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The German House of Art with a Banner with Yiddish words
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Rust coloured swastika motif mosaic present from the Nazi period
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

The Swatika motif mosaics in between the columns of the German House of Art
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Interior of the German House of Art with the reddish marble chosen by Hitler since red was the colour of the Nazi flag
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Yiddish, Swatikas and Red Marble in Munich: The German House of Art

by Rhonda Spivak, April 10, 2014

I had only been in Munich for a couple of hours when I looked up at a huge building with columns and saw a huge banner with the words "Kibbitzer, Kvetch, Nudnick, Nebbish, Alte Kocker..."
I was riding in a cart hitched to the back of a bicycle driven by Timo, a middle aged man from Munich who gives tours of central Munich.  I called out to ask him to stop for a moment.
"Why are those Yiddish words on that building?" I asked him.
 "That's not Yiddish,” he said. 
"Unless I am hallucinating, it sure is Yiddish," I responded.
By then we had arrived at a corner where Timo could stop, and he looked up and said that the building was the Haus der Deutchen Kunst-The German House of Art."

“It was the first monumental propaganda building that Hitler had built in 1933 after he rose to power. It was constructed from 1933-37 and it was used to display Nazi approved art, as opposed to  what the Nazis determined was degenerate art, which was confiscated,” Timo explained.  “Today it is an art gallery, displaying all sorts of modern art, exactly the kind that Hitler would have disapproved of . I come sometimes to see art exhibitions."


We went to the front entrance and I learned that there was an exhibit of Yiddish artists, which explained the Yiddish on the outside banner of the Museum. The Museum was closing so I never had an opportunity to go through it.


Then Timo said, "There are still swastikas on the building from its Nazi days. Come I'll show you"  


"Here -look up at the ceiling panels on the front portico," Timo said, pointing his index finger upward. "You can see the rust coloured swastika-motif mosaics up above."


I looked up stunned and took a photo of the swastika mosaic (see photo 2)-It was jarring and unsettling to see Yiddish words and swastikas from the Nazi period all at once on the same building.


"Why wouldn't they paint over the swastika mosaics?" I asked Timo. Or at least put up a sign explaining that they kept them there as a historical reminder of their dark days. Timo didn't have an answer. I have searched on the internet and not found an answer. But this experience  of  seeing Yiddish juxtaposed with swastikas captures  Germany today: on one hand it wants to  whiten its past by having an exhibit with  Yiddish, and yet  on the other hand it doesn't care enough to actually paint out the swastikas.


As I re-read the Yiddish words, I kept on thinking of what Rabbi Chaim Roswaski, head of Berlin Yeshiva University had told me when I had interviewed him years earlier--"Rhonda, you have no idea of the extent of the Jewish world that was lost during the Holocaust."  And I began thinking that there is no number of exhibits using Yiddish that could ever make up for that Yiddish world that was lost during the Holocaust.


The German House of Art that I walked around is testament to Hitler's use of art/architecture to reflect Nazi ideology. The Nazis believed that Jews controlled the media and that prior to the Third Reich Jews controlled a large part of the art market and had essentially tricked the German people into embracing modern non-traditional styles in order to reap economic benefit.


The Nazis outlawed Bauhaus architecture-There was a German art report authored by Joseph Goebbels that indicated modern boxlike buildings were an assault on antiquity. (It was not lost on me that the centre of the city of Tel-Aviv, where I would soon land, is the Bauhaus capital of the world recognized as a UNESCO heritage site. It is that way, since the many Jewish architects who managed to escape Nazi Europe built all of Tel-Aviv in Bauhaus style.  I have always loved Bauhaus architecture--and will love it even more so, knowing now that Hitler so disapproved of it.) 


 In Mein Kampf Hitler described Munich as the metropolis of German art stating "one does not know German art if one has not seen Munich."  The building was designed by Paul Troost who became Hitler's foremost architect whose neo-classical style became for a time the official architecture of the Third Reich.  Hilter actually helped design the building, laid its cornerstone, and ensured that the most extensive materials were used.


On July 18, 1937, there was an exhibition of paintings and sculptures intended to demonstrate the triumph of German art in the House of German Art. Hitler then attacked modern degenerate art through the organization of a second exhibition in the Municipal Archeological Institute. This second exhibition illustrated "degenerate art" which Germany had to be rescued from and which had to be confiscated. In two months the Nazis confiscated 160,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings. The second room of the degenerate art exhibit contained only works by Jewish artists such as Jankel Adler, Marc Chagall and Lazar Segall. While the degenerate art exhibit was intended to be a one time show only, it was so popular in the first four months it was exhibited that a decision was made to send the exhibition on tour throughout the Third Reich.


After World War Two ended, the German House of Art building was used by American occupation forces as an officer's mess. 


Before leaving, I got a chance to peek inside the German house of Art to see the Erenhall, which from 1937-1944 was used to open art exhibits and hold press conferences.  I noticed the reddish marble in the room. The marble comes from Tegernsee, Bavaria, and was specifically chosen by Hitler, since red was the prominent colour of the Nazi flag.  

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.