War: March 2009 Archives

Maria von Maltzan

accepted no imitations

It's her birthday.

Maria Helene Françoise Izabel Gräfin von Maltzan, Freiin zu Wartenberg und Penzlin, was born on her wealthy family's Silesian estate, Schloss Militsch, north of Breslau on March 25, 1909. She died in Berlin's Kreuzberg district in 1997, after a very long and very rich life as a rebel, and one of the righteous - among all nations and for all people.

I first came across her heroic story in some incredible segments which peppered an excellent book I read last year, "The Fall of Berlin", by Anthony Read and David Fisher. I must have been impressed, because I noted the date of her birth in my pocket calendar and later transferred the information when I bought one for 2009. It probably helped that I realized that this year would be her 100th anniversary.

Von Maltzan's rebellion first became a public one with a decision, uncharacteristic for a girl in her society, to study biology, botany and anthropology. The righteousness was probably always there, but when she completed her doctorate in the natural sciences in the fateful year 1933 she almost immediately began her involvement in what was only the first of many underground anti-Nazi resistance movements to follow. She was very young, a part of a Bohemian circle in Munich, but she soon began illegally smuggling information out of the country.

Her lack of enthusiasm for the new regime alone would have been enough to trash a chance for any appointment with a scientific or academic institution, and none was to follow - ever. Von Maltzan began what would become a long career of what the world's conventionally-successful would call underemployments. She survived on money earned as a translator, a free-lance journalist and a lecturer. She also cared for horses and worked as a stunt rider for Bavaria Film. When she moved to Berlin in 1935 she worked in publishing, later as a postal verifier and then with the German Red Cross assistance service.

During the war she completed studies in veterinary medicine, all the while carrying messages and leading refugees through the sewers of Berlin toward freedom, falsifying papers, sheltering Jews and other fugitives (both in her own apartment and elsewhere), and personally assisting many of them in fleeing the country, whether, as in "Action Swedish Furniture", inside crates marked "Schwedenmöbe" or personally conducting some across the Bodensee (Lake Constance) to safety in Switzerland. In the midst of her underground activities she managed to remain close to both the conservative Kreisau Circle and the Communists.

During the last months of the war, inside a Berlin now leveled by allied bombs, Maltzan continued to help both refugees and deserters, and she organized a private soup kitchen for abandoned forced foreign laborers in the back court of her apartment house in Wilmersdorf.

I'm leaving out the story of three marriages (two to the man she hid from the Gestapo inside her couch for years) and the death of a child. But there was much more. Most of the heavy personal cost of von Maltzan's heroic exertions and incredible acts of courage were performed within a world whose restraints and terrors we can hardly imagine. We also won't ever know the full nature and extent of what she suffered both before and after 1945.

After the war, her family members dead or scattered, and her home now inside Poland, she managed to found a veterinary practice, working first for the Soviet occupiers and after that for the British. But she later lost her license because of a drug dependency and her need for psychiatric care.

She slowly regained her personal and professional independence, first traveling with a circus, later working in the Berlin Zoo, always caring for animals. She also managed to get employment as a substitute for vacationing veterinarians.

She eventually settled near the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin and opened a thriving veterinary practice which was patronized by both pet-owning celebrities and their equivalents in the red-light district. In 1981 she moved to Berlin-Kreuzberg, bringing her practice with her. She treated the animals brought to her by the punks in her neighborhood for free. While outwardly she might appear harsh and ill-tempered, inside she was a pushover for the victim, the vulnerable and the downtrodden. She readily chose to defend the relatively powerless individuals and multitudes who were crowded into her district, foreigners or outsiders of all kinds, from corporations, police and politicians. She told an interviewer:

I'm quite engaged in social things now because this part of Berlin is a perfect slum. They don't like me to say it. I really stand up for this part of Berlin, Kreuzberg. They've shoved everybody into this area - Turks, colored people, Poles, everyone stuck into this corner! We have houses with eight flats on one floor with one w.c. on the staircase. The police, you can't imagine how brutal they are down here, beating. If I see it - because you can see I have big corner windows with a clear view - I go down and get hold of the police and say, "Why are you beating these people?" And the silly police say to me, "Perhaps you like colored here!" "Well, " I say, "I prefer them to helmets!"

In 1987 she was awarded the title "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem. In this undated video interview conducted in her [killer] apartment von Maltzan says:

Because my mother was unjust I have a very high feeling of justice. That's the real matter of the whole thing. That's why I'm furious with Israel; they wanted to give me a eucalyptus tree, and I could get a medal pricked to my breast! Such things I don't really care for.

And they said to me they wanted to make a big kickup for me in Bonn, but the letter inviting me for this arrived the day after the attack on Sidon [she mentioned rockets and red phosphorus]. I wrote back saying that all my life I've tried to be for the peaceful co-existence of all people, of all colors and all regligions, and I don't see that Israel has anything to do with these my ideas, and so I don't think I want a medal from you. I didn't go.

Maria von Maltzan died November 12, 1997, in Berlin. She had published her memoirs, "Schlage die Trommel und fürchte dich nicht", a little over ten years earlier, but they have not yet been translated into English.

NOTE: There is a more extensive citation in the German Wikipedia, from which I've taken most of my account here.

[image from gayblock]

Federico Solmi's "crucifix" [my punctuation], related to his 2008 hand-drawn animation video, "The Evil Empire", a satirical look at the outrageous exploits of a fictive pope, and a part of his "ongoing desire to satirize tyrants" [as quoted in both ARTINFO and ArtNet].

I suppose this artist's work may look to some like heady stuff, but only if you're Catholic, unwholesomely deferential toward superstition, or just dysfunctionally prudish.

The object shown at the top is a little provocative, but it's also very beautiful, and I think his red knob is cute. Still, Solmi's crucifix, while being shown at Bologna's Arte Fiera this past January, so aroused local judge Bruno Giangiacomo (Judge for the Preliminary Investigation (Giudice per le Indagini Preliminari or G.I.P) who appears to have only heard about it second hand, that he had the Carabinieri seize it from the booth occupied by Naples' Not Gallery and the artist charged with, essentially, blasphemy ("il vilipendio di cose destinate al culto"/"contempt for an article of worship") and obscenity ("l’esposizione di oggetti osceni"/"the display of obscene objects"). The crucifix had already been sold to a collector, and Solmi first heard about the charges after he had returned to his home in New York. The blasphemy count was later dropped, when someone realized that the statute had been rendered null by a constitutional court in 2000.

No, sadly, this wasn't a publicity stunt, but when I was first told about the confiscation and the charges I did think that someone was pulling my leg. Actually I was almost stupefied, since the great city where this occurred has the reputation here of being Italy's most politically and socially radical. The artist's own home town and the capital of Emilia-Romagna, Bologna led the country’s socialist movement early in the twentieth century, was extremely active in the revolt against the fascists in 1944, and after the war, until the last decade, the city consistently voted for communist governments. I had assumed its fiery, secular, non-conformist political history would have supported an artist's right to his creation, however provocative. Now it's up to the lawyers to decide how much liberty is too much liberty.

drawing used in Solmi's "Evil Empire" video

Our own art fairs last week didn't produce anything like this kind of excitement. It almost makes me nostalgic for Rudy Giuliani's imbecilic tantrum over the Brooklyn Museum show, "Sensation", ten years ago. Just kidding; maybe we should think of censoring little boys and she-goats as more than enough excitement.

For more information see these ArtNet and ARTINFO articles.

[image at the top from the artist's New York gallery, LMAK Projects, via ArtNet]

Sayed_Parwiz_Kambakhsh.jpg Sayed Parwiz Kambakhsh, sentenced not for downloading porn, but for printing an internet article about Islam and women’s rights, and adding comments on the Prophet’s shortcomings on the subject

KABUL, Afghanistan — The Supreme Court in Afghanistan has upheld [in a secret decision made last month, but revealed only yesterday] a 20-year prison sentence for an Afghan university student journalist accused of blasphemy.

. . . .

The student, Parwiz Kambakhsh, 24, from northern Afghanistan, was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to death for blasphemy [following a two-minute trial; the sentence was commuted to 20 years last October] after accusations that he had written and distributed an article about the role of women in Islam [my italics]. Mr. Kambakhsh has denied having written the article and said he had downloaded it from the Internet. His family and lawyers say he has been denied a fair trial.

This story in today's Times headlines only one of an increasing number of incidents within "occupied" Afghanistan, including murder and imprisonment, which reflect appalling threats to personal freedoms, especially those affecting women, and the ordinary functions of the media, even within the capital itself. The threats come from the Taliban, Islamists, the traditional conservative patriarchy, and even from official government, political and less extreme religious circles.

Can someone tell me again why we're in Afghanistan?

It's been seven and a half years since we invaded that country and sharia* is still, literally, the law of the land. This place is on the other side of the world, but its where our new President wants to introduce a larger American armed presence than that which we have already installed there, and that mindless military solution looks like it's about to become the model for our next overseas adventure, the occupation of one of our allies, Pakistan (whose government has already handed over a good part of its own territory to the Taliban and sharia law) in our continuing "war against terrorism". In the beginning it was all about Bush, but in the end it's just going to be Obama and the ghost of LBJ.

Occupying these countries will not make them do what we want them to do, and who doesn't already know that?

Looking to the west, all the way across Iran to Iraq, we also learned today that the courageous reporter and patriot who insulted Bush fifteen months ago in Baghdad by throwing two shoes at the visiting American commander/comqueror has been sentenced to three years in prison. I would say he's lucky he wasn't shot on the spot, executed, "disappeared", or given 20 years, but this is no way to treat political protest, even in an "Islamic, democratic, federal parliamentary republic" assembled by clueless occupiers. Bush himself, no enemy of secret trials or torture, responded, after ducking the shoes, "that's what people do in a free society, draw attention to themselves". Zaidi could be heard screaming outside the room.

One more thought to ponder: Take a look at a map of the Middle East and imagine what you would think about these developments, and the other political and military arrangements an aggressive U.S. empire has made with countries in the area if you were responsible for the security of the proud and ancient people of Iran.

feeling surrounded

Unless you have a very strong stomach, don't search Google images "sharia". (I made the mistake of going there because I was hoping to find a generic picture of the subject to illustrate this entry.)

[first image from Getty Images; second from the New York Times]

This page is an archive of entries in the War category from March 2009.

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