Just a few weeks ago, the majestic Statue of Liberty celebrated its 125th anniversary. It seems like just yesterday that Lady Liberty turned 100, back in 1986. In the fall of that year, my husband, Ira, and I traveled with our sons, Dov and Ari—then aged eleven and eight—to New York City and brought them to the famed landmark. It had recently been reopened, after extensive renovations, in time for its centennial. On that sunny autumn morning, I had no idea I would be returning from Liberty Island with a Hanukkah lamp in mind.
Dov and Ari had never been on a ship before and so they were in high spirits as we waited to board the Circle Line Tour. We had prepped the boys about our family history—all of my grandparents had immigrated to the United States as children—and we encouraged them to imagine what it might’ve been like for their ancestors to catch sight of the Statue of Liberty, after a long ocean journey, and begin to fulfill their dreams of coming to America.
Of course, as a curator, I wanted to see the Statue of Liberty Museum, which presents historical information and fascinating reconstructions. It also showcases the hundreds of different ways Lady Liberty’s image has figured in popular culture, including in posters, pennants, plates, medals, spoons, puzzles, and postcards aplenty, as well as advertisements for products ranging from cars to cookies.
Then, I spotted it: a Hanukkah lamp with a Statue of Liberty on each of its branches! Who made this hanukkiah and when? The maker of the lamp, I learned, was Manfred Anson, and it was dated just the year before, 1985. I knew I had to track down the artist and find out if he could create another for the Skirball’s museum collection. (By the way, back then, the Skirball was in the planning stages for our brand new cultural center, which wouldn’t open for another ten years.)
Upon my return to Los Angeles, I reached out to Manfred Anson and learned of his moving personal history, which is what inspired him to create the lamp. Manfred was born in a small German town called Dinkelsbuehl in 1922. He was a young boy when the Nazis came to power in 1933. As the situation worsened for Jews, his parents sent him to agricultural school with hopes that he would go to Palestine to work on a kibbutz. But, in a strange turn of fate, the school learned that the Australian Jewish community would arrange to rescue some of its students. So, Manfred fled Germany for down under, leaving behind his family with no idea what their fate would be. Tragically his brother was killed in Maidanek. His parents, however, survived the War in Teresienstadt, a concentration camp just outside of Prague, and his sister was liberated in Bergen Belsen. Not knowing yet that her parents were still alive, the sister wrote a letter to her brother Manfred, addressing it simply: “Manfred Anson, Australia.” Miraculously, it reached him. Years later, the family was reunited in America.
In tribute to his new country, Manfred began to collect Statue of Liberty memorabilia. One of the items he acquired was a small model of the monument that had been created to help raise funds to build the statue’s pedestal in the nineteenth century. For the Statue of Liberty’s centennial, Manfred came up with the idea of making casts of the statuette and using them as candleholders for a traditional branched lamp. To the lamp he added an eagle as an emblem of America. Finally, in the spirit of Hanukkah and its message of “right over might,” he inscribed an important event of liberation in Jewish history beneath each of the statuettes.
When Manfred found out about the new museum that was going to be built at the Statue of Liberty, he contacted the organizers and they acquired hundreds of items from his collection, most prominent among them his Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp. I am so proud that a copy is also housed at the Skirball, where it has become one of the most prized collection objects, a personal favorite of mine, and a big draw for the many who visit our core exhibition, Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America. It is also my privilege to have known Manfred as my friend for all these years.
Come see the Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp and an array of other hanukkiot during The Lights of Hanukkah Family Tour.
Postscript January 4, 2012: The Skirball Cultural Center expresses its condolences to the family of Manfred Anson, who died today at nearly age ninety.