City of Life, City of Death: Two Paintings by Berthold Klinghofer

I am fascinated by two paintings created about four decades apart, by the same artist, Berthold Klinghofer (1893-1975), who is a distant cousin of mine through marriage.

“Czernowitz Ringplatz” ( 1911) depicts the fabled central square of Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovinan region (now divided between Romania and Ukraine) on the eve of World War One. (Note 1) Czernowitz, a predominantly German-speaking city renown for its vibrant Jewish cultural community, was referred to as “Little Vienna” during the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Ringplatz seems to have been modeled on the Vienna’s own central imperial Ringstrasse center. The plaza was a favorite of painters and photographers and is chronicled in several surviving photographic postcards., as in the postcard below.:

The Ringplatz is nostalgically referenced by many Jewish residents and descendants, including in Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer’s book, Ghosts of Home: The Afterlife of Czernowitz in Jewish Memory (University of California Press, 2011). The Ringplatz exemplified the cosmopolitan and pluralist ethos associated with Czernowitz in the final decades of the Hapsburg reign,. The first conference devoted to the Yiddish language was held there in 1908 in Czernowritz,where many significant German speaking Jewish intellectuals, artists, and literary figures, including Rosa Auslander and Paul Celan, came of age.

Klinghofer’s painting, created early in his career when he was about twenty years old, captures the vibrancy and dynamism of the city center, in a manner that evokes earlier Impressionist celebrations of urban bourgeois urbanity. In the foreground, a city trolly prepares to embark from its downtown terminus, its well dressed riders nearly all facing forward. To the trolly’s left we see an elegantly attired woman from the rear, sporting a red hat which seems to match the bright red trolly. Perhaps she has just alighted from the tram. Speculatively. we may be being treated to a first glimpse of the colorful urban center as seen by a new arrival to the town. (Note 2)

To the right of the terminus, we see three men in conversation, near two trees in full foliage; a man sports a beard that might signal his status as an observant Jew. In a touch of humor, we glimpse a man, perhaps a sailor, emerging from an open air walled pissoir or public urinal. Behind the terminus, heading in precisely the opposite direction as the tram, we see an open sedan automobile driving along through a crowded thoroughfare. Here and there we glimpse knots of people in animated conversation, standing, on benches, or shopping at open market stalls. Others walk alone, flaneurs making their way through the elegant cityscape. In the upper center we see the high wall of a grand four story building, decorated with festive advertising text. Everywhere, we see the untrammeled joy and interaction of metropolitan life, the coming together of those of different backgrounds amidst the hum of commerce and curiosity.

Don’t Forget (c. 1947)

Consider the horrific contrast to a work painted by the same artist about four decades later, “Don’t Forget: Crematoria,” an homage to the terrors of the Holocaust. (Note 4).

A crowd of naked inmates is forced by black-clad guards towards the blazing red oven of the crematorium. imaged as the gaping mouth of a monstrous creature. Where its nose would be a swastika is placed over the black outline of a Wehrmacht military helmet. Above the demonic face we see a chimney belching smoke from the remains of the murdered victims. Across a low wall are clustered the crowds of those, still clothed, destined for slaughter. A curving line of the victims stretches out as far as the eye can see. In the upper left, are written the words “Don’t Forget” in English and Hebrew, below a yellow Star of David.

It seems likely that the artist was mindful of the pivotal scene in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, in which the protagonist Freder, son of the industrialist, has a vision of the underground machine complex as “Moloch” the Canaanite god associated with child sacrifice.

In the film a giant head with a vast burning maw devours the laborers of the city. As in Klinghofer’s painting, smoke emerges from the vast mechanical figure. In Metropolis, helmeted warriors force unclad workers into the burning mouth; so too in the Holocaust painting are the victims fed to the merciless god of fire.

Berthold Klinghofer during the Holocaust

Berthold Klinghofer was a professor and respected artist in Bukovina before the war, and held art shows in Czernowitz in 1938, 1939 and 1940 as well as one in Bucharest. Then, like thousands of other Jewish Romanians, he was caught up in the deepening campaigns of anti semitic extermination.

Over the course of 1941, the fascist Romanian regime of Antonescu increasingly allied itself with Hitler’s Germany, in terms of military policy and violent anti-semitism. The Romanian military participated in Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union. In appreciation of Romania’s service, the German high command awarded a section of the Soviet Union’s southern Ukraine, north of the Dnister River, known as Transnistria, to Romanian control. This territory was used primarily as a space of violent oppression for deported Jews from Bukovina, Galicia, Moldova and elsewhere. Some were directly placed in labor camps, others wandered desperately from place to place. Others were forced north further into Ukraine, where they were victims of murderous killings by the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazi SS mobile killing squads.

Some of Klinghofer’s travails during this period are documented in an article in the newspaper Die Stimme (The Voice) Mitteilungsblatt für die Bukowiner, the long running newspaper of Jewish Bukovina, in the May 1959 edition page 9. (German version at https://bit.ly/33rw5sd)

•••

Meeting of Three People Said to be Dead After 18 Years

On July 16, 1941, on the orders of the SS-Kommando stationed there at the time, attorney Sascha Pinkensohn, Prof. Berthold Klinghoffer, and Dr. Elias Weinstein were arrested in Czernowitz. In the gendarmerie command, to which they were transferred immediately afterwards, they learned that they were to be executed the following night. A short time later, they were escorted by a strong military patrol to the village of Revna, 7 kilometers from Chernivtsi, to be taken to the gendarmerie post there. Already on the way, Klinghoffer attempted suicide by poisoning.

As if by a miracle, these three prisoners escaped the cruel fate of the shooting: Klinghoffer, who was brought to Czernowitz by a patrol a short time later, managed to escape with his family to Bucharest. He was captured there by military authorities and, after horrible torture, was brought back to Czernowitz, from where he was deported to a penal camp in Transnistria. After the end of the war, Klinghoffer fled with his family to the free world and, on a detour via Canada, arrived in Milan, where he took up permanent residence with his wife and son.Berthold Klinghoffer is currently staying in the country [Israel} with his wife as a tourist.

The three friends, who experienced fateful moments together, were able to see each other again for the first time after 18 years in Tel-Aviv.

Berthold Klinghofer is listed in the “Lists of remits made to Jews from Romania that had been deported to Transnistria,” a set of documents held in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Limited funds were transferred to Jewish deportees, in some cases proving the difference between life and death for those confined to Transnistria.

In my own family, my great grandparents Isak and Clara Auslander after their deportation from their home in Radautz (Radauti) were for a time sustained by financial transfers from their son in law, Dr. Robert (Berl) Klinghoffer. As a physician Robert was allowed to remain in his home town of Storojinet, Bukovina, during war, and was able to provide modest financial support to his wife Sara’s parents, and their grandson Severin Pagis (who would later be the Israeli poet and scholar Dan Pagis), who was eleven when the deportation took place.

Berthold Klinghofe was first cousin of Dr. Robert Klinghoffer .(Robert’s father was brother to Moshe Klinghofer, Berthold’s father). According to records in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Berthold received a payment from someone in Romanian territory on 9 Nov 1943. I do not know as of this writing who provided this support. The death date of Berthold’s father Moshe Klinghofer is listed as 1943, so it seems likely he died in Transnistria during the deportation period.

Robert’s son, Arthur Klinghoffer (born 1927 and now living in Israel) recalls being reunited with Berthold and his wife Stefania (Fanny, nee Segal) in 1944 in Czernowitz after the city had been liberated from Romanian fascist domination by the Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union. Arthur assisted Berthold and Fanny in creating paintings for the local Communist Party leadership. The next year Robert, Sara, and Arthur Klinghoffer, moved away from Soviet control and settled in Radautz, and in time made their way to Israel. Berthold and Fanny, in turn, made their way to Vienna, where Berthold became a member of the Viennese Academy of Art, and later settled in Milan, Italy. He and Fanny visited Arthur and his family in Israel in 1959, as noted in Die Stimme article above. Berthold died in 1975.

My great grandparents were confined for the deportation period of 1941-44 to a Transnistria work camp in Vindiceni, which is where my great grandfather Isak Auslander died in January 1944, two months before the Red Army liberated the area. I am not sure where precisely Berthold and Fanny were confined in Transnistria.

It is interesting, in any event, that in his postwar painting, Berthold chooses to depict the Holocaust through the motif of Auschwitz, a mechanized death camp, as opposed to the less centralized mass murders committed by beating, starvation, disease, and mobile killing squads that characterized the Final Solution in Transnistria and elsewhere in Ukraine. (It is sometimes said that the Holocaust in Central Europe was characterized by death through the gas chamber, and in the East, by death in the ravine ). It may be that the artist chose for the purpose of simplicity to center on what had become the universal recognizable signifier of the Holocaust, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. The term “Holocaust,” as is well known, references a burnt offering, and the painting encompasses the variegated fate of the Six Million within the imagery of a vast fire sacrifice.

The Two Paintings, Compared

Whatever the artist’s precise motivations, it occurs to me that the “Don’t Forget” work can be read as a precise inversion of the 1911 “Czernowitz Ringplatz” painting, created roughly four decades earlier. In the Czernowitz image, the fully clothed protagonists delight in the common public square, freely pursuing their own pathways in every direction through the city center. In “Don’t Forget,” all are coerced into a vast forced march that culminates in nakedness, forced into a single burning fire as the singular telos of all their journeys. We are as far as possible from the public plaza that symbolized the common space of civil society under conditions of cosmopolitan urbanity; now, the violent state is all powerful, endlessly consuming those have been utterly subjected to its destructive appetites. (Note 4)

To be sure, there is no way of knowing if Berthold even remembered his youthful, pre-Great War painting of the Ringplatz as he painted the Holocaust commemorative work after World War Two. Nonetheless, the structural contrasts are striking. Towering above the market scene of downtown Czernowitz were inscribed exuberant advertising signs, visual celebrations of the commercial joys of the city. Now, written above the unfolding terror of the death camp are only the somber written injunctions not to forget, and a reproduction of the Star of David which Jews were forced to wear under the Third Reich. The center foreground of the Ringplatz composition was a city red tram setting forth, its riders optimistically looking forward towards the viewer as they embark on their urban adventure. In contrast, in “Don’t Forget’ all the figures in the foreground are seen from the rear, as in the final moments of life they are pushed into the red mouth of the crematorium. Adjacent to the Czernowitz transport terminus were two vibrant green trees, a verdant oasis in the midst of the city; the landscape of Auschwitz is entirely denuded of natural beauty, as all life is offered to the red flames and turned to black smoke.

Finally, in Ringplatz the varied architecture of the cityscape serves a visual correlative to the diverse urban dwellers who saunter to and fro, each a bit different, each on his or her private errand. In the Holocaust painting, nearly all distinctiveness is leached away from the naked victims, and there is no trace of the beauty of architectural diversity. Only one squat ugly building dominates the field of vision, a relentless mechanism of mass murder. All signs of the lost world of cosmopolitanism have been eradicated, in this dreary city of the dead.

I am not sure if when creating “Don’t Forget,” Klinghofer was directly familiar with Paul Celan’s 1948 poetic meditation on the Holocaust, Todesfugue (Death Fugue) . Like Klinghofer, Celan was a native of Czernowitz and was subjected to slave labor in Transnistria, where his parents died. The poem famously repeats the line, “Black milk of dawn we drink you at night” (“Schwarze Milch der Frühe trinken dich nachts”) A similar monochromatic gloom permeates Berthold’s painting. We are infinitely far from Czernowitz’s Ringplatz, in which articulated shadows from the green trees indicate a precise time of day; here, in the death camp and its long aftermath, there is no conventional passage of time, no distinction between daytime and nighttime, between dawn and sunset, only the endless rhythm of the transport and the repeated machinery of mass death, in the perpetual shadowlands. The crematorium’s fires burn not only millions of human bodies, but all memories of the sun-drenched city, even as, paradoxically, the artist pleads with us to stay loyal to the impossible yet vital work of remembrance.

Notes

Note 1. Edgar Hauster, an authority on the history of Czernowitz and Bukovina, has kindly shared an entry from Klinghofer’s birth register, indicating that Berthold was born as Baruch Klinghoffer on May 20, 1893 in Paltinosa [Paltinoasa] in the vicinity of Gurahumora [Gura Humorului], son of Moses Klinghoffer, [propination licence] holder in Paltinosa, and Rifka Scheindel, daughter of Mendel and Sluwe Rath from Radautz:

Note 2. A recent copy of the painting by Victor Volkov was evidently acquired by the Czernowitz Art Gallery. (See an essay in German and Ukrainian by Tetyana Dugaeva: http://hauster.de/data/ChernivtsiKunstalbum.pdf) I am unsure of the provenance or current owner of the actual painting, which is reproduced along with the Volkov copy on the Czernowitz L Discussion Group blog at: http://ehpes.com/blog1/?p=10364

Note 3.. “Never Forgot: Crematoria” is one of eleven works on Holocaust and refugee themes by Berthold Klinghofer in the collection of the archives of the Ghetto Fighters Museum and Archives in Western Galilee, Israel. The works may be seen by entering the term “Klinghofer” into the search box. I am unsure of the date of the painting, other than it must be post-1945.

Note 4. Wikipedia offers a brief biography of Klinghofer in Italian at: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berthold_Klinghofer

Scattered paintings by Bethold Klinghofer reproduced online suggests that “Don’t Forget” is rather cruder than most of his work. See for example:

http://www.arcadja.com/auctions/en/klinghofer_berthold/artist/359572/

https://www.invaluable.com/auction-lot/klinghofer-berthold-leda-e-il-cigno-480-c-4dc4f818e5#

https://www.mutualart.com/Artist/Berthold-Klinghofer/EAF2B3A6F9B779F1

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