Isak is a person I have immense respect for, on many levels. Incredibly bright fellow. A great poet, a literary talent I have little or no facility in.
A man who loves the material he is selling and who actually furthered the scholarship of his corner of the decorative arts, publishing a monograph early in his career.
I was a sign painter for a time, and apprenticed to an old master who taught me the old way of doing things, endless repetition and practice, interrupted by periodic bouts with the speed bag. Les was ninety four when I started working with him and he had once been a boxer. I developed a love affair with letters and type, not to mention a decent jab.
I told Isak that I really fancied the type on this sign or font in the photograph, which seemed very much influenced by Vienna and the secessionists. He mentioned the Belgian artist Henry Van de Velde. I brought up the outstanding nouveau and deco architecture found in Hungary.
The teens must have been a glorious time to have been in Europe, at least in a decorative sense. The pre-raphaelites, mixed their ethos with the orientalists which bloomed into the glorious art nouveau movement. It was fully a flower. the prevailing patrician motifs swept into the dustbin for new and fresh.
In England, Morris, Ruskin and Ashbee, dreading the coming factorization and industrialization of form and design, championed the arts and crafts movement and the creative work of the individual artist and small guild versus mass production. The movement borrowed from a variety of influences, 14th century dutch farmhouse, ecclesiastical, shaker among others, and tended to favor form and shape over embellishment, along with attention to fine detail and generally immaculate construction.
When Art Nouveau and arts and crafts eventually moved from England and France to Germany and Austria, the curved and sinewy lines straightened out and the right angle and grid became more predominate. Companies like WMF, Osiris and Orivit hired wonderful and creative designers and eventually gave birth to the secessionist movement and the Wiener Werkstatte and Jugendstil.
|Lamp - Freidrich Adler circa 1901|
Adler was my personal favorite. He could do anything, he worked as an artist, architect, fabric and paper designer, ceramist, metal artist and woodworker. His favorite design line was so severe it was shocking. And delightful. Like raw bones and muscle.
Unfortunately when he was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 he was deemed too old and quickly exterminated.
In time Nouveau gave way to deco when the earlier style got a bit too heavy and needed to be a little lighter on its feet. Moderne helped the people break out of their great and literal depression.
Anyway, now I really have digressed. But Isak brought up Belgium and how glorious it must have been and I thought about my family history and my grandfather Israel's personal story and my family connection to that place. Without Belgium I might not be alive. The dutch and flemish were much more hospitable at that point to our tribe than practically anyone else in Europe.
Some of you know about this stuff and many I am sure don't care about it but this is one that I am going to repeat.
He had a rich cousin in the city, Sam, who supposedly bankrolled 20th Century Fox, but he wanted nothing to do with his poor European kin. Sam lived on California Street in San Francisco, had a hair products company. Felt embarrassed by their country cousins.
Moishe could not bring my great grandmother into this country with him because she had become addicted to morphine after a long hospitalization, a common occurrence back then. I believe that he worked on the kosher chicken farms in Petaluma before the earthquake sent him fleeing back to Poland.
My grandfather spent a portion of his young life smuggling morphine for his mother. When World War I broke out he was conscripted into the Russian army. Poland was betwixt and between sovereignty, the Germans and the Russians back then but at this point the Russians had control.
A conscription at that time for a jew was a mandatory twenty year term, the most common conclusion was death. One day my grandfather, who was incredibly tough until his dying day, had the misfortune to endure a severe horse whipping by a Cossack officer. He reached for a bayonet and plunged it into the Cossacks chest, killing him instantly. A manhunt ensued but he fled across Germany and ended up in Antwerp. Without Belgium I might not have ever been alive.
|Siemens telegraph - Brussels 1897|
Israel Sommer, later Kaitz, spoke at least seven or eight languages fluently; Russian, Polish, Yiddish, German, English, French, Hebrew, Ladino and Spanish.
I was an excellent chess player at one time. In his early eighties he beat me at the chess table like a drum. In any case he eventually got tired of Israel, or should I say Palestine, the oppressive religious aspects mostly, my male forebears a long line of non believers. He moved to this country with my thirteen year old father and eleven year old aunt in 1939, initially staying with some relatives in Detroit.
My late mother says that he killed a man in Israel. She called him the murderer. She made all sorts of crazy talk. I do not know if that was true, he certainly had the temper to do it. I know that when I started researching the family history in the late eighties, my aunt got very distraught, said some things were better off buried in time.
I don't think he was necessarily the nicest grandpa. My brother and sister lived with him for a time when he eventually moved back to Israel, watched him pull a man out of his car and beat him up in his seventies in a road rage incident. I don't think he cared a whit for his grandchildren. My earliest memories of him, he was sitting in his simple dining chair, wiry strong in a wife beater undershirt, eating green gage plums which he pared with a sharp knife.
He lived in South Pasadena for a while, had a furniture shop, my father proudly said that he was so careful he never made a second cut. Eventually he moved to Culver City. He had a turquoise fifty seven chevy. I never saw it go even fifty miles an hour, he was a notoriously slow driver.
I don't have much from him now, maybe an old broken watch, a passport, a lovely black and white photograph of the hills of Judah he took in the 1930's. Funny but it looks sort of like my work.
I guess purely on an existential basis, without him, there would be no me and for that I am grateful.
When he was getting a required surgery well into his eighth decade, he inquired of the surgeon what affect the operation would have on his sex life? The doctor said, it shouldn't but what kind of sex life do you have, if I may ask? My beloved father heard it with his own ears, once a day, twice on Sundays...
Luckily he had remarried at this point, to a real saint. He is buried in Givatiyim, in Israel. My grandmother lays in San Diego.
What is the point of my reciting and sharing my family history, especially such sordid history? Good question. I am not sure. I don't have children, nor will I.
My nieces and nephews may one day develop an interest on what brought them to their particular position in space and time and I might be one of the few people left to have ever researched the matter. I have created the tree and have collected all the necessary papers.
And I think it is important to think that whatever problems we all may think we have, they pale in contrast to what my grandparents and maybe your grandparents went through getting to this country when times were truly tough. Can you imagine your mother an addict, having to become a smuggler, getting whipped by a cossack that you end up killing, having the unfortunate family that stayed in Poland all get exterminated...
How quickly the past is buried, how soon the present is obscured under a fine layer of silt.