Museum Secrets

The Camel Who Escaped the Nazis

January 04, 2021 Ashmolean Museum / Lucie Dawkins Season 1 Episode 6
Museum Secrets
The Camel Who Escaped the Nazis
Show Notes Transcript

Podcast host Lucie Dawkins takes us to meet a Tang Dynasty Camel, who came to Oxford in the suitcase of a Jewish refugee Paul Jacobsthal.

Tang Dynasty Camel – View it here

If you want to take a closer look at the camel discussed in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website:

Producer and Presenter: Lucie Dawkins

About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.

Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean. 

I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators. 

Today, I am going to take you on a trip. We are entering the front doors of the Ashmolean, and heading into the light-filled central atrium. And now we’re taking a short walk up the first flight of stairs, and right here, looking out into the heart of the museum, we have come face to face with one of my favourite things in the collections.

It’s a camel. In fact, its quite a badly behaved looking camel. It’s throwing its head up in the air in a great braying bellow, while glancing at us sideways under a mischievously raised eyebrow, as if inviting us to join in. 

Passing it always makes me grin at the idea of making so much noise in the hushed and hallowed halls of a museum. I’m always a bit tempted to have a go. 

It’s about 50 cm tall, and made of terracotta. The label will tell us that it is a mingqi, or ghost object, which were items placed in the tombs of the dead in China to protect them against evil. And it was made during the Tang Dynasty, about a millennium ago. 

But there is so much more to this camel than you can read from the label.

This camel escaped the Nazis. 

To uncover its story, we need to get to know a man called Paul Jacobsthal. Paul was a scholar of archaeology at the University of Marburg, in Germany, in the 1930s. 

He was a well-loved professor, and filled the department with ancient objects he had collected. On his office door, he hung the head of the Gorgon Medusa, an Ancient Greek monster who turned people to stone with her gaze. It was an archaeological joke - a sort of ‘do not disturb sign’. And in the waiting room, he had this mingqi camel. It was such a favourite with his students and colleagues that they nicknamed their department the camel’s stable. 

But Paul was in terrible danger with the rise of the Nazi party. The Nazis considered his work particularly dangerous, because their ideology was based on a doctrine of a pure Aryan race descended from a powerful ancient Celtic society in Germany. Paul used archaeology to demonstrate that Celtic culture was in fact spread all over Europe, and that they were a disorganised and unstable society. 

His work disproved the great racist lie at the the heart of the Nazi movement. They set about destroying his publications as subversive material. 

And there was an even more immediate danger to Paul’s life at this time, because he was Jewish. 

In 1935, that was all it took to get him fired from his post at Marburg University. 

He was forced to leave behind his teaching collection, and thousands of photographic negatives of archaeological sites. In one blow, he lost twenty years of research materials. 

But he did manage to make it out with his beloved camel. 

Fearing for his life fled to Oxford, where friends at the University had arranged sanctuary for him. He arrived with the camel in one of his suitcases. 

Paul settled in quickly at Oxford as a leading scholar in his field. He moved into a house on the Banbury Road, and placed the camel in pride of place in his front window, to greet everyone who visited.

But he still wasn’t safe. This time, he was under threat from the British Government.

In 1939, when the Nazis looked poised to invade Britain, Churchill issued an order to round up all immigrants of German origin, without trial or regard for the fact that many were Jewish refugees, and place them in internment camps. Overnight, people like Paul became known officially as ‘enemy aliens’. Churchill’s words to his cabinet were: ‘collar the lot’.

Paul was working away in his study at Christchurch College when a plainclothes policeman knocked on his door. He begged to have the time to put his research papers in order, remembering how much of his work he had lost the last time a government had forced him out of his office. Instead, he was marched home, allowed to pack a single bag, and sent to a camp on the Isle of Man, with no idea about when he would be released.

He found himself in Hutchinson Camp, which was filled with artists and academics. Many of them were struggling with their mental health, having escaped the Nazis only to find themselves imprisoned by the British. Paul himself wrote in his diary about the challenge of keeping up his spirits without an end in sight. He said,

‘Confinement means a break in the continuity of existence, an interruption in the normal flux of life. It causes a trauma: the natural relation and proportional importance of the present, past, and future become distorted.’

However, Paul was not going to be beaten. With a group of other academics, he immediately set to work building a makeshift university. They arranged a daily programme of lectures, concerts, and discussion groups, and produced their own newspaper. It became a lifeline of support and positivity for this much-battered community.

Hutchinson Camp had its own Renaissance. Internees could visit an exhibition by the artist Kurt Schwitters, listen to music performed by what was later to become the world-famous Amadeus Quartet, or attend lectures from leading academics. 

Everyone shared whatever talent or speciality they had, and as a result the roster of classes at the university was little unusual. It included  diverse topics as Greek philosophy, Medieval History, and lion-taming. Lectures were so popular that they had to take place outside to accommodate audiences several hundred strong. 

When Paul was released, he went back to Oxford. I like to imagine that as he walked up to his front door, finally a free man, the first thing he probably saw was this camel, greeting him from the spot where he had left it on the windowsill.

So what is it about this camel that made it so important to Paul? Why did he choose it to bring with him as he fled? Why did he make it a symbol of his new home? Why would a scholar of Celtic archaeology select a Chinese object at his personal totem?

Paul left us few answers these questions, but we can make some good guesses.

Perhaps it was because Bactrian camels, like this one, aren’t native to China. They only appeared there because they were so-called ‘ships of the desert’, vehicles for moving merchandise all along the Silk Road from the Mediterranean to China. So this camel is a symbol of crossing cultures and nations, and maybe Paul found that comforting as he was forced to leave his home and find a new one.

Perhaps it was because, as a symbol of the Silk Road, it was also a symbol of Paul’s Jewish ancestry. Jewish merchants established powerful trade networks along the Silk Road, accompanied by camels just like this one. Maybe as Paul set out on his own journey to a new land, he chose to bring with him a historic companion of Jewish people who travelled and thrived in new countries. 

Perhaps, it was because reminded him of his colleagues and students in Marburg, a surviving witness of friendships that had been torn apart by the Nazis.

Or perhaps, it was just because it made him want to smile, like it does for me today.

When Paul died in 1957, he left his camel to his next-door neighbours, who had helped make him feel welcome in Oxford. They donated it to the Ashmolean.

For a long time, all that museum knew about it was that it was a Tang Dynasty mingqi camel. 

Then, in 2011, Paul’s archive was published for the first time, thanks to the detective work of Katharina Ulmschneider and Sally Crawford in Oxford University’s Archeology Department. Only then did the camel’s importance finally came to light. 

And that’s really why I love this camel. It’s a reminder that the objects we encounter in our lives have hidden stories in them. 

An object is never just an object. 

It’s been made, touched, loved, stolen, given, bought, hidden, buried, discovered, inherited, broken and mended by a whole crowd of people. And now it’s in front of you. Now you are the next in a long line of humans whose lives have brushed against this object. 

Paul’s camel always reminds me to look and listen for these silent stories.

And maybe one day, I’ll be brave enough to stand next to it in the museum, and have a good bellow too.

If you want to see Paul’s camel, take a look at the the link in the podcast notes. Join us in the next episode to meet another animal in the collections. Tomorrow’s tale is all about an immortalised pug dog. If you’re enjoying the podcast, please remember to rate, review, and share. It helps other listeners find us.