Sunday, April 4, 2010

Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf at the Contemporary Jewish Museum

French Artist Linda Ellia Turns the Page on History by Inviting 600 People to Transform One of the Most Inflammatory Books of the 20th Century

In 1924, after his failed attempt at a coup, Hitler was imprisoned in the old fortress at Landsberg. He was treated as an honored guest, given a room with a view, showered with gifts and visits from the party faithful and admirers. It was there that be began dictating the book, later known as “Mein Kamph” or, “Our Struggle.” Turgid and ponderous, it was not a best seller until Hitler came to power when it became politic, even obligatory for every family to have a copy prominently displayed. According to William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), few, including foreign diplomats, read it at the time.

 It’s possible that the world might have been spared the horrors to come if they had done so, understood the message and acted against it. For in Mein Kamph, Hitler laid down his blueprint for the new world order – German supremacy under his absolute dictatorship, Lebensraum (Living space) and “racial purity, “ that is, a call for the destruction of everybody who wasn’t of “pure” Aryan blood.

 Images from the project Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Antonia Aimini; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
We now know what that lead to.

 Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Maxime Rebière; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Eighty-one years later, in 2005, French painter and photographer Linda Ellia held in her hands a French translation of this book.  Born in Tunisia to a Sephardic Jewish family, Linda Ellia moved to Paris with her family at age eight to escape the increasingly violent antisemitism of 1960s Tunisia. (Over a millions Jews have had to flee Arab countries since 1948; some went to Israel, the other ones embarked on a new Diaspora). She knew the dangers of anti-Semitism first hand. The book was heavy with in her hands, an Ebola virus of hatred and heavy with the memory of the murdered millions.

Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist; Philippe Marchand; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Compelled to respond, she grabbed a large red marker and drew on one of pages. She named the drawing Alie (wings).

“I felt such pleasure, that I continued on about 30 pages, “ says Ellia. I covered them with my words, with my drawings, with my paintings. I cut them up. It was them that I thought about the others. Why not share the experience that I was in the process of living.”

Over the next three years, Ellia distributed the pages of Mein Kamph to people from all walks of life, first to the people around her home, later to ever-widening circles from school children, artists to every man or woman on the street. The reactions were many – some curious, some emotional, some outwardly racist. As the pages came back, she decided to use them to recreate the book. Instead of a message of toxic, lethal anti-Semitism, she would create a memorial to creativity, to tolerance; to affirm life, rather than destroying it.

From the project Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Jean Dobritz; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

Simone Veil, a concentration camp survivor, the President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust), a lawyer and a politician was profoundly by the project and became its godmother.

In her forward to the book Notre Combat, Veil writes, “What should we do with such a book? Ban it? Some would still pass it around on the sly. Forget it? It would be an insult to the millions who died because of it. Burn it? It would be resorting to the methods used by the Nazis during the auto-de-fés of Kristallnacht. Linda Ellia’s luminous intuition was to turn this book into a memory vector. …This past is too burdensome to be silenced and whether we want it or not, the Holocaust is our common heritage and we must confront it. Linda Ellia’s work is an expression of this confrontation. It summons us to never forget what was.”

From the project Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Jean Dobritz; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Lifted by Veil’s support, Ellia doggedly pursued contributors and the project began to build – more and more people agreed to take a page home and work on it. Friends and family also helped to take pages to the far corners of the world. “A chain reaction was formed globally,” says Ellia. “And suddenly I had amazing messengers from all around the world helping me. The project became almost a performance – proof that it is possible to take up arms against trauma.” The pages began to steadily fill the mailbox.

Contributions came from professional artists, a school classroom in Spain, a café drifter, a merchant in Tel Aviv, and many others. Artistically, the work is uneven but this is not an exhibit can - or should - be judged by the "normal" artistic guidelines. The multiplicity of artists had lead to a multiplicity of perspectives, from mournful to angry to some that were even funny as they skewered Nazi propaganda images of Jews. Many pages in the display are loosely organized by common themes. A wall of pages depict Hitler in one form or another and in another section, a case includes images of participants painting over the words. The exhibit also includes a complete, unaltered copy of “Mein Kampf,” on loan from the Holocaust Center of Northern California, a decision that was reached after a great deal of discussion between the artist, the museum and the Holocaust Center. 

It was particularly moving to read how this edition of the book came into the collection of the Holocaust Center. This volume is one of the few remaining copies of a special presentation edition of Mein Kampf that was given to the forty-three Gauleiters (district governors) of the Third Reich. Hermann Göring, commander of the German air force, enshrined one of these presentation copies in his home. In 1992, Julia M. Thomas of Pacifica, California, donated this copy to the HCNC. Ms. Thomas inherited the book from her father, who was in the United States Army during World War II; it was retrieved from a burning of Nazi books, probably in Kassel, Germany. In donating this volume to HCNC, Ms. Thomas wrote that her father “want[ed] the book to be kept in security . . . so that it will never fall into the hands of people wishing to use it for evil purposes. . . . [It should be preserved to] alert the world to the dangers of ignorance and bigotry.”

To touch the book is to touch evil but to look around at this exhibit speaks of tolerance, courage and the power of creativity. For me, the last two images in the exhibit, also contributed by Ellia, are almost unbearably poignant and painful – a lock of hair and a real gold tooth.

In “The Last of the Just,” French author Andre Schwarz-Bart wrote about the legend of the Just Men, the tradition of the Lamed-Voy. According to this story, the world reposes upon thirty-six Just Men, men who are simple and often unaware of their station. But “If just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn and humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed-Voy are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, our all our griefs.” In his novel, the last of his Just Men perishes at Auschwitz. But I nominate Ellia as a new generation of the Just, one who has born witness to the malefic evil generated by the man who wrote this book and by those who followed him.  By engaging with it and encouraging others to engage with it, she has produced a work of cathartic power and symbolic reclaiming.

From the project Notre Combat by Linda Ellia; one of six hundred works on paper; artist: Wallas Gustave; 8 ¾ x 5 ½ inches; Paris, France; 2007. Courtesy of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
Notre Combat on Vimo:
CNN Interview: 

Contemporary Jewish Museum: Through June 10, 2010
Bay Area Holocaust Survivors respond to Mein Kamph:


Charles said...

No event in human history has been studied more thoroughly and carefully than the Holocaust. Thousands of thesis and dissertations papers have poured over mountains of data, from physical evidence and anecdotal testimony to captured German war documents. Virtually everyone with a PhD in History will stake their career on the fact that millions of Jews were systematically exterminated by Nazi Germany. One can no more "revise" this fact than one can revise the existence of gravity. Wannsee Conference records prove that Nazis planned the extermination of Jews as, "The Final Solution." German concentration camp records prove that it was carried out.

Whenever we stand up to those who deny or minimize genocide we send a critical message to the world. As we continue to live in an age of genocide and ethnic cleansing, we must repel the broken ethics of our ancestors, or risk a dreadful repeat of past transgressions.

Holocaust deniers ply their mendacious poison everywhere, especially with young people on the Internet. Deniers seek to distort the truth in a way that promotes antagonism against the object of their hatred, or to deny the culpability of their ancestors and heroes. If we ignore them, they will twist the minds of countless young people, creating a new generation of those who deny the facts of the worst episode of genocide in history. Freedom of speech and the press is a symbol of a healthy society. Yet, since no crime in history is so heinous as the Holocaust, its memory must be accurately preserved, to protect our children and grandchildren.

Museums and mandatory public education are tools to dispel bigotry, especially racial and ethnic hatred. Books, plays, films and presentations can reinforce the veracity of past and present genocides. They help to tell the true story of the perpetrators of genocide; and they reveal the abject terror, humiliation and degradation resulting from blind prejudice. It is therefore essential that we disclose the factual brutality and horror of genocide, combating the deniers’ virulent, inaccurate historical revision. We must protect vulnerable future generations from making the same mistakes.

A world that continues to allow genocide requires ethical remediation. We must insist that religious, racial, ethnic, gender and orientation persecution is wrong; and that tolerance is our progeny's only hope. Only through such efforts can we reveal the true horror of genocide and promote the triumphant spirit of humankind.

Charles Weinblatt
Author, "Jacob's Courage"

sfmike said...
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namastenancy said...

Dwarfing and distorting the Holocaust serves our enemies – from Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Ramallah figurehead Mahmoud Abbas (who earned a PhD in Moscow for a dissertation which denied the Holocaust and simultaneously blamed it on Zionists).
This is the common Arab warp of history. It goes entirely unchallenged in the Arab/Muslim milieu and is fast becoming axiomatic in Europe and among the so-called progressives who proliferate in America’s media and campuses.

Their assorted misrepresentations omit to mention that the very word genocide was coined post-Holocaust specifically to describe what was plotted against the Jewish people. Eventually the term was devalued and used in reference to any bloody combat, though Europe’s Jews were never a combatant side and instigated no aggression against Germany. Not even the remotest casus belli existed against them.

Full article at: