I can recall the precise moment I first encountered the work of the Neiger brothers. I was sitting in a cafe with friends under sunny New Zealand skies, and Sharon – a lady with a knack for finding excellent vintage (which consists of having both an eye for it and the perseverance and patience to seek out hidden gems) – handed me a string of beads. “What do you make of these?” she asked. They were one of her finds, and she’d identified them as a quality 1920s necklace of scarab beads.
Scarabs have been a recurring motif in Egyptian revivalism since the stylistic elements of Ancient Egypt first began to influence Western design in the late 18th century, and are popular in jewellery, architecture and interior design. As a child I’d been given faïence beads that were replicas of ancient scarabs, as well as more contemporary versions. These, however, were of a different order to the majority of such beads – they were double sided rather than flat-backed as so many scarab beads are, had the weight of pressed glass, and a tactile finish that made them a pleasure to handle. I agreed with Sharon that they were most likely 1920s in origin, possibly influenced by the 1922 wave of “Egyptomania” that followed the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb, and were possibly Czech in origin as so much quality glass of that era was. I didn’t know who made them, but I knew they were beautiful.
A few weeks later, Leigh – another friend with the vintage “touch”- asked me about some scarab beads she’d found. There, again, were more of these remarkable, colourful, double-sided scarabs. Where were they coming from? Were they modern pieces imitating the 1920s style, down to what looked like original stringing? Or were they from the same vintage source? The internet soon yielded answers, and I encountered the name “Neiger” for the first time. And later still, in conversation with a dealer specialising in Bohemian jewelry, I earned that the Neiger brothers perished in the Holocaust. For a long time my research on the subject went no further, but as I sought out and acquired more of the pieces and the Neigers’ work became ever more popular, my mind turned often to the brothers and their fate.
Trying to make sense of the senseless, I turned to the http://www.holocaust.cz/ website to try and tease out more of their story. While the English portal language version is still under construction, this site contains digitalised deportation records of those who, like the Neigers, were victims of the Shoah in Czechoslovakia. Looking through the scanned paperwork, I was stunned to come across a photo of Max himself, taken for his 1924 driving license. It was with mixed feelings I examined the identification shot of the creative force behind the label – however good it was to finally put a face to the name, the reason behind it’s survival was disturbing. The license had been retained as part of the record keeping of the Nazi machinery that would kill him and his family.
The Neiger records yielded the name of Temerle, their mother (born 27 August 1860), and birthdates for the brothers – Norbert on 25 September 1883 and Max (or Moritz, as he also appears in the records) on 11 August 1893 in Gablonz, Czechoslavakia – part of Bohemia’s famed glasswork and jewellery industry.
After he graduated from Gablonz’s technical school’s bjouterie course Norbert started creating jewellery in the family basement c. 1905. His younger brother Max joined him, and while Norbert managed the business, Max managed the workshop and jewellery design. Gablonz had been the centre of Bohemia’s bead making industry stretching back to when it was part of the Austrian Empire, and while they were following in well established footsteps, the work of the brothers was soon very recognisably their own.
Their fame reached its height in the 1920s and 30s, as they created exquisite pieces of costume jewellery and scent bottles – while their most famous works today are the Egyptian revival scarab beads, produced in several sizes and a tremendous range of colours, they also produced a great many other pieces incorporating Egyptian revival, Chinoiserie, Japonisme, Indian and other motifs. They supported a small local cottage industry, with locals contributing components to the jewellery. Their work was also subject to imitation, although unsurpassed in quality. It is characterised by the use of Czech glass and exquisite metal filigree work.
They also found partners in these happy years. Norbert married a woman by the name of Margareta (born 17 September 1889), and Max married Anna (born 3 April 1906). Max and Anna had a daughter, Zuzana, born 16 May 1931.
But the darkness was falling over Europe, and by 1938 it was apparent that the Nazis would not be placated: Czechoslovakia was firmly in Hitler’s sights. Under the Munich Agreement and the first Vienna Award, Bohemia was part of the ceded territories. Among those who fled from Gablonz to Prague were the Neigers. On March 15, 1939 German troops marched into Prague.
Some online sources suggest that the Neigers were able to operate a much reduced business in Prague for a time. The deportation records indicate, however, that on 26 October 1941, the extended Neiger family – Norbert, Margareta, Max, Anna and Zuzana, as well as Anna’s mother Emilie Bachnerova, were taken from Prague to the Łódź Ghetto in Poland. Temerle was sent to the Terezín concentration camp on 13 July 1942 – she was nearly 82 years old.
In 1941 there were 90,000 Jews living in Bohemia and Moravia. Only 14,000 would survive the war.
Hathor column at the Temple of Hathor, Dendera (photographer Steve Cameron Wikipedia Commons) and a Neiger bead depicting the Ancient Egyptian goddess. Hathor was depicted with the head of a cow and, in her human form, retained cows ears by which she can be recognised. She personified joy, feminine love, and motherhood, and was worshiped at all levels of society throughout Ancient Egyptian history – an appropriate subject for the popular Neiger beads. (Collection Inger Sheil)
The fate of the Neigers can be traced through the records. Max and Anna were murdered on 17 July 1942 in Łódź. Temerle died in Terezín on 16 October 1942. The death dates of Norbert, Margareta and Zuzana – 10 years old when she was sent to Łódź – are not recorded.
In the scale of human loss represented by the Holocaust, it seems perhaps slightly disproportionate to dwell on the destruction of the creative talent represented by the Neiger brothers – each murder of a human being was equally a tragedy, whether they were jewelers, housewives, accountants, or ten year old girls. But it seems, on an individual scale, indicative of the wholesale destruction of the war, and of things that were lost. First and foremost are the lives annihilated, but there is also the genius and creativity of those lives. The brothers were brilliant artisans – “Fabrikants”, the records called them: “manufacturers”. The occupation designation gives no clue to what they really did. They created beautiful things. They brought joy.
Would Nazis have cared for the work of the men they destroyed? They might have wished to eliminate the creative output of this Jewish family entirely or, I suspect, appropriate it and try to obfuscate its origins, as they did in many other instances (perhaps most notoriously in Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which was renamed “Woman in Gold” to obscure her Jewish origins). In either case, they would have failed…did fail.
Some years ago I bought a strand of green Neiger scarab beads in their original box – it was sold in the 1920s in a prestigious jewellery retail shop in Melbourne, Australia. On another occasion, I sat down here in Australia with a woman at a 1920s themed function who was wearing a sautoir of beautiful black Egyptian revival Neiger beads. She didn’t know who the Neigers were, and was fascinated by their story. The necklace had belonged to her grandmother in the 1920s, and it was the only 1920s piece she had, so she wore it. I’ve had conversations with women who have found Neiger beads everywhere from antique stores to op shops, from places as far away from Gablonz as middle America and New Zealand. Even if they hadn’t heard of the Neiger brothers, the people who found and cherished them recognised the quality of the pieces.
The scarab symbolised the sun god Ra for the ancient Egyptians. In rolling their dung balls across the desert, scarabs imitated the movement of the sun across the sky. They represented the cycle of rebirth and regeneration.
The Neiger brothers created beauty, and delighted the world with their work. That legacy has endured.