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The Lorelei Fountain

Lawrence Bush
May 13, 2017

Ernst Herter, a prominent German sculptor (not Jewish) whose monument to the lyric poet Heinrich Heine landed in the Bronx after Heine’s hometown, Düsseldorf, rejected it in an atmosphere of antisemitism, was born in Berlin on this date in 1846. Herter was best known as a sculptor of mythological figures, including “The Dying Achilles (1884), which became the centerpiece at Austria’s Empress Elisabeth’s palace in Corfu, Greece. “After the unification of Germany in 1871,” writes Richard Levy in his Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, “monuments to inspirational figures of the past became important for defining national identity. Vigorous efforts to erect a monument to Heinrich Heine ... encountered moralistic, monarchist, and nationalistic opposition, to which accrued a rising tide of antisemitism.” (Heine was a Jewish convert to Christianity who expressed regrets over his baptism.) “A coterie of affluent German-Americans purchased the work,” notes the website, Forgotten New York, “and offered to place it in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan. That site, too, was rejected, and the fountain was ultimately placed in Joyce Kilmer Park at the Grand Concourse near East 164th Street around the turn of the 20th century.” The fountain was restored to a brilliant white, given a new iron railing and moved to East 161st Street across from the Bronx County Courthouse in 1999.

“Heine had been bitter in his criticism of the officious close-mindedness of German society and spent much of his life in France, delivering his sarcastic barbs from exile. . . [The monument] was a writhing composition in white Tyrolean marble depicting Lorelei, the mythical German figure, surrounded by mermaids, dolphins and seashells.” --Christopher Gray, New York Times

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.