Isn’t that a marvelous way to address your family, sending greetings and letters from South-East Asia to New York? Just don’t think of too much of decorum. With all these Kahns you better keep things simple.

The Kahns in New York. Jacques and Eugenie Kahn (standing in the middle), Ely Jacques Kahn (standing on the right), Rudolf and Rena Rosenthal (sitting on the left)

Meeting Ely Jacques Kahn III. (He is called Terry – for being the third) and his son Ely Kahn IV. in Terry’s New York apartment, full of memorabilia of their father/grandfather Ely Jacques Kahn Jr. and their grandfather/great-grandfather Ely Jacques Kahn, son of Jacques Kahn and Eugenie Kahn (both grandchildren of the same Jakob Kahn in Fellheim…) – can you still follow me? – one is tempted to join in by simply addressing them the “Kahns!” I am not going into the rest of the Kahn’s marriage policies. Growing up among all these Kahns from Hohenems and Fellheim (Bavaria) you better develop your sense of humor. And that’s what the Kahns did.

We are here in New York to shoot a film about Ely Jacques Kahn (EJK) the first, an eminent New York architect from 1920s to the 1960s. Born in Manhattan, he took part in shaping the city with his skyscrapers, from the early, set back loft buildings in New York’s garment district to the highrise towers of the 1950s and 1960s. “We” refers to Ingrid Bertel and Nikolai Dörler (working on a documentary for Austrian television), Ekkehard Muther and I, my own role loosely defined as consultant. It was wonderful: for once not experiencing the risk but only the nice side effects of a project. I highly recommend being a consultant.

Kahn was maybe not the most celebrated among the modern New York architects. But he was definitely one of the most refined, successful and after all influential among them. He did not only most efficiently supplied the market with flexible and usable office space, he developed an elegant sense of detail and material that was outstanding. “No more copying!” he declared again and again, and fought against both the still flourishing historism and against a modernist attitude that used “international style” more as prop décor rather as a technique of finding practical solutions. From his training at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and his close relationship with Vienna and the “Wiener Werkstätten,” he took the opportunity to collaborate in his firm with architects, artists and designers from all over the world, especially from Asia and Austria. He was keen to create an ornamental look though mostly abstract structures for facades and for the lavishly decorated lobbies and entrance areas, which offer a sense an abundance of attraction.

By 1901, EJK’s sister Rena had married Rudolph Rosenthal. For the next years the two of them would commute between Hohenems and Vienna. She studied art, and both of them amde friends with artists and designers in Vienna. In 1911, they moved back to New York, opening an art and design gallery on Madison Avenue, introducing “modern things” (as cousin Adele Kahn would call it) into the lifestyle of New York.

The Rosenthals in Hohenems (behind the Villa Arnold Rosenthal): Rudolf and Rena Rosenthal (sitting on the right), Anton Rosenthal (standing in the middle), Charlotte Rosenthal (sitting on the left), Clara Rosenthal (sitting second from the left).

EJK also introduced the most advanced technologies into his buildings. In fact, he was the first to build an office building with air condition all over. Instead of playing around with metaphors of modernity (as other architects did mostly on public assignment), Kahn had the supply of the market—that is, the interests of the potential tenants of his buildings, mostly speculating on a growing demand for office space—a bubble that ended with the crash of the stock market in 1929. But that is another story. We come to that soon.

Sitting around the dining table with the Kahns—papers, books, sketches, manuscripts and letters spread all over—we grew fond of these “Kahns!” their understatement and witty irony, when it comes to the newly evolved interest in their (great-)grandfathers achievement. The documentary takes form, with diving into the family story, EJK III presents us with a smile. He tells us about how it was growing up in this bubble of an assimilated “non-Jewish” Jewish family, with Ely Jacques Kahn leading the Christmas celebration dressed as Santa Claus. Being Jewish, that meant—at least on the surface—not much much more than a sense of family and some experiences with a persisting discrimination, even in the American society. One family member belonged to a Jewish country club (other country clubs did not accept Jewish members still in the 1930 and 1940s). Another family member would not be accepted, as EJK Jr. recalled, on the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, because the “quota” for Jews had already been reached.

Ely Kahn IV, reading our “newspaper” “Alte Freiheiten von Ems”
Ely Kahn IV. in the lobby of 2 Park Avenue

However successful one was able to mingle professionally, in Ely Jacques Kahn’s generation, one still married other—equally assimilated—Jews, became member of the Ethical Culture Society (a non-religious but still mainly Jewish organization that tried to develop a secular set of rituals, philanthropy, schools and networking), or in general cultivated a social sphere based on shared experiences and backgrounds.

Adele Kahn (EJK’s cousin) named her autobiographical records “All about All of us.” She worked them together with Joan Kahn, EJK’s daughter, which was ironical rather than immodest I guess. EJK Jr. also fought his father’s autobiographical manuscript, which he tried to prepare for publication. But unlike Adele, Ely Jacques Kahn did not give anything personal away in his rather dry account of his professional career.

The Kahns on occasion of Eugenie’s 90th birthday in 1948.

Still, when Terry gave this manuscript in my hands for the archives of the Museum I was overwhelmed by the trust in this gesture.

It seems that Ely Jacques Kahn remained—and still remains—a bit of a riddle for everybody in his family. Looking at the family photos after 1945 he often carries a mild smile that can suggest a lot. Having prominently shaped the face of the “capitol of the 20th century” (having learned what’s necessary in the “capitol of the 19th century”—Paris) he also knew that his success resided on the edge. His firm was cut down to a small portion of its original size when the depression demanded its toll after 1929. And more serious, the “events in Europe” cut into the heart of the family, when after 1945 it became clear that his sister-in-law, Clara Rosenthal had vanished in the Holocaust, as so many more or less distant relatives were murdered in the camps.

Pleasant family memories in Terry’s apartment.

That was obviously nothing to talk about, not even in the family. But there are things you communicate with each other even if you remain almost silent. “My sister is hopelessly lost,” Rudolph Rosenthal ended a letter to a friend of the family in November 1945. “This is all the News for today. Love from all!”

Kahn’s business though went up again after 1945. A new building boom in New York now asked for a new language of architecture. One of the last projects Ely Jacques Kahn was involved with was the Seagram Building that was designed by Mies van der Rohe – and was made possible by Ely Jacques Kahn’s skills. But looking on Kahn’s projects already developed during the last years of the war, the new spirit of a pure geometry of volumes and surfaces is clearly visible.

Talking with the Kahns is somewhat also reading between the lines. EJK Jr., in his own autobiographical diary, written in 1972, gives a rather amusing account of instances in which he was interviewed about his father. In the end of on of these talks a young man asked him, the eminent journalist (who wrote for “The New Yorker” for forty years), what he would have done differently if he were the interviewer. “I would have taken notes,” EJK Jr. drily responded. But making notes, I feel that strongly, is also writing between the lines. As in so many families…

In the end of our interview (everything safe on tape anyhow), EJK III had a better advice for us: Let’s meet in the Harvard Club on 44th Street tonight and have dinner on the roof top. We all enjoyed that evening very much.

Now, while I am writing this, Ingrid and Nikolai are finishing the film “Hohenems-Manhattan. Die Wolkenkratzer des Ely Jacques Kahn” for Austrian television, to be aired on September 18. I can’t wait to see its premiere in the Salomon Sulzer auditorium in Hohenems a day before at 6pm.

Ely Jacques Kahn III. in the Harvard Club. I forgot who shot the elephant, but I think it was an American president….



Four Days to Remember: Reunion 2017

The white table was waiting while the crowd made its way to the Schlossplatz for the group photo. The weather, monitored over the last week with nervous attention, proved to be on our side. A glorious day welcomed the “lunch with locals,” the climax of our four days reunion of descendants. It was the third of its kind, after 1998 and 2008. And we were wondering what we could offer that would last, worthy of remembrance after two already so memorable events. In the end we had enjoyed four days that produced memories all along, every minute…

Almost all together on the Schlossplatz…

From the tours to the old Rhine, on the traces of refugees that passed the threshold between death and life 71 years ago – to the joyful variations of Salomon Sulzer’s music performed by his great-great-great-great-grandson Danny Blaker from Melbourne. And from the sometimes witty, sometimes poignant (and mostly both) speeches on occasion of the evening events to the excursions on the lake, or to St. Gallen and the countryside this was not only a journey into the past of family memories but an exploration of the diverse dimensions of the present, some pleasant and some scary as they may be.

And though all this was articulated without taboos (including encounters with Palestinian refugees and their hardships when it comes to visiting their hometowns – or the haunting experiences with new elected presidents) the mood of these days was relaxed and full of energy and joy. 180 descendants, literally from all corners of the world, enjoyed being together, transcending borders between religions, nations, languages, forming a truly cosmopolitan community that you will not easily find in any other place. Many were meeting their relatives for the first time, exchanging experiences, family legends, names and other genealogical bits and pieces.

Did I ever encounter a group of people with such a sense of irony and so much to tell and to discuss with each other? Does that necessarily mean that there was a gap between insiders and outsiders? Astoundingly the answer was: no! Helpers and friends from our association, staff members of the museum, and locals from the town joined the descendants, so nobody stood apart. For the first time, a large number of descendants who still live in Vorarlberg took part, members of the Hirschfeld family. Having Jewish ancestors was not always something to speak about, or even to boast with, after all that happened to Jewish families in the 20th century. Now for the first time this no longer seemed to be a barrier to talking about family memoirs in the open and with relatives, coming from the U.S. and Guatemala, Great Britain and elsewhere.

The Reunion 2017 was remarkable for all those who came for it from more or less distant places – but it also opened a new chapter in the presence of memory in Hohenems itself.

(The following photos were made – with few exceptions – by Dietmar Walser)

Schön, Sie wiederzusehen: Reunion 2017

In a week and a half, I (along with my family and many other descendants) will be returning to Hohenems for the 2017 reunion. For all descendants, the chance to return to connect with both family history and living relatives is exciting.

I will return to Hohenems with two months familiarity—having spent last summer at the museum as an intern—while many descendants will be visiting for the first time. For me, the beauty in Hohenems lies both in its rich history and its present-day community. While I liked looking through the museum’s archives and tracing the genealogy of many descendants, I also enjoyed learning about contemporary Austrian politics. I liked talking with peers my own age, comparing my American college education with their university experiences, wondering in the back of my head who I would be if I had somehow grown up differently.

At the same time, I know that my experience with Hohenems will be different this time around. Although I wrote many blog posts last summer about finding personal significance in the town’s past, some things are better when shared with people we care about.

I want to tour the Jewish Museum with my grandmother, and I can point across the street and show her where I used to work. I plan to visit the old cemetery with my family, and actually enter it this time now that the construction is complete. I want to walk down to the Swiss border, where I can remember how many Jews braved the difficult crossing, and show my parents the path I took by bike last summer. I’ll go hiking with my brother, up to the Ruine Alt-Ems, where I drank a beer and watched the sun set on my final night in Hohenems. I hope to introduce my mom to my former boss, my host mom, and all the other people about whom I told stories.

I also look forward to meeting other descendants—long-lost cousins and people with whom I share no blood relation, but still have the Hohenems connection. If you’ve stuck around the blog this long, I hope I can meet you too.

Schön, Sie wiederzusehen, Hohenems.

A Tale of Two Little Towns

Emsiana Opening on May 11, 2017
Musicians on the balcony of the museum

Najem Wali made it to Germany just in time. In 1980. The war between Iraq and Iran had begun. And the student of literature who dreamed of becoming a writer was already known as a political dissident, an “enemy of the people” to Saddam Hussein and the Baath party regime. A few months he had already enjoyed the special attention of the party’s officials, in jail. And for somebody like him in 1980 only the worst of the front was waiting, a secure way to heaven or hell. For some kind of luck, one of the subjects he had studied was German literature. So he was seeking Asylum in Germany. Two times to be taken in custody pending deportation was waiting for him. But in the end he made it.

Emsiana Opening: Najem Wali

Now he is an acclaimed author, living in Berlin, invited to offer a crowded “Markus Sittikus Auditorium” in Hohenems his opening speech for the Emsiana Festival on May 11, 2017. Every year in May a bunch of cultural institutions and initiatives in the small town on the border brings together music, literature, art, history, and challenges of today.

“Hohenems. Babylon” is the theme of 2017: the hybris of man, the Diaspora, and the clash and the richness of a diversity of languages. Najem Wali, born in Amara, a small Iraqi border town next to Iran, still remembers the Jewish quarter of his hometown. And the story of Iraq’s minorities, among them prominently its flourishing Jewish communities, going back to the Babylonian “Exile” 2600 years ago, is one of the lasting themes in his novels and essays.

His reflections about the role of small border towns like Amara and Hohenems, and the crossroads of Exiles making the world more complex, was deeply rooted in his life.

So Najem not only opened the program, he also – a day later – read from his autobiography (“Bagdad – Memories of a Metropolis”). And he had a lot of fun during the four days in Hohenems, with both the locals and the guests. This year the festival centered – in a way – around a “Babylonian” bread bakery on the Salomon Sulzer Square in front of the former synagogue. A young team of enthusiasts was occupied all day with producing fresh bread, served together with all kind of dishes brought by neighbors and other locals from all tribes. Turkish salads and stuffed vine leaves, Indian food and typical local dishes like “Riebel” (a simple and very traditional recipe for cornmeal) blended together in harmony. The backbone though of the outdoor kitchen – serving the ever growing crowd during the festival – were refugees from Syria and Afghanistan, and a Palestinian couple who made it to Hohenems already a few years ago, now happy to learn something about Jewish history and to tell about their loss of home too…

Emsiana 2017: “Babylonian Bakery”

The Babylonian dilemma and the richness of languages was present also during the musical part of the opening event. Johannes Schwendinger sang ten psalms, with music by Antonin Dvorak. But he had his own turn on them: he sang them in Czech and German, Hebrew, Turkish, Farsi, and Arab, Icelandic, French, Mandarin, and English.

Johannes Schwendinger, Foto: Benjamin Hofer

Among the other highlights of the musical program the band “Light in Babylon” surprised in particular, a bunch of devoted musicians playing “world music” with Hebrew and Turkish texts. Michal Elia Kamal, the singer, was born in Tel Aviv into an Israeli-Iranian family – and she is proud to be both, Jewish and Persian. Now she is based in Istanbul performing together with a French guitarist, a Turkish master of the santur (a Turkish dulcimer), a Scottish percussionist and an English bass player. If you want to listen to their music go to http://www.lightinbabylon.com/de/

The band “Light in Babylon” Foto: Diren Duzgun

As in former years exhibitions during the festival explored locations in the Jewish quarter and the “Christengasse” usually not regularly open for the public, like basements, attics and stables, or houses about to be restored. This year we opened the Mikvah, the Jewish ritual bath to the artists Ursula Dünser and Karin Nussbaumer. Their installation invited visitors to immerse their wishes, put on paper in all languages, into a water tub and to see how all their writings blend together, coloring the water ever more blue. Let’s hope their wishes are nice – and come true…

Art installation by Ursuala Dünser and Karin Nussbaumer in the old Mikvah

While we still enjoy the memories of this year’s Emsiana Najem Wali already travelled to the Iraq again, invited by the German news magazine “Der Spiegel”. He is still dreaming of an Iraq that will match with his childhood memories of Amara, the little multi-cultural town on the banks of the Tigris.

The banks of the Tigris in Amara


The Female Side of God

Foto: Dietmar Walser

… discovered in Hohenems

On a sunny day in April the Jewish Museum Hohenems opened its gates for a new exhibition that poses a challenging question:
Is it possible to view the—according to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition—“one and only God” as other than male?

Foto: Dietmar Walser

In the biblical Book of Genesis 1:27, it says: “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

What is this idea of God about who appears as „us“ when it comes to the creation of men, a God creating man and woman together, before the „first Eva“ (later called Lilith) strangely disappears from the holy scriptures – because she did not want to follow Adams orders? – and a second one is created from his rib, now clearly meant to be not equal to him. What happened to the inherent pluralism, suppressed but never totally disappeared?

Foto: Dietmar Walser

So we decided to confront the monolithic image of „God without image“ with surprisingly ambivalent insights into the creation of God and its conception as a male power. Working together with Felicitas Heimann-Jelinek and Michaela Feurstein-Prasser, the two curators from Vienna, with whom we already have a longstanding collaboration, was an intellectual adventure, discovering new dimensions. And the enthusiastic coverage the exhibition received so far, proved that endeavor being fruitful.

Foto: Dietmar Walser

The exhibition „The Female Side of God“ —a project of the Jewish Museum Hohenems in cooperation with the Museum of the Bible, Washington DC, and the Jewish Museum Frankfurt am Main—thus takes a critical look at concepts of God in the Abrahamic religions. It also addresses the impact of these notions on traditional religious and social practice and the self-assertive attempts to break out of these roles.

Foto: Dietmar Walser

In the Ancient Near East, female deities were usually perceived in close conjunction with their male partners. And vice versa. This is also reflected in the formation of Yahwism. The old “Israel”, before the Babylonian Exile, was much less strictly monotheistic as regularly admitted. The prophets were not only fighting against the “idols” of other people and cultures, but particularly against the still vivid worshipping of a plurality of gods and goddesses among their “own people”. It took hundreds and hundreds of years till, already in Exile and long after the mythical heroes of Abraham and Moses, David and Salomon, the ideas of Judaism and the formulation of a “god without image” was codified. Judaism as we know it, was never a “states religion”. It was never meant for being in power.

Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser

And although strict rejection of anthropomorphic images of God proscribed the question of concrete gender attribution, in the monotheistic world religions, the notion of God “the Lord” was clearly defined as male. And this male definition was even taken further by Christianity and Islam.

The possibility of a sexually—sometimes more, sometimes less—female-defined dimension of God still flashes up in the Hebrew Bible, in extracanonical writings, and in rabbinic literature. Especially in Jewish mysticism, it lives on explicitly—only to be rediscovered in the 20th century with momentous consequences.

The exhibition casts a glance at the sources that generated the monotheistic notion of God, at its cultural tradition in writing and imagery. It scrutinizes ideas of the female as negative antithesis to the male, and presents Jewish and other women who have been and still keep searching for their own dimensions of the divine—also in their artistic examinations of traditional notions of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser

The exhibition, magically designed in silver and blue by Martin Kohlbauer, is after all not about theory, but a joyful, sensual and intellectual voyage of discovery: to the goddess Aschera, the old Israelites offered too, whatever their prophets and leaders thought about it, to a statue of Maria, covering God in her womb. From the demonized Lilith, who was turned into the image of a female snake, either trying to kill the Jewish newborns, or to seduce Eva with the apple – reaching to kabbalistic attempts to portray (and heal) the order of the world, of God in its male and female emanations, to reassemble the sparks of the divine, exiled in the world. And also to the practice of women trying to engage themselves in the service of God, whatever men would say about it. Not to forget the poignant comments on all that by contemporary female artists, who open up the discourse to our own fantasies and thoughts.

Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser
Foto: Dietmar Walser

Behind the overt theme of gender the exhibition, and this became clear more and more in the process of the making, is not only questioning the role of the sexes in the idea of God, that support the positions of power and the control of resources in religion and society. It also sheds light on the growing fundamentalism in all three monotheistic religions. It asks naughty questions about how religions define the “other” by excluding “the female side of God”, how images of enemies are possible, how religious zealots of all “tribes” forget the common roots and kill the hope for an egalitarian society.

Rabbi Bea Wyler – in her inspiring opening speech – brought that all down to her Jewish upbringing and her own discovering of spiritual dimensions by asking insistent questions, step by step dismantling her initial image of God, that so much resembled the performance of her dentist, a bearded and all-knowing male power, who was definitely also causing pain.

More information you find online, also about the catalogue, beautifully designed by Roland Stecher and Thomas Matt. Enjoy!


Current Exhibition

Purim celebration in Hohenems? Purim in Hohenems!

Purim Parade 2017, passing by the old synagogue

The last time, Purim was celebrated in Hohenems might have been, when Jewish DPs from Eastern Europe lived in Hohenems after 1945 for a short while. But from archival sources we know that in the 19th century Purim was joyfully celebrated in Hohenems, regularly both in local pubs and on the street.

This was also the case in 1811, when the Jewish carnival was celebrated with a parade from the Jewish quarter in the center to the public Bath building in the southern part of the town – and back. Christians participated, some helping out with collecting the entrance fee for the masked ball, others offering pastry and other bakery goods. And a music band around bassist Rick came from Bregenz to entertain the guests of the festivity in the “Old Post” pub. We know all that from the police protocols. Why?

Purim Parade 2017

The officers had to interfere, when local hoodlums from Bregenz – in fact they were civil servants and other members of the better society – came to disturb the feast. When the parade came by they accused the participants – Seligman Bloch in particular, wearing a Bavarian toll officers uniform – of making a mockery of official symbols. Well that’s exactly what the carnival is about, also the Christian one taking place a few days earlier every year. But what’s allowed for Christians might not be for their Jewish neighbors?

After enjoying beer in the tavern of the brewery, the drunkards from Bregenz (among them a forest ranger and an accountant, a court servant, a pharmacist and a lawyer) went to the “Old Post” and started a brawl. The double bass of Mr. Rick was the first victim, but also the two Jewish teachers got hurt, Mayer Brezfeld and Simon Drach, who tried to calm down the offenders.

In the end the gang from Bregenz was arrested. But never sentenced.

Purim 2017: Dancing in the old Jewish school
Purim 2017: Haman on the camera. Or is it Mordechai?
Purim 2017: Welcome in the Jewish Museum
Purim 2017: Vampires among us

When two weeks ago the Jewish community of Tirol and Vorarlberg, with a little help from the Jewish museum, celebrated Purim again in Hohenems, there were no hoodlums to disturb the party, but a lot of humor in place. Again, Christian locals participated in the festival, this time in masks of all kind themselves. Among them museum staff and friends from association, and neighbors from the Jewish quarter. And a descendant of the Hirschfeld family, living in Bregenz, won the prize for the best mask.

Purim 2017: Waiting for the Jury appointing the best mask of the year
Purim 2017: A star is born

The memory of the Jews of Persia, saved by Esther’s and Mordechai’s courage from the extermination, plotted against them by the evil grand vizier Haman, was celebrated with decent irony. With good music, both life and in the disco, installed in the Federmann auditorium in the old Jewish school, great Jewish food served by the Moritz restaurant in the same building – and a lot of high quality Vodka, helping us to fulfill the religious demand to drink enough, “until one cannot tell between the damned Haman and the blessed Mordechai”.

Purim 2017: Reading from the Esther scroll
Purim 2017: still able to tell that’s Haman we talk about

The reading of the Esther scroll became a world premiere though: recited by various participants in all the local dialects surrounding us in Vorarlberg, Switzerland, Austria and Southern Tirol, spiced with some Russian and Israeli accents and my own hometowns idiom, the Frankfurt dialect…

Now everybody is waiting for the next Purim party in Hohenems.

The Wisdom of the Hohenems Diaspora: Christopher Brauchli and his Blog

You expect to read here something about the „famous Hohenemsers“ of the past? Well, if you look around you find the wisdom of the Hohenems Diaspora also in our contemporary world.

Its fun to organize a Reunion of Hohenemser descendants – living all over the globe. Because doing this you run into wonderful people like Christopher Brauchli, a retired lawyer in Boulder Colorado, and descendant of the Reichenbach family. He was president of the Boulder and Colorado Bar Associations and served on various bar and Colorado Supreme Court Committees throughout his legal career.

But he is a great blogger too! Both on Huffington Post and on his own one: „The Human Race and Other Sports“ presents lucid and sometimes breathtaking political commentary and satire. Unfortunately its a good time for satire in the US today. As good times for satire very often are bad times for the human race – and the race for something human.

What makes it into the news is indeed only the tip of the iceberg. If you want to learn more about the daily ration of poison the Trump administration and its entourage is bringing about – please find some insight into the abyss here. Something only digestible with Brauchli’s unbeatable and poignant black humor.


If you want to get that regularly too, you can subscribe here:


33 Revolutions in Warsaw

Waiting for the Jewkbox! Photo: Magda Starowieyska

Last week our „Jewkbox“-exhibition opened in Warsaw. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, POLIN, presents our exhibition for the next four months in the Polish capital. And the show became the talk of the town immediately.

Gazeta Wyborcza, the liberal newspaper devoted no less than 5 pages to it, the most popular television host of Polish breakfast TV came for an interview, national and local news were running around, and masses of people appeared in the giant lobby of the Museum to attend the opening last Thursday.

The Jewtube Lounge at POLIN. Photo: Magda Starowieyska


Here are a few assumptions: Jewkbox is presenting a global story from a Jewish angle and a Jewish story from a global perspective. It is presenting the diasporic state of mind and its productivity – focusing on Jewish experience and not on any fixed, substantial identity. And it makes – rather implicitly – a statement about cultural productivity in general. It locates cultural productivity on the margins of societies, nations, ethnic groups, religions… It tells stories about migrants and refugees, rebels against traditions, about cultural transfer and re-invention, about the emerging of the „popular“ from the peripheries. It tells about the simple fact, that exactly what very often is considered to be the expression of „the people“ mostly came from outsiders, from those fighting for recognition, from those who question the cultural traditions, from those who connected the particular with the universal, from those who had the greatest desire to be loved, instead of being oppressed, persecuted, or expulsed. The Warsaw Museum, Tamara Sztyma in particular, did a wonderful job in extending our show with a large presentation of Polish interwar musical culture, a portrait of a time when cultural influence from all over the world merged with Polish traditions, and Jewish artists where leading figures of show business all over the country. Poland after WWI had been back on the political map, but also on the map of world cultures.

The real thing. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

This Polish story is wonderfully presented in a new, richly illustrated and highly informative supplement catalog, produced for the Warsaw presentation of the show (bilingual in Polish and English). I can only recommend to go for it.

Our catalogue got a baby. Sweet.

A music club, presenting new Jewish music in Poland today, was installed in a separate space only to be entered from the Jewkbox show. So, letting the visitors step on the stage of this installation from the back, it also turns the visitor into the performer, and the grand show into the backstage area of a music club. The drums are ready to start playing.

And in the middle of our show now there is not only the Jewtube lounge waiting for guests to relax, watch, and chat – there is also a world map of popular music, telling the story of global musical culture in 33 revolutions.

Walking on the wild side. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

Being in Warsaw for a few days is always a very mixed experience. Personally for me its getting closer to a lost element of my own history. My grandfather once was among those emigrating from Polish Galicia to Germany, leaving behind family, traditions, religion and a narrow world that was doomed – only to end in Lemberg to be shot by the Nazis, together with a few thousand others, in the fall of 1941, while his daughter met my father on the shores of Tel Aviv… Much of Warsaw reminds me to this void.

Once almost completely wiped out by Nazi German forces the capital is far from being a particular charming metropolis. Its small old city was reconstructed from scratch – as an attempt to resurrect its heart from the ashes. But around that the monumental blocks and vast “boulevards” of Stalinist hybris, 1960s modernism and capitalistic endeavor after 1989 blend together in not the most favorable way. And between this structures wonderful people try to find their own path into a future nobody can tell. The presence though is rather gloomy.

Expert talk at the opening. But everybody is an expert.

The right wing government tries to create an illusion called “Poland” that resides mainly on definitions what Poland is NOT: Poland is not Russia, Poland is not Germany, Poland is not the EU, Poland is no place for refugees, Poland is no place for immigrants, Poland is not the Jews, Poland is not an inclusive place, Poland is … Poland. And when it comes to define what Poland is – it comes to the heroic image of a Poland that always fights to be Poland, against the rest of the world and against all odds. So lets make Poland great again and think about what could make it a good place on earth later or never.

I actually did not meet anybody in Warsaw who shares these xenophobic views. The new government though found enough voters elsewhere. So most people I know are hovering between depression and a good old Polish sentiment: the evil powers come and go, and we stay – even if the evil powers are elected from our own midst. Tamara’s opening speech was a clear expression of resistance against the prevailing nationalism and isolation. And it was obvious how much it moved herself and the crowd listening to this.

Tamara Sztyma speaking at the opening. Photo: Magda Starowieyska

While the government of the country starts to censor the cultural production, while the ministry is firing critical theater directors and heads of cultural institutions, promotes mediocrity and nationalism in the arts, while the government threatens the freedom of press and media and step by step is killing the independent role of justice, the Jewish Museum in Warsaw seems to be an island in the storm. It seems obvious: the government does not dare (yet?) to open up conflict about this so much internationally observed and connected institution. Do they save this prey for later? But it is unfair to return from this Warsaw journey with such depressing thoughts.

In the night of the opening – and in the light of its success – there is also the feeling that there is a civil society in Poland that fights back. “Poland is Not Yet Lost”. A country that chooses these lyrics for its national anthem indeed can go through a lot. And the claim of the museum is a simple one: that Poland was strong and “great” when it was inclusive, multicultural and open for others. When it was a crossroad of cultures and influences, when it did not seclude itself from the rest of the world. There is still something puzzling to me, something “patriotic” about the way this claim is brought forward in the permanent show of the museum. It still appeals to a “polish soul” that wants Poland to be great. But at least that’s a greatness that opens the arms and is not closing the doors. Lets for now take it for generosity. That’s the greatness of those who don’t confuse greediness and megalomania with “strength”. The evening in Warsaw was a celebration of generosity.

Poland is not lost at all. Or we are all lost. Jewkbox is offering a few ideas for possible revolutions. Take a nice vinyl record and play it. You will have even 33 (and a half to be precise) revolutions per minute.

The Jewtube Lounge from above. Photo: Magda Starowieyska
This is actually producing sound? Photo: Magda Starowieyska

Wisdom of the Hohenems Diaspora: Moritz Julius Bonn

The Brunner House about 1920

He still deserves a rediscovery: the liberal intellectual and cosmopolite Moritz Julius Bonn. Born 1873 into a bankers family in Frankfurt and son of Elise Brunner from Hohenems he spent most of his childhood summers with his grandfather Marco Brunner in Hohenems. (His own father Julius Philipp Bonn died, when he was four.)

Moritz Julius Bonn became one of the most elaborate thinkers of free trade and liberal economy in the late German Empire and the Weimar republic – and a democrat by heart.
Bonn studied in London and became professor in Munich, before he spent three years of teaching in the US, from 1914 to 1917. His publications about the USA tried to foster understanding between Germany and the US, even during WW1, starting with “Amerika als Feind” (America as an Enemy) in 1917 and “Was will Wilson?” (What Does Wilson Want) in the same year, to the books “Die Kultur der Vereinigten Staaten” (The Culture of the United States) and “Prosperity. Wunderglaube und Wirklichkeit im amerikanischen Wirtschaftsleben” (Prosperity. Believing in Wonders and Reality in the American Economic Life) in 1930 and 1931 – but also in his seminal book “The Crisis of European Democracy” from 1925.

Moritz Julius Bonn now being the head of the Berlin University of Trade was fired in 1933 by the Nazis and emigrated to London. 1939 he started teaching in the US again for another seven years, but also advocating the US entering the war against Nazi Germany. Still he never cut his bonds with Germany and Austria completely. In his autobiography “Wandering Scholar” he did not only describe his life between the nations and political systems but also his childhood memories from Frankfurt and Hohenems. At that time he still – together with a few cousins – owned the Brunner House in Hohenems, that for time being, around 1950, served as a Talmud school for orthodox Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe. But now – on the day an american president starts to execute his war on free trade – lets listen to Moritz Julius Bonn, offering us an insight into the Hohenems he enjoyed as a child around 1880 – and how it informed his world views…

An Atmosphere Hostile to Customs

“The journey to Hohenems was inconvenient. It went via Stuttgart and Ulm to Lake Constance, and at that time took almost a day or an entire night: there were no sleeping cars on that stretch of the line. From Friedrichshafen the train went to Bregenz, where we passed through Austrian customs. In Austria the duty on sugar, coffee and the like was very high at that time. It was customary to smuggle a little sugar, coffee or embroidery in from Switzerland. With the many petticoats worn by the ladies, it was always possible to slip in an extra set without it making you conspicuous. I grew up in an atmosphere hostile to customs and I’ve never been clear in my own mind whether my attitude to free trade derived from this, or from textbooks about traditional national economics. The train journey from Bregenz to Hohenems took another hour. At the station we were greeted by Herr Weil, the porter, with a long, flowing white beard. He had such a kind smile that one of my little cousins once went straight up to him and asked: “Are you dear God?” Then we were packed into a roomy landau pulled by two ponderous white horses, and four weeks of bliss lay ahead of us.

View into the Jewish Quarter about 1920. The Brunner House in the center.

The Brunner house still stands on the main street of the town: before the rise of the Nazis it had been called Marco-Brunner-Straße after my grandfather. It was built in 1770, and looks like a superior townhouse, with three and a half storeys.

The highlight of the house was our playroom. It faced south and west, overlooking the courtyard and the garden. We had to go through the kitchen with its gleaming copper saucepans, and at least twice a week the smell of freshly roasted coffee wafted through. In Austria as it was then nobody talked about coffee beans. All coffee was coffee – with a little fig coffee and half a teaspoon of chicory added for flavor.

The playroom had a strawberry-colored tiled stove, and in its vents we cultivated silkworms. They needed an even temperature, and the greedy little creatures always kept us busy as we had to pick mulberry leaves for them. Grandmother had brought the love of rearing silkworms with her from her home town of Bolzano.
From the south-facing windows we looked out on the Säntis, the Churfirsten and the Drei Schwestern in nearby Switzerland; even on the hottest summer days the mountaintops were covered in snow. Behind the house there was a large square courtyard paved with cobblestones, enclosed on two sides by stables and the woodshed. Facing the street, there was a small front garden adjoining the house; on the west side was the start of a big orchard and vegetable garden, and a passageway covered with vines led to an arbor. Then there were meadows where a garden house with a beautiful garden room stood. That is where I used to put my first literary efforts down on paper.

The Brunner House about 1945.

Grandfather was a small-scale farmer. We kept a few cows that supplied the household with milk; butter and cheese we bought. We had enough hay for the cows and horses. Oats, bran and turnips had to be bought in. In the early spring Grandfather took on a couple of young oxen which were disposed of again in the autumn. In the courtyard, beside the woodshed – we had a little spinney – , the hens cackled and sometimes a few ducks waddled. An itinerant pedlar came regularly with a pack basket and brought us chicks, and every week a fisherman appeared carrying a small container on his back with live trout; we put them into the trough by the fountain, which bubbled day and night. Life was simple, but richly varied. The local shops made a poor impression, and delicacies were unobtainable.

The contrast to my life in Frankfurt could not have been more complete. Grandfather was not sociable and wanted to be left alone with his family. His only regular intercourse was his daily visit to a little café where he went after lunch – we ate at twelve – and played “tarock” (a card game using tarot cards) for an hour with old acquaintances.
The holidays in Vorarlberg strengthened my Austrian inclinations which memories of Frankfurt had aroused.
Grandfather hated the Prussians and particularly Prussian compulsory military service, like every good Austrian. He had spent the greater part of his working life in Switzerland and wanted me to emigrate there to escape the hated military conscription. I often went to St. Gallen, where my Uncle Luzian Brunner had taken over from my grandfather. There from my earliest youth on I had “living democracy” before my eyes. Of course I hated the playing at soldiers aspect of Prussian militarism. But in St. Gallen I learnt that the weapon can be a pledge of freedom, and does not have to be a tool of suppression. It often amused me when my north German friends discussed Austria or Switzerland from the viewpoint of summer holiday-makers. For many of them Swiss hotels and democracy were the same thing. The expertise of the Swiss hotel director of course made a deep impression on them. If ever someone somewhere were to want to set up a perfectly functioning socialist state, they would in fact be well advised to put it under Swiss hotel management.

The Brunner House hosting the Talmud school “Beth Shmuel”. Abt 1948.

The Jewish community in Hohenems had an elementary school which was highly reputed throughout the province. It was so good and so liberal that an administrative objection was required to close its doors to the non-Jewish population. (…) It is in itself a social disadvantage to belong to a small, unpopular religious community. However, the consciousness of being somehow different from most of your contemporaries offers a certain compensation. You are forced to look at nations and times from a broader perspective. It prevents you from letting yourself be swept along by the passion of the crowd that you would like to be part of, yet cannot quite be part of; but it gives you a kind of inner inviolability. You can easily break away from outmoded traditions and do not have to purchase personal freedom through breaking with the society you are born into; you see no obstacles in front of you that you might not have the strength to overcome; you do not hover between heaven and hell, between sin and salvation, and can become free without having to wear a martyr’s crown.”

The Jewish Quarter abt 1950. the Brunner House on the right.


From: Moritz Julius Bonn, So macht man Geschichte, Munich 1953, pp. 26-29. The slightly different English edition was already published four years earlier: Moritz Julius Bonn: Wandering Scholar, London 1949.

Postcript: The rediscovery of Moritz Julius Bonn is on its way. In 2015 the Hamburg Institute for Social Research organised an international conference “Liberal Thinking in the Crisis of the Epoch of World Wars: Moritz Julius Bonn”. We very much hope that the results will be published.


Wisdom of the Hohenems Diaspora: Stefan Zweig

A few lines from Zweig’s Manuscript – that we exhibited in our show “The First Europeans” in 2014 as a loan from the Library of Congress

We are working on a library of descendants. Preparing ourselves for the Reunion in July this year we searched our files for the books of the Hohenems descendants – and we extend our collection. While we do this we look back into waht we found already, and from to time will share this with you. Let’s start with Stefan Zweig and his memoirs The World of Yesterday. Memories of a European, written in his years of Exile, before he committed suicide with his last companion Lotte Altmann in Petropolis, Brazil, in February 1942.
He had begun with this project in 1934, but was working on it seriously in the last years of his life, when he lived in Great Britain and then in New York (using the Library of Congress in Washington as a major source) and finally in Brazil. His remarks about his Hohenems family is full of irony.

This Kind of Nobility

My mother whose maiden name was Brettauer was of a different, international descent. She had been born in Ancona, in southern Italy, and Italian was as much her childhood language as German; always when she was discussing something with my grandmother or her sister that the servants should not understand she switched to Italian. Risotto and artichokes which were still a rarity at the time as well as the other specialties of Mediterranean cooking were familiar to me from my earliest childhood, and whenever I later went to Italy, I immediately felt at home.

But my mother’s family were by no means Italian, rather they were consciously international; early on the Brettauers, who originally owned a banking business, had spread out across the world from Hohenems, a small place on the Swiss border – following the model of the great Jewish banking families, but of course on a much more modest scale. Some went to St. Gallen, others to Vienna and Paris, my grandfather to Italy, one uncle to New York, and these international contacts gave them more polish, a wider outlook, and a certain family arrogance into the bargain. (…)
As a large-scale industrialist my father was certainly respected, but my mother, though very happily married to him, would never have tolerated his relations being put on a par with hers. This pride in coming from a “good” family was ineradicable in all the Brettauers, and when in later years one of them wanted to show me special goodwill, he would say condescendingly, “But you really are a true Brettauer”, as if wanting to say in recognition: “You came down on the right side.”
This kind of nobility which many a Jewish family assumed on its own authority amused me and my brother even as children, and soon annoyed us too. Again and again we got to hear that these people were “refined” and those “unrefined”, enquiries were carried out into every friend to see if he came from a “good” family and checks were made down to the last detail about the origin both of his relations and their fortune. This constant classification which actually formed the main topic of every family and social conversation at that time struck us as extremely ridiculous and snobbish, because when it came down to it, in the case of all Jewish families, they had emerged from the same Jewish ghetto by only a matter of fifty or a hundred years earlier. (…)
It is generally assumed that becoming rich is the real and typical life ambition of a Jewish person. Nothing could be more wrong. For him becoming rich means only an intermediate stage, a means towards the true purpose and in no way the inner goal. (…) Even the wealthiest man will prefer to give his daughter to a desperately poor intellectual than to a merchant. (…) even the poorest pedlar dragging his wares through wind and bad weather will try to let at least one son study, making the most extreme sacrifices, and it is regarded as an honorific title for the whole family to have someone in their midst who is visibly highly regarded in the intellectual field, a professor, a scholar, a musician, as if he ennobled them all through his achievements.

From: Stefan Zweig, Die Welt von gestern. Bermann-Fischer Verlag, Stockholm 1944, pp. 23-25.

Postcard of Stefan Zweig to his aunt Erna Brettauer, from his new home in Salzburg, 1915