A European Adventure

Posted on July 3rd, 2014 by

You’re going to hate me right now. I’ve returned recently from gallivanting around Europe. For the first two weeks of June, I was visiting both sites and friends in beautiful places with world renowned chocolate and low humidity while Baltimore was suffering under a heat index of 102. I’ll spare you the lovely details and jump to my last stop, in Vienna, where I visited the local Jewish Museum (I have no qualms about taking busman’s holidays).

Chocolate Palace at Berlin’s Fassbender & Rausch’s chocolatiers

Chocolate Palace at Berlin’s Fassbender & Rausch’s chocolatiers

The Jewish Museum Vienna actually has two locations within the city: there is the main building on Dorotheergasse, just off of one of the main shopping/tourist strips, which houses their primary exhibition. The second location is on the Judenplatz, where, as you might have already guessed from the name, was the old (in this case, medieval) Jewish neighborhood. The focus of the Judenplatz location is the synagogue that stood there until 1420, when a pogrom led to the razing of the synagogue and forced the Jewish community to leave the city.

Because Judenplatz was very close to where I was staying, I ended up visiting the two locations in reverse order. The Judenplatz part of the museum actually starts outside its building. It begins on the square, where the Viennese Holocaust memorial–also known as “The Nameless Library”–stands. Designed by Rachel Whiteread, the memorial is made of “inside-out” shelves, filled with books whose spines are invisible–hence the name. It represents the loss of knowledge, memory, and the lives of “the People of the Book” who were killed, not just in the Holocaust (though that is definitely its focus), but also in the Viennese Geserah (Disaster) of 1420. This layering of memorialized tragedies makes it unique among European Holocaust memorials.

“The Nameless Library”

“The Nameless Library”

Inside the museum itself, there is a small and frustratingly spare exhibit on Jewish life in Vienna in the Middle Ages. Its highlight is the room in which you can see the actual excavated remains of the stone foundations for the old synagogue.

The museum also included a bizarre “exhibit” on the life of Amy Winehouse, curated by her brother. Interestingly enough, as described in the introduction by her brother, the exhibit was meant to be more like a memorial to her life geared towards those who never knew her personally rather than an actual academic exploration of her life and work. In this somewhat strange and roundabout way, it actually fit in with the memorial just outside.

Thankfully, the main location of the Vienna Jewish Museum was much more satisfying. Along with changing exhibitions that, much like the JMM, explore various, lesser-known corners of regional Jewish life (on display at the time of my visit was an exhibit of Jews who fought for Austria in WWI and a small display of Jewish textiles), the museum has a truly exceptional permanent exhibition on the Jews of Vienna, from the Middle Ages to the present. Entitled “Our City! Jewish Vienna–Then to Now,” the exhibition seeks to explain to outsiders the strong and complex ties between the Jews of Vienna and their city.

On display at the Vienna Jewish Museum

On display at the Vienna Jewish Museum

In a clearly calculated–and, I think, successful–move, the curators of the show decided to begin with the history of the Viennese Jewish community from 1945 to today. It starts with the bittersweet re-grouping of the community, attempting to grapple with their memories, confirming the fates of lost loved ones and the things they’ve left behind, and re-establishing relationships with their gentile neighbors.

Austria was slow to officially acknowledge its part in letting the Holocaust happen and its responsibility towards Austrian survivors, which caused significant tension between Jews and non-Jews in Austrian politics in the last half of the 20th century. My only criticism of this section is that, while specific instances of this tension, such as when Kurt Waldheim was appointed Austria’s president in 1986 despite having participated in the Austrian Nazi government, are mentioned in the exhibit, it was often with only very cursory explanations, as if they expected you to already know what had happened.

The section ends with a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, including photographs from various communal simchas. This drove home the point that the curators were trying make with their reverse chronological order: Jewish life in Vienna did not stop with the Holocaust. It was greatly reduced and continues to encounter challenges, but, thanks to the many Soviet Jews who moved to Vienna after the end of the Cold War, the community is there and it is thriving.

After that hopeful note, visitors are directed to go upstairs to see the second section of the exhibit–Jewish life in Vienna from the Middle Ages to 1945. This section makes good use of its vast collection of manuscripts, photographs, recordings, portraits, and Judaica to trace the ups and downs of the story of the Viennese Jews.

There were three historical Jewish communities in the city: the medieval one that ended with their expulsion in 1420; their brief re-entry in the 17th century; and the third and largest one, which began in the early 19th century under the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I, and continued until the Holocaust.

Emperor Franz Josef I

Emperor Franz Josef I

In each case, the Jewish community faced strong anti-semitism that in the best of times meant very high taxes (creating a deceptively wealthy Jewish community in Vienna in the 17th and 19th centuries simply because poor Jews couldn’t afford to stay) and in the worst of times meant humiliation and expulsion. Despite this, or really because of it, Jews contributed disproportionately to the empire’s military campaigns as well as to the city’s cultural life, whether it was through giving the money to build the opera house or having the talent to be appointed the director of that opera house.

A large section of the gallery is devoted to the many Jewish cultural figures in Vienna during the 19th-20th centuries. This includes the obvious names–Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Theodore Herzl, etc.–as well as lesser known but equally important ones, like the cantor Salomon Sulzer; the Olympic hopefuls, Fritzi Löwy, Lucie Goldner, and Hedy Bienenfeld; and the Ephrussi banking family (about whom I was simultaneously reading in The Hare with Amber Eyes–which is a fantastic book!).

The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Ephrussi Palace today

Ephrussi Palace today

Because of their invaluable contributions to the empire’s economy, the Habsburg rulers gradually eased the laws restricting Jewish life there–even eventually granting full citizenship–thus garnering a fierce loyalty from their Jewish subjects. This loyalty served the Jewish community poorly when nationalism and WWI disintegrated the empire and the Habsburg reign. Their contributions and sacrifices during the war were quickly forgotten or dismissed in the internecine years that followed.

The end of the exhibit details the sudden and violent decline of the Viennese Jewish community through postcards, movie reels, and official Nazi documents regarding Eichmann’s plan to address the “Jewish Question.” Before the start of WWII, Vienna had the third largest Jewish population in the world, with over 185,000. By 1946, there were only 25,000, and today there are barely 7,000.

I left the museum that day with an expanded appreciation for the tenacity of the Jewish communities in places like Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam, and the many other European cities where Jews have had to scatter and regroup so many times throughout history. And I hope that if any of you have the opportunity to visit the city of Vienna, you will take the time to visit this fascinating museum.

abby krolikA blog post by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts by Abby, click HERE.






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Lessons from Across the Pond

Posted on May 14th, 2014 by

Over the Passover holiday I traveled to England, meeting up with my wife, who took a vacation from her dissertation research in Turkey.  I am normally quite reticent to share tales of my journeys, probably due to being subjected to one-too-many travelogues from my myriad aunts and uncles.  But Rachel has persuaded me that a few of my observations/adventures might be of more general interest.

1. One Site, Many Dimensions

My favorite site on the whole trip was Hampton Court Palace.  It is the home that King Henry VIII took off the hands of Cardinal Wolsey after he sent him to the Tower.  It continued to be “improved” by English monarchs up through the mid-1700s.

Anne Boleyn has a fight with her mother for the entertainment of 21st century guests.

Anne Boleyn has a fight with her mother for the entertainment of 21st century guests.

The custodians of this site showed tremendous imagination in interpretation.  They created separate tours for different time periods and though Henry VIII may be somewhat better known than George II, they managed to find attributes (like chocolate making) that evened the field.  They broke common museum labeling conventions, often pinning labels to tapestries or draping them on tables rather than pasting them on foam core.  It made the experience much more organic.  They also managed to use a wide variety of techniques simultaneously, including living history performances, audio guides and high-tech slide presentations.  I thought that the combination of techniques, great history to work with and truly beautiful paintings and gardens made this a historic site with very wide appeal… proving that sometimes More is More (and I don’t just mean Sir Thomas).

A truly impressive trump l'oeil from Hampton Court Palace.

A truly impressive trump l’oeil from Hampton Court Palace.

On the long bus ride out to the Palace we passed by a field with the targets set up for what appeared to be a professional archery tournament.  Wish I had taken a picture, especially after we passed by the scoreboard which identified the teams as London Welsh vs. Nottingham!!  Did I really lose my chance to meet Robin Hood?

2. Like No Other Night

When we decided that we’d meet over Passover, I thought I would try to find an interesting Second Night Seder.  I e-mailed Michael Leventhal, who runs the annual Gefiltefest in London, to ask for a recommendation.  He connected me to a group called the Carlebach Minyan which was holding its seder at a private home in the North London borough of Finchley.  Much of the ceremony was reminiscent of seders I’ve had here in Maryland or Illinois (with the exception of a Sephardic custom of lashing your neighbors with scallions during the singing of Dayenu).  But the dinner had an exceptional theme – “Eat Your Way Through the Plagues”.  The dinner had ten courses each course took its inspiration from the plague.  For course one, for example, each guest was given a plastic syringe, a thimble of tomato juice and a thimble of vodka or water – and it was our task to “turn the clear liquid of the Nile into blood”.  Course five, beasts, was brisket and potatoes but the potatoes had been dried to form a rampaging hippo as seen in this photo.  When we got to course eight, the host came in to proudly inform us that locusts were kosher and that this course was exactly what it sounded like.  Here I drew the line – I am not a grasshopper eater.

The "beast" rampages through the potatoes at the Second Night Seder.

The “beast” rampages through the potatoes at the Second Night Seder.

During the seder I was invited to share a story… I shared the tale of the Lloyd Street Synagogue’s own “wicked son” – Rabbi Illowy and the lessons we learned from America’s Civil War.

3. Expectations and Audience

I did take the opportunity to visit the Jewish Museum of London.  It is a little challenging to find, but worth the effort.  We have some elements in common with our London counterpart, including the exhibition of one of the oldest mikveh in our respective countries (well, ours is 1845 and theirs is mid-13th century).

This is the rather subtle entry to the Jewish Museum of London.

This is the rather subtle entry to the Jewish Museum of London.

The Jewish Museum of London has three exhibit floors.  The first level is “what is Judaism?”… objects that explain Jewish rituals and observances.  The second level is “the history of Judaism in Britain” and the third level is a changing exhibit gallery.  I found it interesting that such a large portion of the total footprint was dedicated to explaining Judaism in general.  It seemed to reflect an expectation that a significant portion of their audience was unfamiliar with Jewish practice… an expectation not often reflected in American Jewish museums.

This screen from the computer interactive of Jewish settlements in England tells the story of the Jews of Bristol (home of Mendes Cohen's mother).

This screen from the computer interactive of Jewish settlements in England tells the story of the Jews of Bristol (home of Mendes Cohen’s mother).

On the second floor there were some interesting display concepts.  The tailor shop section of the exhibit included tools partially encased in plexi – visitors could lift the iron or the scissors and feel their weight without risk of injury from sharp edges.  There was also a video that blended a historic photo with live actors.  The interactive that allowed you to look up dozens of communities in England and find out their Jewish stories was particularly well done.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someday you could do this with towns of Maryland at a certain museum in Baltimore.

How heavy were those scissors?

How heavy were those scissors?

The temporary exhibit in April was on Jewish participation in World War I.  I thought it was an excellent treatment of a difficult topic.  Naturally, the focus was on the Jews of Britain – but they did a credible job of explaining the participation of the much larger populations of Jews who fought for the Central Powers (Germany and Austria).

London's oldest mikveh was moved to the museum.

London’s oldest mikveh was moved to the museum.

4. York and Memory

We ended our visit to England with a trip to York, a beautiful, walkable small city in the north of the country.  It has an incredibly rich history… underneath the soaring Gothic York Minster lie the remains of the original Roman fort at Eboracum.  There is also a slightly hokey attraction focused on York’s Viking heritage in town.

York Minster, I believe it is the second largest cathedral in Europe.  It stands where Constantine was made Emperor of Rome.

York Minster, I believe it is the second largest cathedral in Europe. It stands where Constantine was made Emperor of Rome.

York plays a role in Jewish history as well, though not a happy one.  It seems that when Richard the Lionheart ascended to the throne in 1189 a rumor spread that it was the king’s wish to deal with infidels at home before heading on a Crusade against infidels abroad.  The small Jewish community of York, numbering about 150, fled the castle keep (a place later reconstructed in stone as Clifford’s Tower).  A mob descended on the keep and the Jews inside made the decision to kill themselves by burning down the keep rather than expose themselves to torture, forced conversion and/or death from the mob.

Memories of York were still fresh in my mind when I boarded the plane back to the US.  I had bought myself a wonderfully illustrated magazine for the long trip home – The Medieval World, published by National Geographic.  Its 127 pages of text and graphics attempted to summarize the major places and events of the thousand year span from 400 to 1400 A.D.  Not surprisingly, York made it into the list  of great places of the age.  The magazine attempted to give a balanced portrayal of the struggle between Christians and Muslims across this millennium.  But somewhere over the North Atlantic, I began to notice something was missing: the Jews.  Not just missing from the sidebar on York, but from the discussion of Moorish Spain and central Germany… as best as I could tell, missing from all 127 pages!

What struck me was how easy it is to erase a people from history… and how important it is that institutions like the Jewish Museum of London (and the Jewish Museum of Maryland) keep it alive and accessible to the public.  I came back from my journey, exhausted, refreshed and ready to go back to work.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.

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