Reviewed: “An American in Deutschland” at the German Historical Institute
Occasionally, a photographer’s words are as vital as his photographs; the work of post-war Germany by Leonard Freed surely qualify. Freed (1929-2006) was born in Brooklyn to Jewish immigrants who had fled pogroms in Russia. Beginning in 1952, he spent almost two decades in Germany, documenting the nation’s recovery, as well as the Jews who remained and the divisions spawned by the newly built Berlin Wall. Freed’s black-and-white images mostly take a straightforward, un-showy approach, but his commentary—smartly appended to many of the photographs in the exhibition—is elegant and poignant. A halfheartedly defaced Nazi insignia on a gate in Kiel, he writes, demonstrates how “the recent history of Nazism can still be read behind the hammer blows.” An old building in Frankfurt was like a dowager—it “may not have been a queen, but could have been a duchess.” Anti-war marchers were “strung out like a broken necklace along the rural road.” Most searing are the exchanges between Freed and his wife, a German refugee who grew up amid deprivation in Poland. Freed relates that, while acting as his translator, she accidentally referred to a Jewish death camp survivor as having been a “member” of Auschwitz. Her palpable mortification about her linguistic stumble speaks as clearly to the unease that permeated mid-century Germany as Freed’s images do.
The exhibition is on view through Nov. 15 at the German Historical Institute, 1607 New Hampshire Ave. NW. (202) 387-3355.