The ProsenPeople

Patricide, Photography, and Audrey Hepburn

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Austin Ratner wrote about Hillel sandwiches. His first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

People who have read The Jump Artist sometimes ask me what’s fact and what’s fiction. My answer is that it’s all fiction, but it’s fiction that incorporates as many facts as I could uncover and reasonably include. Years of research yielded certain results that tested me as a fiction writer—and none more so than those concerning Karl Meixner. To write about him truthfully was to risk caricature or cliché. Did he really keep Max Halsman’s head in a jar? Lest anyone think I invented him and his bizarre activities with human remains, here are some of the historical facts I uncovered about him:

  • Meixner was a professor of pathology at the Institute for Juridical Medicine in Innsbruck and an expert witness in the Halsman trials. Defense attorney Franz Pessler’s account of the trial in Der Fall Halsman points to Meixner as one of the most spirited advocates for Halsman’s conviction. In turn, Meixner was a focus of opprobrium from academics all over Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. He published impassioned defenses of himself and of his reasons for condemning Halsman.
  • He has a convincing record as a fascist and an anti-Semite. Before joining the medical faculty at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner had been an active member of Vienna’s openly anti-Semitic fraternity, Burschenschaft Olympia. And in 1946, when the war was over, Meixner was recommended for forced retirement by the “investigation committee” of the University of Innsbruck because of his reputation as a “radical Nazi.” (See Oberkofler, Gerhard and Peter Goller, Die Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck: Faschistische Realität [1938] and Kontinuität unter postfaschistischen Bedingungen [1945], Eine Dokumentation, Innsbruck: Universität Innsbruck, 1999, p. 121.)
  • There is also convincing evidence of his transgressions against medical ethics. According to Oberkofler and Goller, directors of the University of Innsbruck archives, Meixner received a Nazi decree titled “Re.: Transfer of Corpses of the Executed to the Institutes of Anatomy” and affirmed it with his signature on March 18, 1939 (Oberkofler and Goller, pp. 12-14). The decree dictated that the corpses of Nazi prisoners executed without trial and then denied burial rites be delivered to Austrian universities for scientific use.
  • There is no data on how many corpses were transferred to the University of Innsbruck medical school under the decree sent to Meixner (and to a couple of others on the medical faculty). Nor is it known what may have been done with such corpses. However, it is well known that the Nazi policy on executed prisoners was exploited significantly at the University of Vienna. A University of Vienna inquiry, made at the behest of Yad Vashem, revealed in 1998 that Dr. Eduard Pernkopf acquired 1400 cadavers from Nazi executions for his anatomic studies. Pernkopf had been an active member of the Nazi party since 1933, and in the original editions of his world-famous anatomy text, his artists signed their names with swastikas and SS symbols.
  • Staff at Yad Vashem informed me that their correspondence with the University of Innsbruck on this subject will remain classified under Israeli law until 2020. It will be interesting to see what other non-consensual uses of human remains belong to Karl Meixner’s curriculum vitae; he certainly demonstrated significant credentials along these lines during the Halsman trials. According to newspaper reports, Meixner had Philippe Halsman’s father’s head separated from his body and, over the defense’s formal protests, he kept it in a jar at the Institute as a specimen. “I had repeatedly requested that the head of Max Halsman be released for burial,” Franz Pessler writes on p. 76 of his essay on the trial, published in 1931 by the Austrian League for Human Rights. Meixner displayed the head to Franz Pessler before the second trial and again to the jury during the second trial. See Pessler, pp. 53, 76-77. (For photographs of the severed head, see Meixner, “Lehren des Halsmannprozesses,” Beitrage zur gerichtlichen Medizin, Vol. 10, 1930, pp. 62-76, and Heindl, “Der Mordprozeß Halsmann,” Archiv für Kriminologie, Vol. 92, No. 5/6, Jun 1933, pp. 185-188.)
  • Max Halsman’s head remained there in formaldehyde until 1991, according to an article in November of that year in The Jerusalem Report. (See Wise, Michael Z., “Vienna’s Dreyfus Case,” Jerusalem Report, Nov 21, 1991. p. 4.) It appears Max Halsman’s head was part of a collection of body parts and dead animals which Meixner had carefully tended and stocked. “In his capacity as morphologist, Meixner gave particular attention to the completion of the Juridical Medicine Museum, pushing for an expansion of its collection. Meixner also achieved the expansion of the Institute itself by establishing a facility for animals and a workshop.” (From Hundert Jahre Medizinische Fakultät Innsbruck 1869 bis 1969, p. 273. You can also find Karl Meixner’s face in this volume, pictured in plate no. 43. In 100 years of faculty photographs at the University of Innsbruck, Meixner is the only doctor of medicine to sit for a formal indoor portrait with his hat on. He glowers like a B-movie police inspector.)
  • Meixner died on March 6, 1955, just 4 months before Philippe Halsman would make his 75th Life Magazine cover, a photograph of Audrey Hepburn on her farm in Rome under a pair of white doves.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.

Book Cover of the Week: Vaclav and Lena

Monday, April 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Haley Tanner’s first novel, Vaclav & Lena, will be out in May:



As Jewish as a Hillel Sandwich

Monday, April 11, 2011 | Permalink

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is the winner of the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

When I learned about Philippe Halsman’s life-story and determined I would write a novel about him (The Jump Artist, 2011 winner of the Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature), I was struck by the contradictions he embodied.  Here was a man whom history had ensnared in a frightful way—at the age of 22, he was falsely accused of murdering his father in anti-Semitic western Austria, and he served two years in prison, where he attempted suicide and almost died of tuberculosis.  At the same time, here was a man who re-emerged in New York in the 1940s as a photographer—one whose work expressed the playfulness and optimism of post-war life in America on the covers of Life magazine.  Halsman himself was by all accounts a secular Jew, but his story and his work are as Jewish as a Hillel sandwich, and represent almost as neatly the opposite poles of pain and joy that define the Jewish historical experience.

It’s clear that the events of Halsman’s twenties shaped and scarred him, and in a permanent way.  In a 1995 interview with Einstein biographer Denis Brian, Philippe’s wife Yvonne Halsman said of the “Austrian Dreyfus Affair” of 1928, “It was a suffering for him for the rest of his life. And for his mother and sister and for all of us.”  But it’s also clear that he became an astute observer of people, their psyches, and their torment, and turned pain into art, sometimes with a Kafkaesque sense of humor.  He collaborated often with Salvador Dali.

Calling himself the discoverer of “Jumpology,” he also compelled hundreds of subjects to jump in the air for his camera—everyone from Brigitte Bardot and Marilyn Monroe to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Nixon. He wrote in his 1959 Jump Book, “The roots of my discovery reach into my early childhood. I was born with an intense interest in jumping…. I could run, jump and turn over in the air.” He delighted in jumping throughout his life and in photographingothers in the act of jumping. “Everybody hides behind a mask,” Halsman writes. “In a jump the subject, in a sudden burst of energy, overcomes gravity. He cannot simultaneously control his expressions, his facial and his limb muscles. The mask falls. The real self becomes visible. One has only to snap it with the camera.”

Upon photographing the great jurist Learned Hand, then aged 87, jumping off the ground, Halsman concluded that jumping was, among other things, a revolt against death and despair.  Halsman, like the Jewish people at different points in their history, found a way to rise above his hardships, as if by an act of magic levitation.  As a writer and as a Jew, I found his story irresistible.

Austin Ratner‘s first book, The Jump Artist, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts.

Leaving Mother Moldova

Friday, April 08, 2011 | Permalink

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. Earlier this week she wrote about she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers and the poetry writing process.  She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

It’s not my story to tell so I haven’t really been telling it. The struggle was my parents’, who lost their careers and started from scratch in a new country, and more my sister’s than mine, having been thrust into an American public high school with an accent and a bad case of culture shock. Over the years I’d been collecting bits and pieces of the narrative: how bad things got towards the end, Jewish homes broken into, families beaten, demonstrations in public squares, the slogan “We will drown the Soviets in Jewish blood!”

Moldova’s independence brought with it a heightened phase of anti-Semitism, and I remember my father installing a big steel door to our apartment, in case anyone tried to break in. I also vaguely remember having to keep acid by the door as a means of protection. I remember a tank and the earthquakes, I remember finally getting cable before we left. Selling everything off, leaving things behind. A little green piano I still regret leaving, a squeaky red shoe. The car ride to the train station, already narrating my last glance back at the apartment. The train, the big airplane, eating bologna and American cheese for the first time, throwing up. Then the arrival, and nobody knew how to ask where the bathrooms were. My sister piecing together some lines of English.

I found out last month we came here as refugees. I was too young to know it then.

This was May of 1991, and for the most part I was along for the ride. I remember the fear was palpable, moments felt dramatic. I entered into a cut consciousness because my everyday had changed so much. I like to think this contrast helped me remember things better.

But the real work of immigration fell on my family. This is their story. I think mine will have more to do with acculturation, issues of translation and class identification, juxtaposing Old World values and anxieties with 21st century rights and modes of expression, even questioning these freedoms and figuring out how to place myself within Judaism, given my family’s history, my grandmother’s survival of the Holocaust, my naturalness with spoken Yiddish, and my desires as a writer and as a woman.

Russian for Lovers is a step in that direction, perhaps a failed attempt at addressing politics, love, distance, language. It’s also about failures of communication, home, attempts, family relations. If nothing else, I want it to figure as a primer in the general scope of these questions, in the hopes that if I learn the basic language of this kind of discourse I could engage with the material more thoroughly and sincerely.

Maybe, in time, I could be ready to tell my family’s story, too.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers.

JBC Bookshelf: Thomashefsky Inspired Edition

Thursday, April 07, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Inspired by last night’s incredible performance of The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater at the New York Philharmonic, here’s a round-up of books that explore the Yiddish theater (plus, one by Bessie Thomashefsky herself):

Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy, and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America, Stefan Kanfer (2006, Knopf)

The Moscow Yiddish Theatre, Benjamin Harshav; Barbara Harshav (2007, Yale University Press)

Messiahs of 1933: How American Yiddish Theatre Survived Adversity through Satire, Joel Schechter (2008, Temple University Press)

Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage , Joel Berkowitz (2002, University of Iowa Press)

Mayn lebens geshikhe : di layden un freyden fun a Idisher sar arise (or view here), Bessie Thomashefsky (1916, University of Michigan Library)

     

 

Submission Call: Clearing the Spring, Sweetening the Waters

Thursday, April 07, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBW reviewer Ellie Barbarash recently sent along a call for submissions for an anthology of the kavannah based method of framing the call to Torah and mi sheberakh blessings that have been creating for congregations throughout the readings of the week.

Read more: Submission_Call_Clearing_the_Spring,_Sweetening_the_Waters.

JLit Links

Wednesday, April 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Poetry Writing Process

Wednesday, April 06, 2011 | Permalink

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of the new poetry chapbook Russian for Lovers. In her earlier post, she wrote about the origin of Russian for Lovers. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

A confession about my writing/editing process: I have none. Which is to say, I wish I could say something about how regimented I’d been with this project, working a select number of days on select letters, sending drafts to my editor for proofing, receiving feedback, editing, sending them back. The truth is this was my first real long thing up for publication, so I’m surprised it’s even finished, let alone published.

As soon as I get an idea, I obsess over it, work on it religiously for a while, then come to a point that resembles a crossroads. Then I don’t know where to go. So ordinarily I put it aside until one fine day I figure it will come to me. Because Liz, my dear friend and editor at Argos Books, got invested in the project, I couldn’t put it aside for too long. I vowed to myself that I’d work on it last summer, but of course that didn’t happen.

There was only a brief glimmer of promise when I did a series of performances at the Infringement Festival in Buffalo, NY. My first performance had to do with conjuring up my memories of the old country, immigration and acculturation. My second performance was a brief Russian alphabet lesson, and the third component was a reading from the manuscript so far. I figured this would help me imagine the project and I was right to a certain extent. I worked on Russian for Lovers during this one-week stretch. But the progress was slow and not enough to make me feel good about the end product.

Then school happened again. Liz was a great motivating force, and I had no excuses anymore because I was given a deadline. I ended up rewriting the beginning letters as themes and threads started emerging towards the middle and end of the alphabet.

I’m still not satisfied with the last pieces but Liz gave me permission and appreciated the chapbook form for being a little more ragged. And naturally it doesn’t really feel ‘done’ but that’s a certain year-long frame of mind of entering into these questions and I like to think it marks the beginning of my engagement with longer projects and my own history.

Marina Blitshteyn is the author of Russian for Lovers. Come back all week to read her blog posts.

Quiet Americans, A Week From Today

Tuesday, April 05, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Our Quiet Americans Twitter Book Club discussion with Erika Dreifus is next Tuesday, April 12th! 12:30-1:10 EST. #JBCBooks

(Personal endorsement: I read the first two stories on the subway this morning, and they are fantastic.)

Some useful links as the day draws closer:

J Lit Links

Monday, April 04, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter