Donnerstag, 29. April 2010
This week is the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau. To mark the occasion the KZ Gedenkstätte Dachau is opening of an extraordinary exhibition about an extraordinary event. Between December 1944 and February 1945, seven Jewish women brought children into the world amidst the terror of Kaufering I, one of Dachau’s eleven satellite camps. ‘They gave us hope again’ (‘Sie gaben uns wieder Hoffnung’) is a deeply moving retrospective about the women, and the remarkable fortune of their and their children’s survival. It is dedicated to all female prisoners – especially those who were pregnant -- of the Third Reich.
Dachau was one of the Nazi’s first concentration camps. It opened within weeks of Hitler’s seizure of power, serving as a model for all later camps as well as an SS ‘school of violence’. In the twelve years of its existence over 200,000 Europeans were imprisoned within its barbed wire, of whom 41,500 were murdered.
Earlier this week Dr. Sabine Schalm, co-curator of the exhibition, told me, ‘What is for me extremely moving about this story is, that in a place where hundreds of prisoners died every month, there was this wonder of seven new-born babies who survived not only the camp but are still alive today. In a way -- excuse me for being a bit pathetic -- they are a little triumph over the Nazi system.’
While pregnancies were not uncommon in the camps, women and their children were usually murdered. The exhibition traces the story of these seven survivors: their lives before deportation, their arrival and imprisonment in the terror camps, their experiences as female prisoners, the discovery of the pregnancies and birth of the children, the reaction of the SS, and finally forced evacuation, liberation and their lives following the Holocaust.
After giving birth, the mothers Eva Fleischmannovà, Sara Grün, Ibolya Kovács, Elisabeth Legmann, Dora Löwy, Magda Schwartz and Miriam Rosenthal – who now lives in Toronto -- formed a so-called Schwangerenkommando (pregnant unit). They were forced to work in the prisoners’ laundry. As late as 13 March 1945, the head SS camp physician issued an order for the mothers to be transferred from Dachau to the Bergen-Belsen death camp. Thankfully the order was not carried out.
Sabine Schalm’s co-curator is Eva Gruberová whose new film ‘Geboren im KZ’ (Born in a Concentration Camp) is produced with Martina Gawaz and broadcast this week.
‘Last summer Eva and I decided that we would like to work together to curate an exhibition to bring this story to the public,’ said Sabine Schalm, who trained as an historian in Regensburg, Berlin and Edinburgh. ‘Dr. Gabriele Hammermann, director of the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site, liked our idea and agreed to support the exhibition.’
The Memorial Site was established in 1965 on the initiative of surviving prisoners who had formed the Comité International de Dachau. The Bavarian state government provided financial support. Every year 700,000 visitors come from around the world to the site.
Schalm went on, ‘This terrible history is part of my professional life and it is very often hard to bear. But it is exactly these kind of stories and meetings with survivors that are so very fulfilling and encouraging. The opportunity for me to meet these six “children” at the exhibition is a miracle -- and it is for me personally a very strong motivation for my work.’
The Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site lies a short S-Bahn ride outside Munich. The exhibition ‘They gave us hope again’ will run throughout the summer and autumn. Everyone who is able to visit the site, and see the exhibition, should do so, if only to understand how the abdication of personal responsibility led to so many of the twentieth century’s greatest crimes.
Donnerstag, 22. April 2010
So you might think I’m at a loss for whisky in Germany, relying on duty-free imports of Highland Park and ten-year-old Talisker. Not a bit of it. Germany is home to 23 whisky distilleries. Among the best are Hammerschmiede or Blacksmith, a Harz mountain manufacturer which matures its malts in a 13th century warehouse, and stylish and delicious Slyrs, the only Bavarian single malt produced in significant quantities (40,000 bottles in 2009).
To my mind the most entertaining German whisky is Blaue Maus – Blue Mouse, produced by Robert Fleischmann, one of the oldest of the country’s makers (founded way back in 1983). The distillery is based at a nautically-themed inn in Eggleshein-Neuses and – as well as Blaue Maus – produces six other brands including Schwarzer Pirat – Black Pirate – and Grüner Hund – Green Dog. In the early days Blaue Maus was too bourbon-like for my taste but, over the last decade, it has matured into a satisfying woody drink (although peat is never used in its production).
A writer’s income – as well as the need for occasional sobriety – limits the consumption of single malt (a 70 cl. bottle of Blaue Maus will set you back €34.50). So during impecunious yet thirsty times, I’ve turned to blended whisky stocked by my local Lidl. After a few disastrous trials (one of which my wife Mrs. Cat considered better suited to flushing out blocked drains than mixing with soda), I fell under the charm of Mic Mac, a whisky ‘carefully distilled and matured under continuous supervision’ according to its importers Pabst and Richarz of Elsfleth. To be honest Mic Mac was nothing special but the name entranced me with its witty pseudo-Scottish word play and unconscious reference to the indigenous native Canadian people (now properly spelt Mi’kmaq).
But despite my regular custom, sales of Mic Mac must have been disappointing for -- about six months ago -- the marketing gurus at Pabst and Richarz decided that the time had come to rebrand their whisky. In my imagination, focus groups across Lower Saxony burnt the midnight oil to come up with a new name for their product. ‘What we need is a name that conveys a sense of dignity and masculinity,’ demanded the wise men and women (in my mind). ‘Something that evokes respect for great tradition.’ And what name did the gurus of the Weser River hit upon? Old Man.
To a modern English ear, Old Man brings to mind a doddery geriatric prematurely aged by too much rough booze. It’s the alcoholic-equivalent of naming a new brand of cigarette Early Death or Smoker’s Hack. The name made me laugh out loud. I was so amused that I bought half-a-dozen bottles.
But then I realized that the Old Man hadn’t been renamed for an English-speaking market. It was aimed at Germans, of course, for whom the name does have a ring of aristocratic masculinity. You don’t believe me? Try putting the glass in the other hand (or shoe on the other foot). Imagine that a German brewer – say Augustiner of Munich – wants to conquer the English market with a extra strong, mature beer. ‘What we need is a name that conjures up the traditional spirit of Bavaria,’ London’s ad men might say. ‘Something that’s at once foreign and familiar, proud and manly.’ The sages of our consumer society would ponder this great question over their flat whites, gaze across the gleaming towers of the City, until the moment when one particularly inspired Creative would shout, ‘Eureka! I’ve got it. Let’s call it Altermann.’
Bottoms up! Sláinte! Prost!
Donnerstag, 15. April 2010
An Offenburg street artist named Stefan Strumbel has also taken on kitsch, but in a more imaginative (and less pyrotechnical) manner than me. He has devoted himself to reinventing the cuckoo clock.
Since time immemorial (or about 1850) cuckoo clocks have been fashioned in the shape of Bavarian, Black Forest or Swiss chalets. As we all know, these traditional timepieces can be decorated with quaint messages, carved leaves and deer horns. On the hour out pops a cutesy cuckoo plus – depending on the design -- animated woodcutters, guzzling beer drinkers and turning water wheels. The clock may chirp a simple ‘cuckoo’, count off the hours or release a medley of popular ditties such as Edelweiss or The Happy Wanderer. For me, the most pleasing attribute of these clocks is their wooden construction, which insures they’ll burn quickly on the pyre of sentimentality.
‘When I did graffiti, it was all about marking my territory,’ street artist Strumbel recently said in an interview with the New York Times. ‘But then I started thinking that graffiti itself was more of a New York thing and that I should do something that was authentic to where I come from, the Black Forest.’
In 2005 Strumbel settled on the quintessentially German icon of the cuckoo clock. He bought them second-hand and transformed them with florescent spray paint. When they sold out he employed Anton Schneider & Sons, a sixth-generation maker, to supply him with undecorated timepieces. Strumbel then adorned the clocks with grenades and machineguns rather than rabbits and antlers. By the end of the decade his largest creations were selling for as much as €25,000.
According to Mon Muellerschön, an Munich art curator who also spoke to the Times, the popularity of Strumbel’s clocks can be attributed to the way they capture the spirit of the new Germany. ‘A Germany that is aware of its past, but ready to take new, lighthearted and colorful paths,’ he said. ‘A Germany that can accept its clichés with the wink of an eye.’
‘For so long after Hitler, Germans haven’t been able or allowed to reclaim their Heimat,’ said Strumbel. Heimat is a German word – and concept -- which roughly translates as homeland. ‘When I speak to people about Heimat, people from across Germany mention the cuckoo clock, it represents the German Heimat feeling.’ He went on, ‘I wanted to ask the question, “What is Heimat?” and make it something fresh, ironic and dynamic.’
Last year Stern magazine photographed the designer Karl Lagerfeld in front of one of Strumbel’s clocks. On first seeing it, adorned with guns and antlers, the pony-tailed doyen of fashion – whose own work can fringe on the kitschy -- exclaimed, ‘A new expression of German culture, how stimulating.’
For Strumbel this was the ‘ultimate accolade’. Today with exhibits in Berlin, Munich, New York and Miami, he can hardly keep up with orders. But is Strumbel really eliminating kitsch, or simply embellishing it? Whatever the answer, enthusiasm for his idiosyncratic take on Teutonic culture isn’t only coming from the worlds of art and fashion.
‘The German Cuckoo Clock Association also supports my work," he declared with pride.
Kitschy-kitsch. Cuckoo-cuckoo. Now where are my matches?
Donnerstag, 8. April 2010
We don’t live on bustling Ku’damm or next door to Alexanderplatz. This is a quiet residential neighbourhood. Yet within it is contained everything necessary for daily living – which makes it a kiez.
A kiez is defined as a small community within a larger town. The word originated in the Middle Ages when German settlers moved into Slavonic territories. In the places where old and new communities existed side by side, kiez referred to the older Slavonic settlement (chyza means hut or house). Six hundred years on, the word has been resurrected – in Berlin especially.
A kiez isn’t as big as a neighbourhood. London’s Notting Hill isn’t a kiez (although Portobello might be). Toronto’s Forest Hill isn’t one either (but Kensington Market comes close). A kiez is never defined by the municipality or government, but rather by its inhabitants, so often doesn’t coincide with administrative divisions. The essential ingredient is that the kiez is self-contained. As they say in Berlin, ‘Der kommt aus seinem Kiez nicht raus’. You never need to leave the area because everything is here.
That’s true for our little neighbourhood, and dozens of others like it across town. Beyond the city limits, Hamburg’s Kiez refers specifically to the area around the Reeperbahn, meaning the city’s red-light district. Vienna has the Wiener Grätzl and Cologne the Kölner Veedel. Elsewhere in Germany the usual term for neighborhood is Viertel as the French quartier or quarter.
So the kiez is primarily a Berlin phenomena, and the local media has been making bacon with it. Last year the Berliner Zeitung focused on a different neighbourhood each week. Earlier this year the Berlin film festival – the Berlinale -- ‘went kiez’, when it screened many festival films in local picture-houses, as a kind of cinematic ‘outreach’ programme.
A kiez can be quiet or bustling, trendy or suburban, grungy or leafy. But what unites every one of them, especially now on the warm spring evenings, is fierce pride. Young families step outdoors and descend on the local playground. Lovers sip wine at the local café. Elderly couples sit in the square enjoying the spectacle, chatting to neighbours. It’s a scene that seems to be Mediterranean – yet is wholly Berlin. My kinda kiez.
Donnerstag, 1. April 2010
The birth of ideas fascinates me. Nothing galvanizes life like the Eureka! moment: the invention of the wheel, the theory of relativity, the revelation that you’re in love with the girl next door. One minute you’re lying in the bath or cutting the grass. Then BOOM! ZAP!! POW!!! You’re on your feet, splashing water over the bathroom floor, or pushing the mower into the roses, looking for a pad and paper, wondering why on earth you hadn’t thought of such an inspired notion before.
Look around you. Everything man-made started out as an idea. Your pen, the mouse in your hand, the shape of your coffee cup, the sleeve of your shirt, the switch in your desk lamp all made their debut in someone’s mind. Practical and aesthetic elements were then arranged in a useful and pleasing manner. The raw creation was edited, or adjusted for efficiency and economy, and finally developed into – say -- an aircraft engine, a child’s storybook or the first mango lassi.
Or the Gummi Bear. Germany’s most inspirational sweet was dreamt up one spring morning in the city of Bonn. Early in 1922 a newly-married confectioner named Hans Riegel awoke suddenly and leapt out of bed, crying to his sleeping wife, ‘Eureka! I’ve got it, Gertrud! We’ll make dancing fruit gum bears!”
History does not relate whether Gertrud jumped up to join her euphoric husband, hitching up her nightdress to dance barefoot on the cold floorboards, or whether she simply told him to put a lid on it and come back to bed. But in that momentous moment on Bergstraße, Hans Riegel conceived a great German cultural icon.
Haribo – its name is an acronym of HAns RIegel of BOnn – started a small concern. Until 1923 Hans and Gertrud delivered each day’s batch of sweets by bicycle. Its first commercial success came with licorice products: licorice sticks, a Licorice Wheel and later licorice ‘Black Bears’. Commercial expansion was hindered by the war, the Reich prioritizing the production of goods other than gelatin-based candies. In 1946 the Riegels’ sons Hans Junior and Paul returned from P.O.W. camps to rebuild the company -- Hans Junior running the commercial side, including marketing and sales, while Paul managing the production division. Come the 1950s Haribo was flourishing again, most dramatically when packaging was changed from tins or cardboard boxes to handy cellophane bags. The Dancing Bear was then superseded by the Goldbear, and Haribo grew to become the biggest manufacturer of gummy and jelly sweets in the world.
Today millions of the soft, chewy and translucent candies are sold every day. In playgrounds across Europe kids squeeze them, line them up, make them dance, even eat them. Berlin tourist shops do a roaring trade in green and red Gummi Ampelmänner. Many whimsical German adults regularly close their eyes and pick four bears from the packet, then (according to the colours selected) predict the future by consulting the runes of the Gummibärchen-Orakel. In Turkey and the UK Haribo also sells a Halal version of its products, approved by senior clerics and containing no gelatine or alcohol-based colours.
Gummi Bears are one of the only, if not the only, sweet to be turned into a television show. In 1985 Disney made an animated series called Adventures of the Gummi Bears. YaYa Chou, a Los Angeles artist, has created a number of Gummi Bear sculptures including a 20 kilo chandelier. Ravenous Gummi addicts can even try to satiate themselves on a three kilo, 12,600 calorie, gelatinous version of the beast (the equivalent of 1,400 regular-sized Bears in terms of volume).
Moments of pure inspiration are rare, of course, but with them comes the chance to better our lives. To me it’s a wonder that a people who dreamed up the Porsche 911 and sleek, white ICE trains, who created the Bauhaus and speak at least three languages at birth, also invented the world’s most popular bear-shaped sweet. But then as they still say on Bonn’s Bergstraße: ‘Eureka, Hans, you’re a genius. Now please come back to bed...’