Involuntary Passage to Mauritius

Die Presse (06/17/2008)

Involuntary Passage to Mauritius
Norbert Mayer

”Boarding Pass to Paradise“ – An exemplary exhibition on the exodus during WW II

It is a sad story. “I will hang up my marionettes,” said Fritz Haendel on January 7, 1945 to his friends Béda and Hanna Mayer, together with whom he managed to flee the Nazis in 1940. They had hoped to reach Palestine, which was at the time administered by the British, but wound up in Mauritius. Haendel takes some strong wire and leaves his workshop, recall his friends. Shortly thereafter they discover he had hung himself. “He made sketches of funny little pictures, thinking all the while about death,” writes Hanna.

The caricaturist, graphic artist and performer of marionettes Fritz (Bedrich) Haendel (1910-1945) and the painter Peretz Béda Mayer (1906-2002) are not world famous artists, but their fate is exemplary of the exodus resulting from terror perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews in Europe. The two friends have documented their journey from Pressburg/Bratislava via the Donau to Mauritius like a diary. Their notes and pictures reflect the noticeable fear but also the unconditional will to survive and the humor that emerged from time to time even during such precarious times.

The poignant exhibition “Boarding Pass to Paradise,” (curator, Elena Makarova) can be seen until the end of July in the Schifffahrtszentrum. Dominating the exhibition are the artistic works of the refugees which cast off from Vienna in September 1940 on the overcrowded “Schönbrunn,” and with the help of two other steamboats, brought 1,500 passengers to the Black Sea. In addition photographs, files and personal objects help to illustrate the adventurous voyage. It was on the “Schönbrunn” that Mayer and Haendel met and fostered a friendship. From Tulcea they sailed further on the “Atlantic,” which then headed for the port of Haifa. The British, however, refused the Jews’ request to remain in Palestina and shipped them to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It was no paradise for the refugees who remained in internment until 1945.

The pictures of Mayer, who made a living as kindergarten teacher, carpenter and painter, remind one of Chagall’s later paintings, such as “Man with the Head of a Bird” or “Birth and Death” have something threatening about them. Again and again also self-portraits and masks: “I and My Shadow” is the name of one such morbid work. Offering an explanation of his paintings, the aging artist claims that he is painting dreams.

Distraction from Despair

In contrast, Haendel’s sketch books appear light and ironic. He makes fun of the gruff Greek captain and the many spontaneous marriages. A fitting satire in the form of a cartoon deals with “Motke Blitz,” whose humor comes from his stolid, greedy character. The puppet show distracts from feelings of doubt. At the end of 1943 Haendel writes to his brother that for more than half a year he almost never sketches anymore. “That expresses best the psychic condition in which I find myself.”