Children from a Montreal Jewish elementary school knew they were about to be part of an exciting international collaboration when a politician from a faraway city cartwheeled for them.
The kids were in Grade 3 at JPPS, when they met Thomas Geisel, lord mayor of Duesseldorf, during his visit to Montreal. They had been chosen to participate in an exhibition that was to be held in Duesseldorf in two years’ time about Max Stern, a Jewish art dealer who lost everything during the Nazi era and made a new, successful life for himself in Montreal.
With their counterparts at Max Schule, a public school in Duesseldorf, the JPPS students were invited to work on a two-year project called A Tree for Max Stern.
Their creations would be part of the exhibition, Max Stern: From Duesseldorf to Montreal, which was to open this month at a municipally owned museum, with the co-operation of the Max Stern Art Restitution Project, which is based at Concordia University.
For more than two years, the kids exchanged their art and poems on the general themes of tolerance and diversity. Letters and photos have gone in both directions, allowing them to establish a personal connection with one another.
Then, in November, that effort and goodwill suddenly appeared to be for naught, when the mayor who had dazzled them with his acrobatics pulled the plug on the exhibition.
“I felt really upset when the mayor called it off,” said student Tamara Wertheim. Her classmate, Reshef Laor, added: “I was very disappointed. We had put in all this work.”
Mati Frankel loves the project because he has a growing appreciation for art. “It’s very sad to think how all those masterpieces were taken away by the Nazis,” he said.
The 20 JPPS students have, nevertheless, decided to carry on, regardless.
Geisel made the abrupt announcement in November, citing legal claims that are pending on paintings that had been owned by Stern and the complexity of the restitution issue.
A month later, in the face of mounting criticism, Geisel relented and said that the exhibition will go ahead some time this fall in a revised form. Whether or not the students’ joint project will be included is unknown.
Following its Duesseldorf premiere, the exhibition was to travel to the Haifa Museum in Israel and then to Montreal’s McCord Museum in 2019.
In addition, the children’s work was to tour UNESCO-associated schools around the world, said JPPS principal Marnie Stein.
“At this point, we have not received any direct information from the city,” she said. “All that we know has been from the media.”
The exhibition’s original curator, Susanne Anna, visited JPPS more than once and Stein has been in regular contact with her counterpart, Annette Kessing, at Max Schule. They also appear to be in the dark.
The JPPS students’ tree, which is decorated with some of the art and poems they and their German peers created, stands at the school’s entrance, as a work-in-progress.
At the base are black-painted toys and other everyday items, symbolizing the life that the Nazis destroyed. On the branches are birds and nests, suggesting rebirth.
The experiences of a man who lived long ago, Nazi looting, restitution and German-Jewish relations are difficult subjects for children to tackle. The Holocaust, in fact, is not studied at JPPS until Grade 6.
Stein points out that many JPPS students are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and she sees the project as an important tool to help them understand what happened.
Concordia history professor and Holocaust expert Frank Chalk has tried to explain to the kids why the Stern exhibition has been thrown into doubt.
“The students have said that by carrying on learning, they are standing up against injustice,” said Stein. “Otherwise … Max Stern’s life would be meaningless, they feel.”
In this final year, the project is being done in their Yiddish studies class, which runs for 90 minutes a week. Teacher Nancy Sculnik has managed to impart the lessons of Stern’s legacy in imaginative ways.
For example, each student researched a “degenerate” artist, as defined by the Nazi party. They were enthralled by the movie Woman in Gold, which is based on Maria Altmann’s years-long battle with Austria for the return of a Gustav Klimt painting that the Nazis stole from her relatives. The American lawyer who successfully represented her, Randy Schoenberg, is scheduled to engage with JPPS students via Skype next month.
They also read news articles about current restitution efforts. “Now that they are old enough, (they can) get into the issues in depth,” said Sculnik.
Reshef prevailed upon his parents to take him to the Neue Galerie in New York, where the precious portrait hangs, over the holiday break.
The kids said that it is important to return the art to the rightful owners, because it is stolen property and, as Sculnik phrases it, “the last hostage of the Holocaust.”
Stein has written a letter to Geisel expressing the students’ enthusiasm for the project and their wish that the exhibition will go forward and that they will get a chance to be part of it.