Ghosts in the Living Room

Maya Zack's Latest Art — The End of Jewish Life in Prewar Berlin

Empty and Eery: There are no people in artist Maya Zack’s high-tech recreation of the living room of a Jewish family’s apartment in prewar Germany.
Courtesy of the Alon Segev Gallery
Empty and Eery: There are no people in artist Maya Zack’s high-tech recreation of the living room of a Jewish family’s apartment in prewar Germany.

By Rebecca Schischa

Published August 08, 2011, issue of August 19, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

There’s a dizzying feeling as you step into “Living Room,” Israeli artist Maya Zack’s art installation at New York’s Jewish Museum — not least because of the colored 3-D glasses you’re invited to put on at the entrance.

“Living Room,” which opened at the museum July 31, is an audiovisual installation composed of four large-scale, computer-generated images showing a Jewish family’s apartment in 1930s Berlin. It is Zack’s reconstruction of the home of Manfred Nomburg, a German-born Jew who fled Nazi Germany for Israel in 1938, leaving behind his parents and a younger brother.

The meticulous reproduction is based on Nomburg’s memories of his family home, including its appliances, decorations and furniture. Zack, a Tel Aviv-based artist and filmmaker, interviewed Nomburg for the project. The interviews — read in English by an unknown actor — provide an audio backdrop for the exhibit.

Along with his descriptions of the apartment, Nomberg provides an understated account of what happened to his family. We learn that his parents were deported in 1941 (he never saw them again), while his brother was taken to safety in England on the Kindertransport.

Maya Zack
Courtesy of the Alon Segev Gallery
Maya Zack

Zack’s re-creation of the objects and artifacts of Nomberg’s home in their most minute details — potted plants in the corner of the living room, a dishcloth folded over a chair back, vases, cups, plates, standing lamps, all the clutter of daily life — puts the focus on the Shoah at its most personal level. This is not the macro-narrative of the 6 million, the concentration camps and the deportations; this is the story of the banal domesticity of ordinary Jews living ordinary lives in prewar Berlin.

Yet, all is not as precise and solid as it seems. As we look closer into the four anaglyphs, through the colored filter of the 3-D glasses, we see surreal gaps and ghostlike empty spaces in the scenes of domestic life. There are blank pictures on the walls, a piano floating on broken legs, a briefcase sitting midair on an invisible surface. These represent the gaps in Nomburg’s memories. At points in his monologue, he admits there are details he has forgotten.

Zack’s work says as much about what is absent as it does about what is seen. As the viewer’s gaze changes perspective, the images shift like a hologram or a mirage, producing the same subjective, unreliable effect as memory itself. Depth and perspective are distorted, confounding any attempts at visual harmony.

The biggest absence in the exhibit is that no one is home; all the people have left this place. There is some evidence of a rushed exit, too: A drink is spilled on the dining room table, food is half-eaten, an abandoned newspaper is thrown down on the kitchen floor. Nomburg’s parents, along with other Jews murdered in the Shoah, are unseen ghosts, their lives suddenly cut short.

“Living Room” continues the theme of personal memory and the Holocaust explored by Zack in her short film, “Mother Economy,” which was shown at The Jewish Museum in 2008.

The artist, born in 1976 and trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, has said that the two pieces were inspired by a trip she took to see her grandmother’s childhood home in Kosice, a city in Slovakia. Unable to enter the house, Zack took to imagining the interior.

In “Mother Economy,” Zack depicts a homemaker of unknown identity maintaining order by meticulously performing domestic chores. We see her identifying objects belonging to absent family members, and in the background we hear radio broadcasts about the chaos going on outside her neatly controlled space.

“Living Room” is not for the viewer who lacks patience. It is not easy to access the lost world presented in these deceptively calm images, nor to absorb Nomburg’s carefully controlled narrative. It also takes time to adjust to the disorientating effects of the 3-D images seen through the glasses.

It is also hard not to notice the unsettling historical circularity as you continue through the museum’s permanent collection. Just one floor up, the museum chronicles the very first mention of a nascent Jewish community in Germany in the fourth century. In Zack’s work, we see all too clearly the abrupt end of the Jewish “golden age” in Germany in the 20th century — some 1,600 years later.

“Maya Zack: Living Room” runs at The Jewish Museum New York until October 30.

Rebecca Schischa is a British freelance journalist based in New York City.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.