Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mystic Seaport's Gerda III

Tied to a dock at the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut a small, white lighthouse tender sports a huge Danish flag on its stern. The little boat, the Gerda III, belongs to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in Manhattan’s Battery Park City. It was given to the museum by the Danish parliament in recognition of what the Gerda III and its crew did in October 1943 when Germans attempted to round up the Jewish population of Denmark for extermination.

Over a period of several weeks, the 46-foot-long Gerda III made numerous trips across the sound that separates Copenhagen, Denmark from Sweden, each time with 10 to 15 Jews packed into its tiny hold. In Sweden, which was neutral, the Jews were safe from Hitler’s Nazis. The little ship and its brave crew saved 300 lives.

Almost 70 years have passed since then, but the story of the rescuers and the rescued remains as gripping as it was when it happened.

In 1943, there were 7,500 Jews living in Denmark. Germany had occupied Denmark since April 1940, but the Danes had been allowed to continue their government with little interference. Jewish life also went on as it had before. Danish Jews continued to hold religious services and retained their businesses and their property.

On Sept. 29, 1943, that changed. The day before, a senior German official, G. F. Duckwitz, had quietly alerted some senior members of the Danish government that the Jews were going to be rounded up and sent to concentration camps beginning on Oct. 1. The Danish officials contacted the heads of the Jewish community and told them to urge everyone to flee. Danes — Jewish and non-Jewish — went door to door to Jewish households with the news.

One of those who fled, Herbert Pundik, then 16 years old and later a journalist, wrote a book about what occurred. “The result was that on the night of October 1st, when the Germans came, most Danish Jews had flown the coop,” he wrote. “They sought refuge with non-Jewish friends and acquaintances or with complete strangers who opened their doors to them.”

Then hidden in trucks and in ambulances, the Jews were driven to the coast, where they were surreptitiously ferried to Sweden. Several hundred ships took part in the rescue. Gerda III was one of them. More than 7,000 people were saved — almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark.

At the time, Henny Sinding, 19 years old, was working for a lighthouse-tending business that her father managed. The Gerda III’s crew approached her to ask her help and her father’s permission to use the boat to rescue the Jews.

“Henny’s father gave tacit permission,” said Anita Kassof, Deputy Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage, “and thereafter for that critical month of October she would leave her parents’ house at one in the morning to go smuggle Jews and her parents essentially just looked the other way.”

A video called “Rescuers” in the Museum of Jewish Heritage honors people such as Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler who aided the Jews. The segment about the rescue of the Danish Jews is simply entitled “Denmark.”

“Everybody in Denmark helped the Jews,” says Leif Donde — among those rescued — in the video. “It was the students, the workers, the business executives. It was the farmers. It was the fishermen.”

Henny Sinding appears in the video as Henny Sinding Sundø — her married name — by then a woman in late middle age with a weathered, sunburned face, short hair, no jewelry, a dab of lipstick and bright, blue eyes.

“Why should the Germans kill our Danes?” she asks in the video. “They were Danes like we were. Danes? Jews? They were just Danes.”

Of her role in the rescue, which would have resulted in imprisonment and death had she been caught, she says, “Nobody – he or she – thinks that they are heroes because it was not a very heroic thing to do. It was just a natural thing to do.”

In the video, another woman, Elsebet Kieler, who participated in the rescue, explains her actions by saying, “If you want to remain a human being and take care of your own human dignity, you have to take care of your neighbor. It’s the same thing. You have to protect everyone.”

Denmark was the only Nazi-occupied country that managed to save most of its Jewish citizens. In fact, elsewhere much of the local population enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans in rounding up the Jews.

The Danes protected not only Jewish lives but Jewish property. “Most of the Jews came back after the war and they found their houses intact,” said Kassof. “It’s really a remarkable story. I think it’s a testament to the Danish character.”

Anita Kassof said that Gerda III is in Mystic, Conn. rather than in Manhattan because the Mystic Seaport, a world-renowned maritime museum, has a full-time staff to care for the boat and to make sure that people have access to it and that it’s being interpreted accurately.

“What started out as a temporary arrangement at Mystic has become unofficially a permanent arrangement,” she said. “It’s working out well for everyone.”

For Mystic Seaport hours, admission prices and directions, go to For information about the Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place, go to Herbert Pundik’s book, “In Denmark It Could Not Happen” about the flight of the Danish Jews to Sweden is available in the Museum of Jewish Heritage bookstore for $16.95.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Dr. Barnes in Philadelphia

One of Dr. Barnes' "ensembles" contrasts a cozy family portrait by Renoir  with a painting by Cézanne of nudes in a hostile landscape
With jubilation and some residual sour faces from the bruising legal brawl that preceded the occasion, the Barnes Foundation opened its Center City Philadelphia campus on May 19, 2012. A hundred years ago, Dr. Albert C. Barnes began buying Impressionist, post-Impressionist and early 20th-century art, assembling one of the world's great collections, larded with old masters such as El Greco, Hals and Goya and African and Native American work that intrigued him. He was also interested in Pennsylvania German folk art and furniture and in centuries-old metalworking. He liked the inventive shapes of hinges, locks and keys and ornamental metalwork.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes as painted by Giorgio de Chirico
The doctor, who was born in 1872 in what might politely be called a "working class" neighborhood of Philadelphia and whose father was a butcher before he lost his right arm in the Civil War, made a fortune with his invention of the antiseptic Argyrol. Barnes used his money to buy art, which he installed in a building that he commissioned in Merion, a suburb of Philadelphia. From behind that barred door, he spurned the art critics, socialites and celebrities who had spurned him. He turned down their pleas to see his collection, admitting factory workers, young artists and others who gratefully feasted on the wonders that Dr. Barnes had amassed and carefully arranged.

Under the tutelage of the educator John Dewey, who became a friend, Barnes developed his own methods of education. There would be no mind-numbing curatorial explanations in his galleries. He wanted his visitors to look, not to read. Barnes stipulated in his will that his collection was to remain exactly as it was at the time of his death and that of his wife, Laura. Nothing was to be loaned or moved.

Dr. Barnes was killed in an automobile accident on July 24, 1951. Laura died in April 1966. For the ensuing 40 or so years, the Barnes collection remained sequestered in Merion with comparatively few visitors and insufficient funds to maintain the building and the grounds of the doctor's estate. But the legal wrangling necessary to break Barnes' will and move the collection to Center City Philadelphia was intense.

The Barnes Foundation building
It happened and it's over and undoubtedly a lot of people are and will be grateful. The collection is dazzling and the building that houses it, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, does it justice. Within an understated, 93,000-square-foot building, the architects recreated the rooms that once housed the collection in Merion. They preserved the exact proportions and detailing, including the orientation of the windows, the placement of the objects in each room, the colors of the walls and trim. Their changes were subtle to enhance the luminosity of the galleries.

Each gallery has been outfitted with benches where visitors can sit comfortably and meditate on the art. That's what the doctor wanted — an educational and emotional experience based on observing shape, color, line, spatial arrangement and content transcending the work of any one artist or period — each piece reflecting the others on that wall and in that room in what Dr. Barnes called "ensembles."

The guiding hand remains Dr. Barnes' own. He saw the connections in the art that he owned. It soon becomes apparent that the reason he wanted nothing moved was that the galleries themselves were his art.

The new Barnes Foundation building is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, right next to the Rodin Museum, which has the largest collection of Rodin's work outside of Paris, and down the hill from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, making Philadelphia a must-see destination for any art lover.

Admission to the Barnes Foundation collection is still by timed ticket, but tickets are easy to come by now. No one will be turned away.


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Titanic Trail in Manhattan

In the run-up to April 15, 2012 — the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking — museum
exhibits, lectures, concerts and even entire museums are memorializing the collision between the opulent ocean liner and an iceberg that killed more than 1, 500 people. But Manhattan tells
the Titanic story with more than just ephemera.

The Titanic was headed for Manhattan when she went down at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, 1912 off the coast of Newfoundland. The Carpathia brought the survivors to Manhattan. Many of the people on board were New Yorkers or were bound for New York City to make it their new home. Manhattan, therefore, has more authentic sites connected with the Titanic than anywhere else except for Belfast, where she was built. Unlike a museum visit, the Titanic Trail in Manhattan takes travelers to fascinating places in the city — a shrine for America’s first native-born saint, the South Street Seaport, an old-fashioned hotel where the bellmen wear 1930s regalia, lower Broadway with its famous statue of a charging bull and the gorgeous Hudson River Park with its gardens, fountains and five-mile promenade along the river.

The 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking will come and go. In Manhattan, the Titanic is part of the city's fabric — Pier 54 at 13th Street, where the words "Cunard White Star Line" are still visible in faded paint on the rusted ironwork, 9 Broadway, where the White Star office was located at that time, the American Seamen's Friend Society Sailors' Home and Institute, now The Jane, a hotel at 113 Jane St., where the surviving crew members of the Titanic were housed, and more. Long after the centennial, in Manhattan the Titanic and its story will live on.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Philadelphia Flowers

Philadelphia's famed flower show, which has been presented with few interruptions since 1829, closes today (March 11) but other flowers are still blooming in Philadelphia. A captivating exhibit called "Van Gogh Up Close" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through May 6.

Van Gogh loved flowers and painted them over and over -- in vases and in fields and gardens where he marveled at their colors as they played
against an abundance of greens that evoked every nuance of his palette. Van Gogh's passion is
readily felt in his flurries of brush strokes, stipples and thickly applied paint. As he experimented and grew more sure of himself, his paintings become luminous with deftly applied layers of color that feed off each other -- orange and yellow and lavender and blue violet. Van Gogh's love of nature is a balm in our technologically saturated times. People are flocking to see his paintings. They look at them in reverential silence.

Timed tickets are required to see "Van Gogh Up Close." For more information, go to