This piece appears in a special section on Holocaust memory in our Fall 2018 issue. Subscribe to receive a copy of this issue in your mailbox.
IF YOU’VE spent time in Berlin lately you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that an estimated 25,000 Israelis live there: they are your bartender, your professor, the guy you buy drugs from outside the club, the couple fighting in the apartment upstairs. Over ten years of visiting and sometimes living in Berlin, I’ve seen the birth and growth of Jewish experimental art and film festivals, reading groups, Hebrew-language magazines, and arty Shabbat dinner networks. Many of these new initiatives want to offer an alternative to institutionally-sanctioned Jewish art, which these artists see as ideological, reactionary, Holocaust-centric, sentimental, uncomfortably Zionist, nostalgic for a false past, or just plain boring. In Berlin, one senses a drive to mine new perspectives on the European Jewish past—and via this exploration, on Jewishness, and even identity itself—which has made the city a center of new Jewish cultural production.
Of course, many a Jewish parent and Israeli politician lament Berlin’s pull, even if they can’t argue with its low cost of living; its universities, museums, and theaters; its state funding for the arts. And for Israelis fleeing a culture of support for (or acquiescence to) the occupation, there is a sense that post-war Berlin remains somehow de-nationalized—a zone that embraces the possibility of identity-making from choice as opposed to obligation. As the Israeli artist Benyamin Reich, who has lived in Berlin since 2009, told me, “Nowadays, everyone has mixed and borrowed identities. Many Israelis in Berlin want a bridge of sorts to a new world.” Reich, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, is a good example: raised in a Haredi family in B’nei B’rak (where his father was a Hasidic rabbi), he came out, became an artist, went to Berlin for a group show at the Jewish Museum, and never left.
Since his early days in Germany, Reich has been interested in the subterranean aspects of the dynamic between Germans and Jews of the “third generation” (the grandchildren of survivors and perpetrators). As Reich told me in a conversation recently, “In my family, Germans were always the presence of the bad, but at the same time, there was a fascination . . . as a child, that makes it even bigger, the enigma. And when it goes into this enigma place, sexuality comes into it.” In his series “Imagine: Dreams of the Third Generation,” excerpted here, Reich creates a spectacle of that enigmatic attraction: impeccably styled but with something askew, the photographs tease the viewer with a seeming mundanity. A group of friends holds a tallis as a chuppah over a bride and groom; the bride playfully poses lying across the laps of her groom’s friends; the couple smiles a little awkwardly at each other as though before a professional photographer capturing a staged breakfast. Though the backdrop and costumes indicate the 1930s, there are purposeful anachronisms that signal the contemporary; and though the couple and friends look like wedding-goers tend to look, “Siegfried” is a Nazi, and “Sarah” is a Jew.
Reich’s theatrically staged photographs reveal the histories and mythologies that undergird the relationships so common in today’s Berlin. Costuming the models in these powerful signifiers (the swatstika, the tallis) is both a provocation and a simple representation of what often remains unspoken between the Jews and non-Jewish Germans who today are lovers and friends. The photos function as a critique of the fantasy of denationalized, fluid identities, in which the third generation interacts without addressing this history; but the playfulness of the staging, the laugh on the lips of the non-professional models, also lampoons the reverent “Never Forget” of both well-intentioned and cynical politicians and communal leaders. Indeed, the series’ name, imagine, can be read as a subtle rejoinder to what can feel like an 11th commandment: remember.
As an intentional part of his project, Reich uses his Jewish and German friends in Berlin as his models. The bride is Israeli cabaret performer Nitsan Bernstein, and the groom is German and American professional model Sebastian Sauvé. The guests at the wedding include a formerly Haredi Jew from B’nei B’rak who is being trained as a Reform rabbi; a German Jew who teaches and translates Hebrew and Yiddish; and an Israeli-American painter, who comes from a national-religious settler family in the West Bank, and who spends his weekends at Berghain (the renowned gay nightclub) where he is widely known and recognizable, a club kid with dyed-blonde payos. One of the “Nazis” in the photoshoot is the grandson of an SS officer. Reich says, “There is a kind of absurdity which reflects our lives here. But in the same way that it looks provocative, it’s the most normal thing in our lives.”
Beyond a longing to reconfigure or shed one’s national identity, or the high cost of living in Israel, is it desire that brings so many Jews to Germany? A sublimated longing to heal a broken ancestral connection? The intimacy and vulnerability of having our stories be heard by this profound Other? The allure of breaking a taboo? For some young Jews, Berlin is the place where they first experience being positively fetishized—made an object of desire, curiosity, and status. Though there is a dark underside to that objectification, many describe it as liberating and empowering. Especially for Israelis, who find themselves caught in the bind of a given victim identity and a discovered oppressor identity, Berlin is a place one can experiment with the power that comes from a righteous sense of being owed something without feeling like you’re harming someone; indeed, one can often find a German partner similarly excited for the exchange.
And so we are invited to a Nazi-Jewish wedding staged in an historic bar in west Berlin. Because it is illegal in Germany to publicly display Nazi symbols, and because the uniforms in the photoshoot were authentic, Reich had to obtain a letter from the theatrical costume company that loaned them verifying his artistic intent. Imagining a visit from the polizei made me wonder what Reich might say to explain the shoot. The art is subversive in part because it’s made unapologetically for a Jewish gaze; the power dynamic between Nazi and Jew is reversed, and both the humor and the shock are intended mostly for a Jewish audience. Consider Siegfried’s tattoo, the letters shin-aleph-hay, which was inspired by a real tattoo a friend of Reich’s saw in Berlin. The letters form a Kabbalistic name for God, but what does it mean to live (also) with the word “Shoah” inscribed on your body?
Which marks of history do we hide and which do we proclaim? The characters in “Imagine” are caught somewhere between past, present, and fantasy. They remind us that the long reach of history is both overpowering and faint, legible and invisible.
- Maia Ipp
Benyamin Reich was raised in B'nei B'rak, Israel, and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He lives and works in Berlin, and his photographs are currently on view at the Jewish Museum Munich and Amsterdam Unseen Art Fair.
Maia Ipp is a writer, editor at Jewish Currents, and co-founder of Festivalt, an avant-garde Jewish arts festival in Krakow, Poland.