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JEWS

Berlin exhibition explores Jewish roots of comics

A major new exhibition at Berlin’s Jewish Museum, argues it was no coincidence that the biggest superheroes including Superman, Spiderman, Batman and the Hulk were all created by Jewish comic artists.

Berlin exhibition explores Jewish roots of comics
Photo: DPA

If Superman had had his way, Hitler would have wound up begging for mercy before the League of Nations in Geneva in 1940, and there would never have been an Auschwitz.

“Heroes, Freaks and Superrabbis – the Jewish Colour of Comics” looks at 45 of the most successful comic creators, overwhelmingly children of European Jewish families who had immigrated to New York. As comic books entered their golden age in the 1930s and 1940s, the most iconic superheroes were products of those troubled times, even taking on Adolf Hitler and his Nazi henchmen before the Americans did.

“The point of the exhibition isn’t to say comics are a Jewish speciality,” said Anne Helene Hoog, one of the curators. “Rather, it looks at the question why so many Jews became comic artists, and what issues preoccupied them.”

In February 1940, nearly two years before Pearl Harbor, “How Superman Would End the War” by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster has the Man of Steel making quick work of the diminutive Nazi leader.

“I’d like to land a strictly non-Aryan sock on your jaw, but there’s no time for that!” Superman tells a grovelling Hitler as he dispatches him to Switzerland to face justice, along with Stalin to boot. A month later, Captain America by Jack Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon thwarts a Nazi plot to invade America with a wallop to the Führer’s nose in a legendary cover sketch.

Hoog said the superheroes were often depicted, like their artists, as outsiders who, with an immigrant’s deep patriotism, battle to save their adopted home country from an outside threat.

That image resonated powerfully at a time when the world appeared to be falling apart, Hoog said.

“In light of the failure of democracy in Europe, it was clear that young people -particularly the children of immigrants, poor people, refugees – confronted with misery, fear, violence, injustice and finally extermination, were alarmed by what was happening in the world,” she said. “In the 1930s, there was a deep need for superheroes,” she added, and Jewish artists were happy to oblige.

Although none of the major superheroes were overtly Jewish, their heroic journeys were often steeped in Old Testament imagery, noted Jewish Museum programme director Cilly Kugelmann.

“Like Moses, Superman was discovered as an apparently abandoned baby and raised by the people who found him,” she said, adding that the character also had roots in Greek mythology, Germanic tales and the story of Jesus Christ. Even “Shazam!”, the magic word that turns young Billy Batson into 1970s-era Captain Marvel, had quasi-Jewish roots. The word is an acronym for the legendary heroes who inspire him and the first letter, “S”, stands for wise King Solomon of Israel.

Many of the comic artists worked as paperboys when they were young in the 1920s, selling newspapers amid the tenements on New York’s Lower East Side, where their love for the “funnies” was born.

After the war, with time Jewish graphic novelists began confronting the Holocaust tentatively at first, culminating in the harrowing Pulitzer-prize-winning Maus series by Art Spiegelman. In the two volumes published in 1986 and 1991, Spiegelman tells the story of his Shoah-survivor father, a Polish-born Jew, and the author’s own feelings of guilt and rage toward him as he was growing up. With his literary ambition, Spiegelman revolutionised the genre.

Comics also accompanied the counterculture movement of the 1960s, with Mad magazine and subversive “comix” by Jewish women such as Trina Roberts and Aline Kominsky-Crumb.

Hoog said a current of irony runs through many of the works, highlighting Steve Sheinkin’s “The Adventures of Rabbi Harvey” and “Rabbi Harvey Rides Again” about a Jewish cleric superhero in the Wild West. Punctuating the point, a caped Superman statue outside the museum shows him crashed into the pavement, with Krypton blood trickling from his head. The sculpture is called “Even Superheroes Have Bad Days.”

The Berlin exhibition was conceived in cooperation with the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, each of which had previous shows that have been adapted and expanded here. It features more than 200 original comics, including rare sketches signed by the artists, and runs until August 8.

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CULTURE

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

READ ALSO: REVEALED: The best events and festivals in Germany this July

‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

READ ALSO: Nine of the best day trips from Munich with the €9 ticket

Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.

Stückl

Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page

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