Once upon a time, two German children shoved an old Jewish woman into an oven.
Fairytales, or folklore, are one of the few universal experiences across cultures. Though they vary widely from culture to culture, and may not even be called ‘fairytales’, – they are stories that take place in a storied, distant past – when dragons breathed their fire and unicorns still made forests their homes. Passed down from generation to generation, they are an important, yet also powerful element of culture: used from everything to teaching values to scaring children into bedtime, they can also communicate xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Most prominent in the European canon of fairytales, Jewish people were recast as the wicked witches, the dastardly dwarves, the greedy goblins, the repugnant Rumpelstiltskins and ghastly Gothels (it is very culturally Jewish to comment upon the darker aspects of our history with humour). ‘Shabbat’, the Jewish day of rest, was transformed into the ‘witch’s Sabbath’ – a sinister time where it was implied Jews pledged their loyalty to Saturn, or Kronos, the Greek Titan who famously cannibalised eleven of his twelve Olympian children (Zeus escaped such a fate). Originating in medieval England, it was widely believed Jews cannibalised good Christian babies and children, using their blood to bake matzah, an unleavened bread most famously associated with Passover, one of our holiest holidays where we commemorate our liberation from Egypt (and not by eating babies).
In the 1930s, Hitler’s Third Reich deployed dramatically rewritten fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm, casting Jews as the wolf in ‘Red Riding Hood’, the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ – and so forth. The timelessness of ‘once upon a time’ became an imagined past where the good ‘volk’ of Germany had always known ‘the Jew’ was the alien, the outsider, the foreigner, the enemy bent on their destruction. I am inclined to believe we were nothing like what they painted us out to be. We are simply, just people who would like to live in peace, and be left alone.
This project started from some very abstract questions about the evolution of culture. How do stories change as they’re passed down from generation to generation? What remains? What is lost? What is the spatio-temporal cultural context that is understood by contemporary audiences, but lost to future ones? How can we recall that? Can we even recall it? What constitutes ‘timelessness’? Why are ‘absence of technology’ and ‘absence of foreigners’ considered hallmarks of ‘timelessness’, especially when utilised by nationalist movements? What does distilling a story to its most basic elements reveal about its truth? Can there even be a truth revealed? Can we deconstruct problematic fairytales and restructure them to espouse empathy and compassion, or do they have to be discarded entirely? Can we use their most basic elements to construct something new whilst still honouring the original?
Through illustrative elements and satirical journalism, I both deconstruct fairytales into their most basic elements and remake them into new forms to expose the rotten core underneath the sweet, as-green-as-poison apple skin. The Generic European Kingdom Times may not be a real newspaper for a real country, but it highlights two thousand years of European folklore growing in syncretism with antisemitic conspiracy theories, and how those conspiracy theories are recycled, regurgitated, and remade to stay with the times.