Bamberg: At the Villa Dessauer

My image of Bamberg began before I ever went there — starting with the black-and-white photo of the rivers and bridges and medieval buildings hanging in our New York City apartment during my childhood, and continuing with my father’s tales of the glories of his native city (and my birthplace) – all memories wrapped in lushness.

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[reproduction of medieval map of Bamberg]

 Close to the old medieval center of town is the Hain, a neighborhood of late 19th century mansions of light-colored stone, square and stolid. I saw it for the first time in 1973, when my father guided us to the places he had always talked about. He showed us the building on Hainstrasse where the Jewish social club (Ressource) had been located. In 1973, it was an insurance building. We actually went to the door to see if there was any indication of its previous incarnation. Nothing. Many of the builders and original owners of these homes were Jewish; they were hop merchants and factory owners. The Dessauer family was one of those and number 4a Hainstrasse is the address of the Villa Dessauer, which today houses the  Municipal Museum of Bamberg.

When Hitler came to power the Villa was inhabited by the Pretzfelders, Jewish descendants of the Dessauers. In 1939, while the Pretzfelders were still living there, #4a became a “Jew House” (Judenhaus).  The Jews of Germany no longer had any rights as citizens. They were removed from their own homes into group quarters. My grandparents were relocated there from their own long-time residence, as well as numerous other Jewish people. They had been friends with the Pretzfelders and one can only imagine the psychic and physical impact of such a dislocation. By late 1942, all these people had been deported to their various fates in ghettos and death camps and none of them survived. After the War, the Villa became the America House, a part of the U.S. Government whose job it was to re-educate German citizens with democratic principles. After the Americans gave it up, the Villa became the Municipal Museum.                                                           IMG_0481  IMG_3202

 [left and right, interior of Villa Dessauer, Bamberg, 2013]

In 1991, I had an exhibit of my artwork there, along with three other American artists. My work was titled “In Search of the Lost Object”. It was a multi-media installation in several rooms of the Museum, and it was about the fate of our Jewish Bamberg family — those of us who survived, and those who didn’t. Since my grandparents, who were deported to a camp east of Lublin in April, 1942, had resided and suffered in this building, my show was full of ghosts and my mind was filled with imagined scenarios. It was the most powerful experience of my life as an artist.

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[left, Chriss Fiebig and Gaby in Bamberg, 1990; right, Chriss’ bookplate]

During a trip to Bamberg in 1990 to prepare for the exhibit, Sonya and I met Chriss Fiebig. She was a striking woman with blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, piercing blue eyes set in an angular face and a deep laugh. Chriss was a fierce advocate of all things Jewish in Bamberg. She felt certain that her grandmother had been Jewish and she adopted Judaism as her identity. She learned Hebrew and married a religious Jewish man in Paris, where she had gone to become a model. When the marriage failed, she returned to Bamberg. Chriss was active in more ways than I can say: in restoring the Jewish cemetery; in giving tours to visiting Jews and gentiles alike; in teaching about Judaism to seminarians; in leading interfaith services, and on and on. She became my guide and mentor in Bamberg and I will always be grateful to her for her combination of warmth and shrewdness. When an expanded version of my show was at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City in 1994, we invited Chriss to join a panel that also included Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and the Reverend James Morton, then Dean of the Cathedral, to talk about Jews in Germany today. For me, Chriss was a cheerleader, guide, and a dear friend.

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[Gaby, with art work at Villa Dessauer, 2013. Top, “White Dove”; all others, details of “Document Wall”] 

 In November, 2013, the two pieces from the 1991 show that the Museum had acquired were to be exhibited again as part of a large historic exhibit called “Jüdisches in Bamberg” (Jewish Life in Bamberg). (the exhibit is up until June 1, 2014.) It was very sad that Chriss was not there for this show — she died quite suddenly in 2004. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Bamberg. Regina Hanemann, the Director of the museum, guided the process of this show over a period of years. She is sensitive to all aspects and she was a generous and caring guide to Sonya and me during our one-week stay in Bamberg. Among other things, Regina is aware of our interest in the food history of German-Jews. She pointed out the berches       (bear-ches) bakeries in Bamberg and had fresh berches from one of those bakeries at the reception, in our honor. It was very moist and chewy, the way it used to be in New York when I was growing up.

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 [Berches served at opening reception of “Juedisches in Bamberg”, Villa Dessauer, Bamberg, November, 2013]

The new exhibit traces the history of Jews in that city. Included are artifacts, photographs, portraits, written material, art work and videos. Looking at the intervening 19 years, there has been a massive change.  The show curated by a young historian, Timo Saalmann , reflects the amount of academic interest there is today in all things Jewish in Germany. The preservation of memories and historical information is a driving motivation. I was pleased to be able to speak at the opening to a packed audience, in bad German, about the changes I have witnessed, and about my family’s ongoing connection to Bamberg.

– Gaby

 

13 comments
  1. Diane Siesel said:

    I remember the berches that my grandmother made and I have never been able to find a recipe. If anyone has a recipe for a “white” berches, i would love to try it.
    Diane

  2. Fascinating! Sounds like it would be worth a trip.

    Carol

    • Gaby said:

      You’ve got till June 1st, Carol, to go there!

  3. Gus Kaufman said:

    So meaningful to me! You connected me & my parents to Chriss and she guided us when we visited in 1992, including taking us to Pretzfeld, the town of my mother’s family, the Waxelbaums (originally Weischelbaum).

    • Gaby said:

      I remember well when Chriss guided you through that visit. Great to hear from you, Gus.

  4. Jacob Rossmer said:

    So very interesting to read! And Chriss sounds like an amazing person. I’m glad you guys were able to share berches in Chriss’s honor!

    • sonya said:

      Thanks, Jacob! Wish you could have been there too.
      — Sonya

  5. Aimee Paret said:

    I was so happy to be at the opening of the exhibition, see your works, hear your words and spend some time with you and Sonya. Have been back to the exhibition several times since and think of you always when I pass by your birth house on the way to the train station. Many thanks again!!

    • sonya said:

      Aimee,
      It was wonderful to meet you. Hope we meet up again soon, either here or there!
      –Sonya

  6. David said:

    Hi Gaby,

    I came across your blog while doing some research of things do in Bamberg. While my main intention in Bamberg is to try the various types of beers in the city, I would also like to connect with the Jewish history of the town as well. I went to Germany 5 years ago with my Dad to visit where my grandparents grew up, they lived in two small towns outside Frankfurt and Koln.But now I’m going on my honeymoon (don’t worry, we are doing more than visiting beer gardens ;) ) amd I was wondering if you could direct me toward some city hall official or some local person in which we could possibly meet up with and learn more about the Jewish history of Bamberg.

    Thanks,

    David

    • Gaby said:

      David: By all means head over to the Villa Dessauer at #4 Hainstrasse to connect with staff who put together the “Juedisches in Bamberg” exhibit. It would be best to have them connect you with Timo Saalmann, the young scholar who curated the show. If you have time, perhaps you can write to Dr. Regina Hanemann, the Director of the Museum to connect you with Timo. You can also visit the new synagog, on Willi Lessing Strasse. They have services every Friday night. Rabbi Anje Deusel is familiar with the history, though their focus is very much on the contemporary community, rather than the historical ones. Good luck. Let us know how it goes.

  7. David said:

    Thanks a lot for the information Gaby!

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