Monday, April 1, 2013

other kinds of ghost signs: 1966 photo of my father's Munich striptease bar, a sombre reminder, and more

This somewhat rambling post will go through some ghost sign pics of a different sort - I've been looking through some old photos this Easter break.

The first shot is of the Papagei Bar (Parrot Bar), one of the two striptease bars my Israeli father ran in Munich around the time I was born in 1966:

Putting aside my own personal interest, this photo is notable for the signs out the front, and as a marker of a society in the middle of big change, in a number of ways.

The next lot of photos depicts another German location, this time one that goes back to the Third Reich and beyond. It's a place I know well,  the site of perhaps my first thoughtful encounter with a kind of ghost sign: the inscription over the doorway of a former synagogue and Jewish school, located in the old Rhineland wine-growing village of Venningen, at 15 Schafstrasse (Sheep Street). My grandparents used to live here, and I stayed with them a number of times in the 1990s. The synagogue was vandalised and desecrated in the 1938 Kristallnacht, then used to house prisoners of war from 1942- 1945.

I've just rephotographed these 1990s prints with my old phone and you can't really see the details. However there's more detail in this 2012 snap by Michael Ohmsen (

The chalk writing you can see above is part of a local custom. Visitors mark the doorways of houses they have passed as part of door-to-door Christmas celebrations. This temporary marker creates quite a contrast to the stone letters above them.

Here's a snippet of text I wrote after I first encountered the house on Schafstrasse:

I stand outside the door of the old renovated house. A stone plaque fastened to the outside reads in German: Site of the Jewish synagogue and school, 1842 - 1940. Above the door an inscription in Hebrew, the chiseled letters freshly painted in gold.

I can see the sounds of the letters. I mouth them, right to left - sh, kh, r, n - as the wind flutters past on this fresh Sunday afternoon. I move the sounds around and around. Then, suddenly, I realise I'm mouthing the word atah - you.

It's here that an interest in ghost signs can take on a deeper, more sombre register. At times these signs represent the only remaining traces of people and communities that have disappeared, by choice or by force. Here's a reminder that Jewish wine merchants had for centuries been part of the local Palatinate community:

Common reminders of such former communities (when not bulldozed or recycled into building or road surfaces) are their gravestones. Here's a snap from the Venningen Jewish cemetery:

Of course some purists would say that stone inscriptions don't count as ghost signs. But would anything have survived if it wasn't carved into stone, at least in the Nazis' homeland? Some painted signs of former pre-war Jewish communities have survived in other places such as Lviv, but for how long? (see; Stones, too, have a deep symbolic role in Jewish death and mourning practices (

Reminders of the Nazis have also largely disappeared in Germany. Writers such as WG Sebald have written extensively about the German proclivity for forgetting, and only hints are seen here and there. Here are two rephotographed iron seals I snapped in the 1990s, their swastikas chiselled away:

Still on the theme of history and signs: here's some graffiti I encountered at a former Roman quarry, also in south-western Germany:

Local stories have it that bored Roman centurions carved (as boys do) crude depictions of penises into the stone, and that these were seized upon by SS head (and cod folk-mystic) Heinrich Himmler who thought they were ancient Germanic fertility symbols.

Mind you, the local tribes did indeed leave signs, such as the stone clusters my grandparents and I found in the hills near Venningen that marked the border between France and Germany- the holes in the stones (see below) were to collect the sacrificial blood. Some of the local people on the plains told my grandparents that the hills were unholy and that they never went anywhere near there. The various markings in the stone have been made over many centuries by all kinds of explorers:

Unofficial signs carved in stone were also used by the underground Christian movement in Roman Palestine to note their presence. Here's a rephotographed snap I took of a helmeted Christian standard bearer in a former cave in Nazareth in the's pretty hard to see (sorry):

So in summary, there are many kinds of signs, and many kinds of ghosts. And the older they are, the more they are preserved in stone. 

Just to finish, here are a few more snaps from my 1990s travels depicting painted or carved hints of cultures or practices - from Morocco, Egypt, Jerusalem's old city, The Golan Heights and the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

Morocco - hand of Fatima warding off evil. The roots of the Sephardic Jewish Hamsa ('five') or good-luck hand with an eye in the palm:

Egypt - Luxor. Unfinished tomb (had to give the attendant special baksheesh to let me in)

Egypt - Nubia. Depiction of the Hajj.

Egypt - temple.

Jerusalem - 9th station of the cross.

Petra - Nabatean writing on watercourse wall.

Golan Heights - bombed and shelled mosque with writing and graffiti.

Jerusalem - archaeological dig under freeway

Old city, Jerusalem

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