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Mischlinge: Time for Germans to Emerge from the Long Shadow of the Past

The Mischlinge (engl.: Mongrels) cycle contrasts Germans of the post-war generations with the darkest chapter of German history, in the context of Nazi-era monuments, and in an aesthetic that evokes Leni Riefenstahl.

The cycle comprises three scenes:

Scene I, Day of Freedom (named after a less-known film of Riefenstahl’s, about the 1935 Nazi Party rally) portrays people who have an unusual German identity – exceptions who prove the rule.

Scene II: Triumph (named after Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s notorious film about the 1934 party rally) shows Germans of today, in situations that reflect various manifestations of the Third Reich.

Scene III: Olympia takes its name from Riefenstahl’s movies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and focuses on Riefenstahl’s aesthetic legacy.

The work confronts the viewer with a seemingly simple question: „Who is German?“ An unpleasant question in today’s Germany – one that most people would rather ignore, for fear of opening a can of worms. After all defining “German” also means defining who should not be considered German.

The work examines this theme through conflation of seeming opposites:

Documentation/interpretation
Past/present
Racial theory/multiculturalism
Familiarity/alienation
Riefenstahl’s relentlessly propagating, unequivocal style, as opposed to contemplative ambiguity

Among those portrayed in Scene I: Day of Freedom, are descendants of Nazi victims and Nazi mass murders; of followers; of dissidents and of people who would have never imagined that their families would one day be considered German by any standard.

But, being German, they are all descendants of that past. Guilt, in any literal sense, doesn’t apply to them, because “back in the day,“ even the oldest among them was still an infant (Werner Kleeman, s. image 5. views himself as an ex-German). They are also in no real sense responsible for what happened “back in the day.“

These present-day Germans have spent their entire lives in a country that is considered a bedrock of democracy and material well–being. “War,“ “persecution,“ “oppression,“ even “hardship” are words that don’t describe their own life experience – they apply only to distant lands or to an increasingly distant past.

And yet, they are Germans, and as such, connected to a German past whose long shadow causes awkwardness even generations later.

A seemingly simple question brings this awkwardness to the surface: “ Who is German?“

“Back then“, it was the existential question. I grew up in a family history that abounds with examples. For my great-grand uncle, Siegfried Taub, Secretary-General of the German Social Democratic Party in the Czechoslovak Republic, the answer to this question was a one–way ticket into an exile from which he would never return. Even before the Nazi invasion of what later became the “Reich Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia,” Nazi propaganda smeared him as „Jewish swine Taub.“

For Siegfried’s nephew, my grandfather Erwin, the answer to this question meant a death sentence. For my grandmother and my mother, it meant widowhood and childhood in Theresienstadt.

But the answer also changed from one version of Germany to the next, with paradoxical results: Less than 20 years after the end of the war, when my grandmother and mother defected from communist Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic, “who is German?” meant that they were eligible for German citizenship, by virtue of ius sanguinis (“Right of blood”) – and given the opportunity to start a new life in freedom. For me, the descendant, this means: I came to life despite one Germany, but owe my charmed life to another.

“Who is German?“ is so unpleasant because it points to the elephant in the room: The terms “German citizen“ and “German“ overlap more than ever before, but are still far from synonymous. Other than before the law, not all German citizens are equally German. What do people mean when they say that somebody “looks German“? Or what do Germans from an immigrant background when they, without batting an eye, speak of „the Germans“ in certain contexts, particularly relating to culture?

But maybe there’s a different way: I can’t offer a solution, but maybe a starting point: The “Nordic Man” of the Nazis was a myth – the reality is that we’re all mongrels.

But mongrels? The word sounds so pejorative in English that we don’t even apply it to dogs anymore. In German, the word “Mischlinge” is much more laden – because “back in the day,” is was the legal term for half-Jews and quarter-Jews according to the Nuremberg Racial Laws (incidentally, named so “in honor” of the same party rally depicted in Triumph of the Will).

I propose “Mischlinge” exactly because it confronts us Germans head-on with our awkwardness about the past. The best way to overcome awkwardness is with appropriate disrespect. If the Nazis tried to determine racial status through genealogical records and anthropometric measurements, the cast in Mischlinge spit on such methods. Literally, spit – each of them was subjected to an autosomal DNA saliva test. This test provides insights about an individual’s background that Nazis, with the antediluvian methods of their time, couldn’t have dreamed of.

Alas, the tests showed that all cast members of Mischlinge live up to their name: Not one comes from only one part of the world; almost no one matches the Nazi ideal of the „Nordic man;“ no two have identical origins; many have roots from outside Europe.

I, for example, am 94% European–Jewish, 3% from the Iberian Peninsula and 1% Irish. On these terms, I have little in common with most of my fellow Germans. But there’s a smidgen of commonality with many – because of their small percentage of Jewish origins.

“Small“, In this case, means 1% to 4%. If that seems negligible, think again. A senior position in the Nazi Party required proof that that not even a great-great-great-grandparent was Jewish. “Great-great great grandparent” equals five generations, equals 32 ancestors in the fifth-generation. The corresponding autosomal DNA percentage: 3.125%. The SS, intended to embody the racial cream of the nation, applied a stricter standard prevailed. A candidate had to prove a judenrein (Jew–free) family tree dating back to the year 1750. Take the year 1940 and calculate back to 1750: 190 years –  seven generations, conservatively estimated – meaning 128 ancestors in the seventh generation… and a cutoff point of 0.8%. View all DNA test results with this in mind…

Jews are the seemingly most ethnically pure according to the DNA tests: Karen Ardinast “only“ 72%, but all others more than 90%; Werner Kleeman even 100%. But again, appearances can be deceptive, because they, too, are Mischlinge: The category „European Jewish” originates largely from Palestine in the paternal line, and largely from the Western Mediterranean in the maternal.

If such calculations and musings seem absurd… well, they are – and that’s the point about the “racial theory“ that defined the Nazi regime. If today’s extreme–right parties and organizations were ideologically consistent, and they would require autosomal DNA tests as a precondition for membership. Judging by the cast of Mischlinge, there would be quite a few scandalous revelations and expulsions.

Take cast member Patrick Lasch. He was born in one of the “homes” belonging to the notorious Lebensborn organization that concerned itself with the breeding and propagation of racially pure offspring. Patrick is the son of an SS officer and an assistant on Hitler’s staff – a child for the Führer. Indeed, shortly after his birth, he was laid into the arms of the same, who described him, with a gleeful smile, as “a real German boy!“

His DNA test tells a more nuanced story: there’s a lot of Northern and Western Europe, but also 31% Eastern Europe, 3% Italy/Greece, 3% Iberian Peninsula… and 1% European Jewish. When Patrick found out about this 1%, he was overjoyed. Hitler would have likely dropped him.

So, who is German? Maybe one day somebody who speaks of “the German people“ with unmitigated pride, and by this term means a collective defined “only“ by one thing: a shared belief in the democratic values of the country’s Basic Law. Somebody who, when looking at the country’s soccer team doesn’t even register how multi–ethnic it is – but, as a matter of course, sees in them individual Mischlinge as he is a Mischling himself. The day has not yet come, but it might be at hand.

  • In Memory of my Grandfather, Erwin Taub
    (r., with his younger brother Felix) – Marienbad, 1935. This is the only remaning image of my grandfather. All three Taub brothers died in the Holocaust.
    In Memory of my Grandfather, Erwin Taub
  • Erwin’s Death Announcement
    … from Theresienstadt Ghetto, 1943
    Erwin’s Death Announcement
  • At my grandmother’$ grave
    Erwin doesn’t have a grave in the strict sense of the word: his ashes, together with the ashes of 22,000 other Theresienstadt deceased, were disposed into the Ohre river shortly before the war’s end. Anna survived Erwin by 62 years. She never remarried. Today, her gravestone is also his memorial. At the New Jewish Cemetery, Frankfurt.
    At my grandmother’$ grave
  • Honoring the Suicides
    Frankfurt residents Karen Ardinast and Gabriela Goldenberg in the New Jewish Cemetery, Frankfurt . As German Jews were deported in the 1940's, most were aware of what was awaiting them in “the East.” About 800 Frankfurt Jews chose suicide over deportation. Traditionally, suicides are buried in a far corner of a Jewish cemetery. In Frankfurt, this never-before-imagined motive for suicide was acknowledged, and the deportation suicides are placed in the front section of the cemetery. Gabi and Karen have lost many members of their families in the Holocaust. Karen’s grandmother is a Treblinka concentration camp survivor. Karen Ardinast: 72% Eur.-J., 17% E. Eur, 6% N- Eur., 3% W-Eur., 2% Ib. Pen. Gabriela Goldenberg: 94% Eur-J.; 4% It/Gr
    Honoring the Suicides
  • The Political Leader 1
    Cem Özdemir, Member of the Bundestag; Head of Germany’s Green Party, in the former Reich Aviation Ministry. The design of the lamp to his left is based on an anti-aircraft searchlight. 84% Caucasus, 13% It./Gr., 1% M.E.
    The Political Leader 1
  • The Political Leader 2
    Cem Özdemir, Member of the Bundestag; Head of Germany’s Green Party, in the VIP-section of the Berlin Olympic Stadium. 84% Caucasus, 13% It./Gr., 1% M.E.
    The Political Leader 2
  • The Liberator
    Werner Kleeman with Janina Scheuer on June 6, 2014 in front of his house in Queens, NY. On this day, exactly 70 years ago, Dachau concentration camp survivor Werner Kleeman landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, as a member of the U.S. Army 4th Infantry Division. On this day, Janina Scheuer and I expressed our gratitude. Werner, seen here holding his German passport (with a "J" stamped inside) was ousted from his country. But he returned, to give Germans like Janina and me a life in freedom. Thank you, Werner. We will never forget. Werner Kleeman: (100% Eur.-J.) Janina Scheuer: (83% W.Eur., 6% Ib.Pen., 2% each Eur.-J., N.Eur. and It./Gr.)
    The Liberator
  • The TV Presenter and Actress Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
    … in the courtyard of the former Reich Aviation Ministry – now called Detlev- Rohwedder-Haus, seat of the Federal Ministry of Finance. 55% S. Asia, 18% N.Eur., 11% W.Eur., 5% Ireland, 4% Ib.Pen., 2% E. Asia
    The TV Presenter and Actress Collien Ulmen-Fernandes
  • Rainer Höß
    ... grandson of Rudolf Höß, the Kommandant of Auschwitz at the barbed-wire fence of Buchenwald concentration camp. The tattooed numbers belong to Auschwitz-survivors who have become friends over the years. 35% W.Eur., 33% E.Eur., 21% N.Eur., 7% It./Gr., 4% Ib.Pen.
    Rainer Höß
  • The Actress Pina Akin
    67% Caucasus, 18% It./Gr., 4% Eur.-J., 3% M.E.
    The Actress Pina Akin
  • The Pathbreaker
    Dr. Karamba Diaby, one of the first two members of the Bundestag (the lower house of German parliament) with origins in Africa, at the monument for 96 members of the Reichstag murdered by the Nazis, in front of the Reichstag building. 69% Senegal, 29% Mali
    The Pathbreaker
  • The Lebensborn Child 1
    Patrick (orig. Attila) Lasch in the crypt of the planned SS meeting-center Castle Wewelsburg. 39% W.Eur., 31% E.Eur., 21% N.Eur., 3% Ib.Pen., 3% It./Gr., 1% Eur.-J.
    The Lebensborn Child 1
  • The Lebensborn Child 2
    Patrick (orig. Attila) Lasch in the “Sun Wheel” of runes in the planned SS meeting – center Castle Wewelsburg. 39% W.Eur., 31% E.Eur., 21% N.Eur., 3% Ib.Pen., 3% It./Gr., 1% Eur.-J.
    The Lebensborn Child 2
  • The Actress Danai Kadzere
    ... shortly after completing her degree in evolutionary biology at Harvard University. 29% Bantu, 20% N.Eur., 16% E.Eur., 10% Cameroon/Congo, 6% Ireland, 6% Nigeria, 4% W.Eur.
    The Actress Danai Kadzere
  • The Eyewitness
    The Photographer and East German dissident Siegfried Wittenburg in the “Hall of Honor” at former Berlin-Tempelhof Airport. Constructed as a showpiece for aviation in Nazi Germany, the airport served as a US Air Force base – and the central destination for supplies flown into Berlin during the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. 65% O-Eur., 25% N-Eur., 5% W-Eur.
    The Eyewitness
  • The German-Israeli Rock-Musician Asi Meskin
    93% Eur.-J., 3% It./Gr., 2% N. Eur., 1% Ireland
    The German-Israeli Rock-Musician Asi Meskin

Mischlinge: Time for Germans to Emerge from the Long Shadow of the Past

The Mischlinge (engl.: Mongrels) cycle contrasts Germans of the post-war generations with the darkest chapter of German history, in the context of Nazi-era monuments, and in an aesthetic that evokes Leni Riefenstahl.

The cycle comprises three scenes:

Scene I, Day of Freedom (named after a less-known film of Riefenstahl’s, about the 1935 Nazi Party rally) portrays people who have an unusual German identity – exceptions who prove the rule.

Scene II: Triumph (named after Triumph of the Will, Riefenstahl’s notorious film about the 1934 party rally) shows Germans of today, in situations that reflect various manifestations of the Third Reich.

Scene III: Olympia takes its name from Riefenstahl’s movies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and focuses on Riefenstahl’s aesthetic legacy.

The work confronts the viewer with a seemingly simple question: „Who is German?“ An unpleasant question in today’s Germany – one that most people would rather ignore, for fear of opening a can of worms. After all defining “German” also means defining who should not be considered German.

The work examines this theme through conflation of seeming opposites:

Documentation/interpretation
Past/present
Racial theory/multiculturalism
Familiarity/alienation
Riefenstahl’s relentlessly propagating, unequivocal style, as opposed to contemplative ambiguity

Among those portrayed in Scene I: Day of Freedom, are descendants of Nazi victims and Nazi mass murders; of followers; of dissidents and of people who would have never imagined that their families would one day be considered German by any standard.

But, being German, they are all descendants of that past. Guilt, in any literal sense, doesn’t apply to them, because “back in the day,“ even the oldest among them was still an infant (Werner Kleeman, s. image 5. views himself as an ex-German). They are also in no real sense responsible for what happened “back in the day.“

These present-day Germans have spent their entire lives in a country that is considered a bedrock of democracy and material well–being. “War,“ “persecution,“ “oppression,“ even “hardship” are words that don’t describe their own life experience – they apply only to distant lands or to an increasingly distant past.

And yet, they are Germans, and as such, connected to a German past whose long shadow causes awkwardness even generations later.

A seemingly simple question brings this awkwardness to the surface: “ Who is German?“

“Back then“, it was the existential question. I grew up in a family history that abounds with examples. For my great-grand uncle, Siegfried Taub, Secretary-General of the German Social Democratic Party in the Czechoslovak Republic, the answer to this question was a one–way ticket into an exile from which he would never return. Even before the Nazi invasion of what later became the “Reich Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia,” Nazi propaganda smeared him as „Jewish swine Taub.“

For Siegfried’s nephew, my grandfather Erwin, the answer to this question meant a death sentence. For my grandmother and my mother, it meant widowhood and childhood in Theresienstadt.

But the answer also changed from one version of Germany to the next, with paradoxical results: Less than 20 years after the end of the war, when my grandmother and mother defected from communist Czechoslovakia to the Federal Republic, “who is German?” meant that they were eligible for German citizenship, by virtue of ius sanguinis (“Right of blood”) – and given the opportunity to start a new life in freedom. For me, the descendant, this means: I came to life despite one Germany, but owe my charmed life to another.

“Who is German?“ is so unpleasant because it points to the elephant in the room: The terms “German citizen“ and “German“ overlap more than ever before, but are still far from synonymous. Other than before the law, not all German citizens are equally German. What do people mean when they say that somebody “looks German“? Or what do Germans from an immigrant background when they, without batting an eye, speak of „the Germans“ in certain contexts, particularly relating to culture?

But maybe there’s a different way: I can’t offer a solution, but maybe a starting point: The “Nordic Man” of the Nazis was a myth – the reality is that we’re all mongrels.

But mongrels? The word sounds so pejorative in English that we don’t even apply it to dogs anymore. In German, the word “Mischlinge” is much more laden – because “back in the day,” is was the legal term for half-Jews and quarter-Jews according to the Nuremberg Racial Laws (incidentally, named so “in honor” of the same party rally depicted in Triumph of the Will).

I propose “Mischlinge” exactly because it confronts us Germans head-on with our awkwardness about the past. The best way to overcome awkwardness is with appropriate disrespect. If the Nazis tried to determine racial status through genealogical records and anthropometric measurements, the cast in Mischlinge spit on such methods. Literally, spit – each of them was subjected to an autosomal DNA saliva test. This test provides insights about an individual’s background that Nazis, with the antediluvian methods of their time, couldn’t have dreamed of.

Alas, the tests showed that all cast members of Mischlinge live up to their name: Not one comes from only one part of the world; almost no one matches the Nazi ideal of the „Nordic man;“ no two have identical origins; many have roots from outside Europe.

I, for example, am 94% European–Jewish, 3% from the Iberian Peninsula and 1% Irish. On these terms, I have little in common with most of my fellow Germans. But there’s a smidgen of commonality with many – because of their small percentage of Jewish origins.

“Small“, In this case, means 1% to 4%. If that seems negligible, think again. A senior position in the Nazi Party required proof that that not even a great-great-great-grandparent was Jewish. “Great-great great grandparent” equals five generations, equals 32 ancestors in the fifth-generation. The corresponding autosomal DNA percentage: 3.125%. The SS, intended to embody the racial cream of the nation, applied a stricter standard prevailed. A candidate had to prove a judenrein (Jew–free) family tree dating back to the year 1750. Take the year 1940 and calculate back to 1750: 190 years –  seven generations, conservatively estimated – meaning 128 ancestors in the seventh generation… and a cutoff point of 0.8%. View all DNA test results with this in mind…

Jews are the seemingly most ethnically pure according to the DNA tests: Karen Ardinast “only“ 72%, but all others more than 90%; Werner Kleeman even 100%. But again, appearances can be deceptive, because they, too, are Mischlinge: The category „European Jewish” originates largely from Palestine in the paternal line, and largely from the Western Mediterranean in the maternal.

If such calculations and musings seem absurd… well, they are – and that’s the point about the “racial theory“ that defined the Nazi regime. If today’s extreme–right parties and organizations were ideologically consistent, and they would require autosomal DNA tests as a precondition for membership. Judging by the cast of Mischlinge, there would be quite a few scandalous revelations and expulsions.

Take cast member Patrick Lasch. He was born in one of the “homes” belonging to the notorious Lebensborn organization that concerned itself with the breeding and propagation of racially pure offspring. Patrick is the son of an SS officer and an assistant on Hitler’s staff – a child for the Führer. Indeed, shortly after his birth, he was laid into the arms of the same, who described him, with a gleeful smile, as “a real German boy!“

His DNA test tells a more nuanced story: there’s a lot of Northern and Western Europe, but also 31% Eastern Europe, 3% Italy/Greece, 3% Iberian Peninsula… and 1% European Jewish. When Patrick found out about this 1%, he was overjoyed. Hitler would have likely dropped him.

So, who is German? Maybe one day somebody who speaks of “the German people“ with unmitigated pride, and by this term means a collective defined “only“ by one thing: a shared belief in the democratic values of the country’s Basic Law. Somebody who, when looking at the country’s soccer team doesn’t even register how multi–ethnic it is – but, as a matter of course, sees in them individual Mischlinge as he is a Mischling himself. The day has not yet come, but it might be at hand.