Tel Aviv

Ilit Azoulay, Forget Me Not, 2019, ink-jet print, 33 1⁄8 × 92 1⁄2". From “Transferumbau: Liebling” (Transfer Rebuild: Liebling).

Ilit Azoulay, Forget Me Not, 2019, ink-jet print, 33 1⁄8 × 92 1⁄2". From “Transferumbau: Liebling” (Transfer Rebuild: Liebling).

“Transferumbau: Liebling”

A collaboration between the Liebling Haus in Tel Aviv and the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation in Dessau, Germany, “Transferumbau” (Transfer Rebuild) was the outcome of a three-year research project conducted by the curator Hila Cohen-Schneiderman and the artists Ilit Azoulay, Lou Moria, Nir Shauloff, and Jonathan Touitou. The exhibition, appearing concurrently in both cities, took its cue from the Haavara Agreement, a controversial deal made in 1933 between Zionist organizations and Nazi Germany that allowed the most affluent of the country’s Jewish population to leave for Mandatory Palestine and relocate a small portion of their financial holdings. This convoluted process involved selling property and real estate under the terms of Aryanization and depositing cash in designated German banks before securing immigration certificates. The deposited funds were invested in German-made building materials (e.g., tiles, door handles, light fixtures, glass panes, window hinges), which were shipped to and sold in Palestine. According to Cohen-Schneiderman, “The people, ideas, and raw materials . . . boosted the construction boom of the Jewish community in the country . . . [and] influenced the local variation of the modern style in architecture.”

The Max Liebling House, designed by the architect Dov Karmi in 1936 in an effort to adapt Le Corbusier’s precepts to the climatic conditions of the Middle East, was a six-family home whose construction integrated high-grade materials produced in Nazi Germany. Since September 2019, it has housed the White City Center, an initiative meant to promote Israeli-German collaboration toward a “sustainable conservation” of Bauhaus buildings (underwritten by a three-million-euro investment from Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community). This complex context was the backdrop for “Transferumbau: Liebling,” the Tel Aviv portion of the exhibition. Through a combination of historical artifacts and newly produced works, the collaborators evoked the contemporary dynamics of “multidirectional memory,” as the historian Michael Rothberg has termed the dialogic process through which collective identities emerge in relation to each other. The exhibition focused on how objects and materials carry with them the traditions, myths, and memories of German Jewish émigrés and on the ways in which German culture and processes of industrialization made significant contributions to the invention of Israeli identity and contemporary politics.

Moria’s multimedia piece Leo Frank’s Lost Container, or the vacuum cleaner’s demise (all works 2019), for instance, consisted of unidentified objects enveloped in brown fabric, a plant hybrid from three different grafts, and a German-made vacuum cleaner from the 1930s accompanied by intermittent sucking sounds and here situated behind a glass vitrine in the Liebling family’s former living room. This unlikely juxtaposition of the work and its environment offered a wry commentary on the fears haunting the émigré, the loss of personal belongings sent from Europe, and an aversion to the dust in the Levant. Guiding Shauloff’s I left the Library, I Burned the Book, meanwhile, was the persistence of the Holocaust as a foundational trauma for those who could not leave Europe. This audiovisual performance brought together music composed by Paul Hindemith for the 1922 premiere of Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet and a German children’s puppet theater from the 1920s, with a radio play based on transcripts of the psychotherapy treatments undergone by the author and Holocaust survivor Yehiel De-Nur (1909–2001), who authored many books about his experience in Auschwitz under the pseudonym Ka-Tsetnik 135633. The continuing overlay of past and present was also the subject of Azoulay’s photomontages, with their surreal fictional spaces based on German materials used in the construction of the Liebling House. Finally, Touitou’s presentation of historical texts and diagrams made visible the tensions accompanying the German immigration, including frictions between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews and the ongoing impact of Jewish settlement on the Palestinian population. 

By animating the link between memory and identity at the Liebling Haus, the show brought the transnational aspects of contemporary Israeli society to the fore, with materials becoming storytellers of a predominantly German Jewish chronicle. As we consider this critical historical chapter, we may also be urged to reflect on the contemporary demands made on Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus cultural heritage by agents and agendas, both local and global.