At Magnes, fictional woman illuminates 20th-century life

Nabolom

Photos and notes used in the Rachel Marker exhibit at the Magnes are spread out on a table at Nabolom Bakery in Berkeley, where Moira Roth spent time composing her piece. Photo: Moira Roth

 By Marcia Tanner

Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker occupies a single gallery in the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life. Within its four walls, this fascinating multimedia exhibition interweaves the lives of three extraordinary European-born women, the evolving chronicles of a fourth, fictional woman, and decades of 20th-century European literary, artistic, intellectual and political history.

If this sounds like a complicated scenario, it is. How and why did such a complex cosmopolitan convocation convene in downtown Berkeley?

Rachel Marker — the fictional protagonist of this intertwining narrative of actual and imagined characters — is the creation of Berkeley-based writer, art historian and Mills College art history professor Moira Roth. Writing at cafés in Berkeley (Nabolom), Berlin, Prague and Paris, Roth conceived the character of Rachel as a sort of female Zelig: a peripatetic Czech Jew who flees her native country during the rise of fascism. She witnesses most of the major events, and becomes involved with many of the major cultural figures, of the first half of the 20th century.

A poet and playwright, Marker records accounts of her experiences in unsent letters to Franz Kafka (although he had died, she considers him a soulmate), notes, poems, and plays. Since we can only know Rachel through her literary productions, the exhibition includes examples of her writing, actual publications in which her work has appeared, and books by her real-world literary influences (Kafka, Walter Benjamin). Unsigned handwritten letters that periodically appear in the gallery imply that Rachel still lives and continues to observe, reflect and write.

Moira Roth's passport photo from the 1970s.

Moira Roth’s passport photo circa 1970

Moira Roth, who identifies strongly with Rachel Marker, is herself a character in the exhibition. Born Moira Shannon in England in 1933 (Roth is her married name), she lived in a large house with her divorced mother, who took in European Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis during World War II. The young Moira was captivated by them and by their stories.

These early connections developed into her lifelong interest in Eastern European Jewish history, literature and culture, and a deep affinity with its emigres. After attending the London School of Economics, Roth became an émigré herself. She moved to the United States, earning her bachelor’s degree from New York University before coming to U.C. Berkeley where she earned her M.A. and Ph.D.

Not coincidentally, Roth’s doctoral adviser was Peter Selz, now Professor Emeritus of Art History, Founding Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and a German Jew who — like many of his compatriots — came to Berkeley to escape Nazi persecution. Roth went on to teach at three U.C. campuses before becoming a professor at Mills College in Oakland, where she holds the Trefethen Endowed Chair in Art History. She has educated and inspired many generations of young female students. Roth credits two real and remarkable Jewish women in her life as inspirations for the character of Rachel Marker. Both are pervasively present in the exhibition.

Rose Hacker with her father, Abraham Goldbloom, in Berlin in 1924

Rose Hacker with her father, Abraham Goldbloom, in Berlin in 1929

Rose Hacker, a London-born Polish Jew, came with her children to live in the Shannon household during the Blitz and developed a strong and lasting bond with Roth. Ultimately Hacker became Roth’s “unofficially adopted mother.”

Described as “a pacifist, activist, writer, artist, and feminist,” Hacker was active in politics, worked tirelessly as a volunteer for many social causes, published an autobiography, and at the age of 100 began writing a regular column for a London newspaper. She died in 2008 at the age of 101. The exhibition is dedicated to her memory.

Hacker had introduced Roth to her friend Alice Herz-Sommer, the second inspiration for the character of Rachel Marker. The two have been close ever since. At 109, Herz-Sommer is the oldest known Holocaust survivor, and something of a celebrity in England. A native of Prague, where she met Kafka as a child, she became a successful concert pianist and piano teacher. She and her son Raphael survived incarceration in Theresienstadt by performing music. (Raphael sang in the opera Brundibar.)

After the war, she and Raphael returned to Prague, then settled in Israel where she taught piano until her move to London to join her son, by then a well-known cellist. She still plays piano daily. A riveting video interview with Herz-Sommer speaking and playing classical music on the piano provides the exhibition’s sound track, visual focus and emotional heart.

Alice Rose Plotter in Prague in 1924

Alice Rose Sommer in Prague in 1924

The unseen hand that crafted this remarkable exhibition belongs to its curator Alla Efimova, Jacques and Esther Reutlinger Director of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at the Bancroft Library. Efimova, a Russian Jewish émigré to Berkeley who had experienced anti-Semitism in her native country, became friends with Roth over coffee and pastries at Nabolom Bakery.

Intrigued by the Rachel Marker project, she invited Roth to give a reading at the Magnes in its former home on Russell Street.  But “as a curator, I felt I couldn’t understand it until I turned it into three dimensions,” said Efimova.

The result is the compelling exhibition on view at the Magnes through June 28. Via printed documents, books, photographs, artifacts, two video projections (one with sound, one a silent montage of film clips spanning 60 years of European history by Magnes staffer Gary Handman), and a desk inviting written contributions from visitors, Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker transforms a two-dimensional medium (words on paper) into a three-dimensional interactive environment. It repays focused attention and a longer visit than you might anticipate.

In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, the poet T.S. Eliot wrote about “the historical sense” in great works of art: the simultaneity of historical past and contemporary present. Eliot described it as “a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together […]”. By Eliot’s definition, Through the Eyes of Rachel Marker — co-created by Moira Roth and Alla Efimova in Berkeley — has “the historical sense.”

Whether it’s a great work of art only time will tell. I believe it is. Go see what you think.

Through The Eyes of Rachel Marker  – A Literary Installation by Moira Roth, Jan. 22-June 28 2013, at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life,  2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Visit the Magnes online for more information.

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/marcialart Marcia Tanner

    Hi, readers. If I’d had more space, I’ve have added that the Rachel Marker exhibition also illuminates the mysterious ways in which our identities and memories are shaped by the stories and memories of others with whom we develop strong affinities. Those others may be people actually involved in our lives, or the artists whose creations become integral to our imagination, or . . . The beat goes on. I would love to read your comments on this site! thanks, Marcia Tanner

  • Stephen Vincent

    Beautiful review, Ms. Tanner. They don’t write them like any more (well, not often).
    Stephen Vincent

  • http://www.facebook.com/marcialart Marcia Tanner

    Thank you, Stephen! You ARE a loyal friend. So sorry I missed your booth @ Codex; I had planned to go and my ride fell through. How was it for you? xoxo

  • zquat

    A Literary Installation by Moira Roth, Jan. 22-June 28 2013,

    looks like this is very Passe!!