Marcel Sternberger's Jewish heritage played a prominent role in his personal history, his identity, his politics, and ultimately his career. Both he and his wife Ilse came from a long line of Jewish intellectuals. Marcel traced his heritage to Judah Lowe, the famous medieval Rabbi and the ‘creator’ of the Golem of Prague. More importantly, Marcel's life was directly and deeply impacted by the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism in Europe. He fled many countries from the Nazis’ growing reach and lost many relatives and friends in the Holocaust. Throughout his career, Marcel's Jewish identity played a role in his relationship to many of his subjects in both expected and more surprising ways.
Due to his Jewish identity, Marcel was able to forge relationships with many of his most famous subjects who were themselves Jewish, including Einstein, Freud, and Stefan Zweig in addition to Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo who both laid claim to Jewish heritage. In the case of Einstein the two had met as young men in Europe. When they met again in America they shared the common experiences of Jews having fled the Nazi menace. This was an important and profound bond. As reflected in the interview notes that Marcel made of his session with Einstein, the conversation between Einstein and Sternberger touched directly on the Nazi’s rise to power and subsequent brutality. The two also discussed Einstein's view of the state of the world, America’s relation to Nazism, and the best avenues for change. Excerpts of these interviews and many others can be found in my book, The Psychological Portrait: Marcel Sternberger’s Revelations in Photography, available for purchase on this website.
Perhaps the most surprising result of Sternberger's Jewish identity was the bond it forged with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, the two famous artists and communist radicals. When Marcel met Rivera and Kahlo in the 1950's, communist theory and leadership were both commonly associated with Jews. The forefather of communism, Karl Marx, was Jewish and descended from a line of rabbis; further, Trotsky as well as other prominent Russian communists were Jews. (Interestingly, Trotsky was Frida’s lover and it was while a guest at their house ‘La Caza Azul’ that Trotsky was murdered in 1940 at Stalin’s behest.) The Sternbergers also had strong ties to the communist movement: the man who launched Marcel’s career as a photographic portraitist, and his friend, was one of the founding fathers of European socialism, Camille Huysman.
Thus, in communist circles, there was a certain cache associated with being Jewish. Diego and Frida both laid claim to a Jewish identity, perhaps to create a closer bond to the communist movement. According to the Jerusalem Post Frida was probably the source for claims surrounding her Jewish heritage 1 and Rivera spoke strongly on the subject, writing in 1935: “My Jewishness is the dominant element in my life, from this has come my sympathy with the downtrodden masses which motivates all my work."2 Rivera claimed his father was descended from Jews and his mother from conversos and that Frida’s mother was an immigrant of Jewish descent. Rivera explicitly made both these claims during his interview with Marcel:
- “…My father told me that my [great] grandfather used to be an Italian Jew…[my name] Rivera is from Italy – the real name was Rivera Sforza.” Marcel questioned him: “Rivera Sforza? Now: The Jewish blood question: how do you know about this?” Diego responded, “Because all the people in Italy who have this name are Jewish…On the other hand, I remember much more about my grandmother – my grandmother was a Portuguese Jew…Jewess, by the name of Inez D’Acosta.” His claims ultimately center on his grandmother, as those surrounding his grandfather are tenuous even as expressed by Rivera himself. Of his wife’s heritage, Diego said that her family was Hungarian and “…one Hungarian gentlemen who has married a Jew woman by the name of Kaufman, and my wife has cousins in the United States of two different kind of Kaufman families.”
In modern scholarship both assertions of Jewish ancestry have been exposed as false. According to the book The Great Hispanic Heritage: Frida Kahlo, Frida’s ancestry was traced back to the 1600’s and was found to be Germen Lutheran. As for Rivera’s, the comprehensive 2005 biography entitled Dreaming with Eyes Open, states of Rivera’s grandmother: “There is no clear evidence for Ines’s Jewish descent….”
Marcel’s taped conversation with Rivera makes clear that the artist attempted to align himself with a Jewish lineage of intellectualism. When Ilse remarked that D’Acosta is a famous name Rivera replied: “Yes, this is the atheist philosopher…Uriel D’Acosta…and I suppose that I might have some inheritance from him.” D’Ascosta was himself born to converso parents. Perhaps Rivera and Kahlo felt that their close friendship and with the Sternbergers, a pair of exiled intellectual Jews (themselves associated with a founder father of socialism), enhanced their claims of Jewish origin; it almost certainly raised their status in the communist movement.
Marcel never forgot his Jewish identity nor missed a chance to support Jewish causes. Jawaharlal Nehru began his interview with Marcel by saying, “Well, what would you like to ask me?” Marcel immediately responded, ”In your speech last night from Colombia University you made a very sympathetic reference to the problems of European Jews-yet in the past the Indian delegation to the United Nations has repeatedly voted against Israel.” By challenging Nehru on this specific political issue, Marcel made clear that in his opinion, the Jewish state and the persecution of European Jews were inextricably bound.
Thus Marcel's Jewish identity as well as his experience as a refugee from the Holocaust played an essential part in his career. It is easy to understand that as a Jew and a refugee from the Nazis Marcel would have had a common bond with sitters such as Einstein. But the examples above are also surprising. The connection between communism and Jews is no longer so prevalent, but in the 1950's it was likely a factor in Marcel’s ability to forge a relationship with the famous artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Finally, Marcel was a man of conviction and courage. While photographing Nehru, one of the most famous and powerful politicians of his time, Marcel demanded to know why he was sympathetic to the Jewish plight in Europe but did not support Israel. This was one part of his psychological technique utilized with Nehru, later in the interview Sternberger shied away from politics. Marcel’s revolutionary psychological method is something you will find detailed on this website and in The Psychological Portrait. Despite his nuanced technique, it is still hard to imagine the risk Marcel took in thus confronting such a famous sitter. But this is just part of what made Marcel the amazing, intuitive, and insightful artist responsible for the portraits you see on this website and to a larger degree in The Psychological Portrait.
2 Hoffman, Wayne. “The Jewish Traveler: Mexico City.” Hadassah Magazine, Jan. 2003, Vol. 84, no. 5.