Spectator – Lessing’s Shots of Liberty


Erich Lessing received his first camera when he exited the synagogue from his bar mitzvah in Vienna in 1936.

“There was no idea of taking up photography as a profession,” said Lessing, 82, from his house in Austria. “In a good Jewish family in Vienna you would only be a lawyer or a doctor.”

But the camera stayed with Lessing when he left Austria for Israel in 1939 to escape the Nazis. There he took photographs for the British army. When he returned to Austria in 1947, he started working as a photojournalist. His interest was the newly communist Eastern Europe, and the photographs he took in Austria and in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 have become Cold War icons.

For one week, starting Sept. 25, a selection of Lessing’s photographs of Austria will go on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club in conjunction with Austrian American Day. The exhibition, titled “From Liberation to Liberty” includes images famously emblematic of the period, such as “Four in a Jeep” — a photograph of four military policeman, one each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union, a symbol of the post-war occupation in Austria.

Lessing did not stay with this reportage: “After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, all the photographers who had been there saw that it was not our documents that were changing political decisions. I do not want to downgrade the influence of photography — the photography at the end of the Vietnam War was very influential. But it took another 50 years for the end of communism in Europe.”

In 1960, Lessing started taking photographic “evocations” of the lives of great poets, musicians and scientists, often taking still photographs of their work in museums. The result was more than 30,000 photographs of art, history and archeology that have filled 40 books. But his seminal work remains the photographs of the 1940s and ’50s.

“I found it a very strange title, being dubbed the photographer of the Cold War,” he said. “But I think it is true.”

“From Liberation to Liberty,” will be on display at the Beverly Hills Country Club, 3084 Motor Ave., as part of the Austrian-American Day Celebration. For more information, call (310) 444-9310.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caricatured Tribute to Artists on ‘List’


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“Hitler’s List: An Illustrated Guide to ‘Degenerates'” by John Minnion. (Checkmate, 2004).

In the summer of 1937, the Nazi Party opened an exhibition in Munich titled “Great German Art.”

Much of the show’s art was culled from Hitler’s personal collection — he had amassed a number of works with the proceeds from his autobiography, “Mein Kampf.” The show consisted of pure lines and pure themes, with scenes of immaculate peasants tilling the fields, families sitting down to hearty dinners and soldiers fighting for an Aryan Germany.

More than 420,000 visitors gathered to see this show in the city that was the birthplace of the Nazi Party.

Later that week, the Nazis opened another exhibition across the street. This time the theme was “Degenerate Art.”

Works confiscated from German galleries were badly hung on the walls, labeled with crude hand-scrawled captions. It was a showcase, a freak show of the works of “degenerate” artists, Bolsheviks, homosexuals and Jews, whose work and lives the Nazis hoped to extinguish in the coming years.

More than 2 million people saw that show. It was a blockbuster success.

John Minnion, a British caricaturist, speculates that the large crowds may have come to jeer and mock the works by Jews and other undesirables in the exhibition. But he points out that Hitler did not prevail. So, he says, “we can look back and say that this was the art of the 20th century.”

Minnion has collected 86 stories of this generation of visual artists, as well as writers, scientists, philosophers and musicians, and caricatured them in a new book, “Hitler’s List: An Illustrated Guide to ‘Degenerates,'” which is on sale at the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow.

According to Minnion, whose pictures have appeared in the New Statesman, BBC On Air, The Guardian and the Financial Times, the book was the brainchild of Chris Schwarz, an old friend, who runs the Galicia Museum.

Schwarz suggested that for his next project Minnion do a study of notable European figures of the 1930s whose contributions to intellectual and cultural development, abhorrent to the Nazis, landed them on “Hitler’s list.” Minnion, taking up the challenge, researched the period, selected the people he wished to include and brought them to life in drawings based on photos, self-portraits and other images. “The Holocaust is such a serious topic, and caricatures are so frivolous, but Chris convinced me to see that the story of the tragedy would be there all the time,” Minnion said. “We’re talking about a collection of individual stories. These people or their work survived, despite Hitler’s intentions.”

Each capsule biography, limited to one or two pages, delivers the story of a life lived with ambition and artistry.

From such musicians as Alma Rose, a niece of the composer Gustav Mahler who directed and played violin in the orchestra at Auschwitz and died in the camp, to such painters as Marc Chagall, whose personal art focused on images of rabbis, lovers and animals, to Edith Stein, the Jewish woman who became a Catholic nun and died in Auschwitz and later was canonized — a generation of thinkers and doers emerges.

They each challenged the status quo and so attracted the wrath of the Nazis.

“Hitler was a failed artist, but he had a definite aesthetic,” Minnion said, speaking from the Galicia Museum. An exhibition of his drawings opened there Feb. 17. “He felt that art should have no ambiguity, but great art always has ambiguity.”

Minnion has self-published “Uneasy Listening: A Caricature Guide to 20th Century Composers” (2003) and he illustrated “Glued to the Googlebox: 50 Years of British Television” (2003) with text by Lynn Truss. But he says neither book had the wide and immediate appeal of “Hitler’s List,” which Schwarz describes as a book of introductions to the people who shaped the last century.

“The megalomania and fundamentalist stupidity of the Nazi era not only set back German and European culture, but sowed the seeds of the Third Reich’s own destruction,” Schwarz said.

The book seeks to put a human — albeit cartoon — face on some of these cultural innovators. Minnion also wants to highlight that the people Hitler most hated, the ones he thought of as “cultural bolshevists,” he also thought of as being Jews.

In today’s climate in parts of Europe, with anti-Semitism re-emerging, it is becoming increasingly important to remember the great personalities of the last century.

If nothing else, Minnion’s book introduces them to a new generation, who will remember them, their artwork, their stories, their discoveries and their lives.

“If I perish don’t let my paintings die,” Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish painter who kept working even as he hid from the Nazis, once said. “Show them to people.”

Nussbaum died in Auschwitz in 1944.

For information about publishing or buying “Hitler’s List,” e-mail Chris Schwarz at chris@galiciajewishmuseum.org.

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Test of Fear


Millions of civilians faced the ultimate test of character when Nazi armies occupied their countries and started deporting their Jewish neighbors.

Most reacted like normal human beings; that is, they looked the other way, when they did not actively collaborate with the conqueror. A few risked their own and their families’ lives by sheltering Jews. And some gave in to terrible fears and pressures at one point and acted with supreme moral courage at another.

It is the third group that director Jan Hrebejk examines with perception and sympathy in the Czech film “Divided We Fall,” which opens today. Based on a true story, “Divided” was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film.

The film takes place in a small Czech town during the war years of 1943-45, with central characters Josef Cizek and his wife, Marie (Boleslav Polivka and Anna Siskova). They are trying to get along as best they can while facing war, occupation and the private sorrow of Josef’s sterility, which prevents them from having children.

One night, Josef has a chance meeting with David Wiener (Csonger Kassai), the young Jewish son of his former employer, who has bribed an SS guard to escape from a concentration camp. Josef’s first instinct is to get away from David, but he then shelters him for one night, and finally creates a permanent hiding place in his home.

David’s presence tests the true mettle of the rescuer, which lies not so much in the initial decision to hide a Jew but in the hour-by-hour, day-by-day fear of detection by snoopy neighbors, Gestapo agents, unexpected guests and even stray dogs.

Except for the consistently resolute Marie, all the other characters are conflicted. There is Horst, the Nazis’ chief Czech lackey with a Hitlerian mustache, who saves Josef’s and Marie’s lives when the chips are down. Another resident, in a moment of sheer terror, tries to turn David in but later becomes a resistance leader.

“Divided We Fall” is not primarily a war film or a Holocaust film but a masterful study in the complexity of the human mind and spirit.

“Divided We Fall ” opens June 8 at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills and the Laemmle Town Center in Encino.