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Sunday 6 November 2005, 10am
Sasha Dolls, their creator, and the times
Foreword by Harry Greenberg
For some time I'd been thinking... I must write an article about the unquestionably unique 'Sasha Dolls'. I'd seen one of them many years ago -- not long after my younger daughter Lee married David Cameron. In fact I think, if my memory serves me correctly, the doll, which was modelled on her grandson David, was one of the first created by the internationally-acclaimed Sasha Morgenthaler.
Strangely enough, I'd met David when he was a cute curly-haired little boy of about six when he accompanied his mother in my wife Marge's boutique. Later, in 1973, Marge and I had the great pleasure and privilege of visiting Sasha in her home city of Zurich and we were extremely impressed.
Recently I asked David for information about Sasha dolls and he speedily sent an essay my grand-daughter Angelica had presented at the Rudolph Steiner School as part of her Year 11 studies. She had obviously invested much time in research and I was completely overwhelmed by her outstanding creation to which I could add nothing -- apart from proffering praise and my justifiable pride...
Here it is, word for word... Angelica's essay:
History is not only told and understood through the study of political movements and dates on timelines. An understanding of times gone by can be gained through the observation and analysis of cultural expression. An artist’s expression can depict their own impression or understanding of the time in such a personal way, that we are offered a window into the heart or mind of a person of the past…
The period of the Second World War was a time of uncertainty and extreme ideas, the repercussions of which are evident in the works of many artists since. Art movements were influenced by the war and the sides of human character which it unveiled. Sasha Morgenthaler, a protégé of Paul Klee and a contemporary of Karl Geiser, was a Swiss doll-maker and humanitarian activist who was certainly influenced by the events of, and her role in the Second World War.
Mary Madeleine Sasha von Sinner (known as “Sasha”) was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1893 into an aristocratic family. She was privately tutored at home until she was old enough to attend high school where she was the only girl in her class. Her young, widowed, Jewish mother (Marie von Sinner-Borchardt, 1867-1955) considered it important for a woman to receive an education. Paul Klee (1879-1940), a well known Swiss artist was a frequent guest at the von Sinner house and he saw Sasha’s artistic abilities. With Klee’s support she began in 1909 to study at the Geneva Academy of Art. Five years later she furthered her education in Oschwand with the painter Cuno Amiet (1868-1961). Here she met the painter Ernst Morgenthaler and in 1915 they travelled together to Munich, where she studied sculpture and anatomy. Ernst Morgenthaler and Sasha von Sinner were married in Switzerland in 1916.Consequently Sasha put away her paints saying that there couldn’t be two painters in one family, and she busied herself with the efforts of supporting a growing family.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, more than 10% of Switzerland’s population mobilized in preparation for war. The treaty of Paris (1815) guaranteed Switzerland’s neutrality, but as Austria, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg fell one by one to the Nazis, Switzerland felt the threat of invasion at hand. Everybody was ready for war. Stray bombs fell on Swiss land and air raid alarms would go off frequently. Houses were ‘blacked out’ at night and a general mood of anxiety prevailed. While great attention had been paid to the preparation for defensive war action, nobody had yet organized plans for civilian care and order on the home front. Sasha Morgenthaler was strongly and openly opposed to the Nazi regime. Equipped with her industrious nature she organised the Zürich Hülfstrupp, a women’s aid group. They met regularly to share practical skills and knowledge. They learnt how to cook for large numbers, practice first aid, make fires and tents etc.. In May 1940 when the Nazis invaded France, Switzerland’s neighbor to the West, trainloads of refugees came rolling into the large cities. Since Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933, German Jews, socialists and itellectuals had emigrated and later, as their persecution intensified, fled. All those who had sought refuge in France fled once again. Neutral Switzerland was regarded as a safe haven, the only hope for Europe’s Gypsies and Jews. Children were ‘thrown’ over the border by their desperate parents, in an effort to save their lives. “When refugees began to stream into the country and crowded trains pulled into Zürich Station, the ‘Hülfstrupp’ was called to help”(1) The trains were under military command and on arrival, the occupants were sent to schoolhouses for shelter and care. The Commander in charge was counting the refugees off and families were split up in the process of allocating them to different schoolhouses. Sasha was furious and spent the following days and nights driving from schoolhouse to schoolhouse until all the families were re-united. The Hülfstrupp continued to provide support for the refugees. Two refugees were welcomed into the Morgenthaler home, and lived there for the duration of the war.
During the war, many refugees were accepted into Switzerland, but many more were turned away. Switzerland was a small country, surrounded by the axis powers. Food and other living necessities were scarce. All open ground was used to grow vegetables, and school children were sent in groups to work in the turnip fields. The Swiss sustained armed neutrality throughout the war under a unique set of circumstances. Vital train lines ran through Switzerland, connecting Germany to her ally, Italy. These would have been instantly destroyed had the Nazis attacked Switzerland. In addition to the use of these train lines, Switzerland offered services, loans and exports to Germany. They maintain that this was a necessary compromise in order to avoid invasion, and thus protect themselves and the tens of thousands of refugees already inside their borders.
The experience of seeing so many helpless, lost, refugee children made a profound impact on Sasha. “Refugees have just lost everything. They don’t know where they are going. They are just fighting for their lives and you don’t know what they have gone through.”(2), commented Barbara Cameron, Sasha’s daughter. As early as the mid 1920’s, Sasha had begun to hand make small animals out of cloth for her children to play with. These little animals were not domesticated versions of their models, rather “archetypes of their species” with “animalistic, sensual character”(3) . After the war she began to develop what was to become her life’s work, a series of hand-crafted dolls. The doll market of the time offered expensive, all-too-breakable porcelain dolls with stereotypical faces and batting eyelids. Sasha wouldn’t allow her children to play with such dolls and instead made dolls which she saw fit for the love and care of a child. This developed into a small cottage-type industry at the family home in Höngg (a suburb of Zürich). She employed seamstresses, dressmakers and wigmakers, all professionals in their fields. Asymmetric construction, varying skin tones and hair, and the hand painted faces made each doll unique; the little entities which she created were people of the times. They were dressed in handmade clothes, typical of those worn from the beginning of the 1900s to the contemporary times. Detailed attention was paid even to the underwear. The dolls became very popular and each year, just before Christmas, two hundred dolls were sent to Swiss Craft Centres in Bern and Zürich. People would line up in the early hours of the morning, wrapped in blankets, waiting to purchase the dolls.
Sasha traveled extensively around the world. Soon, added to the collection of small Europeans were children of all races, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. She lived through her eyes and found inspiration everywhere. From Inuits to Tibetans, these ‘Children of the World’ became “small ambassadors of tolerance.”(4) There were ragged street children with bandaged limbs and torn clothes, peasants and scholars, people of hardship and of joy. Expressions of pain and wonder, compassion and distinction adorn the numerous faces of these humanistic beings. Mädchen, Algerien (image provided) is surely one of the earlier dolls, because her head is cast-made, while her body is made from cloth and stuffing. Her expression captures the innocent wonder of youth, mingled with a deeper understanding of some sadness or pain displayed in her typically asymmetrical eyes and eyebrows.
Sasha believed that if children have human-like dolls, they will grow up with a more humane approach to the world. “I have tried to recreate my dreams, and I am now fulfilled through the creation of dolls which children can love because they have their own personal expression.”(5) The dolls were not just a means of earning a living; “they grew out of the misery of the war.”(6) Sasha Morgenthaler lived through the two great wars of the past century and she dreamed of a better world. Her heart was touched by the thousands of helpless refugee children who had lost so much. She wished for a more harmonious future generation and sought to plant the seed of tolerance in the child’s heart, by supplying a doll worthy of love and care. This unique collection of dolls displays a cross section of humanity carefully crafted by the hands of a loving artist. The hand-made dolls of the original collection were relatively expensive and in 1964 Sasha agreed to have the dolls industrially produced. This brought the dolls to the international market and since then they have been loved by children all over the world.
(3) Monteil, Annemarie, Endowed Dreams, In Sasha Dolls, Warben-Bern, 1999, pg. 21.
Sasha Dolls, edited by Stefan Biffiger, Warben-Bern, 1999.
The History Place, World War Two in Europe, at http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/ww2time.htm, accessed June 12, 2005
Letters from Sasha and Ernst Morgenthaler, October 1939, October 1943, July 1944, and November 1939.
What Are Sasha Dolls?, at http://members.aol.com/SLewisNYC/, accessed June 9, 2005.
Swiss Neutrality, at http://www.eda.admin.ch/sub_ecfin/e/home/docus/wwarII.html, accessed June 12, 2005
Positive aspects of Swiss Neutrality, at http://www.eda.admin.ch/sub_ecfin/e/home/docus/wwarII.html, accessed June 12, 2005
Interview with Cameron, Barbara, Melbourne, 2005
History of Switzerland, at http://history-switzerland.geschichte-schweiz.ch/switzerland-second-world-war-ii.html, accessed June 14, 2005