Insel der Vernunft (Island of reason)

Fri, 08/31/2018 - 8:45am
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Ed. note: Block Island is the sole subject of the August/September issue of the magazine Aufbau, which is published in German. We asked the U.S. correspondent of the magazine, Andreas Mink, about how all this came about.

BIT: Aufbau magazine, a publication that publishes in German and is owned by a Swiss publisher, has just published an issue dedicated wholly to Block Island. Can you tell us a little bit about the magazine, your background, and what your role is there?

A: Aufbau was founded by mostly Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany (and some from Austria) in Manhattan in 1934 as a newsletter. The paper was published by the exile-organization “New World Club,” had offices at 2121 Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and quickly became a weekly and the single most important platform for news and debate among exiles, who numbered around 120,000 and initially mostly lived in New York. A key mission of the paper was to help refugees become Americans, and at the same time help them to maintain their cultural traditions as German speaking Jews.

Aufbau and the Club also provided many services, such as English language programs and advice on finding jobs or quarters to live. Most importantly, the paper helped people dispersed by Nazi persecution to find each other by publishing ads and lists of survivors of concentration camps. It also attracted important writers and thinkers, such as Hannah Arendt. Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein sat on the board during the 1940s and 1950s.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the readership aged and shrank. As the paper was run by the Club (and not as a commercial enterprise), Aufbau did not look for new readers or change the language to English. This led to a crisis and finally the takeover by the Swiss JM Jüdische Medien AG in 2004. 

I had joined in September 1997 as associate editor after seeing a tiny ad for the position in The New York Times. I had worked as a writer and head of departments at major publishers in Germany and moved to Mystic in 1996 with my wife Janis and our daughter Louisa, who was then six years old. Janis had grown up in New London and came to Hamburg first during her year abroad in college and then in the late 1970s to write her PhD as an art historian and work as a writer and curator. We came here after her parents in New London developed health issues. Finding the job at Aufbau was one of the best things that ever happened to me, despite measly pay. It became a unique learning opportunity for me as a German gentile and a journalist. I also quickly started to freelance on the side. 

After the takeover in 2004, I became the U.S. correspondent for Jüdische Medien, working from home first in Mystic and then Pawcatuck. I also expanded my freelancing, mostly for the Sunday edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung, a Swiss paper.  

Q: What does ‘Aufbau’ translate into in English?

A: It means “building up.” Into the 1950s, the paper therefore also had the subtitle “Reconstruction.” “Aufbau” was on top of the front page and “Reconstruction” underneath. That was the original mission: help people persecuted and expelled from Germany rebuild their lives as Americans.

Q: What is your — or the magazine’s — connection to Block Island?

A: We started Aufbau over as a monthly magazine in 2005. Since then, we’ve covered a wide range of issues for a diverse, Jewish, gentile and fairly educated readership, mostly in German-speaking Europe, but also Israel and the U.S. 

For our coverage, the U.S. remains a special focus. This sets us apart from much bigger media outfits in Europe — or so we hope. Having visited and lived in Connecticut since 1989, I heard a lot about Block Island over the years. But a personal connection developed over the last 10 years when my wife met Carl Kaufmann in Mystic (she taught him how to row a scull when he was in his mid-80s). As I got to know Carl better, I heard a lot about Block Island, where he has visited and lived since the 1950s. Then the wind turbines came along and made international news. I also found out that the island has a small Jewish community. Finally, I learned that Michael Oppenheimer had a summer home on the island. I had interviewed him for an issue on climate change in 2006 and got in touch with him again in 2016. After he told me he would talk to us again, we had enough components to seriously think about devoting a whole issue to Block Island.

According to our editorial format (and personal inclination) I always look for American places to explore and people to meet. The more I heard about Block Island, the more interested I became. After the 2016 election, I started to think that our readers would be surprised (and happy) to hear that the U.S. continues to be a highly complex place and that there is this island very close to places many of them know well from business and travel, that is unique in so many ways, starting with land preservation. Obviously, Block Island is also very beautiful. We wanted to present readers with something fresh, exciting and uplifting.   

Q: How many times did you travel here in the course of putting the issue together?

A: About eight times starting in March, including a few stays for two or three days at the house of Carl Kaufmann. His help with a place to stay, a car and contacts has been crucial throughout.

Q: What did you find most interesting about the place? Was there anything about Block Island that surprised you?

A: As a preparation, I did some reading (especially the two volumes by Bob Downie) and discussed Block Island with Carl and some other people. I therefore came over with some basic ideas — that made us devote an issue on the island in the first place. Our basic assumption was that certain American qualities and, more narrowly, of New England, such as town hall democracy, a community mindedness that works in balance with self-reliance and entrepreneurial esprit — could be found on Block Island in a stronger, more vital form. 

Without getting too sentimental, I was overwhelmed by how friendly and helpful people were on Block Island — how complex the island really is and how enormous the achievements, especially in self-governance and land conservation, are. I also was surprised to discover Jewish aspects, such as the booklet “The Real Mystery of Block Island” by the important civil rights lawyer Arthur Kinoy. I came away with the impression that there are many more stories on your island that I missed out on.

Q: Where can the Aufbau magazine be found? And is there an English-language version of the magazine?

A: We are online at: aufbau.eu/magazine; the page for all of our publications, the weekly “tachles,” or daily newsletter and the French language “revue juive” is at tachles.ch. Most of our content is behind a paywall. But I left copies of the Block Island issue at the Historical Society, North Light Fibers, The Times, the Library, and with a number of people, such as Kay and Keith Lewis, and the Draper family. I´d also be happy to email (threeminks@aol.com) a PDF of this issue to anyone who is interested. And, of course, we hope to attract subscribers.

Q: Have you received any feedback from your readers on the issue?

A: My editor got a lot of positive responses from readers, but also from people in media and publishing in Switzerland and Germany. So it seems as if our hope to take readers to a place away from the day-to-day drama of U.S. politics is succeeding.