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Gunther von Hagens and His Body Worlds: a Grotesque Juxtaposition
Last uploaded : Monday 1st Apr 2002 at 02:12
Contributed by : The Associate Editor



This must be a first: JewishComment decided I would visit and review the ?Body Worlds? exhibition but I have refused to go. Instead, I have decided to write an editorial about the event and perhaps this will clarify the reason for my refusal to take up this assignment.

?Body Worlds? is a show of 175 healthy and diseased body parts and 25 whole bodies at the fashionable Old Truman Brewery?s Atlantis Gallery in London?s East End. Devised by Professor of Anatomy Gunther von Hagens, the show attracted large crowds when it toured continental Europe. Von Hagens has perfected a process by which human cadavers may be preserved indefinitely by replacing body fluids with a plastic-based substance. The process he has pioneered is now regarded as a milestone by many in the medical and scientific worlds.

The problem is that I have been overcome with feelings of revulsion that could be described as ?primal Jewish.? Having been raised in a progressive home, I am the last person my friends would expect to find expounding on halachic prohibitions. However, there is something in the deepest recesses of my soul that prevents me from being in the same room as these preserved corpses.

What von Hagens has done is dissect the bodies of real people who have left their mortal remains to medical research. According to Andrew Renton, Slade Curator at University College, London, one of the exhibits depicts a reclining woman with her womb exposed, revealing an eight-month-old feotus. Another exhibit is a flayed person holding his own skin. Renton remarked this week in the London press that he felt 'diminished' by the experience of visiting Body Worlds.*

The sacred nature of the human body is ingrained in Jews ? as indeed it is in adherents of other religious beliefs. However, those of us who in the past eighteen months have been exposed to the horrific atrocities in Israel and America ? not to mention the indelible mark left by the Holocaust on every Jew?s psyche ? cannot help being troubled by the popularity of this exhibition.

On a British television documentary earlier this week, Professor von Hagens? elderly and extremely eccentric father (wonder what did he do in the War...?) shows us the garden shed in which he sleeps. His son, the professor, shows us the many bodies that have been preserved and dissected, his wild enthusiasm bordering on a kind of hysterical glee.

In the same evening on which I watched this programme I visited the excellent GAMLA* website, where every week their editors compile a moving memorial page to the Israelis killed in the current Intifadah. On the site that evening were the photographs of the beautiful couple killed in the suicide bombing in King George Street. They had just come from the clinic where the young mother had had a scan and where they had been told they were expecting twins. They were standing next to the bomber and were blown to bits, along with their unborn twins. On the evening news were the images of the valiant Israeli religious volunteers who have the grisly task of collecting tiny bits of bodies, their job not finished until they have retrieved every last remnant of a human being who had been living and breathing and hoping a few moments before. That such things can be happening in the same world in which Gunther von Hagens is making millions displaying human remains is a virtually incomprehensible juxtaposition.

On the day in October 2000 when Vadim Norzich and Josef Avrahami were lynched in Ramallah, I had to attend a social function in London. All at the function had heard about the lynching and had seen the gruesome images on the noonday news. All were non-Jewish. None was concerned and none was bothered about the event.

A colleague recently asked me, ?Is there something in the Northern European that somehow sympathises with the bloodletting and mayhem of Islamic terrorists because they are vicariously carrying on for these Europeans the cruel streak that fizzled out with the end of the Crusades and that had to be extinguished ? or at least repressed -- with the Shoah?? This is a conundrum I could not entirely grasp. On a more visceral level: is Gunther von Hagens yet another sadistic, wacko German who sixty years ago would have worked alongside Josef Mengele with boundless enthusiasm?

Those of us who are American as well as Jewish have had a particularly trying time since September 2000. From the outset, the new Intifadah has generated wild support from Christian Europe, who have unanimously condemned Sharon for his walk on the Temple Mount (never mind that the site was deeply holy to Jews long before the birth of Islam) and who have instituted a whole new wave of fiery pogroms (in France) and of anti-Israel campaigns (in most of Europe and most passionately in Britain), culminating in the hate-fest of Durban, South Africa, where Jewish delegates were greeted with cries of ?Jew!Jew!Jew!? A couple of days after Durban came September 11th .

Since then I have divided my time between the lengthening (now 24) memorial pages of GAMLA and the massive memorial pages of the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the crash site in my native Pennsylvania. Invariably, the daily reports from the American memorials contain updates of remains still being found, and of families experiencing ?closure? even when a tiny fragment of their loved one (mercifully not described in the daily reports) is DNA identified.

This is why I do not want to see the German Professor?s flayed, drawn and quartered bodies. I am an American Jew who since September 2000 has lived in a different mental time zone from the folk who live on my street, work in my local shops and move in my social circle in Britain. Even a Jewish woman I encountered at a London film screening expressed her supreme irritation that her rabbi ? an American ? had ?used Rosh Hashanah? to ?go on? about the events of September 11th. Last September, a few days after the World Trade Centre attacks, a group of colleagues was incredulous that I did not want to join them and see ?Moulin Rouge.? I was still reeling from the images of the employees jumping from the Trade towers.

There is no doubt that the events of the past eighteen months have had a damaging effect on many of us. My professional obligation was to attend the Body Worlds exhibit, but my psyche is not ready to handle this gruesome tableau. My Jewish beliefs ? stronger than I had imagined after I saw the von Hagen documentary -- make me resist a visit to the gallery. The images of the dead of Israel and America are too fresh in my mind, as are the sleepless nights and despair of people dear to me ? not to mention chronic nightmares and bedwetting of previously normal children -- in both countries.

Andrew Renton of University College London observes of the Body Worlds exhibit, ?Although this is a gallery of human bodies, there is no humanity left here at all.?

At the moment, events in Israel are so gruesome as to render this reviewer incapable of fulfilling a professional obligation ? but it reassures me that I do have an iota of humanity left in my being.

* to read Andrew Renton's editorial 'Right to the Limit' (26 March 2002) in The London Evening Standard newspaper go to:


* To visit GAMLA go to:


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