Fact and fiction weave historical narrative in Magnes exhibit

When historical fact and fiction combine, who gets to decide where the lines are drawn? What about when fictional characters interact with real people from history — like, say, Franz Kafka?

These questions and others confront visitors to “Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker,” an exhibition by noted Berkeley writer and art historian Moira Roth that opened Jan. 22 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Life and Art in Berkeley.

In the “literary installation,” as the Magnes is calling it, the fictional protagonist Rachel Marker is a Czech Jew living throughout Europe — Prague, Paris, Berlin — in the first half of the 20th century. Marker, a poet and playwright, documents her experiences through notes, photographs and artifacts, including a series of letters to the then-recently-deceased Franz Kafka, describing the rise of fascism in her native country, her daily life, and run-ins with other historical figures such as Gertrude Stein.

Alice Herz-Sommer, 1922 photo/courtesy of magnes collection

Curated by museum director Alla Efimova, the exhibition — which winds around one large gallery room — also includes film and audio components. In one corner, a writing desk invites visitors to sit and write their own thoughts or letters and post them on a nearby bulletin board; Roth plans to incorporate visitors’ experiences into her next installment of writing about Marker. The exhibition brochure includes a timeline of historical events in Eastern Europe to which Marker bore witness.

The exhibition is the culmination of more than a decade of work — including published short stories and essays, as well as short plays that have been staged around the Bay Area — by Roth, all featuring Marker as the main character.

“I get very inspired when I travel,” says Roth, 79, of the sprawling geographical course charted by Marker — which is, of course, similar to the research trips Roth herself took from around 2001 to 2004, when she began Marker’s narrative. “I was in Berlin in 2001, and I was just walking endlessly. I had a camera when, by mistake, I took a picture of my shadow by [playwright Bertol] Brecht’s grave … and it all just started coming to me.”

Born in England in 1933, Roth attended the London School of Economics before moving to the United States, where she earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University and both a master’s and a Ph.D. from U.C. Berkeley. She taught at three U.C. campuses before landing at Oakland’s Mills College in 1985, where she now holds the Trefethen Endowed Chair in Art History. (While putting the final touches on this exhibition, she was readying the syllabus for her contemporary art history class.)

photo/courtesy of magnes collection

Roth is not Jewish, but has been fascinated by Eastern European Jewish history and literature for decades. Efimova says that, for her, the root of that interest is one of the most compelling aspects of the exhibition.

“The fact that [Roth] identifies so deeply with this fictional Jewish character, that’s been very interesting to me from the start,” says Efimova, who helped put together a staged reading of part of the Marker narrative with Roth in 2006. “Especially when you combine that with the interplay between fiction and autobiography and nonfiction, there are so many questions about identity at work here.”

Roth, who grew up outside London during World War II, says she’s well aware of how her background has inspired her writing. Her parents divorced when Roth was young, and her mother, who was “well off, with a big house” placed an ad in the paper announcing that refugees of any race or religion were welcome to come and stay with her. As a result, says Roth, “I was very connected with European Jews from the time I was very young.”

Moira Roth stands by a photo of Rose Hacker with her father, Abraham Goldbloom, in Berlin, 1929. Hacker lived with the Roth family when Moira was a child. photo/emma silvers

Among those who came to the Roth household was Rose Hacker, one of the two real Jewish women whom Roth credits with much of the inspiration for Marker. A prolific writer, feminist, pacifist and active socialist who wrote newspaper op-eds until her death at age 101, Hacker came to live with the Roths as a young woman and eventually became the younger writer’s “unofficially adopted mother.” The exhibition is dedicated to her memory.

The other nonfictional woman with a strong presence in Marker’s story is Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest known Holocaust survivor at 109. Originally from Prague, Herz-Sommer met Kafka, a family friend, as a child. She became a well-known pianist in the 1920s and 30s, before being sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with her son. She now lives in London and, says Roth — who counts her as a close friend — she still plays the piano daily. Video and audio of Herz-Sommer playing greet visitors to the Magnes exhibition, setting the tone for entering Rachel Marker’s world.

Roth’s identity seeps into the narrative in places as well — an old passport photo of hers is among the artifacts on display and a character named “Moira Marker” appeared in Rachel’s story about five years ago. The story has been taking shape for almost 12 years now, with excerpts having been published and performed, and Roth envisions the narrative will eventually turn into a book. But for now, the writer is reveling in the story as it stands — and she says it has taken on a life of its own.

“It’s been almost eerie watching the exhibition go up, especially with all the visual elements — I, like anyone, can wander around it and be in Prague in 1924 and then in London in 2012,” says Roth. “Who knows what will come up next?”

“Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker” is on view through June 28 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Galleries are open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.magnes.org

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.