Faculty I Envy

July, 2013

Washington -- It's nice to know one's place and occasionally be put into it. That's the treatment I get from Professor Luciano Penay of American University. Mr. Penay, a retired professor of art, knows I am good for hauling around paintings, prints, and installations in my ten year old van; he knows I am good at following instructions when doing a hang; he knows I am good with a hammer and picture hooks; and at cleaning up.

Mr. Penay is a curator and master of the hang. No one can juxtapose art works, to get the most from them, better than he. But he also has good (and occasionally great) art to work with: the creations of many of his own students. And lest you think these "students" are youngsters, many of them go back decades with him.

Which is why I admire and envy him. What faculty can say they still have a following, over decades, that meets as often as weekly? The followers are known as Group 93.

I am not an artist, just someone who helps, observes, and admires. And who smiles inwardly when some of the students and my fellow helpers (who may in other lives be foreign service officers, diplomats, engineers, or who knows what) are put in their place by Mr. Penay in the process of hanging or taking down a show.

One student is shown a certain deference. She paid for the building in which the group meets, the Katzen Arts Center, a magnificent gallery and museum on Ward Circle. It stretches along Massachusetts Avenue longer than the Kennedy Center stretches along the Potomac. It is a treasure in a city of great galleries such as the Corcoran, the Phillips, and the National Gallery of Art. Myrtle Katzen is a member of Group 93. Her love of painting inspired the building.

Myrtle wears the deference lightly. She welcomes criticism of her works from Mr. Penay and the other Group 93 artists. In group shows, her works are interspersed with others. Sometimes they sell, sometimes not. Collectors at the last Group 93 show, buying works for their quality as much as their name, selected from (among others) Michael Graham, Joan Birnbaum, Claudia Vess, Lucy Blankstein, ...and Myrtle Katzen.

The Washington Post in the past year has finally discovered great art locally, and great stories that go with it. Good for them. The Group 93 story is yet untold, but overdue. And it's not just a local story: this building, this professor, this benefactor, and this group link the local to the global. Some Group 93 artists also show internationally.

When not hanging, Luciano Penay and I have some good conversations about Lincoln, Nebraska. He came from Chile (where he still spends part of each year) to study in Lincoln in the late 1940s. Luciano lived in the YMCA at 14th and P Streets and washed dishes at a Greek cafe to earn tuition money. He loved the autumn weather, until it turned to winter. Then he sought less extreme climes. At AU he is in his element.

When the World Beat a Path to Lincoln, Nebraska

July, 2013

Lincoln -- One hundred years ago, on August 9, 1913, several of the world's greatest scientists came to Lincoln to see Nebraska prairies and to pay tribute to the remarkable Nebraska botanist and education pioneer, Charles Bessey.

According to a Lincoln newspaper of the era, documents from the Library of Congress, and the later written reports of the scientists themselves, they came from England, Scotland, Switzerland, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, and Sweden. They were part of the Second International Phytogeographic Excursion, organized by Professors Henry Cowles of the University of Chicago and Frederic Clements of the University of Minnesota. Cowles and Clements were America's leading botanists and ecologists; they arranged for the stop in Lincoln.

The international party arrived in Lincoln the morning of August 9th by train from Chicago, some dressed in scientific exploration outfits expecting to go immediately to view prairies around Lincoln. University of Nebraska Chancellor Samuel Avery had other plans for them, as he put them in automobiles driven by Lincoln businessmen William Hardy and J.E. "Jack" Miller to show them the city. The closest most of them got to the countryside was a quick visit to the "Rogers' Woods" (presumably the Rogers Tract at 33rd and O Streets).

Temperatures that day were blistering hot: the thermometer would show 108 degrees by afternoon. For lunch, Chancellor Avery hosted the party at the Commercial Club, with Governor Morehead giving remarks on his roadbuilding program. Sir Arthur Tansley of England paid tribute to Professor Bessey but also admonished Nebraskans that too little was being done to appreciate and preserve the prairies.

After lunch, a lantern show was to feature the botanical slides of Nebraska botanist Raymond Pool. Pool was ill, however, and Frank Shoemaker, his assistant, may have helped out. Some of the international visitors insisted on getting out of the city; they visited the salt flats west of Lincoln before their train departed at 6:00 p.m. for Colorado and a ten day stay at Frederic Clements' laboratory on Pikes Peak.

The excursion ended in California.

On August 9, 2013, a few of us will attempt to recreate the Lincoln visit, one hundred years to the day later. We'll meet at 10:00 a.m. at Wyuka Cemetery (not far from Rogers' Woods), where the cemetery's south iron fence is the same fence that surrounded the university's campus from 1891 to 1925. We'll stop at the final resting places of Charles Bessey and several of his remarkable protégés, including Frederic Clements himself, recognized as the founder of the science of ecology.

We'll note the grave markers of the 1913 tour drivers, Hardy and Miller, better known as the founders of the Hardy Furniture Company and the Miller and Paine department store.

We'll exit Lincoln through what remains of the salt flats and have lunch on a prairie northwest of the city that would have been an ideal site for the international party to have visited a hundred years earlier.

More Cold War Stories

July, 2013

Berlin -- Two blocks from my front door, on a Bethaniendamm traffic island behind St. Thomas Church in Kreuzberg, is a small but thriving fruit and vegetable garden with a two story, jerry-built garden house and several arbors that provide seating and shade for two families that tend to the plot. A historical oddity, it is also a much-photographed tourist attraction.

The founder of the garden, Osman Kalin, came from Anatolia to West Berlin six decades ago. In the 1980s, he lived in a nearby apartment building overlooking the Berlin wall, which extended the length of Bethaniendamm. As he looked down on the East German security patrols going back and forth in the death strip, he noticed below him a junk-filled notch of land belonging to East Berlin that the wall by-passed, apparently because enclosing it would have ruined observation lines from the watch towers. On his own initiative, he cleared the plot and started a garden against the wall, technically in East German territory but on the West Berlin side of the daunting structure.

He soon got visits from the East Berlin border police, who suspected the garden might be a ruse for a tunneling effort. Throwing his Turkish passport at their feet, the Anatolian convinced them it was not. They subsequently monitored the height of his sunflowers but the central committee of the SED ruling party decided he was not worth the trouble of continually crossing the border to check on him.

The garden became an accepted part of the neighborhood. Osman Kalin and his wife were befriended by the pastor of the neighboring St. Thomas church, who offered them a reliable water supply. The pastor rescued them one night from a fire that destroyed their hut, whereupon they started coming over to the church (which emphasizes social outreach) for coffee.

The garden thrived. Osman Kalin toted excess vegetables in a wagon over to the Turkish Market on Maybachufer.

But then a neighbor, Mustafa Akyol, took over part of the land Kamil was not using. Disagreements ensued. The two Turkish neighbors ironically put up a dividing fence between them, perpendicular to the dividing wall that separated the Eastern world from the Western.

After the Berlin wall came down, the plot was eventually transferred to the borough of Kreuzberg. The mayor could have evicted the gardeners, but instead gave them a "permit of illegal occupation."

Osman Kalin and Mustafa Akyol have turned the plot over to their descendants; the gardens have never looked better.

A Berlin Cemetery

July, 2013

Berlin -- For an afternoon Berlin excursion, Claudia and I took the 147 bus from Bethaniendamm to Friedrichstadtpalast, a twenty minute trip. She went to the art galleries along Linienstrasse and Augustastrasse; I walked up Chauseestrasse to the Dorotheenstadt Cemetery, where many notables are buried.

The cemetery dates to the 18th century. Schinkel, the architect, is buried here. The philosophers Fichte and Hegel occupy plots nearly adjacent to each other.

Some graves are contemporary. The eighth president of Germany, Johannes Rau, was buried here in 2007.

Major figures of the twentieth century are buried here: Berthold Brecht, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Herbert Marcuse.

So is composer Hanns Eisler, who was hounded out of the United States by Richard Nixon in 1948, despite efforts by Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, Roy Harris, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Henri Matisse, and many others. On his departure, he voiced his love for the American people and his contempt for Nixon's HUAC. Soon he would up in East Berlin and wrote the East Germany national anthem. It is familiar to all who watched East German athletes win gold medals at many successive Olympic games, lending unjustified dignity and beauty to a corrupt athletic training regime and country.

Of all the graves on the day of my visit, only Eisler's was decorated in flowers.

Another notable at the cemetery is Ludwig Litfass, the printer who created and gave his name to the ubiquitous Litfasssaeulen (those round advertising columns) all over Europe.

Summer Life in Berlin

July, 2013

Berlin -- It is such a pleasure to be in Berlin in mid-summer, when the evening light lasts until nearly 11 p.m., the flowering lindens drench the streets with their aroma, and people dine and relax outside the cafes on about every street corner.

In my neighborhood, one can walk for blocks without encountering a chain-type establishment; the cafes and restaurants are local Berliner Kneipen or Turkish, Italian, French, Persian, Mediterranean, German, or a unique combination. Favorites in my immediate Kiez are Markthalle, Toscana Fraktion, Un ou Deux Chose, Cafe V; over in Kreuzkoelln (where my daughter lives), Silberloeffel; in the Graefekiez, Weinblatt.

All of these are an easy walk. No need for a car in Berlin. Anything beyond the neighborhood is quickly accessible by public transportation. From my door, the Kottbusser Tor U-Bahn is ten minutes away to the south, as is the S-Bahn to the north at Ostbahnhof. Even closer are buses M29, 140, 147, and 265. A 7-day pass for all public transportation is only 28 Euros.

Walking either direction is both a delight and a history lesson. Going toward Ostbahnhof takes one past the monumental St. Thomas church, over the site of the old Berlin Wall, across the Spree River, with its barges and tourist boats, and into the borough of Frederichshain, distinctively still East Berlin, where some of the old wall still exists.

Walking towards Kottbusser Tor, past the double spires of the nineteenth century Bethanien hospital (now an arts center), one is quickly immersed into all things Turkish -- dress, language, newspapers, groceries, cafes, sundry shops, travel agencies, a mosque, and on Tuesdays on the banks of the Landwehr Canal, the huge Turkish market. There is a sense of unease between the German and Turkish cultures, because German immigration policy has treated the Turks as guestworkers who will eventually go home to Turkey. The Turks -- about 200,000 strong -- are now in their fourth generation in the boroughs of Kreuzberg and Neukoelln. Clearly there is great resentment, and it did not help matters for Germany to have opposed entry of Turkey into the European Union. German immigration policy is not one for America to emulate.

If I could change anything, I'd prefer less Hundekot on the sidewalks (Berlin has literally tons of it -- so many dogs!) and less graffiti (some works are murals, senselessly tagged over); but given their history, these neighborhoods have always been a gritty part of Berlin and that is part of their charm. The diverse, free-growing greenery alone is a welcome respite from the unhealthy, sterile, manicured monocultures that are a noise and pesticide plague around my Maryland home. I can easily make the trade-off.

Just staying home in my Berlin neighborhood is no small delight to the senses. The church bells of St. Thomas ring across the street; in my courtyard, magpies, hooded crows, swifts, and songful blackbirds constantly entertain. I grow herbs in my garden. My neighbors are international, young, ambitious, and friendly. We love the neighborhood.

Celebrating our Freedoms on the Fourth of July

July, 2013

Berlin -- Yesterday, on the Fourth of July in Berlin, a hardy band of Americans gathered to celebrate our freedoms, including the Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and the First Amendment freedoms of assembly and speech. I was among the celebrants.

Dare I say who gathered and where? These days it's hard to know who might be under surveillance, even by one's own country.

Ridiculous as it may seem, I'll not name the people or where we met. Because it would not be the first time that some of the participants -- American educators, shopkeepers, and professionals living in Berlin -- were wiretapped and their group infiltrated by the U.S. government.

In 1973 and 1974, a group of Americans called "Concerned Americans in Berlin" came under U.S. Army surveillance. Wiretaps were arranged through the compliant host government and American spies were assigned to join the group. Dossiers were built on the individual members; reports were compiled and sent up the Army chain of command.

What did the wiretaps and the spies discover? That this group had supported George McGovern* in the 1972 elections and in the wake of Watergate, had discussed and favored the impeachment of Richard Nixon. In other words, CAIB members were like millions of their fellow citizens back home.

The surveillance was uncovered through the actions of a whistleblower within the U.S. Army. He thought the surveillance was wrong and reported it to Republican Senator Lowell Weicker of Connecticut. A member of the Senate Watergate Committee, Weicker attacked the White House. CAIB sued, and eventually the individual members settled with awards of about $4,500 each. The settlement contained a promise that the Army would not spy on them again.

Senator Sam Ervin of North Carolina quickly introduced the "Freedom from Military Surveillance Act" of 1974. (It subsequently died quietly in committee.)

Yesterday, one of the Americans brought along evidence from forty years ago. It was chilling; one document showed a crude sociogram constructed by the Army; with lines and circles, it linked the CAIB to the KPD, the SEW, and other communist groups in Berlin. It was a total fabrication.

So who was the Army whistleblower and what happened to him? Did the Army retaliate for his leaking? Is he a traitor or a hero? Is he still alive? Anyone who knows more about this matter is invited to contact me at joberg@aol.com, as I would like to see if this episode could be written up as a case study for future generations to analyze and remember. To say the least, it's topical.

* The many layers of irony here are too thick to cut. McGovern himself was an Army man; as a WWII pilot in the Army Air Corps, he flew many missions over Germany to defeat the Nazis. After the war, he earned a doctorate in political science. A college professor at Dakota Wesleyan before he became a senator, he attracted considerable support for his presidential bid from faculties everywhere, including Americans affiliated with the Free University of Berlin and members of CAIB. This university was founded after WWII as an intellectual outpost of freedom in a city surrounded by Soviet oppression. Another American intelligence organization -- the CIA -- had a covert hand in its founding, it is now known. So ironically thirty years after WWII, U.S. Army intelligence wound up spying on Americans affiliated with a university established to preserve freedom, because of their choice to support an Army veteran for president.

Potsdam, Again

July, 2013

Berlin -- Traveling through Potsdam yesterday brought back memories of an exhilarating time.

In the winter of 1989-90, Annette, Verity (age 7) and I went to the edge of West Berlin on a Sunday and walked over the Glieneke Bridge into what was still East Germany. The Berlin Wall had fallen in the sense that people were free to pass through it in some locations. We didn't know if the Glieneke Bridge (the scene of several prisoner and spy exchanges) was one of them. We showed our papers and walked past the East German guards at the end of the bridge and into Potsdam.

We saw no one for several blocks, then encountered a solitary pedestrian. Annette approached him to change money; he motioned to us to go into a back alley where no one could see the transaction. We struck up a conversation. He was a locksmith and lived with his wife and daughter nearby. He invited us for Kaffee und Kuchen. After a half hour in his tiny apartment, during which he explained his being out of favor with the local communist party, he asked if we wanted to see Cecilienhof, the site of the famous Potsdam Conference. Another of his daughters worked there.

We walked for thirty minutes through baroque palace ruins from the time of the Kaisers to the English-style palace where Churchill, Stalin, and Truman met in July of 1945 to decide the fate of Europe for the coming decades. Few westerners had seen the site for many years.

On the way back to his apartment, the locksmith asked me a strange question: he asked permission to touch me, on my shoulder. He explained that he had never before seen an American, let alone touch one.