Monday, November 7, 2011

Artwork: Postcard from New Ulm

Storytime! Time for another story and another painting in the ongoing Identity and Legacy series.   One of my most moving interviews was with Trudy, a survivor from Stuttgart.  Trudy reminisced about food and her grandparents and then launched with some hesitation into the story that defined her youth, life in Nazi Germany.  She recounted the pre-war period in Germany where she first experienced the new regime through the loss of a friend.

I had a good friend, a girlfriend.  She was my age and we went to school together. We were close.  She lived just around the corner from where I lived.  Sometimes she stayed overnight at my house, sometimes I stayed overnight at her house.  She was not Jewish.  And it was about ’33, all of a sudden my girlfriend was a little strange towards me.  And one day she came and said, “Trudy, I cannot be friends with you anymore.”  I said, “Why?’ ‘Because my father worked for the radio station and if they find out that I am having a Jewish friend, then he will lose his job”.   

Trudy was fifteen when this occurred and it was the beginning. I was especially touched by this story as it spoke to the experience of a young girl and her friendships, irretrievably altered by a political regime.  Soon they couldn't get jobs anymore or go to school and they were evicted from their apartment.   Five years later, the morning after Kristallnacht, Trudy's father was taken to a concentration camp and then released on the condition that he leave Germany.  This was still early. Some German Jews were offered the option of leaving the country.  They desperately began to search for a country that would let them in.

My father had to report to the Gestapo every week about his immigration and he was in danger if he wouldn’t go away they would take him back  (to the concentration camp).  So we waited a little bit and they came up with a trip to Shanghai.  Shanghai opened, and let the Jews come in.  I was included too, my passport was not ready.  My parents had to leave.  My parents left in 1939, beginning September and they said two weeks later goes a second transport to China, Shanghai and I could be on that boat.  But in those two weeks the war broke out.  That’s how I was stuck in Germany. 

Trudy joined her aunt and uncle.  Ironically their son had gone to Shanghai with Trudy's parents.  Six weeks later everyone over 30 was shot, including her aunt and uncle.

Trudy told me stories about her time during the war and the ten camps in which she was held.  Many of the stories emphasized the sheer chanciness of her survival.

After the war the towns in Germany were abandoned as the Germans ran from the Russians.

Every night we stayed overnight in a different house in a different village and ... all the villages were empty, the houses.  The Germans did run away from the Russians, they left and left everything behind so we had food.... We went in and chose a house where we could stay and I was sick and a few of our friends were sick. ... Polish soldiers came and asking, they did go through the houses and asking if anybody was sick and I said, “I’m sick” and they had a cart, a wagon with cows in front pulling the wagon and take me to the hospital.

After the war Trudy was reunited with her parents in Minneapolis, a joyous occasion after a nine year separation.  Her father lived for six more years.

They (her parents) went on a trip to New Ulm and he passed away in the night.  After the funeral of my father I got a postcard in the mail from my father, from New Ulm, and he writes, “We have such a good time, everyone speaks German here, German, born in Germany, raised in Germany and the food is so good, German food”.

There were so many colorful stories that it was challenging to narrow the scope for a painting.   There was almost too much - Shanghai, the theme of separation and such visual imagery of abandoned houses and cow drawn carts. What especially stayed with me was the after-death postcard from her father and the fact that it represented his delight in all things German, a familiar home despite the war.  This painting, Postcard from New Ulm, incorporates many of the images from Trudy's stories with the postcard as the central image.  The monument in the foreground is nicknamed Herman the German, a monument in New Ulm, a Minnesota town with largely German roots.  A procession of vehicles includes an image from Shanghai, a boxcar and a cart pulled by cows taking those who were ill to the hospital.  Each is representative of a part of the journey undertaken by both Trudy and her parents which for her father ended in New Ulm.  The houses are abandoned with doors open and curtains flying in the wind.  The words of her father are on the card emphasizing the importance of their German heritage even when Germany had turned on them.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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