Grouped by Winter 2014, Books and writers, and Medium read

Four Iron Crosses

Erwin Blumenfeld really does begin at the beginning:   ‘At the midnight hour I was unceremoniously thrust into my first concentration camp’.  Papa has had a row with Mama in the hackney on the way home from the Berlin Opera but the two of them make up at home: the great fashion photographer is describing the day, and hour, of his conception.  It’s May 5, 1896.  Nine months later ‘on a Tuesday morning I shall never forget’, this extremely lucid baby roars into the world:   

‘They thought I ought to breathe, so they slapped me on the back. What I inhaled was the carbolic-enriched stench of Lysol gutter-blended with the steam of fresh horse droppings – the celebrated Berlin air.’

Already knowing and disaffected, disliking his mother and relieved to be out, he is ready to absorb everything there is to know. Blumenfeld’s posthumously published autobiography EYE to I (a typical pun) crackles with inventiveness, energy, anarchy and native, earthy Berlin wit.  He is indeed all eye, and a candid, self-mocking and brilliant I.  A more robust and lecherous Kurt Tucholsky, perhaps, with a liberal dash of filth a la Jean Genet.


Blumenfeld started his autobiography in 1955 and was still revising it when he died of a heart attack in Rome in 1969.  Crammed as it was with anti-German phrases, dirty jokes, made up words and double-entendres, German publishers naturally didn’t want to know.  Various European publishers either refused it because of its filth or considered it untranslatable because of the language  - the very thing that gives this book its fabulous va va voom.  Eventually it came out in a bowdlerised version. 


It was only when Alfred Andersch wrote a full page in the TLS that it gained renown – finally a decent translation was produced and an uncensored edition came out.  On the cover Blumenfeld placed a wonderful family portrait.  Naked and smiling – his modesty assured by the well-positioned camera on a tripod – Blumenfeld is taking the picture; wife Lena looks on amused, his daughter and son pop up in the corners.  The man of “huge Jewish intellectual charisma”  (in the words of his son Yorick) chose to emphasise the fact that he was above all a family man.  This is rare in an artist’s autobiography– and very endearing.

For the photographer was an artist of real talent.  At JBW 2014 Yorick Blumenfeld showed thirty-three astonishing collages, just a few of the self-portraits his father went on creating all his life. On hand for further elucidation were historian, professor and FT photography critic Francis Hodgson and independent art historian and Blumenfeld scholar Helen Atkins.  With our armchair experts bickering elegantly and informatively over what exactly was what in these images (Blumenfeld’s art being as energetic and varied as his prose) we journeyed through them.  The child’s Pierrot self-portrait of 1911 (Erwin had been given his first camera aged 10) was remarkably similar to his entirely evolved1945 self-portrait.  Both feature his trademark full face and profile combined – later used in his later fashion photos.  Thus do we learn and become better versions of ourselves.  

In this long series of self-portraits, the untrained Blumenfeld – who considered himself ugly and particularly hated his rather magnificent Jewish conk – literally worked on himself. Hodgson and Atkins explained that he was dealing with the transformation of ugliness into beauty, which would serve so well in his later career. Returning again and again to the combination of full face/profile, he was also dealing as much with his own philosophical and practical problems as with those of photography.  Here was somebody, Hodgson explained, who knew that he was going to be the best at something long before he knew what that something was.  I can’t think of anybody else who can both write and draw with the same restless, vivid, wild energy and skill.

These pictures evolve:  indeed they positively explode as they race along, erotic and funny, sinister and avant-garde and witty.  Atkins explained how he swapped the bodies of classical Christian sculptures with the partners of Adam and Eve – Pygmalion style. In that particular collage, Blumenfeld’s own face was topped with a sublimely irreverent and immensely phallic bishop’s red hat.  His drawing/ collage of women’s calling cards from 1920’s Amsterdam ‘was right on the money for about five different art movements at the same time’ said Hodgson.  And the terrifying skull/death’s head photo-collage of Hitler he created in 1933 would be used as an Allied propaganda leaflet, many thousands of copies eventually dropped into Germany by the US Air Force.

One of the great ironies of the German Jewish twentieth century is how so many Jews volunteered to fight for their country in 1914, desperate to prove their patriotism and lay to rest that burning issue of whether they were Jews or Germans first.  Not Blumenfeld, conscripted in 1916 who planned to desert – only to be arrested and sent back to his unit at the front.  He had already been awarded his Iron Cross (Second Class) in less than heroic circumstances keeping the ledgers and playing the piano at Field Brothel 209 near the Belgian border in 1917.  Deloused, he got himself out and away, seeking his fiancée.  Decorated Jewish veterans later imagined that that Iron Cross, proof of patriotism and sacrifice, would ensure their survival.  Hitler (whose own First World War Iron Cross (Second Class) came courtesy of his Jewish commanding officer) saw it differently.

After the war the married Blumenfeld went to live in Holland where he ran a failing leather goods business and began to photograph women. Photography became a career.  Arriving in Paris in 1936, he shot his first magazine cover in 1937.  The glorious girl with the billowing skirt giddily perched on top of the Tour Eiffel was a photo-shoot for French Vogue in May 1939. In Paris on the eve of war, he failed to make plans to flee :‘none of my contacts functioned’  he writes drily, and ‘Paris was my mistress and had run off with another man’.  Interned in a series of concentration camps, a typically scurrilous episode helped him acquire a visa, and so in 1941 he finally got his family out and away to New York. 

It was here, Yorick said, that being German and Jewish finally ‘became a plus and not a minus”.   His ‘incredible visual literacy was pared down by the time he became a fashion photography’ said Hodgson.  He was swiftly recognised as one of the best paid and most celebrated fashion photographers in the world (Vogue/Harper’s Bazaar /Conde Nast, etc), and a key influence on photography as an art form.  He still holds the record for the number of Vogue covers.  The documentary his grandson Remy made, The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women,  illustrates this side of him. 

Through all these years, Blumenfeld never stopped drawing and painting in secret.  Wasn’t he resentful that he was never recognised as an artist and innovator?  Yorick said not; he personally was angry that the first proposed title for the autobiography had been  ‘Refreshment through hate’ – because his father had never hated.   He was pragmatic, lucky to have found a trade.  The Berlin boy wasn’t the type to give himself airs and graces. ‘I knew that art had to earn its keep’ he wrote.  But his creativity was boundless; a recent exhibition on just one aspect of his work filled nine rooms in Somerset House.  The Jeu de Paume retrospective in Paris is just the beginning.  ‘The rocket is still rising’ Hodgson said, and there are plenty of pictures still to be discovered, and thought about.  Generously, the autobiography features 70 illustrations.

Iron Cross (First Class)

A rarer Iron Cross (First Class) was awarded to Dr Alfred Alexander, father of a prankster of a very different stripe.  Thomas Harding’s Hanns and Rudolf tells the story of his mild-mannered Uncle Hans, the nice chap who gave out the prayer books and stacked  chairs in his Belsize Square synagogue.  Thomas’s uncle Hanns Alexander was the organiser of wedding send-offs,  ‘the one who told the kids inappropriate jokes, and organised elaborate pranks.’  Another Berliner, he was born in 1917 in the Kaiserallee in the handsome apartment of his eminent doctor father.

At his funeral eulogy in 2006, much too late to ask any questions, Thomas was surprised to discover that Hanns Alexander had also been a Nazi hunter.  He had tracked down and brought to justice the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, the man whose testimony proved crucial at the Nuremberg trial.  Facing the gallows, Höss argued that the genocide Auschwitz had been a mistake – not because of the mass murders of so many innocents, but because ‘the policy of extermination had brought the hatred of the whole world down on Germany.’   

Höss was eventually found in North Germany near the Danish border. Hanns used a very cunning trick to outwit his wife – determined to protect her man – and extract the address of his hiding place.  Fittingly, he would die on the gallows next to the old crematorium in Auschwitz on April 16, 1947 – not far from the villa with its beehive and small pool, greenhouse and luxuriant garden where his children played and which his wife Hedwig called ‘Paradise.’  Hedwig employed 10 prisoners as gardener, cook, governess, painter, chauffeur and so on, while on the other side of that high concrete wall millions of desperate people went up in smoke or were worked to death. 

Anne Sebba and Thomas Harding unpicked the two lives: Hanns who emigrated in 1936, and who with his twin brother Paul volunteered for the Royal Air Force on September 4 1939, desperate to fight for his adopted country.  Rudolf Höss, wounded twice in the First World War, and awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for his wartime service, was a fanatical Nazi and had joined the SS in 1933.  Soon he was specialising in camps; by 1940 he was setting up the new camp on land Himmler had chosen near Oświęcim.

On May 12 1945 mild Uncle Hanns reached the barbed wire gates of Belsen, where skeletal corpses lay on top of each other and mothers clutched dead children.  Here, for days, he helped to bury hundreds of bodies while the army rabbi said prayers; here to combat disease, he was sprayed with DDT every time he went in and out of the camp; Hanns was gripped with rage and felt compelled to act.  He was appointed interpreter for Lieutenant Colonel Leo Genn and his Number 1 War Crimes Investigation Team: the 12 of them in fact ‘amounted to Britain’s entire in-field war crimes staff. Realising that he, who knew Germany from the inside, had all the skills to hunt down the criminals, Hanns vowed to make a start.  When his request was refused, he started anyway.  And, at the end of the Belsen trial in 1945, he was finally given leave and authority to set about his mission, and the power to arrest.

Another Berliner, another German Jew, had the grit and determination to think and act for himself; Hanns probably carried out his own violent act of vengeance on one of the perpetrators.  The post talk discussion addressed the issue of how ordinary Germans came to commit such atrocities, contrasting the thinking of Hanna Arendt (the bureaucratic argument) with the Fromm/Reich theories of the destructive personalities.  Explanations from both ends of the spectrum inform this book.

Thomas Harding told us that Höss was no psychopath (his British psychological analysis concluded that he lacked empathy) and he recommended that we the audience view the last seven minutes of Arendt’s Eichmann trial documentary on how ordinary Germans came to commit atrocities.  Most Nazis weren’t psychopaths or freaks, he said, and neither was Rudolf Höss; they did atrocious things by actively surrendering their thinking to other people  – as people still do – be that fundamentalist doctrine or great corporations. Thomas Harding was keen to point out that this can happen again, and that we must keep control of our thinking.  As perhaps we must remember to keep control of what we choose to tell – or not tell –the next generation.

One element discussed but not in the book was the life of Rudolf’s self-deluding beautiful daughter Brigitte who ended up working as a model for a Jewish firm outside Washington (the proprietor forgave her). Eventually she was driven to reassess her understanding of the ‘nicest father in the world.’  At the end of the book Rainer – grandson of Rudolf – says if he knew where his grandfather’s grave was, he would piss on it.   None of this is over; it will never end.  There is a reason why seventy years after these events we, the children and grandchildren, packed into this room.  Thomas Harding noted that the interest in this period had been extraordinary in every place on his book tour.

I came away with renewed admiration for the energy  and life force of those witty, fast-living German Jews who did not compromise – renewed sorrow for the generations so full of promise Hitler obliterated. Their absence still marks Germany.  My savvy, political grandfather Arthur Rosenbaum fought in the First World War like the good German he was.  He left half a finger at the front, and acquired an Iron Cross (second class) that, for a time, he imagined would protect him.  He was wrong, of course.  His wanderings and exile through Belgium and France only led back via Drancy, Theresienstadt and Dachau to that ‘paradise’ at the other side of the wall from Hedwig and Rudolf Höss.  And, German bureaucracy being what it is, the only thing we know exactly about any of this is the date in 1943 when he went up that chimney.

Eye to I : the autobiography of a photographer

Erwin Blumenfeld, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1999

Hanns and Rudolf : the German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz

William Heinemann, London, 2013