In early 2004 the Israel Museum presented the exhibition “Succot from around the World.” A painted wooden succa that had been part of the permanent exhibition for many years was taken apart and rebuilt in the exhibition hall.
When the exhibition closed, it was decided that the succa’s being dismantled and the museum’s being closed for renovations provided a fortuitous opportunity to have the 19th-century succa sent out for restoration.
At that point we – the curators and restorers – thought it would be a simple process of cleaning the oil-painted scenes on the panels of the succa walls and repairing the damage caused to the wood over the years.
To my surprise, I was urgently called in by Giora Elon, the oil-paintings restorer at the museum, to look at some unexpected findings. Elon said that when he had begun to clean the paintings, he noticed that they were “young” paintings, roughly 40 years old, and not from the 19th century, when the succa is known to have been painted.This seemed very unlikely, knowing as we did that the museum has displayed the succa since its opening in 1965, and that no one on staff would paint over original 19th-century art.
The succa had belonged to the Deller family from the village of Fischach in southern Germany. The paintings on the walls of the succa are partially based on familiar visual sources, which is how the succa could bedated to the mid-19th century. During World War II the succa was smuggled to Israel and sent to the old Bezalel Museum in Jerusalem (the museum that preceded the Israel Museum). Most of the Deller family fled to South America and thus were saved.
Despite the incredulity surrounding the supposition that the paintings in the succa, known to us for years, were not in fact the original paintings, I decided to look through all the archive footage spanning the succa’s time in Germany, with the family, through to its first exhibition at the Israel Museum. To my surprise, I detected changes in the details of the paintings.
By dating the various photos, it can easily be seen that the paintings had been altered in the short period between the closing of the old Bezalel Museum in downtown Jerusalem and the opening of the Israel Museum in May 1965.
What happened while the succa was en route from the old museum to the new? In 1964, the succa was sent by the old Bezalel Museum to be part of a large exhibition in Germany, which showcased Jewish traditions. It was returned directly to the new Israel Museum. The new layer of paint was added during that time period. The succa left the old museum with its original coat of paint and was erected in the Israel Museum with a new one.
It is possible that the newer paintings were done in Germany by those in charge of the exhibition there or possibly in Israel as part of the preparations for the opening of the museum. All our searches in the old basement archives of the museum could not help clarify this point. There is not so much as a single item of correspondence that mentions the repainting of the succa walls.
As soon as we realized what had been done to the succa, we decided that it was imperative to restore the succa to its original state and expose the original paintings from mid-19th century Germany. We spent some time searching for a laboratory that specialized in oil on wood and eventually found one in western France, which had actually restored a succa in the past, one in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Paris. The question of funding for the project remained unanswered.
Then, just before Passover two years ago, Israel Museum director James Snyder received a message that read, “Mr. Deller, the donor of the succa from Fischach, is coming to Israel and wants to see his family’s succa.”
This message was most surprising, since over the years we have met the grandchildren of the family who were living in Israel but not Alberto Deller, who had sent the message. I later learned from Mr. Deller that he is a grandson of the couple who had sent the succa to Israel during the Holocaust and that he himself had lived in Fischach with his parents and grandparents and had escaped with them to Ecuador just prior to World War II.
The meeting with Deller, who had come to see the succa with his children and grandchildren, put me in a difficult position, particularly after hearing his story. I was very sorry to tell the family that they could not see the succa, as it had been dismantled and was stowed away in storage crates.
Since there was no succa to be viewed, we sat in a classroom in the Youth Wing of the museum, and I told the family the odd discovery of the newer coat of paint and of our decision to show the public the original paintings.
Several months later, we learned that Mr. Deller, who had been a child refugee during the Holocaust, had become an established businessman in Ecuador and decided to provide the funds necessary for the restoration of the succa his grandparents had donated during the war.
The succa was sent to France last summer for a sixmonth restoration process. During that time we followed the process closely, with e-mails, digital photos and a visit to the restoration lab. The succa raised much interest among the restorers, and they even took the time to learn about Succot and the history of the succa before it came to Israel. The process was also covered by the local French media, and during my visit there I was interviewed by a journalist and was asked if there remained any place in the world where Jews still built succot... The article aroused local interest and was published in two popular newspapers in western France.
Many more interesting details emerged as the restoration progressed. We discovered a layer of paint that predates even the 19th-century layer and indications of where decorations had been hung in the succa. The most exciting discovery was a graffito inscription alongside one of the painted houses that read “Jacob Maier 1878.” In one of Deller’s visits to Israel, I told him about the inscription, and we were both excited to realize that it referred to his maternal grandfather. The Maiers also lived in Fischach, and they had probably sat in the succa with the family every Succot.
The succa, now boasting its original facade, was recently re-erected in one of the Israel Museum’s exhibition rooms.The writer is the curator of the Jewish Art and Life Wing of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.