In search of continuity

The recently reopened Jewish Museum of Vienna copes with disruptions and revivals of Jewish life.

Jewish artifacts Jewish Museum 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Jewish Museum of Vienna )
Jewish artifacts Jewish Museum 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Jewish Museum of Vienna )
VIENNA – There is one statistic that every Viennese Jew will tell you whether you ask or not. In 1938, there were 185,000 Jews in Vienna, making it the third-largest European community, after Warsaw and Budapest. In 1946, that number had shrunk to just 25,000, and today there is half that amount, with a mere 7,000 registered Jews out of an estimated 12,000.
It is this chilling demographic (the loss of 87 percent of the pre-World War II population) that defines the “new” Jewish Museum of Vienna, which reopened in October after a nine-month renovation.
The museum’s modern look reflects what new director Dr. Danielle Spera refers to as the indomitable spirit of both Viennese Jewry and its showcase institution: “Am Yisrael Hai” (the nation of Israel lives).
Spera took the helm of the museum in July 2010 and immediately set to work on an ambitious redesign that induced both shock and praise in the city’s museum-savvy community. She dismantled the museum’s signature exhibit, holograms summarizing the inexorable march of world Jewish history.
“It was an all-or-nothing effort,” she claims, disputing those who believed that the holograms were themselves works of art and not merely a technological display. “Many museum experts knew that the holograms were no longer cutting-edge technology and that there was a need for new ways of presenting Jewish culture, and our new museum meets these goals,” she says with a mixture of fatigue and finality over a controversy that is only now receding.
Spera’s selection as the new director was itself not without its controversy. Even though she holds a PhD in political science and journalism, she was not a museum professional, coming from the world of television news where she was the anchor of the evening news program on ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk), the Austrian broadcasting authority.
Speaking with Spera near the museum entrance was a challenge due to the bustle of the visitors, in equal measure well-heeled and fashionably disheveled.
Adding to the din were approximately 30 schoolchildren of mixed ethnicities whose beleaguered teachers tried to rein them in while moving from one room to another. Together with the bookstore and the cafeteria, the three-story museum is vivacious and user-friendly.
Spera is keenly aware of the original Jewish Museum’s origins and legacy.
“The JMV was the first-ever Jewish museum, founded in 1895, at least a generation before similar museums in Amsterdam [1932] and Berlin [1933]. It shows how secure they felt. An open museum was the logical consequence of Jewish strength.”
But in that very year, when Viennese Jewry should have been marking the zenith of its cultural achievements, the virulently anti-Semitic Karl Lueger was elected mayor.
The museum’s early period ended abruptly in the 1938 Anschluss (Hitler’s annexation of Austria) when the Nazis closed the museum, seized the collection and distributed it to other museums.
“After WWII, we found the index box which identified the confiscated Judaica,” Spera says. “In the 1950s, these objects began to turn up, and slowly they were returned to the Jewish Community Authority, where they can today be seen in the museum’s visible storage display.”
Star-crossed would be an understated way to define Jewish life in Vienna. Each time an institution arose to reflect its leadership of the community, a counter event threatened to undo the euphoria.
Both versions of the JMV were dogged by the worst kind of luck. As if Lueger’s election in 1895 weren’t enough, three months before the 1986 announcement of the revitalized museum, another election shook the community. Kurt Waldheim, erstwhile secretary-general of the United Nations, became president of Austria despite the exposure of his Nazi past during his candidacy. Then in 1993, three weeks after the new JMV opened at its present venue, Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk, who famously stated that Vienna had to face up to its past, lost his left hand to a letter bomb.
The museum also has an annex, Der Judenplatz, which is built over a medieval synagogue destroyed in 1421. In the center of the square adjacent to the entrance is a monument to the Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
THE MAIN museum is on trendy Dorotheegasse, in the thick of downtown Vienna on a side street just off the main pedestrian mall. It is housed in an immaculate white building, the former Palais Eskeles, which reflects Renaissance-type imperial architecture. A large vertical neon sign announces in Hebrew letters “Museum.”
Entering the main hall, the visitor is confronted by questions written on the wall. This interactive approach asks, “Why are there Jewish museums? Who visits them? What is collected here? How can religion be communicated? What brings you here?” Chief Curator Dr. Werner Hanak-Lettner comments that some visitors may see these questions as an apologia for the justification of a Jewish museum because no one walks into, say, the Uffizi Gallery and questions the raison d’être for a Renaissance art museum in Florence.
He responds, “I am interested in audience reaction. We need to be cognizant of what types of visitors come here.” He stresses that Vienna is an increasingly multicultural society with as many specific needs as there are different groups.
“For example, in addition to the primarily Western European tourists, there are teenage Muslim schoolchildren born in Turkey, elderly Viennese whose fathers were Nazis, Jewish visitors from America or Israel whose grandparents escaped Nazi Europe. For a Jewish museum in Vienna, it’s the most logical question to ask.”
A Judaica collection is usually the mainstay of a Jewish museum, to show ritual art of the holidays and life cycles, but in the JMV, these collections are stashed away on the museum’s top floor in an area called “visible storage.” A vast array of ceremonial art in precious metal, parchment and fabric can be seen behind display cases, but without explanations or provenances.
Hanak-Lettner explains that the museum’s goal is not to show Jewish art either chronologically or linked to holidays, because to do so is to imply that Jewish culture is seamless, continuous and celebratory.
“This clearly is not the case with respect to Vienna Jewish history,” he explains.
“Rather, it is one of stops and starts, destruction and reemergence, a staccato rather than a fluid history.”
He continues, “One must remember that the objects here are not collected in the conventional manner, such as auction and gallery purchases, but were saved, stolen and rescued from many locations.”
Hanak-Lettner claims that the museum is proud to number Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, for example, among Vienna’s Jewish luminaries, but do so with caution rather than unrestrained praise since Freud was expelled, Mahler was forced to convert and Schoenberg fled to the United States.
One overt example of disruption/revival took place recently at the JMV with the abridged presentation of The Polish Wedding, an operetta written by Jewish composer Joseph Beer, but unperformed in Vienna since Nazi times, when both the composer and the work were banned.
Staged by the Vienna Operetta Summer, the operetta was revived in a museum that itself had been shuttered in 1938 and its treasures dispersed, a witness to the irrepressible spirit of Jewish Vienna.
This rhythm of interruption and regeneration, the chief curator states, contrasts with the conventional path chosen by many Jewish museums, especially in America, which show a continuous path from biblical times to the birth of Israel, all of it sprinkled with individual achievement.
“This is a natural consequence of museums in a country that did not suffer directly from the Holocaust,” Hanak-Lettner maintains.
The highlight of the permanent exhibition reinforces Hanak-Lettner’s contention that Viennese Jewish history is irretrievably broken. A computer screen projects a map showing the location of 25 synagogues that existed before 1938. A touch of the button will show, in succession, a grainy black-and-white photograph, followed by a computer-generated image of the synagogue’s urban environment and three-dimensional digitized images of the exterior and interior of the building itself.
Both Spera and Hanak-Lettner are quick to point out that the number 25 represents only those synagogues for which records exist. Another estimate stands at 40, and the museum believes, if shtiebelach (little houses for prayer and community gatherings) and yeshivot are counted, the number approaches 100.
The chief curator believes that objects tell stories.
“In literature, we say that a believable character has to have two conflicting sides.” He cites, for example, the popular American TV series Columbo, about a detective who seems to be inept, “stumbling and bumbling, but really quite clever.” Continuing the analogy, he says, “Similarly, all museum pieces have two sides. The bright side is the object itself, polished, well lit and displayed behind glass. The dark side is something that is not necessarily visible, and this becomes the job of the curator, to bring this part out.”
Hanak-Lettner implies that a Jewish museum would burst at the seams with dark energy, were it not for the curator’s ability to release those forces in a controlled, if not conventionally aesthetic, manner.
THE CURRENT exhibition, which has gained a following in Vienna, is “Bigger Than Life: 100 Years of Hollywood, a Jewish Experience.”
It follows Jewish émigré filmmakers from Europe who settled in Hollywood. Giant posters and film clips abound from the works of Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and the Warner Brothers, as well as host Austria’s Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger. The viewer can spend leisure time looking at clips from pioneer films like the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments, produced by Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures, to contemporary blockbusters like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
Aside from the cinematic clips, there are several remarkable props, chief of which is a chair from “Rick’s Café Américain” in the 1942 film Casablanca. Borrowed from a private collection in Los Angeles, the chair, according to Hanak-Lettner, is “a perfect metaphor” for the efforts of many European Jews to immigrate to safer lands via Casablanca in western Morocco.
Since most would-be émigrés had to wait for exit papers, including about 70 of the staff that worked on Casablanca, the film itself represents a theme appropriate for the exhibition; and the chair takes on the meaning of endless waiting.
But the show-stealing prop is the baseball bat used by Eli Roth, whose character “The Bear Jew” in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Inglourious Basterds, is a super avenger. Roth plays Sgt.
Donnie Donowitz, a strapping US soldier who beats Nazi brains in with his Louisville Slugger.
The next big exhibition, scheduled for March, will focus on Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (The Jewish National Fund), together with a big fund-raising dinner.
This Jewish resurgence is taking place in a city that has two distinct sides, paralleling the chief curator’s remarks about the simultaneous presence of light-heartedness and darkness in a work of art. On the bright side, based on its infrastructure, safe streets and good public health service, Vienna is touted as the nicest place to live in the world, according to an international consulting group.
But on the dark side, its commitment to human rights is less stellar. Austria offered no help to repatriate Holocaust survivors and only recently began to pay reparations. Even though Austria’s anti-Semitism took root quickly, forcing Jews to clean sidewalks with toothbrushes only days after the Anschluss, many citizens still lay the blame solely with Hitler, conveniently forgetting his warm welcome in 1938 and that Der Führer’s Austrian birthplace of Braunau am Inn did not strip him of honorary citizenship until last year. Austria also housed five concentration camps, the most notorious of which was Mauthausen-Gusen.
Perhaps Baedeker’s 2011 Guide to Vienna sums it up best with the simple statement that Jewish life in Vienna has been “more bad than good,” which makes the director’s reference to the museum’s mission as “Am Yisrael Hai” less a convenient slogan than a revelry and call to arms.