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Arts

Why Hajo Jahn struggled for 25 years to create a center for persecuted artists

Journalist Hajo Hahn has spent a third of his life fighting to make his dream come true. His Center for Persecuted Arts documents and commemorates artists who have suffered discrimination. It is unique in Europe.

There's an imposing Art Nouveau building where city elders in the town of Solingen used to meet. But now, the magnificent edifice houses a museum with an important message: the Center for Persecuted Arts.

Opening the heavy oak doors of the building, a small figure appears on the threshold: a man by the name of Hajo Jahn.

Hajo Jahn, Copyright: DW/S. Dtege

Hajo Jahn fought for 25 years to see his dream come true

"I have been through the schizophrenia of dictatorship," he says, with his eyes lighting up underneath a red baseball hat. "People like me have to give something back."

Jahn is the mastermind behind the Center for Persecuted Arts. He says that after having its artists and intellectuals harassed and tormented during two separate eras, Germany needed to finally have a place to come to terms with its past.

Shedding light on a troubled past

The horrors of the Nazi tyranny (1933-1945) were swiftly followed by the communist regime in East Germany (1953 - 1989), subduing many creative minds in Germany and forcing some to even leave the country. The new Germany, Jahn says, should showcase its persecuted artists to the world at long last.

Jahn's vision of a meeting place to examine issues such as "degenerate art" and the burning of books under the Nazi dictatorship, as well as scrutinizing other themes relating to censorship, persecution and exile in Germany's troubled past finally came true, as the Center for Persecuted Arts opens its doors to the public on December 9.

Jahn says that he aims to feature exhibitions performances, concerts, films, seminars at the museum to bring to light not only all the suffering that artists have been subjected to in the past but also to highlight some of the realities they have to live with in certain parts of the world today. But he adds that the Center for Persecuted Arts still has a long way to go until it can achieve its full potential.

Compelling storytelling for the 21st century

Jahn hopes to create a lively and vibrant place built on a vast network of international contributors. He would like to get NGOs such as Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, Writers in Prison and many others involved in his ambitious project while also including eyewitnesses, artists and intellectuals from all genres. His goal is to tell their stories - and preserve them.

"In order to compel young people to fight for freedom of expression in this day and age, where everything is available on the Internet, you need to do much more than just open a museum," 75-year-old Jahn tells DW, leaning on a precedent he had crafted almost 25 years ago.

In the wake of the German reunification and the perceived social inequalities that ensued in the early 1990s, xenophobic attacks saw a marked increase across the country. During those difficult days, Jahn tried to mobilize the public against xenophobia after several asylum homes were set on fire across Germany - including in Solingen, where the Center of Persecuted Arts is based.

Attack on asylum home in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, 1992, Copyright: Jan Bauer

Racist attacks in asylum homes saw their peak in 1993

He created the Else Lasker-Schüler Society in a bid to combat these racist undertones. Well-known authors such as Günter Grass, Herta Müller and Peter Härtling joined him in this pursuit, holding events such as poetry readings in refugee camps. He recounts that locals were invited to come and meet the asylum seekers to look beyond cultural differences.

Slowly but surely, the idea behind the Center of Persecuted Arts started to take shape. First, the collective associated with the Else Lasker-Schüler Society launched a charitable trust to that end in 1994. More and more intellectuals joined the call to combat intolerance and prejudice, with many distinguished artists signing a formal request to create a center dedicated to preserving free speech and documenting its historical oppression.

The scheme gained further momentum when Salman Rushdie, one of the most persecuted present-day authors, also signed the petition.

"This goes to show that the persecution of artists and writers continues to be a topic of crucial importance," Jahn says.

A government in denial?

Jahn highlights that his initiatives all come with a hefty price tag. He says that most of his work for the Center of Persecuted Arts consists of trying to secure further funding for the budding enterprise.

Salman Rushdie, Copyright: picture alliance/ ZUMA press

British author Salman Rushdie also supports the project

The Rhineland Regional Council (LVR) and the city of Solingen have committed to endow the Center of Persecuted Arts with 300,000 euros annually, and the government also approved a grant of one million euros to purchase artworks.

But Jahn thinks that this is "far too little" to actually achieve anything significant. He would like to see the federal government get more involved.

"Each year, the government provides funding for various memorials, especially to commemorate those persecuted under the Nazis and, more recently, under the single-party rule in East Germany. But it's rather striking to me that the federal government makes no mention of a particular group of people who have suffered severely from persecution: artists and intellectuals," Hajo Jahn protests.

"In this regard, the state continues to treat its exiled writers and artists as second-class."

Jahn's first-person account

Jahn's objectives are firmly rooted in his own biography. In 1953, his family had to flee communist rule in East Germany, forcing them to be refugees in their own country. Growing up at refugee camps in Hamburg and later in the Ruhr Valley, Hajo Jahn didn't realize at the time that East Germany's authoritarian regime wasn't the only blemish in his family's rearview mirror; later he learned that his biological father had been deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp during World War II.

Jahn's youth was spent under that shadow of persecution, until he managed to secure a newspaper traineeship, leading to his lifelong passion of working in radio.

It is quite plain to see that he has had to defy the odds that had been stacked against him on more than one occasion. Hajo Jahn carries himself like a man, who deserves to be respected for his accomplishments. But he has also come under a lot of criticism over the years. His adversaries have accused him of unjustly equating the communist regime of East Germany with Nazi Germany. Jahn, however, thinks it's outrageous that he be vilified for that.

"So jailing critics and banning free speech doesn't suffice for qualifying what is and what isn't a dictatorship anymore?" Jahn wonders.

The persecution continues

Hajo Jahn has managed to make his dream come true despite his adversaries and the financial obstacles stifling the realization of the museum. However, he adds that it's not all about the money, as the museum honors artists big and small.

Ikarus Copyright: Zentrum für verfolgte Künste/DW/S. Dtege

"Ikarus" by Oscar Zügel

Giant canvasses such as Oscar Zügel's 1935 "Ikarus" painting, banned under the Nazi dictatorship, are just as important as books and photographs by less prolific artists, writers and other intellectuals. Whether a persecuted artist is commemorated with an entire picture gallery, such as Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, or a single photograph, Jahn believes that there's always a lot more work to be done: The artifacts housed at the Center for Persecuted Arts pertain to oppression during the 20th century by and large, while many parts of the world are still far from allowing unlimited freedom of expression today.

"You have Arab countries banning the Bible and Christian fundamentalists in America taking umbrage in Harry Potter," says Hajo Jahn.

"We could easily fill an entire shipping container with more recent examples of persecuted arts."

As the museum celebrates its official inauguration, it would appear that Jahn still has his work cut for himself.

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