A Find Unlocks Comics Mystery
A drawing by an American, discovered in a Jerusalem junk shop, reveals German Jewry’s lost grandeur
“We buy junk, we sell antiques.”
The kind of store that features a sign like this has long attracted me and my partner in research and family, Isabella Ginor, avid collectors of objects whose hidden stories grant us hours of enlightening investigation. Jerusalem, our hometown, has long been a fertile milieu for this hobby, but its golden age may be approaching an end. The second-hand dealers are clearing the homes of the very last Yekkes—the German and Austrian Jews whose influx into Palestine during the 1930s brought an abundance of Mitteleuropa culture and its artifacts.
This summer, from the dusty floor of such a store, I picked up a small picture in a prewar-vintage frame. After wiping it off, we saw a pen-and-ink drawing. It showed, in near-architectural precision and detail, an old stone building with a gabled roof and arched Romanesque portal that looked vaguely familiar.
The signature was very clear: “Paul Reinmann, 33.” But Isabella’s sharper eyesight also made out a faint pencil inscription: “Synagoge zu Worms.” My schoolboy memories came flooding back. “That’s Worms in Germany, one of the oldest Ashkenazi communities,” I said. “And this must be the medieval Rashi Synagogue. Wasn’t it destroyed by the Nazis?”
If I showed any hesitation, Isabella overruled it: “So this is a piece of heritage, and we have to rescue it.” We paid the $5 asking price and hurried home to learn more—first of all, who this Paul Reinmann was. His work looked better than a gifted amateur’s, but neither of us had ever heard his name.
A quick search online produced thousands of hits and hundreds of images. Nearly all of them involved American comic books. A Paul Reinman—single “n”—was from 1940 a stalwart of the industry, best known as a regular “inker” for some of the legendary artists in its “Silver Age” such as Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg), as well as Joe Kubert. That is, Reinman filled in the detail for the printed versions of Kirby’s penciled sketches, which earned him too a niche in the comics pantheon. He also penciled less-known comics of his own.
“Pencilers” get most of the vast comics literature’s attention. Like vice presidents, inkers rarely get more than footnotes, and virtually nothing had been published about Reinman’s persona. The only detail we found about his early biography was his birthdate in Germany: Sept. 2, 1910. But could this be the same person? Where we found a signature, it was in comics-style block letters rather than in our drawing’s longhand.
I’ve never been much of a comics aficionado. In 1950s Tel Aviv, before English instruction began in sixth grade, I scored great success translating Little Lulu and Dennis the Menace for my classmates. My source was the colored Sunday funnies that my beloved Aunt Evelyn faithfully clipped and sent from New York. But that’s about as far as I got, and the superhero or horror genres that became the industry’s core—and that provided Reinman with his bread and butter—never appealed to me.
So, with guidance from Tom Kraft, Isabella and I contacted some actual authorities in the field, who were just as intrigued by this mystery. First, comics maven Jim Amash confirmed that some of Reinman’s first strips did bear a matching script signature. “So,” he asserted, “you have the right man.” Then Rand Hoppe, the curator of the Kirby Museum, helped us to enlist researcher Alex Jay, who made our day by establishing that on arrival in the States, Reinman still spelled his surname with a double “n”—and gave Worms as his birthplace.
From this start we gradually discovered how the 23-year-old Paul Reinman and his drawing’s subject encapsulate the lost grandeur of German Jewry, as well as its survivors’ cultural contribution in America and elsewhere.
Worms and its neighboring Rhineland cities of Mainz and Speyer were the cradle of Ashkenazic Jewry and the centers of its scholarship, in the first millennium C.E. It was at a gathering in Worms, around the year 1000, that Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz proclaimed his epochal bans—one on polygamy and the other on divorcing a woman against her will. On both, he may well have been responding to Worms’ formidable ladies: When over the following decades a synagogue was built for the community’s men, it was followed by an adjoining one for women—the first of its kind. It faced the ark at a right angle to the men’s synagogue, and at the same distance. A female shlichat tzibur standing at an aperture in the partition between the halls would lead her companions in prayer, a notably progressive practice for its time. There were qualified candidates for this role among medieval Worms’ learned Jewish women, as a present-day counterpart, Rabbi Elisa Klapheck of the Egalitarian Minyan of Frankfurt, described in a lecture at the site this Sukkot.
The region’s Christian rulers and populace were less enlightened. During the Crusades and on recurring occasions afterward, such as the Black Death, the Rhineland Jewish communities suffered unspeakably bloody pogroms and expulsions that were lamented in generations of literature (including the last verse of the Hanukkah hymn Ma’oz Tzur). The synagogue that Reinman drew incorporated the foundations of one that was begun in 1034—which made it the oldest in Europe still occupying the same site—but was destroyed soon after. It took on the shape that he depicted around 1175: old enough to breed legends, which also feature women.
The wall on the left of Reinman’s drawing is the exterior of the “women’s synagogue.” On the outside of its opposite wall, a shallow rounded niche in the masonry was for centuries pointed out as the site of a miracle. A pregnant Jewish woman was almost run down by crusader horsemen (or the local nobleman’s—or bishop’s—own carriage; versions vary). The narrow alley afforded her no escape, but when humans showed no mercy, the stones did and gave way to accommodate her. So, it was said, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (Rashi) was safely born two days later, to become the greatest Bible and Talmud commentator.
Artists, particularly in theater, are still plagued by the slur “Gay Commie Jew.” But how did it come about?