A history remembered

The Austrian hospice in the Old City opens a new exhibition about Displaced Persons.

old city 88 (photo credit: )
old city 88
(photo credit: )
In 1937, Berlin-born Henry Ries attempted to immigrate to America. But there were technical problems with his papers, and the US immigration officials sent him back to Nazi-occupied Germany. Ten years later the ship Exodus, laden with more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors, was refused entry to Palestine and its passengers were forcibly returned to Europe. Ries finally immigrated to the United States in 1938, and, in an irony of history, it was he who captured the return of the Exodus in the photographs that are currently on display in the Austrian Hospice in the Old City. The photographs are part of a special exhibition about Displaced Persons (DPs) in Austria, running in conjunction with the Jewish Museum of Vienna. The English-language exhibition consists of a series of 24 panels displaying photographs and documents that cover events in post-World War II Austria, beginning with the liberation of the Austrian concentration camps, including the large camps at Mauthausen and Ebensee. The exhibit also features some of the newspapers published by the Jewish DPs in Austria, written in German, Yiddish or Yiddish with Latin letters, and concludes with a portrait of Vienna's post-Holocaust Jewish community and with photographs of DPs celebrating the establishment of the State of Israel. After 1945, about 200,000 Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe crossed though Austria as DPs on their way to Palestine. Initially the US Army supported them, but as the problem of food and transportation became increasingly difficult, the Americans, together with the other Allied armies who remained in Austria, tried to stop the flight to Palestine. Since taking over the directorship in May 2004, Rector Markus Stephan Bugnyar has aimed to make the Hospice more appealing to the local community, both Jewish and Muslim. "We used to have guests coming from all over the globe," he says, "but there was very little contact with the locals around us. We are known to certain Christian communities but not beyond them." To increase the hostel's visibility, he has created a series of three exhibitions, covering Austrian and Israeli topics, of which the current exhibit is the first. Next spring the Hospice will exhibit a presentation about Muslims living in Austria, produced by a Serbian-born Jew who now lives in Vienna. The Hospice is also hosting a show by a young artist from Bethlehem who paints religious topics. These exhibitions, the Rector is careful to stress, are in no way political. "It is not our task to deal with political issues," he says, "but because of our location here on the Via Dolorosa, we are on the way to the Kotel and we are on the way to the Temple Mount. We can use the position as a house where the different cultures can meet." The Exodus exhibition, asserts Rector Bugnyar, was "very necessary. We have chosen and we are touching on a very sensitive issue that ties in with the commemorations marking the end of World War II that have taken place in Austria this year." In his remarks at the opening of the exhibition, Rector Bugnyar said, "I myself was surprised to learn about camps for so-called Displaced Persons. Usually one knows about the liberation of the concentration camps and the founding of the State of Israel. But what happened to these Jews in the years from 1945-1948?" he asks rhetorically. Some former Austrian DPs were present at the opening of the exhibition. "It was very important for me to have them here," the Rector says, "to recognize what they have seen and suffered. It was a way of making them feel that we care about them and their experiences and what they have gone through. For our part it is something that has to be kept alive to ensure that it does not happen again." Unusual for the Hospice, though unsurprising given the subject matter, many Jewish and Israeli visitors attended the opening ceremony. Speaking of the former DPs, Rector Bugnyar says, "We pretty much made it possible for them to come. Many of them are old and find it very hard to move, so we sent taxis to pick them up and take them home." In contrast, and to the Rector's disappointment, considerably fewer than usual Palestinians visitors have come to see the exhibit. "There was, and there still is, a certain misunderstanding, that because we are doing this exhibition we are on the side of Israel and we are not on the side of Palestine," says the Rector. "What we are doing is dealing with the history but they [the Palestinians] are affected by the present." Part of the problem, he believes, is that the locals around the Hospice remember it only as a hospital and are not aware that the hospice had a previous, 100-year history, as a hostel for Austrian pilgrims. "We have to bring it to their attention that we are aware of our history and that we have a responsibility to deal with this history. It's not just that the Shoah is part of the identity of Israel but it also affects us, the German-speaking peoples of Austria and Germany." Located on the Via Dolorosa, close to the Damascus Gate in the Arab Quarter of the Old City, the Hospice is the oldest of the pilgrims' hospices in Israel. The Emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, bought the land in the middle of the 19th century; building began in 1856 and the Hospice was opened in 1863. In 1939 the British confiscated the Hospice, declaring it to be German Property‚ and interned the Rector and nuns. The house also served as an internment camp for Austrian, German and Italian priests and members of religious orders. When the British left Palestine, the house became a Jordanian military hospital; later it was converted into a general hospital by the Jordanian government. Even after the Six Day War the house remained in use as a hospital for the Arab population of the Old City, though there was always a religious presence in the house. In July 1985 the hospital was finally closed for sanitary reasons and returned to the Austrian Church in December of that year. After extensive renovations, the Hospice was reopened at the end of January 1988 with 36 guest rooms, which can accommodate over 100 people a night. Today, just as in the 19th century, the Hospice provides a place for Austrian pilgrims to stay when they are making their religious journeys. The aim, says Rector Bugnyar, is to allow visitors to feel at home, even though they are far away from Austria. "We want to have this Austrian style hospitality and Austrian style atmosphere that cannot be created by somebody else." For this reason, very few local workers are employed in the Hospice, other than in the kitchen, the laundry or in a maintenance capacity. In all other parts of the building the workers are native German speakers, many of whom are volunteers, who come to the Hospice for stays of between six weeks and three months. For those who do not wish to stay over at the hostel, the magnificently decorated chapel and the views of the Old City from the roof make the Hospice worth a visit, as do the genuine Austrian pastries served in the cafeteria. The Exodus Crossing Austria: Jewish Displaced Persons After the Shoah exhibition is on display at the Austrian Hospice until December 15th. Austrian Hospice Via Dolorosa 37 POB 19600 Jerusalem 91194 www.austrianhospice.com office@austrianhospice.com Tel 626 58 00 Fax: 627 14 72