Artists newly created kinetic sculpture a moving Holocaust memorial

In the lobby of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, German-born kinetic sculptor Trimpin manipulates “Pour Crever,” his wooden sculpture resembling a hollowed-out grandfather’s clock, as falling water droplets spell out the names of Jews deported to Gurs, a “holding camp” in the Pyrenees.

The movement of water — the one-named artist calls it “liquid percussion,” as each letter creates a different sound — is not simply an aesthetic device. The droplets could be tears, those of the departed and the mourners. They could be his own, for the atrocities that took place in the land of his birth and the loss of Germany’s Jewish legacy. Or they could symbolize “something coming back to life,” he explains to the docents and educators surrounding him during a recent visit.

What has come “back to life” is Germany’s Jewish past, which was summarily obliterated when Trimpin was a child in the 1950s, when school history books stopped at 1933. But that history is now being reclaimed.

Trimpin explaining his kinetic sculpture at the CJM photo/janet silver ghent

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the deportation of as many as 7,500 Jews from southwestern Germany to Gurs. The event is being commemorated in the churches of Efringen-Kirchen, where Trimpin was born in 1951, as well as in his symbolic sculpture in the CJM lobby in San Francisco.

Before the Final Solution, the original goal was to ship Germany’s Jews to Madagascar, a plan that never materialized. What did is a rarely told chapter in Holocaust history, one of suffering, starvation, release and a second chance for some.

Menlo Park resident Manfred Wildmann, who was sent to Gurs with his family when he was 10, was one of the survivors. But many at Gurs succumbed to illness, including Wildmann’s grandmother.

“The cold, the mud, the rain, the crowded living, the sickness, the lice, the fleas, the bedbugs and above all, the lack of food, made living conditions difficult for everybody and impossible for old people,” Wildmann writes in his memoir at www.wildmannbirnbaum.com.

Others, including his parents and a brother, were later shipped to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

“Pour Crever” is Trimpin’s personal memorial, part of an ongoing project that has obsessed him for years. The French title comes from the writings of Hannah Arendt, who was held briefly at Gurs. “Crever” is French for “to die,” a pejorative term not used to describe human death, Trimpin explains. But, of course, the Nazis viewed the Jews as something less than human.

A notebook resting on a stand in front of the exhibit contains the names of Gurs internees, including Wildmann family members. When a visitor steps on a mat to leaf through the notebook, it activates the exhibit and droplets begin to fall from the sculpture, spelling out the surnames before quickly vanishing.

“I can only comprehend [what happened] by doing this — by learning — by looking more into it,” says Trimpin, who has lived in Seattle since 1979. “I want to know more about it. Was I deprived of this knowledge because nobody wanted to talk about it?”

As a child, he knew nothing about Judaism, its culture or even the Jews who once lived in his region until he accidentally stumbled upon the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town. Thinking he had discovered an archaeological site, he told his parents, who revealed what his textbooks did not.

Ironically, the notebook of Gurs internees stands just to the right of the museum’s donor wall, and some names are on both. “It’s chilling,” said CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin.

Four years ago, Trimpin came to Stanford  to produce a multimedia performance titled the “Gurs Zyklus” or Gurs Cycle (www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-trimpin). Pritikin, who was already a fan of Trimpin’s work, saw the performance and was intrigued.

A year and a half ago, when Pritikin was hired by the CJM, executive director Lori Starr suggested several projects, one of them “to liven up the lobby,” which is a prepay area of the museum. “The first person I wrote to was my German friend,” Trimpin, he said.

Trimpin wrote back, saying, “You won’t believe it, but I have this memorial piece — for the 75th anniversary of Gurs.”

The artist later was asked to participate in commemorations in Germany, but he turned them down because of his CJM commitment.

“For me, it means a lot to do work in a Jewish museum,” Trimpin says. “That’s how I can go on to the next step.”

In this case, the next step of memorializing involved augmenting “Pour Crever,” which previously was exhibited in Seattle, with the notebook of names, which Trimpin copied from a 1940 archive. He developed the software and hardware for turning the letters of the names into a musical score and transforming them into water droplets.

He has won a MacArthur genius grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the national nonprofit Creative Capital, all enabling him to work on the Gurs project. Trimpin is a sculptor, sound artist and quirky inventor with a penchant for collecting junk and turning it into art. He is best known for unorthodox assemblages, which involve clomping wooden shoes, bobbing mechanical birds and a tower of guitars that plays as a single instrument.

Like many of his works, “Pour Crever” can’t be easily pigeonholed. There are always multiple dimensions and interpretations.

Said Pritikin: “There’s no getting around it. It is a Holocaust memorial. I’m moved by Trimpin’s story. My understanding of how artists comprehend the world is by making things. I think that’s what Trimpin’s project has been.”

“Pour Crever” is in the lobby of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Free.www.thecjm.org

Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent is a writer and editor living in Palo Alto. She can be reached at ghentwriter@gmail.com.