Theatre Forum Links




Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session II: Potsdamer Platz versus Aschenbach
Two paradigms of Jewish life in Europe

Diana Pinto, historian and writer, Paris

As Jewish playwrights, filmmakers and producers you are destined to play a major role in the renewal of Jewish public life, and its representations, across Europe. You occupy the most visible and open of all of Europe's Jewish Spaces, that comprised by the arts. Jewish museums and Holocaust memorials have visitors. Jewish Studies programs in the universities have students. But only the arts have access to a living interactive 'audience' whose imagination can be captivated through a quality time of cultivated leisure.

As someone who has always sat in the audience and who is not familiar with the world of the theatre from the other side of the stage, I can only suggest here why yours is currently an awesome responsibility. For how you choose to depict Jews in your plays or films-as your characters interact with other Jews or with non-Jews-will have an immense impact on how Jews in Europe will be perceived through time. The positive as well as negative stereotypes you create will live beyond the work of art hopefully to form a new unconscious of our societies rather than strengthening the old.

Post-modern or post-mortem?

We are at the crossroads today of two paradigms of Jewish life on the continent, a post-modern and a post-mortem one. I have chosen to refer to them as 'Potsdamer Platz' and 'Aschenbach' because that is how they were called when they stood out vividly in front of me one fall day in Berlin in 1997. Back then (because it does seem so far back into the past given the events since 2000), 'Potsdamer Platz', the city centre, was still the world's largest gaping hole and construction site. In October 1997, Debis Haus, the tallest tower of a huge complex was officially inaugurated, in what was still an empty space. Gyorgy Konrad, then President of the Akademie der Künste, gave the inaugural speech. Konrad, Hungary's leading dissident in Communist times, a literary and political essayist and an avowed cosmopolitan Jew, spoke before an illustrious audience of Germany's political and business elites. He contemplated the still unfinished Potsdamer Platz and hoped that it would become the symbol of a new German and European spirit of tolerance and openness. A place where the stiff military order of the old Prussian/German past would give way to a new civilian playfulness, to the free interplay of cultures and identities in a reunited continent. Konrad contrasted the old massive buildings of the previous Potsdamer Platz with the new transparent ones, which were being built. Both had their foundations in Berlin's sandy subsoil, the opposite of Manhattan's rocky granite. But the former had toppled because they incarnated an authoritarian mind-set. The latter, by contrast, would hopefully endure because they were destined to house democratic and open, and therefore transparent outlooks. Konrad, the Jew who had miraculously survived deportation to Auschwitz simply because he was not in the village when all his fellow Jewish classmates were deported, represented the quintessential old Mitteleuropean Jew, whose 'Europe' had once more come back to life after a nightmare of a century. A Jew whose interaction with the continent had not ceased because of the Holocaust, and who had participated in all of its post-war liberating struggles, and who now invoked with cautious optimism the birth of a free open pan-European agora.

In the same fall of 1997, an alternative vision of Berlin cast its metaphysical and historical black ashen gloominess in the Martin-Gropius-Bau as an annex to a landmark retrospective on Deutchlandbilder: Kunst aus einem geteilten Land (German art out of a divided land ). Tucked away in the second floor of the building, the annex exhibit, sponsored by what was then the Foundation of the still unopened Jewish Museum, confronted the visitors with a very different mood. The artists there were not among the anguished Täters but among the detached if not tranquil Opfers, to use the classical German expression for perpetrators and victims. One work of art stood out in particular, Joshua Neustein's black ashen Berlin, entitled 'Aschenbach '. In a a small white walled room, an elaborate two tiered golden chained traditional crystal chandelier hung disconcertedly low at waist level, revealing without however illuminating, an entirely black floor. The floor represented a turn of the 20th century relief map of central Berlin entirely made out of barely consolidated black ashes. The overall feeling was one of frozen eternal desolation: light on one side, darkness on the other without the least interaction.

The 'Aschenbach' reference had a double resonance. In literal terms the word means 'stream of ashes', an appropriate description of the central canal that ran through black ashen Berlin in the work of art. But Gustav Aschenbach is also the name of the protagonist of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, a barely camouflaged allusion to Gustav Mahler, the Jewish composer who was forced to convert to Catholicism in order to become the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic. Mann's novel depicted the tension between Northern and Southern identities and passions, decadence and death in the plague infested lagoon where inhabitants and visitors alike refused to acknowledge the overwhelming presence of the fatal disease, a disease that could also include, from a Jewish point of view, assimilation and conversion, as a loss of identity. By referring to Aschenbach, Neustein thus transcribed Mann's own pessimistic reading of Western civilisation and the dying metaphor of Venice to a Berlin whose black ashen reality clearly evoked the Holocaust, but not only the Holocaust.

The chandelier in the work of art made the difference. Black Berlin alone did not suffice. It had to be juxtaposed to its opposite: light symbolising the Enlightenment, the light that Auschwitz was deemed to have destroyed. The waist-level chandelier also underscored the difference between public and private, as conveyed in the sash that the ultra-religious Jews wear around the waist, and so the difference between a public world of post-Holocaust light and a private post-Holocaust Jewish world of blackness of grief. 'Aschenbach' contained another equally Jewish message. In this context, the chandelier represented less the Enlightenment, with its tragically destroyed hopes of Jewish assimilation and acceptance into other nations, than the Chekinah, the light indicating God's presence. By extension, the light could also incarnate the Jewish people. Neustein's lit chandelier could thus very well represent the ongoing vitality of the Jewish God and of the Jewish people which, despite the Holocaust, still radiated in the world…but not over black ashen Berlin (and by extension Germany or even Europe), but in the two new poles of Jewish life, America and Israel. 'Aschenbach' could thus be read as a manifesto testifying to the fact that the black city, country, continent had become a dead place for Jewish life. The cold gaze Joshua Neustein cast on Berlin and Germany was the gaze of a former European insider, born in Dantzig, who had left Europe for America and Israel-an itinerary of tragic rupture which was the opposite of Konrad's tempered continuity. Post-mortem Europe versus post-modern Europe.

The clash between these two visions, was less apparent during the 1990's than now. At the time most of the Jewish world, hoping that there would be peace in the Middle East, was looking inward and fretting over its diminishing numbers…. the number of lights on the chandelier seemed to wane. 'Jewish continuity' was the worry of the time. And in this context, the reawakening Jewish communities of Europe, especially in eastern Europe after 1989, offered a great symbolic, if not numerical, hope. But since 2000, these preoccupations have disappeared. With the collapse of the Oslo accords after the outbreak of the Second Intifada, after Durban with its virulent anti-Israeli and antisemitic rhetoric, after 9/11, and above all in the wake of the spate of antisemitic attacks in France, and a general unleashing of tongues across Europe essentially over Israel (but with fallouts on the Jews), the Jewish world has become ever more 'Aschenbachian'?and Europe, in its eyes, ever more post-mortem.

The continent is now associated by most American Jews and Israelis with an archaeological horror. A place where ghosts laden with medieval anti-Judaic feelings amble about next to spectres evoking what many Jews consider to be the false anti-Jewish universality of the Enlightenment in its new 'human rights' guise, while more contemporary monsters invoke once again the racist antisemitism of the 19th and 20th centuries, all in the name of a combat against Israel. A Europe where a new mix of British chattering classes, Arab French youths, German national pacifists, and good old Eastern European antisemites lead the way for the disgruntled assorted others from Scandinavia, Iberia, or the Balkans. A Europe whose 'civilian playfulness' and calls for 'peace' are nothing more than a camouflage for its essence of appeasement, racism and powerlessness ...and, of course, indelible antisemitism.

The problem with this comfortable post-mortem reading of Europe is that Europeans cannot possibly begin to recognize themselves in it. And that our own Jewish experiences in Europe of the last twenty years do not correspond to it, even if we feel that a new climate of suspicion against 'the Jews' may be on the rise. It is much too early to speak of a negative turning point, and certainly wrong to speak of a 'return' to antisemitism. Falling into this trap means that we have not understood the root causes and political mechanisms of the disease when it was in the hands of the elites and the state. We should not confuse the poisons of the past with current criticisms of Israel even when they are mixed into an unhealthy amalgam against the Jews in Europe, and with a new type of a-semitism which regards Jewish problems as one problem among many in a pluralist society, no longer necessitating special attention or repentance.

For in the meantime, Potsdamer Platz has come unto its own. Cultural snobs may scoff at how this hole of potential hope was filled with the predictable modern buildings, with the usual consumer-driven shopping centres, in brief, as one more soulless agora. Yet the place exists and indeed as Konrad had hoped, under its large white tent, people of all colours and stripes do congregate in an atmosphere of civilian playfulness and tolerance-each finding his own pleasure. Hollywood blockbusters may triumph but one can also participate there in festivals of Jewish culture and films or buy Konrad's own books. In all honesty, we as Jews benefit from post-modern Europe as much as any other citizen of the continent, where the only 'ghosts' invoked officially are the ones offered in its countless historical re-enactments and cultural festivals. And we also partake of the new cultural trends emerging from the light-hearted, as opposed to tragic, bringing together of eclectic pasts. We have our place in this Europe of light and airy buildings and transparent roofs: from Berlin's new Reichstag to the smallest village which has learned to transform old courtyards into new glass-covered gathering spaces. A Europe that juxtaposes ancient ruins next to medieval arches on the edge of Renaissance town squares, with 18th century buildings in the background. The result: increasingly convivial and open post-modern cities… that now 'naturally' (but this was not the case until very recently) piously preserve and highlight the smallest Jewish trace of their long pasts.

Above all, now we not only belong to, but we have helped to establish (even before the Holocaust) a 'Europe' based on an expanding galaxy of references, a kaleidoscope of possibilities, for an increasing number of cultural hybrids. For the continent today, through its spokesmen and leaders has pledged allegiance to a new twelve starred ideal based on a set of 'noes': no ethnic purity, no religious certainties, no historical superiorities, no military might, and no watertight borders (at least inside the twelve stars). These 'noes' comprise the core of Europe's 'never again' to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. And in the mind of most Europeans, the decade of the 1990's with its succession of Holocaust commemorations, with its interest in 'things Jewish' and with its celebration of Jewish heritage across the continent, marked above the full acceptance of the Jewish threads in its old/new tapestry, as one component of an increasingly open heritage.

In this vision Jews are very much insiders compared to Europe's new outsiders, the Roma victims and the immigrant downtrodden, and in the Middle East, the Palestinians. This may explain why so many Europeans feel no particular scruple in condemning Israel and in considering that the Jews have had 'too much' visibility, without feeling in the least antisemitic. For they consider Jews as having achieved a kind of 'normality', insofar as anyone is 'normal'. They are probably right in 'objective' terms, but they are wrong at the level of emotions and 'time'. They do not realize to what an extent we still remain a fragile and anguished people. We live in incompatible time frames, in disjointed calendars of pain and anguish. Surely, this discordance can be turned into an asset for Jewish creativity, all the more so since we are not the only inhabitants of this globalized continent in such a predicament?

The 'Potsdamer Platz' cautiously optimistic reading of Europe appears to be all the more jarring and sinister in Jewish eyes, for a simple reason. The vast majority of the world's Jews are no longer to be found in this post-modern oasis, but in the embattled state of Israel or in the newly empowered super-power, America, manning the walls of the Western world. From those shores, Europe remains Jewishly irrelevant, its calls for post-modernity hypocritical. It is a Jewish post-mortem, not only because of the past, but also because of the present. A recent quote from a speech given by Charles Krauthammer, one of America's leading political analysts and commentators will suffice on this count:

"I must say that old Europe has behaved-with the exception of our allies in Britain, Spain and Italy-disgracefully: disgraceful in its cynicism, its shortsightedness, and its willingness to appease, and particularly with regard to the activities of the French…to rally the world against us. What is happening in Europe is dismaying from the following point of view; I think it is a return to the norm. What we had was a fifty-year hiatus in European history-an aberration, during those fifty years, the post-Holocaust years of shame and quiet. That generation, like the generation of the desert, is now gone, and the new Europe, the new leaders in Europe, having felt themselves not responsible for the Holocaust and having given that period of shame and quiet its due, have resorted to the norm, and the norm, as we know, is millennial hatred of Jews."

Krauthammer was given a standing ovation for his comments at the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee upon receiving their Media Award. Can we really agree with such a vision? I think not. We are too alive for such a black and draconian interpretation of our European environment. But it is important to realize that the vast majority of the Jewish world, would probably tend to agree, even if with greater nuance, with this post-mortem reading.

Europe's own Jews and above all the youngest Jews will ultimately determine which of the two visions of Europe is the more faithful and historically valid. But in order to do so honestly, we must bring all of our multiple identities and experiences to bear on the matter. We are the only Jews who live as fully-fledged citizens inside post-modern Europe. The key lies in the type of role we choose to play in the eyes of the non-Jewish Europeans and the Jewish non-Europeans. Do we think of ourselves as historical remnants? As an alienated minority? As a new ethnic force? As simple citizens like all others? Spectators in Europe's own transformations? Or a Greek chorus commenting on Europe's own fatal misdeeds? Are Europe's Jews alive with a future or simply survivors with a past? A past that it is their duty to remember, restore and re-interpret-not just with respect to the Holocaust, but to the long millennia preceding it? Are they actors of this post-modern setting or Cassandras mourning the comfortable certitudes of a victim's past?

These are not just abstract questions. And certainly not for you who are Europe's Jewish playwrights and artists, writing and performing at the very heart of Europe's post-modern culture. They surely underpin your own identity and work. For through your actions and creations you will in effect be forming tomorrow's Jewish Spaces in Europe and the European component of the Jewish world's creativity. You will literally be bringing back the Jew(s) onto Europe's stage.

But who exactly will you be bringing back into European consciousness? The eternal victim of a finished world that was? The eccentric, nervous set of shtetl characters, recomposed along Woody Allen lines? An ethnic creature replete with klezmer/Ladino sounds and who is 'visibly' Jewish so that all the 'others' in a planetary world culture can recognize him? An ultra-religious character, equally visible because of his or her 'standoffish' attire and attitudes? Or 'invisible' modern Jews, recognizable only because of their predictable torments?

And in producing such characters or reinterpreting old ones what will be your purpose? Resurrecting painful ghosts to ensure Europe's ongoing guilt? Pursuing a Jewish pedagogy essentially for the Jews and for the few (this is also an Aschenbachian axiom) non-Jews who might be interested? Grabbing a piece of the state-endowed and 'twelve starred' multicultural pies? Marking a territory in the post-modern bungalows that have replaced the older stately mansion of Western civilization?

I, of course, have nothing against such multiple types of creativity. But in all honesty, I must confess that what I would like to see happen on the Jewish cultural stage in Europe in the coming years is something different. The birth of Jewish Spaces where Jews and non-Jews can interact on essential existential themes common to all, but through a Jewish prism, a prism based as much on Jewish texts as on Jewish 'traits'. This implies a clear-headed and honest coming to terms with an increasingly urgent problem. One that is old in its definition-how to bring Jewish strains into European life-but utterly new in its possible implementation. For we Jews now hold the keys to our own heritage and past. They no longer belong to the Church (as for instance the keys to the old ghetto of Ferrara still do) or to Enlightenment driven forces seeking to dilute any Jewish specificity into falsely universal categories. We are responsible for the content the outside world will henceforth give to the term 'Jewish'. It is up to us to fill it with substance.

So the time may have finally come to ponder openly and calmly three tensions that surely populate all of our lives and to find ways of conveying them on stage: 1) the tension between the Jewish 'universal' voice and the apparent new Jewish ethnic 'pride'; 2) The complex links that tie Jews to Israel but also separate them from the country-what is Israel in our minds?; 3) The Jew as a living kaleidoscope of multiple identities, the human being who is also a Jew and who therefore should be the very emblem of a happy post-modern condition.

We are currently living in a very strange Jewish moment for we seem to have too much power in non-Jewish eyes, while remaining all too fragile in our own. Jewish cultural exaltation is now combined with renewed Jewish fear. It is therefore urgent for us not to rebuild a watertight 'we' versus 'they' mentality in the name of some misbegotten multiculturalism. For one of the inevitable results of this separation is that open and tolerant and friendly non-Jews, will incessantly throw back at us our 'Jewishness', not with any negative intent but to make us 'feel good' in our chosen identity…and we, in our anguish, will interpret this as a new sign of antisemitism. Our responsibility on this count goes beyond our own European belonging to cover Israel also. For we must be sufficiently confident of our claims to Europe to state openly and clearly that the continent cannot become the fully post-modern civilian space described by Konrad, if it does not bring Israel back into its fold, as an inherent piece of its own identity puzzle.

We are Europe's pivotal 'other'. We are at once at the core of its own multiple identities, partaking of each national tradition while also remaining an 'other' in our pursuit of a separate Jewish identity. We 'belong' and in so claiming we will help chart the terrain for all of Europe's other minorities, as they seek to become a part of 'Europe'-a Europe, which we, by our suffering and ideals, also helped to define. It is therefore absurd to think of ourselves as anything but insiders. But insiders who hold a special tie to a country, Israel, and to a Jewish diaspora that were both children of Europe. Hence, our pivotal role in reconciling both Europe and the Jewish world.

In the current Aschenbachian mood, this may sound like a ridiculously optimistic statement. But it is not. On the contrary. We must claim our piece of the European heritage because Israel desperately needs a hinterland. Furthermore we have never been as free as now to choose between two identities. It is up to us to opt either for the classic and predictable role of the eternal victim of which we all know the lines? - a victim frozen as a Jewish hologram of a post-mortem Europe. Or to launch ourselves into a cast of new characters: the 'Potsdamer Platz' Jews endowed with their own multi-layered intensity and universal presence. I choose the latter and hope that they will come to life thanks to you.

1.György Konrad, " Menschen in einem grossen Haus ", Festrede zur Einweihung Debis Haus am Potsdamer Platz, 24 Oktober 1997. A slightly abridged version of the speech was published as " Berlin wird lernen, sich zu mögen " in the Berliner Zeitung, 25/26 Oktober 1997, p. 16.

2. Most of György Konrad's Jewish writings have been collected in his Die unsichtbare Stimme, Frankfurt am Main, 1998.And in his new autobiography, Glück, Frankfurt am Main, 2003. For an English version of some of his thoughts on Judaism, see his " Aphorisms on the Durability of Jews " in the English presentation of the Hungarian Jewish magazine, Szombat published by the Office of European Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, May 1998, pp. 20-27. Konrad's bohemian novel is a Feast in the Garden, New York, 1992.

3. Eckart Gillen, ed. Catalogue, Deutschlandbilder : Kunst aus einem geteilten Land- 7 September 1997-11 Januar 1998 Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin. 1997. Amnon Barzel, " Joshua Neustein : 'Aschenbach' ", Deutschanbilder, pp. 529. As curator of this part of the exhibit Barzel explained the fundamental references in Neustein's work of art. The rest of the interpretation is mine.

4. I am indebted to Miriam Sivan for this Talmudic insight.

5. I am referring here to the central theme of Rober Kagan's highly publicised recent essay, Paradise and Power:America and Europe in the New World Order. New York, 2003.

6. Charles Krauthammer, Presentation at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Jewish Committee, Washington, D.C., May 7th, 2003. Mr. Krauthammler's speech was his response to having been awarded the AJC Media Award.