University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies
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CHGS

Edith Altman

Originally from Altenberg, Germany, Altman came to Chicago as child in 1938. Her father was imprisoned in the Buchenwald Concentration camp, near Weimar after Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass" in November 9-10, 1938.

Artist Statement

When I was first born in Germany, I didn't speak the language; I saw only images. Then I came to America and, again, I didn't speak the language and saw only images. Images became symbols of experiences: the yellow star I wore, the swastika, the different languages, the different symbols in the Hebrew language that I studied as a child, the look of the German language and the biblical type that the Germans used in their propaganda art. Reclaiming the Symbol is the attempt to confront the symbols used by the Third Reich to empower and to terrorize. The work strives to reclaim the star, the cross and the swastika to their positive use. The swastika may well be the earliest known symbol, the solar wheel, the movement and power of the sun, the origin acting upon the universe, a positive symbol before the Nazis used it. By taking the swastika apart, by deconstructing its meanings and disempowering it, I hope to change its fearful energy. In a spiritual or mystical sense, I am exorcising the evil memory of the swastika, in hopes of healing our fear.

-Edith Altman, Kunst Arbeit, State of Illinois Art Gallery, 1992

 

The Art of Memory

"Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory" is an attempt to deconstruct what was once a normal symbol, the swastika, which is now difficult to show because it was abused by the Nazis. The artist uses the life-affirming numerological system of the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, to exorcise evil and to show how we must make decisions about good and evil.

 

Artwork: Witness and Legacy

The Art of Memory

View from Swastika toward wall of triangles, the symbol of victimization nin the Nazi camps. There were 32 variants of the triangle at Concentration Camp Buchenwald, near Weimar, where the artist's father was a prisoner.

The Art of Memory

The Document Wall.

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory The artist asks the question about the relationship between creativity and mass murder in modern civilization. Weimar, a center for German culture, is a short distance from Buchenwald, one of the worst concentration camps.

Photographs in this piece are of Buchenwald Concentration Camp and the City of Weimar.

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory Altman shows in this tightly constructed collage the entrace to Buchenwald with "Jedem das seine," "To each his own," on the entry gate. Green and red images, which juxtapose photos of slave laborers with images of the crematoria.

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory, Dachau, the first German concentration camp under Hitler, was once an artist's center. Hitler wanted to be an artist, but was rejected from the Academy of Arts in Vienna. However, he maintained a high interest in architectural planning.

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

The artist uses ten pages from an 1894 Encyclopaedia providing a history of the development and migration of the swastika from India and Persia. This illustration shows some of the early, pre-Naxi formulations. Hitler decided o use it apparently because it was a design in the church where he sang in the choir in the city of Linz, Austria. Hitler reversed the direction of the Indian/Buddhist swastika to make it appear it was walking from left to right, hence more dynamic.

This didactic is one of eight pages from an 1894 Encyclopaedia describing "the migration of the Swastika" from India to other parts of the world as a positive symbol, usually meaning "good luck" before the Nazis reversed its meaning.

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory, Altman includes a replica of the original identification chart for prisoners at Buchenwald. The chart has 32 symbols, the same number as the paths of life in the Kabbala, or book of Jewish mysticism. Jews and Gypsies were identified according to political position or lifestyle, i.e. homosexuals.

The Art of Memory

The Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory Triangle Wall reconstructs the image of the 32 triangles from Buchanwald, only in twigs bound with rope to symbolize the forests, where much of the killing took place, "Binding" is also a part of Jewish prayer, "tefillah," during morning prayers .

32 in  the Kabbala, the mystical text of Judaism is a positive number as it is made up of 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and 10 paths of life according to the attributes of God. Hence 32.

Bottom: Detail of the triangles on the Triangle Wall.

The Art of Memory

The Art of MemoryThe Art of MemoryThe Art of Memory

Reclaming the Symbol/
The Art of Memory,
1988-1992 Installation
Dimensions vary

Reclaiming the Symbol: The Art of Memory On the floor is a black swastika, made up of nine sections. On the wall is a Gold Swastika, as it appears in the culture of India and other places. In front appear alchemistic colors, earth from Israel, salt, and gold. The artist as shaman is trying to expunge the evil from the black swastika and restore to gold.

The earth from Israel is the beaker to the left is surrounded by a magic square whose numbers add up to 15 no matter how they are read. 15= the number of God's name. Albrecht Durer included the first magic square in his famous engraving "Melancholia," from 1517.

Bottom, left to right: Tree of Life; Small Swastikas; Magic Square. All details of above.

The Art of Memory

Left: 1894 - History of Swastika. This didactic is one of eight pages from an 1894 Encyclopaedia describing "the migration of the Swastika" from India to other parts of the world as a positive symbol, usually meaning "good luck" before the Nazis reversed its meaning.

The Art of Memory Symbola (Greek) - a recognition sign, spiritual, religious, a secret society or persecuted minority.

In Sanskrit it means it is well, so be it.

The Swastika (Greek Cross) is generally considered a form of the cross whose extremities are bent back at right angles.  IT MAY WELL BE THE EARLIEST KNOWN SYMBOL.

The use of symbols is perhaps the best way to influence people.

Symbols are simple and uncomplicated imgaes.

There is no mental connection, either rational or logical between the symbol and its meaning.  The meaning cannot be arrived at by reasoning.

A symbol is a device that has a meaning other than its obvious one; it is unknown except to those initiated.

We encounter symbols everywhere - billboards, religion, art, politics, clothing, war, peace, love, television, newspaper, educational tools, graffiti and propaganda.

The Swastika was used by the Germanic Order, The Volkisch Sects, and the occult Thule Society as the symbol of the Aryan anti-semitic revival movement.  The Aryan as a blond and blue-eyed person did not match the dark eyes and dark mustache of Hitler.

Certain symbols have become so loaded in our times (by previous experience with their use) that everybody understands them.

From prehistoric rock engravings and cave paintings to ban the bomb demonstrations, our lives and ideas are full of symbols.
The Art of Memory Symbols have been used in an attempt to create a monolithic system.

PEOPLE HAVE LIVED FOR SYMBOLS AND SOMETIMES HAVE DIED FOR THEM.

In Tibet the Swastika is a positive occult symbol. Adolph Hitler's interest in Tibetin mysticism led him to send some of his officers to study in Tibet. This was before the world had any idea of what he would do in his lifetime.

In color symbology, BLACK can mean prime matter, evil, the abyss, carbon, charcoal, or the first stage in the Alchemist's Process Negredo. The color RED is the second stage in the transformation in the Alchemical Furnace when the heat is turned up. It may also mean blood,love, war, the rose, communion, etc. WHITE, the third stage in Alchemy, appears on the top of the coals, when base matter begins to be elevated and is becoming purer (mercury or salt). There must be salt to bring change. GOLD is the final stage of transformation of base matter into spiritual gold: precious metal elevated.

Hitler was ordered by the intelligence brance of the Reichswehr (The German Army) to take over the leadership of the New German Worker's Party. The party was made up of a committee from the Reichswehr as well as retired soldiers and unemployed workers. Its members also wer drawn from the Thule Gesselschaft, the most powerful occult society in Germany which
financed the high command. THE SECRET SOCIETY INCLUDED AMONG ITS MEMBERS AND ADEPTS, JUDGES, POLICE CHIEF, LAWYERS, UNIVERSITY PROFESSORS, PHYSICIANS, SCIENTISTS, ARTISTOCRATIC FAMILIES AND LEADING INDUSTRIALISTS. The intent of this committee frin the Reichwehr was to turn this group into the most powerful single movement in Germany.

The fully rational God of Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz has become useless to us. Rational Principles fail to explain the destruction.
The Art of Memory The symbols (hieroglyphs) of the Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews are in the nature of memory images. These images were regarded as talismans for bringing protection and good energy from above. The talisman is an object imprinted with an image (symbol) which has been rendered in accordance with certain spiritual and magical rules.  They were to condition the imagination to receive celestial influences.

When we allow the evil meanings of a symbol TO TERRORIZE US THEY PARALYZE US AND INHIBIT OUR ABILITY TO CONFRONT AND COMBAT THEM, WE MUST NOT HIDE BEHIND OUR FEAR OF THE SYMBOL.

ONE ACT OR EVEN SEVERAL ACTS CANNOT PROVIDE FULL MORAL AND INTELLECTUAL JUSTICE TO THIS SUBJECT.

WE MUST EXAMINE THE PAST IN THE SPIRIT OF HOPE.

The Art of Memory

The Art of Memory

Didactic elements placed by the artist on the red wall, which is the same color as the Nazi flag. The didactics dead with symbols and their power, occult meanings, history of the symbols and how symbols have the power to energize us or overpower us.

Symbol: Scapegoat

Pharmokos (scapegoat) in Greece is an ancient rite. The exclusion of the Pharmokos supposedly purified the city. Adolph Hitler sought to rid Germany of the mentally ill, the retarded, the crippled, homosexuals, and the Jews. He succeeded in killing over 12 million of these so-called "otcasts" while the world stood by.

In times of political and economic crisis and dissatisfaction with the state of the nation, the one who is different from us, the alien and foreigner, the poor, the rich, and the black may be used as the scapegoat to release tensions of society.

Symbol: Occult Meaning

The solar wheel, movement and the power of the sun

Rotation around the axis. The mystic center.

The four cardinal directions

THE ORIGIN ACTING UPON THE UNIVERSE.  WHY DID HITLER TURN THE SWASTIKA ABOUT ITS AXIS?

The Art of Memory DOES SIMPLY STUDYING EVIL THROUGH HISTORY, PSYCHOLOGY, ART, ETC., RISK REPLACING CONDEMNATION WITH INSIGHT BY MERE RECOGNIZING AND ISOLATING THE PROBLEM?

Society, afriad of the literal and the confrontational, uses symbols to project the dark side of the unconscious.

The shadow or dark side of our ego is exposed to COLLECTIVE INFECTIONS to a much greater extent than is the conscious personality.

Self-hate.

Avoidance of confronting evil contains both our fears of contagion and the assumption the EVIL HAS NO RELATIONSHIP WHATSOEVER TO THE REST OF US.

WHILE THEY HADN'T BEEN DIRECTLY INVOLVED, BEING WITNESSES, HAVINGB WITNESSED ALMOST EVERYTHING THAT HAD HAPPENED HAD GIVEN THEM A SENSE OF POWER.

THE KILLINGS WERE CARRIED OUT THROUGH TECHNOLOGY AND WERE AN UNPRECEDENTED HISTORICAL STEP......HIROSHIMA/THE HOLOCAUST.

WHERE GOD AND EVIL ARE CONNECTED WE CONSTANTLY START OVER AGAIN.

GOD IS OMNIPOTENT AND GOD IS GOOD AND EVIL EXISTS.

The same picture or image can symbolize very different things and even opposites; for example, a mirror can symbolize wisdom but also vanity.
The Art of Memory NOBODY PAINTS AS HE/SHE LIKES. ALL AN ARTIST CAN DO IS TO WILL WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT THE PAINTING THEIR AGE IS CAPABLE OF.
(Jean Bazaaing)

The six-pointed star and th Swastika have been and continue to be used as both positive and negative symbols. Today they are both being used as symbolic acts on walls by rival street gangs.

Were they beasts when they did what they did or were they human beings?

THEY WERE AND ARE MEN.

Note this installation has references to modern, inner-city gangs who use the same symbols.

Updated 2012.