Light Haunted By Darkness

Maurice Sendak handpicked menorahs from The Jewish Museum’s collection for a new show, and they reflect his life and work.

12/13/2011
Staff Writer
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If you happened to have been at The Jewish Museum’s new holiday exhibit, “An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak,” last week, you would have noticed one menorah was missing. 

Thirty-three lamps are on display, all of them hand-picked by Sendak, the revered children’s book author, most famously of “Where the Wilds Things Are.” But there was an empty space under the small placard that read: “Hanukkah Lamp, Landsberg am Lech, Germany, 1945.”

Where had it gone? Why was it missing?

Well, said Susan Braunstein, one of the exhibit’s curators, it was at the White House. Officials there called The Jewish Museum a few weeks ago and asked for that specific menorah for the White House’s annual Chanukah reception, which was held last week. The museum has one of the largest collections of Chanukah menorahs in the world, and that one, made in a D.P. camp for liberated concentration camps survivors, was of particular significance for President Obama.

“They were focusing on military servicemen for their holiday party this year,” Braunstein explained, “and that menorah had a lot of meaning” for the Obama administration.

The menorah was made by a group of Jewish artisans in the D.P. camp, who dedicated it to U.S. Gen. Joseph McNarney, Military Governor of occupied Germany; the Jewish Holocaust survivors under his watch were particularly grateful. He not only nursed them back to life, but even gave Jews escaping a postwar pogrom in Poland safe haven in the camps, despite the move being illegal. 

“When Obama spoke to the servicemen,” said Braunstein, who brought the menorah to Washington last week, “he had the menorah right next to him.” Don’t worry, though, she added, the menorah would be back in the exhibit this week.

The D.P. camp menorah is not the only one haunted by the Holocaust. All of the 33 lamps selected, from a collection of more than 1,000 the museum owns, bear that tragedy’s weight. That’s because Sendak chose menorahs almost entirely from either Eastern Europe or Germany, made either before, during or after the Holocaust. In addition, he only picked ones that lacked ornate designs.

“I stayed away from everything elaborate,” Sendak says on a recorded interview viewers can listen to at the exhibit. (At 83, he suffers from a deteriorating heart condition and was not taking interviews.) “I kept looking for very plain square ones. … The very simplicity reminded me of the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust has loomed over Sendak’s entire career. From his breakthrough book, “Where the Wild Things Are,” published in 1963, to the 2003 title he illustrated with the playwright Tony Kushner, “Brundibar,” which was turned into a musical, Sendak has explicitly noted the Holocaust’s pull on his art. 

Almost all of his stories feature dark turns and explore the little discussed realities of children’s lives: fear, anger, loneliness, loss.  And he says that all the darkness comes from his knowledge of the Holocaust.

“The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books,” Sendak told The New York Times in 2006. “Anything I did had to deal with that — with my family, the ruination of my childhood, the humiliation of being a victim.”

Sendak was born in Brooklyn, in 1928, but both of his parents emigrated from Poland. Many of their relatives remained in Europe, however, and several were killed in the Holocaust. 

Sendak told a particularly wrenching story earlier this year in an interview in The Guardian: the day of his bar mitzvah, he father refused to come to the party. Sendak pleaded with his mother, “‘How can Papa not come to my bar mitzvah?” And I screamed at him, ‘You gotta get up, you gotta get up!’” His father eventually showed up, but became irate when the guests started singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” 

Sendak’s father had learned that day that his entire family was killed in the war, a fact whose magnitude Sendak understood only years later. “I had made him suffer more than he had to,” he said of his father. “This 13-year-old ersatz man.”

The idea to have Sendak choose lamps for The Jewish Museum’s annual Hanukkah show came about last year. In 2010, the museum had invited one well-known artist, the architect Daniel Libeskind, to curate a similar menorah exhibit, and decided to ask another prominent figure this year. 

Claudia Nahson, a museum curator, had a relationship with Sendak from a show she organized of the artist’s career in 2005. So she asked if he’d be willing to do it.

“Given that a lot of his work has a connection to the old country, we thought he’d be an excellent person to do it,” Nahson said.

The exhibit also highlights two original Sendak illustrations. There’s a thinly disguised devil in traditional shtetl clothing, which Sendak drew for a collection of Isaac Bashevis Singer stories titled  “Zlateh the Goat” that he illustrated in 1966. And there’s an old world synagogue, which he illustrated for his own book, “In Grandpa’s House” (1985), which is an homage to his father’s relatives.

Nahson pointed out that she never asked Sendak to focus on Holocaust themes. It just naturally came out of him, she said. “He said that he surprised himself, and he picked a lot of things that weren’t that elaborate. He really gravitated toward severe works.”

To put together the show, Nahson and Braunstein traveled this summer to Sendak’s home in Connecticut, where he’s lived since the 1970s. They spent a few hours with him, recording his thoughts on each menorah he chose from a book Braunstein had given him.

The book, which Braunstein edited, has images of hundreds of the museum’s lamps, and contains many of the stories behind them. Though some are nearly 500 years old, and come from Jewish communities all over the world, the museum actually inherited almost two-thirds of them from a single man.

In the 1930s, Dr. Harry G. Friedman began donating menorahs that he bought from consignment shops in the Lower East Side. As the situation for Jews in Europe worsened, he grew especially committed. He not only bought what he could find in second-hand shops, but also collected lamps from Jewish families that had relocated to the United States and brought menorahs from the old world with them.

“He made it his mission to save all this ceremonial art,” Braunstein said of Friedman.

Still, Sendak did not know about this Holocaust back-story when he began choosing the lamps, she said. “We were very surprised that he had a strong reaction to them before he even read the detailed notes” of their origins, Braunstein added.

What also surprised Braunstein is that many of the lamps Sendak chose she had barely noticed herself. She had been drawn to the more elaborate menorahs, the ones with large soaring eagles, crowned lions, and intricate floral patterns. But the ones Sendak picked — dull copper lamps with eight, slender curving stems; another one squat and flat, with a only a Star of David cut out in the center — hardly moved her.

“Many of the ones he chose were not in my top tier or even my second tier,” she said. “I sort of overlooked them.” But she added, “It took him to point them out to me. I really came to appreciate a lot of the lamps that I had overlooked.”

“An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak” is on display at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, until Jan. 29. Call (212) 423-3200 for museum hours and more information.

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