Among the pieces from the Spertus archive that Ellen Rothenberg used in ISO 6346: Ineluctable Immigrant was a special Lil Abner comic Al Capp drew for the Anti-Defamation League in 1956. Credit: Ellen Rothenberg


s any history of the Jews will tell you, we are a wandering people, and any
collection of Jewish artifacts will be filled with relics of immigration.
When the Spertus Institute commissioned Chicago artist Ellen Rothenberg to
do a site-specific installation last year, Rothenberg spent several weeks
combing through its vast archive.

She found plenty of evidence of the Jews’ long history as refugees,
including immigration papers and records of mutual aid societies, and many
wonderful and marvelous artifacts, like the shoes of a Jewish opera singer
and an enormous postcard collection, but nothing seemed a likely foundation
for an installation until one day, while poring over a list of holdings,
she came across a description of a photo of blockade runners bursting
through barbed wire above the coast of Palestine. In her mind, it evoked
other, more recent images of people traveling by rafts in the opposite
direction, from Turkey and North Africa to Europe. “The picture gave me an
orientation,” she says now. “It was an aha moment.”

In May, Rothenberg went to Berlin, where she spends part of every year. A
friend introduced her to THFwelcome, a charity that works with refugees
living in the camp at what was once Tempelhof Airport. Tempelhof itself has
a complicated history: Hitler built one of his first concentration camps
there and used it as a slave labor site during World War II. After the
Berlin Wall went up, the hangar housed refugees from East Germany. Since
2015, refugees have been living there again, but last year the German
government decided to build a more comfortable “village” out of shipping
containers, which it called Tempohome Dorf. Rothenberg felt drawn to the
site and spent five months taking photos documenting the construction.

Back in Chicago, Rothenberg returned to Spertus and began thinking about
the relationship between her photos and the various objects in the archives
and how they connected to the institute’s gallery space. “I didn’t want to
talk about individuals,” she says. “I wanted to talk about systems.” She
found she could get the sense of historical distance and disorientation she
was aiming for by photographing objects from oblique angles. A photo of a
passport of a Jewish refugee who came to the United States via Mexico, for
instance, focuses on the taped and frayed edge of the cover, not the
information inside about its owner. “It requires you to look at it,” says
Rothenberg, “and think about what it represents.” (In an online component
of the exhibition, visitors will be able to look at more conventional
photos of the objects and learn about their history.)

On the floor of the gallery, Rothenberg has painstakingly taped a floor
plan of the shipping containers at Tempohome (the exhibit’s name, “ISO
6346,” refers to the containers’ international standard organization code).
Situating the visitor in the camp and in the gallery simultaneously brings
home how to be a refugee is to live in multiple times and places all at
once.    v