Joseph Beuys’ misadventures in Crimea

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April 16, 2016 by AK

Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was a famous German performance artist of the post-WWII era. According to his Wiki entry,

From 1943 on he was deployed as rear-gunner in the Ju 87 “Stuka” dive-bomber, initially stationed in Königgrätz, later in the eastern Adriatic region…. On 16 March 1944, Beuys’s plane crashed on the Crimean Front close to Znamianka, (then “Freiberg”).

A reader has sent this note to The London Review of Books concerning Beuys’ 1944 crash and survival:

Terry Castle relates the story of Joseph Beuys claiming that tent-dwelling Tatar nomads spoke to him in Russian when they found him and his German warplane crashed in the steppe (LRB, 31 March). One wonders if they tried the word for ‘water’ in their own Turkic language before using the Russian word (voda)? Given that they were camping in Central Asia only because they had been deported from their native Crimea by Stalin’s henchmen, it is unlikely that they saved Beuys thinking he was Russian; it’s more likely they were hoping the Wehrmacht would win.

With all respect for the presumed author of the letter, a most experienced Russianist, her explanation cannot work because:

(1) Beuys crashed in Crimea, not in Central Asia.

(2) The Crimean Tatars were deported on May 18-20, 1944, after the Soviet Army recaptured the whole of the peninsula. Beuys crashed in March 1944 the latest.

(3) Beuys’ account of his rescue should not be taken literally. The Tatars of his description suspiciously resemble Kalmyks or Mongols. The “shamans” in particular are out of place among a Muslim people. Freiberg was so named by Yiddish-speaking Jewish settlers, who had arrived in the 1920s to work the land. The district around it was named after Ernst Thälmann because about half of the residents were German colonists, who had lived there since the late 18th or the early 19th century. There was likely no room left for nomads in the area.


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