December 10th, 1938: The Ministry of Justice receives a letter from 27-year-old Telmar and Paula Toller and their four-week-old son Denny. Jews from Berlin, they plead for a residence and work permit to Iceland. Telmar was an engineer, electrician and baker. One month later, the application is denied. Telmar, Paula and Denny later died on a nameless date at Auschwitz concentration camp.
August 19th, 1939: Leo Berger writes asking for a one-year residence permit for him, his wife Gertrud and his eight-year-old child Herbert. They had already been granted entry into the U.S., but had to find a place to stay until he could emigrate, due to the many people in line before them. Leo says that he does not intend to seek work in Iceland and has people ready to finance his stay. A Jew, he merely wants to enter Iceland so he can survive. Blue text written on the document by the Icelandic government says one word: Deny.
According to the Czechoslovakian holocaust database, Leo, Gertrud, and Herbert were killed in the Lodz Ghetto.
Edwin Brandes, 26, a dental technician, denied, died January 29th, 1944 in Auschwitz. Else Kurzbart and her brothers, denied, died before 1945 in the Minsk Ghetto. Josef Gelles, denied, dead on May 30th, 1940 in Sachsenhausen. Wilhelm Tichauer, denied, killed in Bechenwald. Countless more—all rejected in their time of need.
The letters and documents—thousands of them—until now have remained unseen, hidden away in the National Archives. But they have been brought to light by Erik DeLuca at Kling og Bang’s new installation ‘Homeland’ as part of a duo show called ‘Unheard Of’ with Þóranna Dögg Björnsdóttir.
Ignoring the past
Erik is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, his grandma, who unfortunately died when he was quite young. “I never really knew about her journey and that’s something that I struggle with,” he explains. A quote from Audre Lorde, “By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes”, has long resonated with Erik, and that is certainly reflected in the sheer amount of effort put into this project.
“I’m an artist, I’ve been dealing with the politics of forgetting related to my own identity, and I have questions for my grandmother (that she, will of course, never be able to answer). I worked in Iceland from 2016-2018 at the art school, and I still play in a band based there (Laura Secord). I became interested in the relationship between Iceland and the Holocaust,” he explains. “I knew there had to have been Jews that were living in Iceland or came to Iceland to find asylum. There was minimal information on the web, so I went to the National Archives and asked them if they had any information. Days later, they wheeled out this cart full of these documents called the ‘Surveillance of Foreigners’.”
Many might not know this, but the current Directorate of Immigration was originally founded as the Surveillance of Foreigners. It was headed by Agnar Kofoed-Hansen, who actually went to Germany in 1939 at the personal invitation of Heinrich Himmlar for a course in immigration organised by the SS. “This archive,” Erik continues, “this is documentation of Iceland’s first immigration policy, which seems to have been set up to keep Jews away.”
The archive is not just comprised of letters from Jews or applications, it’s just filled with every document even related to foreigners at the time—thousands of them that range from the mundane to the horrifying.
An 1939 invoice for 29.90 ISK from Björn Bjarnason, who gathered information about foreigners in Mosfellshreppur. A 1938 invoice for 357.10 ISK from the Police Department for the reimbursement of costs that occurred in the deportation of the Rottberger family, one of whom was born in Iceland. This follows a 1937 letter sent by Atli Ólafsson, demanding the deportation of the Jewish family due to the success of Rottberger’s leather business.
And it goes on and on, but Erik, and his collaborator Julius Rothlaender, carefully combed through all, documenting and witnessing the history live.
“Dealing with these letters is difficult and intense. I didn’t feel good—sitting and touching these stories, physically touching their handwriting,” he says. “But I had to sit with it.”
The lucky ones
The exhibition includes a wall of videos, which flips through photos included in the archive Erik and Julius assembled accompanied by narrations of the metadata they created for each document. Along with that there’s a big triangle, which was the logo of the Ministry of Justice at the time—a representation of how much of this story was just the menial process of bureaucracy. The exhibition also features a poem by Melitta Urbanacic who was one of the few Jews who was allowed in due to her non-Jewish husband Victor who came to Iceland to conduct Iceland Symphony Orchestra—purely to save his wife.
“The poem is about assimilation, home, trauma, and the guilt of being one of the ‘lucky ones,’” he explains. Melitta’s’s great-granddaughter Katherine Caldwell translated it into English for the show.
Lyme grass grows on the floor of the exhibition. “Lyme grass sucks up nitrogen from the air and brings it down to the soil,” Erik explains. “It rejuvenates damaged soil.”
Help as many as you can
The exhibition and Erik’s research makes one thing abundantly clear: Iceland failed the Jews during their time of need. They have blood on their hands—though many don’t even know it.
That said, Iceland has a rare moment of redemption here as the debate regarding Afghan refugees goes on. Here are people, once again, looking death right in the face and asking for aid, but will Iceland give them it? Or will more papers be covered with the same word as before: Deny.
“We’re human beings,” he said. “It’s simple. If you have the means, help.”
Homeland and Unheard Of run until October 3rd at the gallery Kling og bang
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