Once upon a time in Germany

An exhibition of German-Jewish children’s art on the eve of World War II is gifted by Düsseldorf to its sister city, Haifa.

‘HOUSE WITH Swastika Flag,’ Bubi (last name unknown), undated, wax, pencil and graphite pencil on paper. (photo credit: DÜSSELDORF CITY MUSEUM/ESTATE OF JULO LEVIN)
‘HOUSE WITH Swastika Flag,’ Bubi (last name unknown), undated, wax, pencil and graphite pencil on paper.
No one knows for sure how the cartwheel, a nearly universal symbol of carefree childhood, became so deeply associated with Düsseldorf, Germany, a populous capital city straddling the banks of the Rhine River.
While visitors today flock to Düsseldorf to enjoy its cultivated arts scene, impressive architecture and top-fermented Altbier beer, it is the cartwheel that has been linked to the city the longest – since at least the Middle Ages. In recognition of this heritage, Düsseldorf is peppered with images of cartwheelers – on storm drains, door knockers, public fountains and modern sculptures – and even hosts an annual cartwheeling competition, the first of which occurred in 1937, at the dawn of the Second World War.
That same year, Margot Alexander, a Jewish schoolgirl living in Düsseldorf, created a watercolor painting depicting a boy cartwheeling through the streets of her city.
She did so under the tutelage of Modernist painter Julo Levin, a politically active Jew who taught art in Düsseldorf’s Jewish school after the Nazis forbade him to create and exhibit his own work. Margot’s painting is one of 50 works on display in the exhibition “Once Upon a Time: Art of Jewish Children in Germany on the Eve of World War II” at the Haifa Museum of Art, on view through May 5.
The works on display – on loan from the Stadtmuseum in Düsseldorf, Haifa’s sister city, in honor of Israel’s 70th Independence Day – provide a poignant glimpse into the lives and mindsets of Jewish children in Düsseldorf living under the Nazi regime. They include depictions of everyday city life, biblical stories, Jewish holidays and distant cultures – a topic the children must have considered as their families discussed emigration. The exhibition also features some 30 photographs of Düsseldorf in the 1930s, several reproductions of Levin’s paintings, and activities designed to help children process the content on display.
Little was known about Düsseldorf’s Jewish community until the 1980s, when Levin’s 1,800-item estate, including signed and dated artworks created by his students, was donated to the Stadtmuseum on condition that it be preserved and exhibited.
Because the community’s records were destroyed during Kristallnacht, the infamous pogrom against Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938, Levin’s astounding collection provided much-needed information about Düsseldorf’s Jewish residents and served as a starting point for ongoing research.
The fact that these works survived when many of their creators did not – Levin himself was killed in Auschwitz in 1943 – is thanks to the foresight of Mieke Monjau, a Catholic woman and close friend of Levin, who recognized the art’s significance and hid it until the war’s end. Mieke was married to avant-garde artist Franz Monjau, Levin’s contemporary, who studied art education and helped Levin develop his Düsseldorf curriculum. Half Jewish, Franz was killed in Buchenwald in 1945.
“It was very moving to work on this exhibition because the drawings and paintings keep the memory of people who were otherwise lost alive,” says Adi Shelach, exhibition co-curator and director of education at the Haifa Museums.
“All this information is possible only because of the artworks. They initiated the research.”
While many works on display showcase commonplace city scenes like laundry drying on the line and boats docking on the Rhine, others document a rapidly changing German reality rarely seen from a child’s perspective. In a drawing by five-year-old Bubi (last name unknown), for example, a large swastika flag hangs outside of a redroofed house. Another work, created by an unknown child who titled it Farewell, shows a man and children carrying luggage toward a ship as others embrace in the background.
The Jewish school in Düsseldorf, where these works were created, opened near the community’s synagogue in 1936, after Hitler limited the number of Jewish pupils in public schools and introduced race studies into the curriculum. As a result of these changes, Jewish students suffered from social ostracism, harassment and violence, and began to consider the Jewish school a place of escape. Teachers there were both sensitive and pragmatic – nurturing positive connections to Judaism, teaching languages spoken in countries of refuge and training students in practical skills like cooking and carpentry.
“They had to change the goals of education,” says Shelach. “They thought about the school as a way to survive.”
It was in this atmosphere that Levin no doubt found meaning in his work as an art teacher, and the assignments he gave students reveal his compassionate nature.
Many works, for example, depict tradespeople like tailors, fisherman, barbers and builders – occupations Jews were still permitted to practice when academic work was forbidden. Others portray members of minority groups, such as gypsies, who were persecuted alongside Jews.
“It was a way [for students] to feel that they still belonged to the city and to give them a sense of routine,” says Shelach, who is currently writing Levin’s biography for Yad Vashem’s database, in collaboration with his relatives.
Although each work in the exhibition is significant, there is one drawing, rife with symbolism, that Shelach finds especially moving – a monochrome work by Margot Cohn, titled Leaving Egypt. In the drawing, a bearded man wearing a robe and carrying a staff – Moses perhaps – stands in front of a group of people surrounded by a black haze. In contrast to the man’s biblical appearance, the women wear seemingly modern dresses that reveal their elbows and knees, hair fashioned in stylish bluntly- cut bangs. Yet most pointedly, one man’s shirt is marked with a Star of David, similar to those Jews were forced to wear during the Nazis’ reign.
“It’s very interesting to see that [the artist] reflected the story of Exodus, and put herself in it,” says Shelach. “It changed the whole meaning of the story. It captured the idea of this exhibition.”
For more information: www.hma.org.il/eng/ Exhibitions/5355/Once_upon_a_time