THE ARTS 6.19.09
THE ARTS 6.19.09

Artist walks down the Jewish streets of Germany

Walking around Berlin some years ago, artist Susan Hiller saw the street sign above her: It read Judenstrasse, or Jews’ Street. How odd, she thought, in a land that nearly wiped out its Jews, that there should be a Jews’ Street

From the exhibit, “Jüdenhain, Marienberg” shows a street sign in the small town of Marienberg, Germany. photo/courtesy of susan hiller and the timothy taylor gallery, london

Hiller soon learned Berlin wasn’t the only place in Germany with such a street. In more than 300 locales across the country, streets with similar names abounded.

But why? Hiller wanted to find out. The result is an exhibition of photographs and a film documenting every single “Jew Street” in Germany.

Titled the J. Street Project, the exhibit opened June 18 at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum and runs through Aug. 18. It recently ran for three months at the Jewish Museum in New York City, which organized the exhibition in partnership with the CJM.

“I found 303 places that have these names,” Hiller says from her London home, “and there must have been more.”

Whether Judenstrasse, Judenbergstrasse or Judenpfad, the streets were named for Jewish neighborhoods through which they ran. The Nazis changed all 303 names in an effort to erase Jewish history in Germany, but after the war, the denazification process included restoring nearly all of the streets to their original Jewish names.

Hiller, who is Jewish, studied maps and traveled across Germany to get her photos. She says the exhibition is “a prolonged meditation on the ordinary and the terrible. You see ordinary places where people go about their business. You see children playing there. I thought of the children who are not there.”

Mounted on floor-to-ceiling blocks, Hiller’s photos have a plainness to them. She used no filters or darkroom effects in her prints, most of which show street corners in quaint villages or teeming cities.

One image even shows the Judenmerestrasse (Jewish Wall Street) at the corner of Karl Marx Strasse. The first street name is a bastardization of Latin, indicating how the Jews first came to Germany with the ancient Romans; the second street was named for the Jewish founder of communism 150 years ago.

Hiller grew up in Coral Gables, Fla., and is the daughter of a German-born Jew. After graduating from Smith College in 1961, she went on to study at Tulane under a National Science Foundation fellowship in anthropology.

After completing fieldwork in Latin America, she left anthropology in 1969 and settled in London with her husband. It was then that she began to pursue art.

Her subjects have included antique postcards, horror films, UFOs and dead languages. “My work is about ghosts,” she says, “things nobody pays attention to,  awkward, trivial, things unnoticed. That theme runs through everything.”

The J. Street Project has been shown in the National Art Museum in Beijing, the BAWAG Foundation in Vienna and the Kunstraum des Deutschen Bundestages in Berlin.

Hiller is glad it to have had her work shown in non-Jewish venues, just as she insists on downplaying her own Jewish heritage when talking about the photos.

“In Germany people were always asking about that, as if to say only a Jewish person would be interested in this subject,” Hiller says. “I don’t think that’s true. It’s important to integrate this kind of thing into a completely mixed context. If it stays a Jewish piece by a Jewish person, that makes it seem specialized.”

Nevertheless, Hiller acknowledges that creating the J. Street Project held deeper meaning for her, beyond the aesthetic.

“There’s another level,” she says. “The fact that I went to all of those places, it was sort of a pilgrimage.”

J. Street Project is on display through Aug. 18 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Information: (415) 655-7800 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.