When her daughter brought home a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto “Mein Kampf,” Jewish artist Linda Ellia was shaken to the core.
With one look at her distraught 18-year-old daughter, who had found the book in a friend’s library, Ellia immediately took action. She started reworking and disfiguring pages of the book, and in no time had painted and covered 30 of them.
It wasn’t long before the French Tunisian painter and photographer took her project to the streets.
Stopping passers-by and coffee shop patrons, and contacting friends of friends in her Paris community, Ellia showed people the book and asked them to react to one or more pages using any artistic medium they chose. She started her endeavor in 2004, and by 2007 had a completely reconstructed 600-page collective artistic work, which she titled “Notre Combat” (“Our Struggle” — a play on the original book’s translated title “My Struggle.”)
Ellia’s carefully documented efforts, along with 450 sheets from the project, are on display for the first time in North America at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The exhibit “Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf” also includes a documentary and a wide chalkboard inviting visitors to respond in their own manner.
Ellia was in San Francisco this week for the opening of exhibit, which runs through June 15.
Many pages in the display are loosely organized by common themes. A wall of pages depict Hitler in one form or another, a case includes images of participants painting over the words, and a 3-D box contains pages covered by found objects, pieces of hair and a gold tooth.
The exhibit also includes a complete, unaltered copy of “Mein Kampf,” on loan from the Holocaust Center of Northern California.
“We wanted to parallel the experience that [Ellia] had when she was first confronted with ‘Mein Kampf,’ ” explains Connie Wolf, executive director of the CJM. “Then you can understand more about what people were doing when they responded to the text and pages. [The book] has a continued role in our society, whether we like it or not.”
Ellia was born to a Sephardic family in Tunisia but immigrated to Paris at age 8. She says she felt uprooted and different from the other children, so she started visiting the nearby Louvre. It was at the famous museum where she discovered her passion for the arts — and the healing power of creativity.
When Ellia began “Our Struggle,” her original plan was to revise every page herself, but she soon enlisted her three children, ages 13 to 20 at the time, to channel their own rage into art.
The youngest, Gregory, asked his mother for a pot of flowers, which he used to smear blackened dirt across his page. Daughter Jessy attached her Star of David necklace and other personal pieces. Ellia says her children’s responses to the book helped her to realize the emotional impact of giving more people a voice.
But the project almost stopped there. When Ellia began showing people the pages, there was no shortage of detractors. Everyone from her family to fellow artists told her to stay away from using “Mein Kampf” in her art, that it was too controversial.
It was a meeting with popular French former minister of health and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil that changed everything. Richard Prasquier, who chaired the French committee for Yad Vashem and knew Veil, got word of Ellia’s undertaking and arranged the meeting between the two women.
When Ellia came to Veil, she laid out the first 40 pages of her worked-over “Mein Kampf” and sat before the politician, trembling with nerves.
“I was very afraid of what her reaction might be; some people feel they aren’t allowed to even touch this book,” says Ellia. “After [Veil] flipped through the pages in silence, she looked up with tears in her eyes, embraced me and said, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done. I will be the godmother of this project, the protector.’”
Once she had Veil’s approval, Ellia began to seek out more participants, stopping people on the street to show them bits of the book and asking them to respond.
“Some people would say, why didn’t you just give them a blank page, but I would tell them it doesn’t work like that,” explains Ellia. “You don’t just give a blank page and say ‘react to the Holocaust.’ You have to provoke them, and the text provoked.”
The work came pouring in. Some people swathed a page in white paint and started from scratch, while others scribbled out words, or drew gruesome images directly over the text. Some painted images of hope for the Jewish people and reverence for those who were murdered.
Artist Robin Margerin grew up in the Lower Haight in San Francisco and met Ellia when they were both 19 in a Paris prep school. When Ellia asked her to participate, Margerin decided to tar and feather her page.
“Hitler has always been a cautionary tale of the depths to which our humanity can fail us if we are not vigilant,” says Margerin, who lives in Paris. “I tarred and feathered my page because [it]was a way to penalize or punish the page.”
Artist Susan Thacker of Carmel learned of the project while having lunch with Ellia’s cousin in Los Angeles. Thacker sent a letter to Ellia and received a “Mein Kampf” page in return, with instructions to have it translated from the French and then react to it creatively.
Thacker chose to depict an aerial view of a minyan. The acrylic-painted piece appears to be concentric black and white circles on first glance, but a closer look reveals a group of 10 men with kippahs and tallits. The bird’s-eye view painting style is a technique Thacker has been employing for years.
“The thought of reading ‘Mein Kampf’ is gut-wrenching,” Thacker says, “but I was glad that at this juncture in my life I finally did — it strengthened my resolve to never forget how close this all was for us. It was in our lifetime.”
“Our Struggle: Responding to Mein Kampf” is on display through June 15 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. For more information, visit www.thecjm.org.