Updated: Monday, 6th April 2020 @ 8:41am

Tracing Jewish history in Amsterdam art

Tracing Jewish history in Amsterdam art

Our reporter, Anna Winter, uncovers a part of her family's history through a continental trip.

I have been to Amsterdam once before.  In March, I will visit the city again, but in different circumstances. 

My friend and I arrived in Amsterdam during a summer two years ago as part of a European inter-railing trip.  Our stay there was part comedy and part horror.  We ended up staying in a one-star hotel, seedy both inside and out, overseen by a dubious man with a squint. 

Typically, the whole building stank of marijuana.  That was fine.  The beds were not.  Two synthetically fleecy blankets were draped over the mattresses, each bearing a sordid-looking representation of a leopard.  A few murky stains pocked-marked the sheets.  Thick black hairs reappeared every morning in the shower, prompting more shudders of disgust.

During one day out in the city, in search of something more edifying, we stopped to look inside the Jewish Historical Museum. This was something I purposefully had in mind since arriving there.  In the gift shop, I tentatively asked about a painter called Else Berg, who had had a posthumous exhibition at the museum in the 1980s.  The man behind the counter looked blank.  I gave up and we wandered off.  But I will return there in March, for an exhibition of this artist’s work.

Else Berg is my great-great aunt.  She was a painter, married to a fellow artist called Samuel Schwarz.  On 12th November 1942, they were arrested at their home and sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed, on 16th November.  Thinking about this, I can become aware of the true meaning of horror. My own life is far removed from the persecution that my ancestors endured.

My grandfather Rolf’s story is one of survival and adaptation. In 1933, he left his home in Konigsberg and took a boat to America.  Some years later, he ended up in Leicester, his passport stamped with a large letter ‘J’. 

History is of course littered with stories of flight and immigration, tales of contingency and serendipitous fortune that take one person from an endangered life in a Baltic city to a new existence in the South East Midlands.

He was part of a prosperous assimilated Jewish family, the heir to a mill which his father Solomon had inherited from his father Abraham. Like many assimilated, non-Orthodox families, they felt their identity to be both German and Jewish. Rolf’s brother Hans died in the trenches of the First World War, fighting for the Fatherland. Yet of course there came a time when they were no longer considered to be citizens of Germany.

By 1933, the insidious strength of Nazi anti-Semitism had already prompted my grandfather to flee, several years before the atrocious concept of the ‘final solution’ was put into practice across Germany and Eastern Europe. An anonymous Nazi had sent him a letter that implicated him as the guilty party in a car crash. 

The writer of the letter called him an ‘untermensch’ – he was a ‘foul subhuman Jew’, whose friendship with his Gentile peers made him a ‘defiler of pure Christian Konigsberg maidens’. And so, he left – the first of the immediate family to do so, before my great aunt Lilo (Liselotte) joined him in London. 

Their mother Anna Winter, nee Berg, was Else’s Berg’s sister.  The stern-looking matriarch, after who I am named, with her imperious stare and starched dress seems entirely different from Else, the defiant artist, modern with a capital M, rendered in her own self-portrait with bold lines and colours.

Else Berg was born on February 19th, 1877, in Ratibor (now Poland), in the Prussian province of Silesia, the youngest daughter of a cigar manufacturer. She studied art in Paris before moving to Berlin in 1900 and following a course at the Academy of Arts.  In 1911, she moved with Schwarz to Amsterdam.  Throughout the twenties they travelled around Europe, exhibiting work and becoming part of a loose artists’ collective in Mallorca.

Information from the Jewish Historical Museum places Schwarz and Berg as part of the Bergen school of art - characterised by an expressionist style, influenced by cubism and showing a preference for darker colours. The participating artists lived and worked in or near the village of Bergen in the province of Noord-Holland, which was said to have a particularly favourable light for painting.

The group gained many adherents among young painters who agitated against Impressionism, as Fauvism did in France and Expressionism in Germany and their artistic philosophies was written down in the magazine 'Het Signaal' (The Signal).  The preference for painting still life and the human figure can be seen in both Else and Samuel’s work.

Linda Horn, currently writing a book about Else and Samuel’s life, said: “Berg and Schwarz never really belonged to any group, but picked up all kinds of modern art influences, turning them into their own thing. The so-called Bergen School was more like a bunch of friends, working together, influencing each other, not a formal school of art.”

This group of friends comprised of Jewish and non-Jewish artists.  But by 1940, Else had her last solo exhibition – after that, it was impossible for Jewish artists to exhibit under Nazi control. But at least they could make a final act of defiance.  Both refused to wear the yellow stars of David. 

In 1990, Professor James Young said: “The truths of the Holocaust – both factual and interpretive – can no longer be said to lie beyond our understanding, but must now be seen to inhere in the ways we understand, interpret, and write its history.”

No single truth can be extracted from the fact of the Holocaust.  Part of its truth lies in a nullity of meaning, the destructive and banal nullity of a widespread evil that, to me, will never be comprehensible.

Else Berg’s work does not chronicle life in the camps or ghettoes.  Her work was never about any reducible fact of ‘Jewishness’.  Instead her paintings display a proliferation of metaphor and imagination – that essentially human value which remains, above and beyond the atrocities of the past.