.  The Torah sides of the objects are visually and spiritually beautiful, but as desecrated Torah scrolls, they are objects of Jewish veneration that emphatically cannot be venerated.  The portrait sides of the objects present dignified if badly painted images of ordinary Germans––these are not high Nazis––endowed with the respectability all societies give soldiers and soldiers’ families.  This seeming respectability turns out to be intensely charged from behind with hatred and ignorance, displacing our imagination toward other images of the genocide and its aftermath––visions as raw and murderous as the portraits are stylized and controlled.  It seems a remarkable coincidence that one of the salvaged fragments contains the dramatic passage in which a physically and spiritually radiant Moses descends from God’s presence at Sinai with the covenant, while the other fragment describes the master artist Betzalel’s role in consecrating the place of God’s dwelling, including instructions for building the menorah––the oldest symbol of the Jewish people.    

The participation of people of many backgrounds, communities, nationalities and age groups is not just desirable, but necessary to any understanding of these objects as a common inheritance.  On the one hand, the faces of the destroyers haunt the Torah’s holy purposes with despair, loss and meaninglessness.  In this sense, the fragments remind us that for many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, the Shoah remains an existential black hole, an event with no recuperative messages, religious or otherwise––as expressed for example in a comment made to Primo Levi by a fellow prisoner at Auschwitz:  “Hier ist kein warum” (“Here, in this place, there is no reason why”).  On the other hand, these fragments of Torah powerfully testify to life and to survival––the failure to kill the Jewish spirit and, as it were, God.  Indeed, they speak with renewed urgency about peace, justice and compassion precisely for having been violated.  They ask us:  How can we affirm the actuality of evil in order to diminish it in a better world to come?  How can we study atrocity for ethical ends?  In the faces of these Germans, can we glimpse the human creature as made “in the image of God?”

If the Shoah is a horrible puzzle––the sort of puzzle in which answers only reveal the questions more fully––the Tübingen Torah fragments are small but potent pieces.  Evidence of both catastrophe and the unfinished work of repair, they challenge us with their bluntness and their ambiguities, revealing as much as we bring ourselves to see, and pushing us to see still more.  

Jason Francisco
Lead Curator

___________________________________________________________________________________________________

Note on video works

For the exhibition On the Other Side of the Torah:  Wartime Portraits from Tübingen, the Galicia Jewish Museum has conducted original interviews with people representing a variety of perspectives, communities, nationalities and age groups:  Jews, Catholics, Protestants, secular humanists, Poles, Germans, Americans, Israelis, old, young, scholars, and non-specialists in Jewish and Polish history.  The interviewers were Jason Francisco, lead curator of the exhibition, Tomasz Strug, Galicia Jewish Museum Curator, and Jakub Nowakowsi, Director of the Galicia Jewish Museum.

On the monitor to the left are the complete interviews, each approximately 30-40 minutes in length.  Visitors are invited to listen to the interviews in the original Polish, German or English, or to read the interviews in transcription.  To watch or read these interviews using the remote control provided, press the arrow keys and then the central enter key to make selections.  To return to the top menu, press the “Top Menu” key to the upper left of the four-way arrows.


Interviews in Polish / Transcriptions in German and English

Dr. Edyta Gawron
Assistant professor of Jewish Studies, and head of the Centre for the Study of the History and Culture of Kraków Jews, Jagiellonian University, Kraków


Dr. Jan Tomasz Gross
Historian and sociologist, and the Norman B. Tomlinson '16 and '48 Professor of War and Society in the Department of History, Princeton University


Dr. Piotr Nawrocki
Board member of the Kraków Jewish Community, and assistant professor of Computer Science, AGH University of Science and Technology, Kraków


Ms. Anna Różańska
Student, Kraków

Ms. Monika Stępień
Ph.D student, Department of Jewish Studies, Jagiellonian University, Kraków


Interviews in German / Transcriptions in Polish and English

Ms. Regine Glaß
Intern, Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków

Mr. Philipp Maußhardt
Investigative journalist and editor, co-founder and head of the Zeitenspiegel-Reportageschule in Reutlingen, Germany


Ms. Birgit Schneck
Teacher, Tübingen, Germany; responsible for the initial discovery and conservation of the painted Torah scrolls

Mr. Helmut Schneck
Theology instructor, Tübingen, Germany; responsible for the initial discovery and conservation of the painted Torah scrolls


Interviews in English / Transcriptions in Polish and German

Mr. Jared Gimbel
Intern, Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków

Ms. Gina Kuhn
Staff, Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków

Mr. Jonathan Ornstein
Director of the Jewish Community Centre, Kraków


Rabbi Boaz Pash
Chief Rabbi of Kraków


Mr. Eric Ross
Dominican brother, Kraków


Rabbi Tanya Segal
Rabbi of the Beit Kraków progressive Jewish community


Dr. Connie Webber
Managing Editor, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


Dr. Jonathan Webber
Social anthropologist, professor at the Institute of European Studies, Jagiellonian University, Kraków