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Albrecht Dürer, W.G. Sebald, and My Father

by Jonathan Wilson

Albrecht Dürer, a genius of the German Renaissance, is an artist who has disturbed me since early childhood, ever since I first saw a postcard of his Nuremberg home in a photo album assiduously put together by my father more than eighty years ago. It was the picture’s hint of menace, its shuttered windows and meanly sloped gables, made worse by its troubling proximity to other images, that unsettled and then came to haunt me.

The album innocently documented a walking tour that my London-born and -bred father had taken in Bavaria in 1928, as well as a subsequent trip to Belgium. It contained pictures that ignited my fears of the Holocaust when I was five years old, and it also held the suggestion of a secret. There, in a group shot (undoubtedly taken by my father, although that never occurred to me when I was a child), were a number of people smiling gamely at me from above his neat cursive: “Brussels: When English and Polish cousins meet.” Sixty-two of my father’s Polish-Jewish family—uncles, aunts, cousins, adults, children, babies—were murdered at Treblinka and Auschwitz, but he never spoke of them or even told his children they had existed.

The album was similarly off-limits, even if it was not explicitly made so by my parents. I never perused its pages while cuddled up in an armchair with Mum or Dad. I flipped through it alone, without guidance or explication. And yet, despite my father’s attempt to shield us, something got through, and for many years that “something” has adhered for me to the gray pages of this prewar scrapbook.

My father died in 1965, shortly after my fifteenth birthday. My mother hid the album, and I did not see it again until it was discovered among her possessions after her own death at the age of 94, in 2002. By then, as a result of research undertaken by two of my cousins, I was able to identify the happy figures who had been my father’s relatives.


My recoil from Albrecht Dürer evolved, although devolved is perhaps more accurate, into an irrational hostility toward woodcuts, the technique with which the artist is most closely associated. Woodcuts seemed to me anti-Semitic. I recognize it is entirely wrong—narrow- minded and idiotic—to react this way to a creative technique and an entire genre of work. But I was operating on a set of linked associations over which I apparently had little control: Nuremberg, represented by my father’s photographs and Dürer’s fortress-like home, in combination with the words wood and cut, with their suggestions of forests and murder. Equally important (and equally pathological), the technique’s medium of ink on paper—black and white—seemed to me of a piece with the Holocaust’s customary portrayal in film and photography.

With regard to Dürer, I only began to achieve some sanity and balance after looking at and reading about the late R. B. Kitaj’s painting Melancholy After Dürer, which the artist painted in 1989 after recovering from a mild heart attack. In truth, it was Kitaj’s life story that got my attention, which in turn allowed me to reconsider the subject of his painting. Kitaj, an American painter domiciled in London for many years, had left England on account of what he perceived to be the country’s entrenched and irredeemable anti- Semitism, an ugliness that he discerned in attacks on his work by local critics. Kitaj was convinced that these critics had tried to kill him but instead killed his wife, the artist Sandra Fisher, who died of a brain aneurysm in 1994, the same year Kitaj received a broad and infamously cruel trashing of his Tate Modern retrospective.

I sympathized with Kitaj. I knew something about the British and their frequently grotesque relationship to Jews, and it seemed quite possible that stress brought on by the critical bashing, which was certainly anti-Semitic in flavor, had precipitated his wife’s eruptive hemorrhage.

But perhaps this was simply swapping one madness for another. Kitaj’s Melancholy After Dürer is an homage both to the artist and to art historian Erwin Panofsky’s brilliant interpretation of Dürer’s Melencolia I, an extraordinary engraving in which a winged female figure is captured in what Panofsky calls “a state of gloomy inaction,” her hair garlanded but unkempt, a miserable dog at her feet, her architect’s compass held futilely in her hand. Panofsky, an early Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, established Dürer as the first artist to understand and present melancholy as a psychological rather than a physical state. The drowsy, slothful, sluggish behavior associated with those afflicted by the humor, and commonly depicted on medieval calendars and illuminated manuscripts, is transformed in Melencolia I. As Panofsky describes it, Dürer’s Melencolia is “super awake; her fixed stare is one of intense fruitless searching. She is inactive not because she is too lazy to work but because work has become meaningless to her; her energy is paralyzed not by sleep but by thought.” Thus, Dürer identifies a particular form or stage of the affliction to which artists are most susceptible. For Panofsky, Melencolia I powerfully represents “the tragic unrest of human creation,” a condition Kitaj identified with and attempted to foreground in his own work.

In the first flush of excitement over my newfound openness to Dürer, I read the chapter “Anti-Semitism and the Passion” in David Hotchkiss Price’s 2003 book, Albrecht Dürer’s Renaissance: Humanism, Reformation, and the Art of Faith. And here my troubles returned. For, devastatingly, in a persuasive piece of original research, Price demonstrates beyond a doubt that some of Dürer’s most important work contributed to the “venomous discourse of penance” and thereby encouraged the persecution of Jews.

Why hadn’t this been noticed before? The answer lay in Price’s acute art-historical sensitivity to millinery. In Dürer’s woodcuts that make up The Small Passion (1508–10), for example, “it is easy for modern viewers to miss the derogatory significance of images of Jewish hats.” In one scene, a Roman soldier viciously stabs Christ in the neck with a stick while observed by gloating, conspiratorial figures in the background. Are they Jews? It turns out that Dürer’s most sinister, grimacing, and grotesque figures all wear hats that tip off his audience to their ethnicity. Dürer’s otherwise resplendent humanism had no room for Jews. In this regard he anticipated a number of other great artists, dramatists, poets, and philosophers including Erasmus (a contemporary), Shakespeare, and T. S. Eliot.

I’d been right to remain leery of Dürer. And yet I was not done with this artist. There was still the residual significance of my father’s postcard.


In the summer of 1928, at the age of twenty-one, Lewis Wilsick (my father did not change his name to Wilson until 1940) set out from his tiny, crowded East London home on the first leg of a walking tour through Bavaria. After a brief stab at rabbinical school, he had settled into a clerical position in the offices of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, the same institution for which he had begun his working life as an elevator boy while in his mid-teens. The trip to Bavaria took place over his fortnight’s summer vacation.

Because he’d had rheumatic fever as a child, my father suffered from a heart condition throughout his life. By early middle age, he was an invalid: a man who could not surmount the softest undulation without pausing for breath. In 1928, however, he was still vital and active. He loved to take Sunday rambles in the English countryside, leave the choking city to which he was bound by family and employment and lose himself to the delights of bramble and thicket, rain-soaked meadows, profusions of wildflowers, and birds singing all the way through Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. (This was a poor man’s pastime. My Uncle Simey, my father’s younger brother, used to take dates to the criminal courts at the Old Bailey to catch a free drama because he could not afford the price of a theater ticket.)

The first stop on my father’s Bavarian journey was Nuremberg. Baedeker’s Southern Germany for 1928 describes the town thus:

Nuremberg, German Nürnberg, a town of 400,000 inhab., lies in a sandy plain, partly clothed with fir trees and intersected by the Pegnitz, which divides the old town into two nearly equal parts, the Lorenz and the Sebald sides, the latter being the older and more interesting. There is no town in Germany so suggestive of an old imperial city as the Altstadt, dominated by the castle, and still enclosed by a wall, towers and a broad dry moat. Nuremberg is also the chief commercial and manufacturing town in S. Germany, machinery, toys, metalware, lead-pencils, gingerbread, and beer being among its chief products.

My father entered this town of toys, pencils, and gingerbread from the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, in the dog days of August, en route to acquiring the first of his Stocknägel—the little aluminum plaques popular with hikers (they nailed them to their walking sticks) that showed the name and a miniature view of each German town the walker had passed through. His daytime stroll through Nuremberg ended outside the walls of the old fortress. He took a picture there and later, after settling into a small hotel on the Sebald side of the Pegnitz, recorded his first impression of Nuremberg as “a picturesque town resplendent in old world beauty.”

Among the postcards with which my father supplemented his snapshots of Nuremberg is one of the town’s placid river, a few gentle ripples visible on its surface as it meanders between narrow tree-lined banks down to an old stone bridge and tower. It reads, Nürnberg: Pegnitz einfluss in die Stadt. Beneath it my father has written: “The Pegnitz—I’m told that in the dim past this river harbored many who had been ‘hingerichtet’ (executed), but I must confess that by now odors of decomposed bodies have been entirely washed away.”

Among the “hingerichtet” were undoubtedly a number of Nuremberg’s Jewish citizens. Jews had experienced a rough time of it in Nuremberg more or less from the beginning of their presence there, around the turn of the twelfth century. The commonplace medieval restrictions on Jewish employment and habitation were accompanied by burdensome taxes, protection money, and endless laws enforcing separatist behavior: Jews were not allowed to bathe with Christians or buy eggs or meat before nine a.m., when Christians thronged the market.

In 1349 a synagogue and the surrounding Jewish houses were razed to make room for a church, the Frauenkirche (sometimes called the Marienkirche). In 1451 a papal decree banned Jews from engaging in commerce, but permitted them to take up certain trades on condition that they wore a yellow ring fastened to their outer garments to alert unsuspecting customers. There was also murder and mayhem, including 698 slain in a single day on August 1, 1298, and 560 who perished at the stake on December 5, 1349, all leading up to the Jews’ expulsion on Laetere Sunday (the fourth Sunday of Lent) in 1499. Jews did not return to Nuremberg until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Simon Wolfkehle, a lottery agent, was permitted to take up residence.

By 1928, when Lewis Wilsick arrived, the Jewish population of Nuremberg had reached almost 9,000. However, life for the city’s Jews had become increasingly uncomfortable. In 1922 the Nazis began holding their annual rallies in Nuremberg. In 1923, the first issue of Der Stürmer, Julius Streicher’s notoriously anti-Semitic newspaper, was published there, and would continue to issue weekly vitriol until the end of the war in 1945. There were frequent assaults on Jewish residents and numerous desecrations of Jewish graves. My father seems to have been oblivious to these events.

In fact, my father found a friend in Paul Barth, a local student on his way to a career in the Lutheran priesthood. The young men found common ground in their mutual immersion in theology, their devotion to music—on the night before my father’s return to England, they took in Otello at the Nuremberg Opera House—and perhaps their love of the countryside.

Here they were, in Nuremberg, the English Jew and the German Christian. They had met by chance. Sometime during the two weeks of their friendship, Paul brought my father to visit his parents at their home in the suburb of Almoshof. The photograph that marks this occasion shows a couple seated outside at a small, round, wrought-iron table. Herr Barth wears a well-tailored three-piece suit with collar and tie; he is bald and his white moustache and goatee are neatly trimmed. Frau Barth is zaftig. In her right hand she clutches either flowers or a handkerchief. At the Barths’ feet, on a raised concrete plinth, their German shepherd sits contentedly. Paul’s parents seem to aspire to the austere, yet my father’s caption suggests an atmosphere more gemütlich than uptight: “Paul’s parents in the garden of their home ALMOSHOF, NÜRNBURG. ‘PHIPPS’ the faithful, growing fat from lack of exercise, insisted on being in the picture. SUMMER HOLIDAY—1928.”

After my father had returned to England, Paul mailed him two photographs taken on his uncle’s farm. For a long time I believed that these pictures, which my father placed in the album alongside his own, had been taken by him, and it was only recently that I noticed they’re dated almost eighteen months before his arrival in Germany.

The more notable of the two shows a huge sow laid sideways on a long trestle table, trotters tied, teats exposed, dropsical stomach spreading over the edge. Paul and his uncle, both tall and powerful men, stand in work aprons behind the fattened sow. Between them a tiny woman in a white headscarf, possibly Paul’s aunt, holds an enamel jug with a broad opening ready to catch the blood. Paul has a knife in his right hand and he grasps it, like a surgeon ready to make an incision, at the sow’s neck. A small terrier looks on indifferently. Paul and his uncle smile for the camera from a courtyard strewn with rocks. Behind them stand a rough-and-tumble home, a brick barn, a concrete shed. My father captioned it: “The Slaughter of the Pig—Bavaria 1927. MY FRIEND PAUL ON VACATION AT HIS UNCLE'S FARM—kills his own ‘CHOZOR’ to make sure it’s fresh!” As a child I was terrified by this picture, for in it the Holocaust was both forecast and recorded.

First the fat dog, now the fat pig. All this happy fattening, this ruddy sausage world, farm and garden in Germany before the war. On the leaf opposite the dog, the domestic scene gives way to Albrecht Dürer’s house, now a museum, represented on the postcard that my father glued alone without comment onto a blank page. It wasn’t “The Slaughter of the Pig,” and it wasn’t the unknown cousins, but it certainly had its own “Hansel and Gretel” sense of foreboding. I do not know for certain that my father ever entered Dürer’s house. But why else would he have purchased a postcard of the exterior and affixed it to a page in his album? No, it is I, with my distorted post-Holocaust consciousness, who found the entrance barred, and thus it remained, occupying a corner of my mind devoted to all that was ominous and threatening about Germany.


When W. G. Sebald began to receive a good deal of attention in the 1990s, I felt drawn both to and away from his writing in a manner that I can only describe as perverse. I had a hard time finishing, or even starting, Sebald’s books. Much the way that I approached and withdrew from Dürer, I could not think about Sebald without recalling that on my father’s visit to Nuremberg he had stayed on the “Sebald” side of the river—an association, this time, that was purely meaningless. (The older half of Nuremberg is named after the church of St. Sebaldus, to which it is home.)

I had reason to be sympathetic to Sebald. Since 1970 he had been teaching in England, at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. I had friends who had attended this university, and as an undergraduate, also starting in 1970, I had studied at the University of Essex in the neighboring county sixty miles south.

I began to read his novel The Emigrants in 1998, about two years after its publication in English, but I didn’t get very far before I found myself distracted, or put off by its slow pace. That same year, during a trip to London to visit my mother, I picked up another of his books, The Rings of Saturn, which describes a walking tour he undertook in rural Suffolk. I was looking forward to reading it on the plane home, but during takeoff I was stopped short when, leafing through the pages, I came across the name Manningtree. Manningtree is a small English village eleven miles from Wivenhoe, the town where I lived as an undergraduate, and the reference brought such a flood of memories that instead of reading I lay back and closed my eyes.

In summers while I was a student I had frequently swum at the head of the Stour Estuary in Manningtree. There always seemed to be picnics in progress on the riverbanks: girls in Laura Ashley dresses, tie-dyed hippies, someone in a velvet Edwardian frock coat, as if Henry James, Lewis Carroll, and a section of the crowd from the Isle of Wight Festival (England’s Woodstock) had converged for the afternoon. I was so excited by Sebald’s “Manningtree” and what it brought back to me that I could not open his book again for fear that it would be too pleasurable and that my affinity for it would be too powerful to bear. I wanted to take my own walk through Suffolk rather than allow Sebald’s to overwhelm me.

By the time I returned to The Emigrants, I was aware that I was supposed to admire its slow buildup and the way that misery accumulates under its placid surface until the aftereffects of the Holocaust on four Jewish lives seep into the reader’s marrow almost without his or her noticing. This should have been meat and drink for me. Unfortunately, whenever I was reading, a kind of narcolepsy overcame me and I could get no farther than ten pages without falling asleep. I didn’t want to admit to myself, and certainly could not admit to others, that I was bored by the book—this seemed like a moral as well as intellectual failing—but, despite several attempts over the years, I was unable to get past page eighty.

I found solace in imagining that, despite more than half a lifetime in America, I was probably suffering from some sort of English disease. Geoff Dyer wrote Out of Sheer Rage about his failure to read certain necessary books by D. H. Lawrence while attempting to write a comprehensive study of the great novelist. Since 2003, Nick Hornby has written a regular monthly column in The Believer detailing the books that he has purchased and not read over the preceding four-week period.

Sometime in 2008, I finished The Emigrants. I believe the breakthrough occurred when I learned that the painter known as Max Ferber, whose life is so brilliantly limned in the final section, was based on Frank Auerbach, whose work, especially his drawings and paintings of London building sites, has haunted me for years. Auerbach’s London contemporary, Leon Kossoff, is another great favorite of mine. Kossoff ’s renderings of Kilburn tube station and the view of the railway embankments from Willesden Green evoke the world of my childhood so powerfully that they have quite taken over my own memories. Together, Auerbach and Kossoff somehow manage to circumscribe and enlarge the tides of immigration, destruction, and reconstruction that shaped my family’s life in England, and not my family’s alone of course. Auerbach led me back to Sebald, and there suddenly the novel opened to me like a beautiful dark bloom.


There are shadows everywhere. My father did not see them in Nuremberg’s river Pegnitz, but he was a young man and he saw only what he wanted to see: green water meandering through sundappled trees.

When I rediscovered his album in 2002, I also found three letters, all written in 1948. The first is from a government tracing department in London: Paul Barth had written from Germany, hoping to learn my father’s address. The second is a carbon copy of a letter sent by my father to Paul, expressing “joyful surprise” to hear from his old friend after twenty years. What follows is a brief summary of my father’s career and family life, and then an extraordinarily understated reference to the war: “Luckily we came through safely but not without strokes of fate.” These eleven words camouflage the partial destruction of his house by a German bomb, the loss of his six-month-old son to a hospital infection, and, of course, the deaths of his sixty-two relatives. My father signs off, “Your still living friend, Lewis.”

Paul Barth’s response begins with a sigh of relief and a wave of the hand: he is happy to have received my father’s letter, and “Your friendly way of writing pleased me too. At times during the past trying years and during the war, I often thought of you and of how you were. I am glad to hear that you survived the war well. It was a bad time.” He then gives a long account of his life as an officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht army, fighting first on the Eastern Front, and then, after a short stay in a Krakow hospital for an unidentified ailment (not a wound), in Saxony, where he “fell into American captivity. Already after 14 days I was brought from Pilsen in Czechoslovakia to Nuremberg and was released.” The narrative is carefully studded with dates: Paul “became a soldier” in May 1942 and was promoted to lieutenant on “1.1.44.” He is careful to say precisely where he was and when he was there. At the end of the war he returns home to find that his car is gone, requisitioned by the German army and never returned to him. This is making life “arduous.” He now ministers to two churches and must journey between them on his bicycle. “You see,” he neatly summarizes, “that I too experienced a few things.” But life goes on: he has thirty-two beehives, he collects stamps.

With its astonishing gaps, alibis, and occasional self-pity, its furtive elision of all that Paul must have seen and heard as an officer on the Eastern Front and during his convalescence in Krakow, this letter is a masterpiece of evasion. Most striking, of course, is the absence of any mention of the fate of the Jews, especially given the fact that he is writing to a Jewish friend. The war has been over for two and a half years, the concentration camps have been emptied of the dead and the barely living. The remnants of European Jewry are spread out in their poverty and misery all over the continent. The Nuremberg trials are still in progress, not too many miles from Pastor Barth’s home. But of the Jews, to my father, he has nothing to say.

I brought the letters to my older brother Geoffrey, who had turned fourteen in 1948. To my astonishment he remembered the correspondence. “How did he react to Paul’s letter?” I asked. My brother looked at me for a moment and then said, “Daddy didn’t reply.”


Jonathan Wilson is the author of seven books: the novels The Hiding Room (Viking, 1994) and A Palestine Affair (Pantheon, 2003), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, two collections of short stories, Schoom (Penguin, 1993) and An Ambulance is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble (Pantheon, 2004), two critical works on the fiction of Saul Bellow, and most recently a biography, Marc Chagall (Nextbook/ Schocken, 2007), runner-up for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and The Best American Short Stories, among other publications. In 1994 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. His fiction has been translated into many languages, including Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, and Chinese. He is Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, professor of English, and director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. (10/2011)

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