Torah ark key inscribed in Hebrew "gift to the great synagogue," Northern Italy, 1724-1725
Torah ark key inscribed in Hebrew "gift to the great synagogue," Northern Italy, 1724-1725

With ‘Memory Objects,’ immigrants carried their own history

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Refugees persecuted for their religion often carry with them, from country to country, continent to continent, those cherished possessions that have symbolized the endurance of their culture and faith. A Bible or a silver mezuzah that has been passed down through the generations can conjure memories of brighter, sweeter times and provide the strength to meet new challenges.

And what of those immigrants’ belongings left behind, confiscated at borders, stolen by smugglers or lost in transit? Will the Somali man living in Minneapolis ever forget his great-grandfather’s Quran? Will the Mumbai-born mother in Memphis always pine for her grandmother’s Hindu prayer beads? Will the Jewish grandson in New York dream of his grandfather’s handmade tallit?

The psychological and historical significance of religious artifacts and other tangible manifestations of Jewish life, and the way in which immigrants sought to protect the memories and history bound up in these items, are explored in “Memory Objects: Judaica Collections and Global Migrations,” an exhibit opening Tuesday, Feb. 26 at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley.

Dish for Passover inscribed in Hebrew with the word pesach (“Passover”) and the monogram “D. L.,” Hanau, Germany, 17th century
Dish for Passover inscribed in Hebrew with the word pesach (“Passover”) and the monogram “D. L.,” Hanau, Germany, 17th century

Through the objects on display, the exhibit seeks to give viewers a sense of the personal stories of migration, loss and displacement. Most of the 40-plus items, which include spice boxes, a Kiddush cup, a Passover plate, menorahs and a variety of Jewish texts and manuscripts, came from Holocaust survivor Siegfried Strauss. The Magnes purchased Strauss’ collection of more than 400 pieces some 50 years ago, shortly before his death. The Judaica dates back to 17th-century Europe and includes items with Mizrachi, Sephardic and Ashkenazi origins.

Little is known about Strauss, said Magnes assistant curator Shir Gal Kochavi. What is known: He began collecting in his native Germany before World War I; he secured safe passage of the items to England before a brief internment at Buchenwald; and he and his Judaica eventually made it to the United States. And that, said Kochavi, is a salient point of “Memory Objects.”

The exhibit is essentially about the embodiment of “memories of communities” that were decimated during World War II, she said. It prompts the museumgoer to “put yourself in the shoes of the refugee … [and to consider] why objects survived when the people did not.”

Carved and engraved shofar, inscribed in Hebrew with biblical verses about the shofar, 18th century
Carved and engraved shofar, inscribed in Hebrew with biblical verses about the shofar, 18th century

Kochavi, who co-curated the exhibit with Francesco Spagnolo, said “Memory Objects” also endeavors to contextualize the trajectory of Jewish history and migration in Central and Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century, well before the Holocaust. It was a time when many Jews began leaving the shtetls and traditional religious observance for more urban, secular lives in Berlin, Warsaw, Vilnius, Prague, Budapest, Odessa and other cities.

But most of the new Jewish city dwellers did not entirely shed their religious identities as they acquired wealth and education. They began collecting Judaica as a way to retain an attachment to their histories and shared identities. Their stature and influence in secular society did not necessarily protect them from persecution — and worse — but their surviving possessions have provided valuable information about their culture and their own stories.

In addition to the Strauss collection, “Memory Objects” includes the photographic catalog of Ernst Freudenheim, a young Judaica art dealer in 1920s Berlin, and a precious porcelain set that belonged to the House of Camondo, a wealthy Sephardic family of Istanbul and Paris who started a bank in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain.

Rabbinic seal reads “Ober Rabbiner M.B. Adler,” Hannover, Germany, 19th century
Rabbinic seal reads “Ober Rabbiner M.B. Adler,”
Hannover, Germany, 19th century

One of the photographs in the Freudenheim catalog, of a 17th-century German Passover plate, bears a striking resemblance to the Siegfried Strauss Passover plate on display at the Magnes, Kochavi said, illustrating how Jewish objects from private citizens come to rest at public venues like the Magnes for historic preservation and protection.

At the opening event of “Memory Objects” on Tuesday, March 5, art historian Tom Freudenheim, one of Ernst’s sons and a past director of several high-profile museums, will address “Collecting Jewish Objects in Times of Crisis.” Also speaking at the event will be Ben and Naomi Schiff, grandchildren of renowned photographer Roman Vishniac, whose 1983 book “A Vanished World” was a visual elegy to the doomed Jews of Eastern and Central Europe in the 1930s. They will say a few words about the family’s gift of the Vishniac archive to the Magnes.

Visitors can also view short streaming videos, made in collaboration with Sam Ball of San Francisco-based documentary nonprofit Citizen Film, that feature present-day refugees speaking about cherished objects they carried as they made their way to this country.

“Memory Objects.” Feb. 26 through June 28 at the Magnes, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Tom Freudenheim will speak from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 5 at the official opening. Free. magnes.berkeley.edu

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.