Jewish Women Ceramicists from Germany after 1933

Jewish Museum Berlin

Searching for traces of forgotten biographies and artworks

In the early 20th century, while some women artists in Germany were finally finding acceptance and visibility in the male-dominated field of art, many were still sidelined to the realm of the applied arts. This included the field of ceramics, where a number of Jewish women were actively involved.

With the rise of the National Socialist regime in the 1930s, Jewish women in the applied arts were among those whose work possibilities and means of independent existence were threatened. Some had the foresight to leave Germany and their timely exits saved their lives.

This exhibition follows Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein, Eva Samuel, Paula Ahronson and Hanna Charag-Zuntz: four female ceramists who left Germany after 1933. Starting from scratch, they would all struggle to find a new place and artistic voice in an unfamiliar country.
Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein
In 1923 Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein, her husband Gustav Loebenstein and his brother, set up the successful Haël Workshops for Artistic Ceramics in an old oven factory in Marwitz, near Berlin. Margarete’s designs were notable for their avant-garde forms, abstract decorative motifs and vivid glazes.

The Haël products sold well and the company even survived the financial crisis of the late 1920s. With the tragic death of her husband and brother-in-law in a 1928 car accident, Margarete was left alone to run the company. She was later denounced by the local National Socialist group for “subversive activities” and sold Haël in 1933, well below its value, to an NSDAP member. He invited the young Hedwig Bollhagen to take over as artistic director of the workshops.

An article published in 1935 in the National Socialist newspaper Der Angriff defamed Heymann-Loebenstein’s designs as “degenerate” while praising those of Bollhagen as exemplary. Their ceramic products were shown in juxtaposition—Bollhagen’s designs are shown on the right side of the photograph.

This is one of the actual Haël teapots that was presented and denigrated in the Angriff article. It is now in the collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

In 1936, Margarete Heymann-Loebenstein fled to Great Britain where she already had some business contacts. This enabled her to work, initially, in Stoke-on-Trent for several well-known potteries. However, the British ceramics market was dominated by traditional forms and floral decorations and her avant-garde designs did not find a niche. Under her new married name, Margaret Marks made attempts to adapt her artistic style to the new locality.

The huge success that Marks had experienced with her ceramics in Germany proved elusive in British exile. She remained financially dependent on her husband and grew increasingly embittered.

Over time, she turned her attention to painting and traveled a great deal in search of new landscapes. In all, Margaret Marks lived in Britain for 54 years. She died in 1990 at the age of 91.

Native Soil
Other Jewish-German ceramicists immigrated to the Land of Israel in the 1930s, which was then ruled by Great Britain under a Mandate system instituted by the League of Nations. Although the British had made many innovations since their arrival in 1918, a modern ceramics industry had not yet been developed and Jewish ceramic art was non-existent. The new women immigrants would lay the foundations for a new, modern ceramics movement in the region.
European immigrants to Mandatory Palestine often brought precious family chinaware with them, reserved for use on festive occasions. Porcelain imports were a luxury product in Palestine and fine German dinner services were particularly sought after. Ceramic manufacturers such as the A. Barbash Company in Tel Aviv therefore sold porcelain with the unmistakable “onion” design from Meissen. They also imported plain, white plates from German firms such as Rosenthal & Co. and decorated them in-house with floral designs, or with motifs of local tourist sights.

The Hebrew inscription on this hand-painted, Rosenthal & Co. platter, demonstrates proudly and unequivocally that the ceramics were decorated locally. It reads: “Product of the Land [of Israel].”

Some immigrant Jewish women were able to make a living in Palestine in the late 1930s by decorating household ceramics.

The work and approach of the German immigrant ceramicists stood in sharp contrast to local, ceramic production in Palestine. The immigrants were familiar with the modern aesthetic and philosophic principles of the Bauhaus art school, which emphasized the importance of functionality and simplicity in object design. While coming from this tradition, many artists wanted to create something new—a Jewish style rooted in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

Ceramics manufacture in Palestine had traditionally been dominated by rural Arabic potteries. Their products were limited to a group of traditional forms whose roots go back to antiquity, including the ever-present clay water jugs.

For many Jews, the unglazed water jug had a nostalgic association with the biblical story of Rebecca watering Isaac’s camels at a well. The figure of a woman carrying a water jug became a popular motif in Israeli folk art.

The earthenware jug was still a common, practical feature of everyday life.

When the two German Zionists Eva Samuel and Paula Ahronson founded their pottery workshop in Rishon le-Zion in 1934, they adopted the ubiquitous local motif and named their workshop Kad we Sefel—“Jug and Mug.”

Eva Samuel and Paula Ahronson
After leaving the Ruhr district of Germany for Palestine, Eva Samuel initially found employment in a small ceramics workshop in Jerusalem. Here she was confronted with the most primitive of work conditions. Water had to be fetched from the courtyard, the clay was of poor quality and there were few chemicals available.

Soon after, Samuel and Paula Ahronson, a Hamburg native, opened their own pottery in Rishon le-Zion. They imported glazes from Germany, at great expense, as they were unavailable in Palestine. They would also take long trips by horse and cart to obtain better clay.

Eva Samuel and Paula Ahronson continued to produce familiar European design forms, yet frequently decorated them with motifs inspired by their new environment.

In a sketch, Eva Samuel describes the busy everyday routine of her colleague and business partner Paula Ahronson.

Samuel tells of throwing pots on a potter’s wheel…

…as well as of the physically demanding tasks to be done in the workshop…

…and the minor and major mishaps that can happen at work.

Mira Liebes
Communicating in Hebrew or Arabic was difficult for Eva Samuel and her partner Paula Ahronson and so they employed primarily German-speaking women to assist in the workshop. Among them was Mira Liebes, a Russian-born émigré from Germany. Liebes later opened a workshop of her own in Jerusalem and made a career as a ceramicist.
Hanna Charag-Zuntz
Hamburg-born Hanna Charag-Zuntz was a Zionist who set her sights on a life in Palestine in her youth. In preparation, she studied industrial ceramic manufacture in the Sudetenland, aware that such knowledge would prove invaluable in Palestine. In 1940, she arrived in Eretz Yisrael only to discover that the container ship with her tools on board had sunk. She first found work in the studio of Hedwig Grossman, another ceramicist who had recently emigrated from Germany.

Hanna Charag-Zuntz was enchanted by Roman ceramics and intrigued by an ancient pottery technique called “terra sigillata.” A potter of extraordinary technical ability, she rediscovered this lost practice. She worked local clay into thin layers and fired the objects at very high temperatures, managing to achieve a surface shine without burnishing or using glaze. She took the secret of her technique with her to her grave.

Charag-Zuntz was interested in industrial production and designed household ceramics, for the Palceramic Company in Haifa, among others.

German design and style (particularly Art Deco) had a pronounced influence on the ceramics manufactured in Palestine in the late 1930s. This modern tea set, for example, was produced in Palestine during this period.

In this photograph of the Kadar company’s ceramics workshop, the tea set can be spotted on the top shelf.

If one compares the aforementioned teapot with this model, produced in Germany in the 1930s, the striking similarity in color, form, and material cannot be overlooked.

Female immigrants from Germany continued to play important roles in the evolution of Israel’s ceramics industry. For example, in 1952, Dr. Bertha Rosenthal set up a small department for hand-decorated ceramic housewares at the Lapid factory in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The Chief Designer was a German immigrant, Elisabeth Cohen-Silberschmidt. The ceramics produced by Lapid at this time attest to an openness towards international modern design trends from Japan and Scandinavia.

The Lapid product range continued to be largely hand-painted during the 1960s. For payment purposes, the women needed to demonstrate how many pieces they had painted and therefore signed their names on the bases of the objects.

The Lapid ceramic works also experimented with minimalist, modern designs for Jewish ritual objects.

The Search for Traces
When researching the subject of Jewish women ceramicists from Germany, we often found only snippets of information. Many questions about the lives and work of these women remain unanswered.

By cross-referencing and comparing photographs, we were able, for example, to identify the ceramicist Nora Herz, seen here in her studio. Herz immigrated to the USA in 1937. Practically nothing is known of her pre-exile life or career.

Nora Herz was a sculptor as well as a ceramicist. This head of a young woman is now in the collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

In a private collection, we discovered two vases thrown by the gifted Jewish potter Valery Jorud, who worked in the Berlin ceramic workshop of Jan Bontjes van Beek. She was killed when the workshop was bombed in 1945. Today, this artist is known to only a handful of connoisseurs.

An article published in The Jewish Chronicle in 1936 about Lea Halpern, referring to her as the “Van Gogh of potters,” drew our attention to her ceramic Jewish ritual objects, which had long been forgotten.

In the course of further research we came across a Hanukkah lamp made by Lea Halpern which was ultimately acquired for the collection of the Jewish Museum Berlin.

Finally, Michal S. Friedlander, curator for Judaica and Applied Arts at the Jewish Museum Berlin, reports on the search for traces of the German-Jewish ceramicists after 1933. The film was produced in 2013, on the occasion of the exhibition Tonalities.

Jewish Museum Berlin
Credits: Story

Objects and photographs:
Jewish Museum Berlin
Government Press Office Jerusalem / National Photo Collection
Keramik-Museum Berlin
Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Washington D. C.
Ger J.M. de Ree, Amersfoort
Rossow Collection, Berlin
Angelika and Heinz Spielmann Collection, Hamburg
Private collections

Text and object selection: Michal S. Friedlander, Anna-Carolin Augustin
Editor: Henriette Kolb
Translation: Jill Denton, Michal S. Friedlander
Photography: Roman März, Jens Ziehe

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the exhibition lenders and to the object donors Yochanan Ahronson, Miriam Berson and Frances Marks. We also thank Michal Alon, Erhard Gerwien, William Gross, Dr. Ursula Hudson-Wiedenmann, Hagit Kochba, Devorah Morag, Ulrik Plesner, Yoram Samuel, Heinz-Joachim Theis, Dr. Irit Ziffer and, in particular, Dr. Tamar Liebes z“l, for their support.

This on-line presentation is based on the exhibition “Tonalities. Jewish Women Ceramicists from Germany after 1933” exhibited at the Jewish Museum Berlin from October 10, 2013 to June 1, 2014, and curated by Michal S. Friedlander.

Bröhan Museum (ed.): Avantgarde für den Alltag. Jüdische Keramikerinnen in Deutschland 1919–1933, Berlin 2012.

Bruhns, Maike: Kunst in der Krise. Künstlerlexikon Hamburg 1933–1945, Bd. 2, Hamburg 2001, p. 32-33.

Friedlander, Michal S.: “Vasen statt Milchflaschen – Eva Samuel, Hedwig Grossmann und Hanna Charag-Zuntz: die Töpferpionierinnen in Palästina,” in: Bröhan Museum (ed.): Avantgarde für den Alltag. Jüdische Keramikerinnen in Deutschland 1919–1933, Berlin 2012, p. 104-111.

Haël-Werkstätten für künstlerische Keramik GmbH. (ed.): Sales Catalogue, Marwitz near Velten 1924.

Museum of Rishon le-Zion (ed.): Chava Samuel. A Pioneer of Ceramic Art in Israel, Rishon le-Zion 2011.

Ofen- und Keramikmuseum Velten (ed.): Haël-Keramik – wenig bekannt, bei Sammlern hoch geschätzt, Velten 2006.

Thomas, Ulrike: Mut zu einem Neubeginn. Leben in Palästina von 1932 bis 1948. Auszüge aus Briefen von Eva Samuel und ihrer Familie (= Beiträge zur Förderung des christlich-jüdischen Dialogs, 2), Berlin 2010.

Weber, Klaus (ed.): Keramik und Bauhaus, Berlin 1989.

Credits: All media
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