New director at the literaturhaus berlin : ernest wichner opens his last exhibition

The final exhibition by Ernest Wichner in the Berlin House of Literature revolves around Hermann Hesse. Herta Muller and Uwe Kolbe, among others, thanked him.

Ernest Wichner celebrates his farewell. The director of the Literaturhaus Berlin at the Hermann Hesse exhibition

So now after all. There is a bit of melancholy when Ernest Wichner, the writer, translator and director of the Literaturhaus Berlin, opens his last exhibition in the beautiful old house on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg on Thursday evening. No open lamentation, Wichner has too much humor, irony and intelligence for that. It is at best the slightly melancholic undertone of his welcoming and almost farewell speech. Because this weekend marks the finale of an era.

From 1988 to 2003 he was the deputy of the Literaturhaus founder Herbert Wiesner, since then Wichner has initiated and shaped the program, the readings, conferences and exhibitions for a decade and a half with a small staff himself. One of the examples of how the connection between literature and history can be presented in a witty and exciting way with more than just showcase pieces was in 2015, for example, the portrayal of Varlam Shalamov, a victim and literary chief witness of the Stalinist gulags. The exhibition, which would have lent its gloomy glow to any major historical museum, is now being shown by the Memorial Association in Moscow and was previously shown in several Western and Eastern European cities.

Hermann Hesse and sons

Literature and history are also the subject of the small, fine show entitled "Between the Fronts. The glass bead player Hermann Hesse". The project, spearheaded by Lutz Dietrich, was triggered by the willingness of the Hesse heirs living in Basel to provide insights for the first time in Berlin into the previously unpublished correspondence between Hesse and the youngest of his three sons, Martin Hesse. Martin had not long survived his father, who died in 1962 in Ticino – he committed suicide in 1968 when he was only 57 years old.

Hesse, a very unbourgeois citizen of the world who traveled only in his own mind, was rather a stranger to his own children. Martin, depressed at an early age, nevertheless felt attracted as an outcast and has repeatedly courted the world-famous father on hundreds of pages of letters in perpetual child’s handwriting. As an aimless student, he himself went to the Bauhaus in Dessau in 1932, later became a photographer and soon witnessed how the Nazis closed the hated avant-garde institute after their seizure of power.

The Nazis’ Fist Pledge

In Berlin’s Literaturhaus, visitors can see facsimiles and sometimes originals of letters, photos and films, and learn that Hesse’s first wife and mother of his sons, Maria Bernoulli, was considered the first Swiss photographer. And because the exhibition shifts from the familial to the large-scale historical at the latest with the keyword Bauhaus and National Socialism, Hesse’s existence "between the fronts" comes into focus. Unlike his friend Thomas Mann, Hesse, who became a Swiss citizen long before ’33, never took an open stand against the Nazis. His commitment, also to persecuted authors, was resolute but discreet: also because after the "Aryanization" of his S. Fischer Verlag in Berlin probably didn’t want to jeopardize the new CEO Peter Suhrkamp, who was loyal to the Jewish Fischer family and Bermann Fischer. Also, the rights to his work remained, against Hesse’s will, after the splitting up of the Fischer house as Goebbels’ fist pledge in Germany. The non-Jewish bestselling author of "Peter Camenzind", "Demian", "Siddharta", "Steppenwolf" or "Narcissus and Goldmund" did not have any new editions at first. A famous man was officially hushed half to death. Even the "Glass Bead Game", completed in 1943, could be published with 3000 copies at first only in Basel.

The exhibition and the accompanying book, published with illuminating contributions by Gunnar Decker, Lutz Dietrich, Michael Kleeberg and Volker Michaelis, admittedly offer a surprise. For the first time it is documented that Hesse – thought to be the ultimate consolation of the soul – became one of the most printed authors before the end of the war after all: in the front book/field mail editions distributed by the Ministry of Propaganda and the Wehrmacht as well as in German-language occupation newspapers. Read by soldiers in Paris, Oslo, Krakow or the Ukraine.

Retirement is not yet an issue for Wichner

Ernest Wichner would have liked to continue discoveries like these even at the age of 65. Like his Nobel Prize-winning colleague and friend Herta Muller, who was born in what is now Romania’s Banat region, Wichner is a much sought-after expert ahead of the Leipzig Book Fair in spring 2018, which will feature Romania as its guest country. The Viennese publishing house Zsolnay Deuticke alone has announced that it will publish two major novels by Catalin Mihuleac and Varujan Vosganian. Other projects, such as a library of Romanian avant-garde literature at the beginning of the 20th century, which is still little known in this country, are in the pipeline. Twentieth-century books are in the planning stage. And the poet E. W., who for so long offered others the stage, also wants to get back to his own writing. Numerous poets – among them Urs Allemann, Marcel Beyer, Uwe Kolbe, Herta Muller and Ulf Stolterfoht – thanked him for this on Saturday evening at his farewell party in the Literaturhaus.

After that, Fasanenstrabe will not be hosting its own program for a while, although literary scholar Janika Gelinek and exhibition organizer Sonja Longolius, both in their late 30s, from Berlin-Kreuzberg and still widely unknown, will be starting 1. January to take over the management of the house. Let’s see.

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