Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 11, 2007

Petr Ginz

Anne Frank has become such a singular figure in the literature of the Holocaust that it is easy to forget how many other precocious and articulate children also died in the camps. Elena Lappin, a translator and editor at Atlantic Monthly Press, has prepared an English edition of the diaries of one of them, the Czech boy Petr Ginz.

The story of the diaries themselves is an astounding tale. Born in 1928, Ginz lived in Prague until August 1941, when he was deported with his family to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, in 1943, where he died in the gas chambers. His sister, Eva, survived, and managed to retain a few of her brother’s drawings, which she carried with her until her eventual emigration to Israel.

But had it not been for, of all things, the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, the bulk of Petr’s papers might never have been recovered. Colonel Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut aboard the shuttle, was carrying one of the drawings saved by Eva; the news coverage attendant on his death prompted a resident of Prague to rifle through several boxes of old papers in his attic. These papers turned out to be Petr’s; Yad Vashem subsequently acquired them. Eva (now Chava Pressburger) arranged for their publication in the Czech Republic at the beginning of 2005.

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Anne Frank has become such a singular figure in the literature of the Holocaust that it is easy to forget how many other precocious and articulate children also died in the camps. Elena Lappin, a translator and editor at Atlantic Monthly Press, has prepared an English edition of the diaries of one of them, the Czech boy Petr Ginz.

The story of the diaries themselves is an astounding tale. Born in 1928, Ginz lived in Prague until August 1941, when he was deported with his family to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, in 1943, where he died in the gas chambers. His sister, Eva, survived, and managed to retain a few of her brother’s drawings, which she carried with her until her eventual emigration to Israel.

But had it not been for, of all things, the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, the bulk of Petr’s papers might never have been recovered. Colonel Ilan Ramon, an Israeli astronaut aboard the shuttle, was carrying one of the drawings saved by Eva; the news coverage attendant on his death prompted a resident of Prague to rifle through several boxes of old papers in his attic. These papers turned out to be Petr’s; Yad Vashem subsequently acquired them. Eva (now Chava Pressburger) arranged for their publication in the Czech Republic at the beginning of 2005.

Ginz had great literary ability for an adolescent boy. Observing the newly mandated yellow stars on the lapels of his fellow citizens, he remarks in his diary: “When I went to school, I counted sixty-nine ‘sherrifs.’” He also served as an editor and writer for Vedem, a newspaper published in the boys’ barracks at Theresienstadt.

Atlantic Monthly Press will officially release Lappin’s translation on Sunday, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day. The book, though, has been available since the end of March. You can order it here.

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Confusion at the Quai Branly

When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.

The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.

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When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.

The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.


Recognizing the non-Western origin of its collections, Nouvel set about designing a non-Western building. He quickly seized on the idea of the building as “a simple façade-less shelter in the middle of a wood:”

In a place inhabited by symbols of forests and rivers, by obsessions of death and oblivion, it is an asylum for censored and cast off works from Australia and the Americas. It is a loaded place haunted with dialogues between the ancestral spirits of men, who, in discovering their human condition, invented gods and beliefs. It is a place that is unique and strange, poetic and unsettling.

His museum is indeed unsettling. What strikes the viewer is its peculiar formlessness, which refuses to present a comprehensible shape or object to the eye. No facade and no surface are similar, and there is no place where one might stand and grasp it as totality. Borne aloft on a series of randomly-placed piers (which could be taken “for trees or totems,” Nouvel tells us), it forms a kind of wobbly trough, as if the spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim had been laboriously uncoiled and pinned to a giant board. The experience inside is equally bewildering, free of all right angles and offering sumptuous free-form contours, clad in brown leather and squirming off into the dimly lit distance.

In the end, the problem with Nouvel’s building is not its anti-form ideology, which is hardly revolutionary at this late date (after all, the Pompidou Centre was built over thirty years ago). It is that he sought to make a non-Western museum for non-Western objects without fully recognizing that there is not one non-Western art, but many. (All that they have in common is the prefix non-.) And to be sure, he has made an ostentatious show of negation (no parallel lines, no palpable shapes, no uniform materials) without offering an affirmation of any sort.

This formal incoherence is of a piece with its museology. The great museum displays of the past were indeed condescending in their neat divisions between civilized and barbaric peoples, which produced, respectively, objects of aesthetic or of merely ethnographic interest. But they did produce systems of order, categorizing objects by their workmanship or function. The Quai Branly offers no such comprehensive taxonomy. Objects are sprinkled in loose clusters, with minimal explanatory material. The display is exquisite in the soft lighting and the aesthetic isolation of each object (no cumbersome taxonomy of axe-heads here), but instead of treating the object as an anthropological artifact it is now treated as a showpiece in a Tiffany’s window. It is not clear which is the more condescending.

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A Tale of Two (Iraqi) Cities

I came to Iraq to find out what’s going on over here, but even when you’re here—perhaps especially when you’re here—it’s hard to get a complete understanding of the situation. You start to see complexities and nuances that defeat attempts at the sort of generalizations that are so easy to make from thousands of miles away.

Case in point: Tuesday in Baghdad. The newspapers are full of reports about a “fierce gunbattle” that took place that morning in Fadhel, a primarily Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad. Four Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in a clash with insurgents; some fifteen U.S. soldiers were wounded and at least one U.S. helicopter was damaged by groundfire. It so happens that I was only a few miles away when all this happened, staying at a small U.S. installation called Forward Operating Base Justice located in the Khadamiya neighborhood of northwestern Baghdad, across the Tigris River from Fadhel. Yet the first I knew of this battle, which dominated the news cycle for at least 24 hours, was when I returned to Camp Victory, a much bigger U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport, and logged on to the Internet.

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I came to Iraq to find out what’s going on over here, but even when you’re here—perhaps especially when you’re here—it’s hard to get a complete understanding of the situation. You start to see complexities and nuances that defeat attempts at the sort of generalizations that are so easy to make from thousands of miles away.

Case in point: Tuesday in Baghdad. The newspapers are full of reports about a “fierce gunbattle” that took place that morning in Fadhel, a primarily Sunni neighborhood in east Baghdad. Four Iraqi soldiers were reported killed in a clash with insurgents; some fifteen U.S. soldiers were wounded and at least one U.S. helicopter was damaged by groundfire. It so happens that I was only a few miles away when all this happened, staying at a small U.S. installation called Forward Operating Base Justice located in the Khadamiya neighborhood of northwestern Baghdad, across the Tigris River from Fadhel. Yet the first I knew of this battle, which dominated the news cycle for at least 24 hours, was when I returned to Camp Victory, a much bigger U.S. base near Baghdad International Airport, and logged on to the Internet.

Far from being the scene of fierce fighting, Khadamiya was remarkably quiet during the two days I was there—Monday and Tuesday. On Monday night, April 9, the fourth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, I went with some soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division on a foot patrol of the area. Shops were open, people were in the streets, and there was no threat of any kind. On Tuesday morning, I drove out of the base to attend a security meeting with local Iraqi leaders and security officers. Then I drove around with some American MP’s to visit Iraqi police stations. Again, all was quiet.

At the end of the day I drove in a convoy of Humvees straight across Baghdad, down Route Senators and then Route Irish, from FOB Justice to Camp Victory. We were not attacked on the way. In fact, the soldiers I was with were wondering why the situation was so placid—little realizing that things were not so placid on the other side of the Tigris. But since that’s another brigade’s AOR (area of operations), the soldiers I was with from the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Cavalry Division were oblivious to those events.

What accounts for this tale of two cities—one quiet, one tumultuous? Primarily ethnic composition. Khadamiya is a Shiite stronghold where extensive security, provided primarily by Iraqi forces, prevents Sunni insurgents from penetrating. Iraqi troops and police officers have good relations with the locals. Fadhel is an area with a larger Sunni population where Sunni insurgents have gained a foothold and where residents are suspicious of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces.

Simply being on the ground makes you realize how facile and distorting are all attempts to generalize about the situation. Is Baghdad secure or not? It all depends on where you are, and when you are there.

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