On Food, Family, Philosophy… and Borders

Our fall season at the museum began with a charming collaboration. The art festival “on site” came to Hohenems for the second time, enchanting the town with unexpectedly mind-blowing projects of young artists. Including a hip hop workshop with Aaron the dancer in the Sulzer auditorium, the former synagogue. One event took place in the museum, where Renate Burger from Vienna hosted a multiethnic dinner buffet, with various food traditions that have made their way into Hohenems and Vorarlberg during centuries of immigration: Austrian dishes, Turkish delights, Jewish recipes and memories of Syrian refugees who are arriving today. A particular pleasure for us was Burger’s interest in the recipe books the museum obtained from the Landauer-Bollag family, who once ran the inn “Happy Prospect,” which was next to the synagogue but not particularly kosher. Visitors in the museum always stumble into one of their last ads in the local newspaper, shown in the exhibition display, that invited the guests to a traditional “Schlachtpartie” with blood sausages—and a pigs head shown as the eye catcher. The Landauers weren’t orthodox, but almost nobody of the Jewish community in Hohenems was observant by their time.

The Landauer cook books are full of traditional Austrian and Swiss recipes, including many sweets and desserts. The family started their business in the 1830s as the first Jewish bakers allowed to the artisans guild. When baker Joseph Landauer married Jeanette Winkler from Frankonia, her endowment included a spoon with the inscription “chalav” (milky), made for a kosher kept household. But times were changing. Traditional Jewish recipes in the cookbooks of the beginning 20th century focussed on one traditional event of the year: Pessach and the variations of all you can do with Mazze and Mazzoballs. Turning the pages you also find all kind of recipes for “Zürcher Rahmgeschnetzeltes” (Veal in cream sauce) or, proceeding into the 1950s, Shrimp cocktails and other things, from a traditional perspective definitely regarded as “treife”…

Renate Burger, interested in the history and philosophy of food, studied the cook books carefully—and given the season far from Pessach she choose puddings and cakes and cookies, that occupied the sweet half of the Buffet for our guests on a beautiful September evening at the museum. Among the guests were Liliane and Nicole Bollag from Widnau, just across the Rhine. Two more generations of food enthusiasts from the Landauer-Bollag family, who still keep keeping recipe books, even though they no longer run an inn. Nicole lives in Melbourne, Australia, today—but visits her mother every year. At this event, she enjoyed some of her family’s recipes for the first time in her life.

The Bollags with Renate Burger.
The Bollags with Renate Burger.

Her grandmother Jenny Landauer had luckily married a Swiss Jew, Jakob Bollag, and after 1936 succesfully started a production of raincoats and ski jackets in a village five kilometers west of Hohenems. Across the Rhine they were safe from the events taking place next to them beginning in 1938. Jenny’s brother, Ivan, the last Jewish inn keeper of Hohenems who wasn’t shy to serve and enjoy blood sausages, escaped to his sister in Switzerland, but wasn’t granted asylum by the Swiss authorities, like so many other fellow refugees. After years of desperate attempts to receive a visa from any state in the world—from South America to the U.S. to Palestine to East Asia—he was taken in a Swiss internement camp and died with a heart disease in 1943.


The Hohenems refugee band
The Hohenems refugee band

Borders and refugees formed a thematic focus of the young artists’ projects presented during the Festival. It coincided with a second cultural event, “transmitter,” which has a long tradition in Hohenems as a venue of independent music and radical art, or cultural expressions of marginalized people. This time the Hohenems “refugee band” (with refugees from Syria or Irak) performed on the “Schlossplatz” at the city’s festival of diversity, playing Arab and Kurdish music and … a song in Hebrew. An artist group show in the premises of Collini, the major manufacturing company in Hohenems, included a touching series of photographic works by  a Turkish-Austrian artist, Songül Boyraz, portraying Syrian refugee kids playing “home and family” in the rubble of a poor residential quarter in Istanbul. The Collinis themselves came to Hohenems as poor Italian immigrants who specialized in knife sharpening, a traditional ambulant profession.

Artist Michail Michailov in the improvised Collini art space.
Artist Michail Michailov in the improvised Collini art space.
Photos by Songül Boyraz.
Photos by Songül Boyraz.

Today, they are one the biggest European players in the field of metal surface improvement, operating branches in many European countries including Russia. And they know that they owe a lot of their success to their skilled Turkish workers and proudly take their own responsibility for integration in society.

Walking down from the company’s Hohenems headquarters to the old Rhine—once the arena of desperate and in 1938 still very often succesful attempts of Jewish refugees to enter Switzerland—the participants were invited to enter a “banana republic” between the borders. Where the fate of refugees was once decided and where locals today enjoy swimming in the old Rhine (now a tranquille branch of the river that was straightended in the 1920s and since then flows three kilometers west of its old bed), we found bananas everywhere and a sign welcoming people who would “incite open dialogue.”

We had our own bananas in our hands (we were told to do so) and after walking along the river and crossing the border into Switzerland (illegally, but nobody cares) we were surprised by the artist, standing on the Swiss side of the waters in her improvised out door kitchen, offering us to turn our banana in to a banana pan cake. Back again on the Austrian side, her colleague welcomed us with the disarming charm of the words “Hi, I am Lucy, at least today I call me so”. Prepared with a box of books about the philosophy and sociology of borders, and a perfectly staged naiveté “Lucy” drove us into a substantial discussion of the simple question: do we need borders? And if so why and for what? We had time for this. Weren’t we waiting for our banana pancake to arrive? It did, in a basket hanging on an improvised ropeway spanned over the waters. It tasted awfully good.


Now in October, we were invited by Liliane Bollag for a new years dinner on Eref Rosh Hashana. Liliane still knows her recipes by heart. She does not care what the season is, so we began the evening with a hearty mazzoball soup.

Houses of life

I have an appointment on the Jewish Cemetery of Trieste. Livio Vasieri, the archivist of the Jewish community wants to help me with the graves of the Hohenemser tribes who settled here in the 19th century. The cemetery on the peaceful hill of Santa Anna borders the Greek Orthodox cemetery and the Protestant one. The British have their military cemetery around the corner. And to the south, the Catholic occupies the greatest part of the hill. Naturally.

Behind the gate Livio opens for me, a jungle is waiting, with all the glory of remembrance the dearest ones of a saturated middle class and a grand bourgeois culture could expect.

On the left, the mausoleum of the Morpurgos occupies the primary position. Next to it lies the mausoleum of the Morpurgo de Nilma, who proudly exhibit their Egyptian heritage, after a few generations spending their life along the Nile. The grandeur is striking, as is the relaxed willingness to leave all this grandeur to the pace of time and the organic energy of a forest, which is slowly taking over control of the site, season by season.

Livio is still mastering the territory, finding the small markers on the ground that indicate the different compounds of the graveyard, even if he has to use his big brush in order to clean them from dust and falling leaves. I had given him the names of the families I am looking for, the Brettauers, Bernheimers, the Menz and the Brunners, when we met the day before in the breathtaking synagogue of Trieste.

Annalisa di Fant from the Jewish Museum gave me a tour through this house of prayer, which looks like a film set for a monumental tale of pharaohs and slaves. Only this time the somewhat excessive structure in the middle of everybody’s view serves the once oppressed, celebrating their liberation—and the tora, the law. Annalisa is happy to show me around and we exchange ideas for future cooperation.

I also run into Ariel Haddad, a Lubawitscher who has taken care of the Jewish museum for years. He is keeping his good humor, even if the liberal Jews of Trieste might not be exactly his cup of tea, with their synagogue with its giant organ and the women sitting downstairs along the men, separated only by a very transparent paravent.

But the master of the cemetery is Livio, the archivist. Without him I wouldn’t have a chance. The cemetery is not only infinitely beautiful, it’s also infinite. Some 12,000 gravestones are closely scattered in the growing forest. To find the single stones is a mystery, and even Livio has to consult the lists he brought from the archives. Maybe in a few years things will be slightly easier. Our colleagues from the Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt started to work this spring on a documentation of the Trieste cemetery, publishing some images on the internet. This time I have to do my own photographs—of “our crowd” —for our genealogy projects.

Sometimes a family occupied a mini-compound for its own kind, surrounded by a now rusty fence. The Brunners did this when they settled in Trieste. They would soon become successful in textile trade, banking and insurance companies, helping to turn the port of Trieste into the hub of the Hapsburg Empire’s trade in the Mediterranean in the 19th century. The same is true for the Brettauers, the Bernheimers, and the Menz. It’s the story of all their energy and commitment, and their willingness to take risks.

The Hohenemsers were forced to take such risks. When only the eldest son of a family was granted the official permission to marry and to start a new family (or better to continue the existing family and their title of residence in the town of Hohenems) the other children had no chance but to emigrate and leave for good. Their outlook for creating some business elsewhere was uncertain.

The Brunners (and the Menz) both made their imprint on the histories of the Generali and the Riunione, with much of the Banca Commerciale Triestina and other success stories that survived the end of the empire and the Italian takeover in 1918. The Brunner’s private houses still bear their traces. Walking with Giancarlo Stavro along the glorious palaces of commerce in the “Theresian” quarter of the center—with its rectangular grid of streets and its attempt to even triumph over its Viennese originals—he points here and there. And everywhere there is a Brunner story to tell. Meeting him and Helen Brunner (his cousin around a few corners) is a particular pleasure—and a school of irony. The twisted fate of Trieste—and also of Trieste’s Jewish families, thrown in between of belongings and loyalties—is indeed an experience better to take with some irony.

The story of how the Brunners survived the Holocaust has yet to be written. Some made it to Switzerland to join relatives there, only to return after the war. Some emigrated to England. Others survived in Italy. Only Egone Brunner’s name on the huge memorial of Massimiliano Brunner’s family on the Jewish cemetery does not mark the place where he rests. He was deported and killed in 1944.

A few years before, Trieste seemed like a safe place still, a port on the way to freedom. In 1940, Filippo and Fanny Brunner received a visit from second cousins in Vienna. Three year-old Gertrude Rosenthal and her parents were escaping from Europe, and on their way to New York. Many years later Gertrude—now Susan Shimer and editor of the Newsletter of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum Hohenems—would tell about the very few memories of her six days in Trieste, waiting for the ship that would take them over the ocean. What mattered most to her: The smell and the taste of her first oranges she would never forget. When Jessica Piper started this blog a few months ago while staying in Hohenems, she also told me Susan’s story —Susan is her grandmother. Sometimes the things that connect people throughout generations are very simple and profound.

Meeting the eldest of the living Brunners, Elisabetta (Betty) Stavro, in her home for the elderly, with her 98 years fully present and awake, is an encounter with irony too, most profound and moving. When we enter the room, Elisabetta calls for her daughter, caring for her like any other mother, except her daughter has long since been a grandmother herself.

But Elisabetta—born in the year of the battles of the Isonzo and the Piave, the last battles of World War I —only needs a few minutes to turn her attention to her nephew Giancarlo and me. And learning the details about the reunion in Hohenems next year she takes my hand, and promises all sincere: “When I am still around next year I will come for sure.” We take that seriously, Elisabetta.

On the Banks of the Isonzo

We were on the way to Trieste, to meet the Brunners and other Hohenems descendants. But we made a stop over before we entered this promised land. We walked along the river, on the banks of the Isonzo, close before it ends in the Adriatic Sea. You couldn’t imagine a more peaceful site in bustling Italy. Today, a nature reserve on the Isola di Cano provides a retreat for thousands of birds, and horses from the Camargue. 100 years ago, between 1915 and 1917, the valley along the river was the scene of 12 bloody battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian empire. From the mountains down to the sea hundreds of thousands of soldiers—Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, French, British, Americans—fell victim to a war in which the front moved back and forth with no victors. Only in October 1918, when the Hapsburg empire fell apart, were the Italian troops able to overrun the collapsing Austrian Force—and Trieste became part of Italy after all.

Looking over the bay: Somewhere over there is Trieste.
Looking over the bay: Somewhere over there is Trieste.

Up the Isonzo a ways, Harry Weil, later the last cantor of the Hohenems community, fought his last battle in the war in 1917. As a “Tiroler Kaiserjäger” he had already participated in the battles of the Pasubio and the Cosmagon, Barolo Pass, Monte Majo and even the Three Peaks (Drei Zinnen) in the lovely Dolomites. He was fighting for his fatherland, the multiethnic empire, that appreciated and protected its Jewish subjects. At least emperor Franz Josef had said so. But in 1917 Franz Joseph was already dead. And in the upper Isonzo valley, near Flitsch (today Bovec in Slovenia), Harry Weil caught a bullet and had to leave the battlefield for good, severely injured.

A year earlier, another “Hohenemser” fell in the same war, but he was fighting on the other side. The fallen soldier’s father—Rudolf Brunner—had been loyal to the Hapsburgs, as were most Triestine elites, Jewish or not. The Brunners made their imprint on everything that was successful in Trieste, both culturally and economically. But the Brunner hero the city of Trieste is publicly celebrates—there is a street, a school and the barracks of a regiment named after him—is the fallen soldier who crossed the lines: Guido Brunner. As he was enlisting in university to study law in Bologna in 1915, he was called to arms to fight for Austria in the Carpathian Mountains, but decided to follow the Italian patriotism of his mothers side (the Jewish Segrè family). When he was caught by the Austrians and sentenced to death as a deserter, his Hapsburg loyal father Rudolf was able to convince the emperor to pardon and release him. The effort turned out to be in vain.

Commemorating the Hero: Via Guido Brunner in Trieste.
Commemorating the Hero: Via Guido Brunner in Trieste.

A few days after my own arrival in Trieste, Giancarlo Stavro told me the story of Guido with bitter humor. Taken back to the family’s Tuscan estate in Forcoli, the young man couldn’t wait to take away the car of his father and made it again to the Italian army. His time in the army would end in the battle of Monte Fior in the Veneto, north of Bassano del Grappa, in June 1916. His body was never found, only the one of his horse, Giancarlo reported with a smile.

Sitting with Giancarlo in the Café San Marco, working on the Hohenems genealogy.
Sitting with Giancarlo in the Café San Marco, working on the Hohenems genealogy.

The horse was buried in Forcoli. But the story wasn’t buried. Giancarlo recounted to me his own childhood memories of the visits in his great-grandfather’s villa in Forcoli in the 1950s, where the unmarked grave of the horse was the site of a daily routine of commemoration of the lost son of the family.

Merano’s European Jewish dreams – and a utopian glass of beer at 3000 meters

Traveling south from Hohenems you run into into the Italian city of Merano—the place where North meets the South. Palms everywhere along the promenade, and the surviving glory of another epoch: this spa town was once the hotspot of Hapsburg and German elites and intellectuals looking for a decent retreat with Italian flavor—without leaving the German speaking world. It also became a meeting place for Jews from all over, who spent their month-long vacations here (as it was the habit of urban middle and upper classes of the time).

But a growing number settled and lived here on a permanent basis, being part of a more or less informal Jewish community, formally represented by the “Landesrabbiner for Tyrol and Vorarlberg,” who until 1915 was also the Rabbi of Hohenems. But when Italy changed sides during World War I and annexed Southern Tyrol, Merano was cut from its former ties and the Jewish community also became Italian.

Today the town is occupied by German tourists who are enjoying “Südtirol” – with not a particular interest in the idea of “European culture,” The region is officially named “Alto-Adige / Südtirol,” and is subject to autonomy agreement that allows the existing German speaking majority in some of the valleys to enjoy there cultural ego, and whatever is needed for that. History is a minefield in this atmosphere of “compromise.” In the 1960s, Tyrolian separatists still threatened the Italian “rulers” with explosives. And in Bolzano, the accord between Italian Fascists and communist partisans (or better: their offspring) sometimes seem still more profound than between the “Germans” and the “Italians.”

Strolling around the town, we still see many of the belle epoch Hotels and sanatoriums that made the fortune of Merano. While the memory of two world wars still inhabits some of the population, the wars have not left any visible impact. There are only traces of 1920s and 1930s modernism—which in Italy means the better part of Italian Fascist architecture. When Merano became well-known between the 1860s and 1914 among the medical doctors and tourism developers, the founders of Hotels, brewers and railroad pioneers in Southern Tyrol and Bozen Jews from Hohenems and elsewhere played a decisive role. The Biedermans from Hohenems opened the first bank in Merano, and the Schwarz from Hohenems did the same in Bozen, in addition to starting a modern brewery and developing a railroads and funiculars which enabled the growing tourism to explore the smoother hilltops and sunny plateaus between the valley and the high mountains. Others like Dr. Rafael Hausmann invented the “grape cure” and turned the town into a European center of spa and “wellness” before the term was coined.

With the beginning of the new century, right in 1900, a synagogue was built in Merano. It was inaugurated by Rabbi Aron Tänzer from Hohenems in 1901. A sanatorium for poor Jews had already opened, the “Asyl für mittellose kranke Israeliten.”All this without a formal Jewish community but due to a foundation, the “Königswarter Stiftung,” started by the parents of a young Jewish student from Frankfurt who had died in Merano. They also installed a Jewish cemetery, so the basic institutions were able to accommodate the almost 1000 Jews living here around 1900 (many more than the members of the shrinking Hohenems community). And for the growing number of observant or even orthodox Jews (living in Merano or coming for vacation and cure) the Berman family offered a luxurious hotel, the Bellaria, with kosher food, a Mikvah and a second—orthodox—synagogue. For a short time, Merano was a kind of Jewish paradise.

Back in the present day, the small contemporary Jewish community has run a Jewish museum in the basement of the synagogue for almost twenty years. We enjoyed meeting longtime friends Joachim Innerhofer and Sabine Mayr, who today take care of this place. The permanent exhibition they “inherited” from community president Steinhaus, they know, is rather poor and outdated and there are some ideas in the air to start a new project. They already published a great new book about the history of the Jews in Merano. A new museum could turn the contested history of Merano (and the unique role of Jews in that history) into a starting point for new discourse about Europe—something desperately needed in times where the economic foundations of Europe seem to be only a matter of business, the essential and hard fought for European values of peace, solidarity and human rights seem to be worn out, and some pray for right wing populists to rebuild walls inside and outside of the European community once more. Whether there will be political support for bringing this little utopia of Jewish history in Merano to new life (even in a museum) is far from settled. But at least there is a new generation of politicians on both sides who do not completely follow the old ideologies.

When we climbed the slopes of the Ortler, with its 3900 meter once the highest peak of the Hapsburg Empire (and subject of battles in World War I), we entertained some of these utopian ideas in the low pressure of the mountain. And we still had enough breath for that, as we didn’t meant it to serious with the “climbing”, ending our hike just over 3000 meter in the wonderful “Payer Cabin” with a glass of beer.

On Memory, Money and Modern Life

A week ago I visited family in Frankfurt. There is not that much left of it, but apart from family there are still a lot of friends. Some of them, a family who I’ve known for more than 30 years, took me and my wife on a stroll to the latest “must see spots” of the city.

The European Central Bank is located by the riverside at the Frankfurt East End. There are open air cafés and youth sports grounds along the river, signs of the gentrification of an area that was once the heart of Frankfurt’s industry, transportation and storage in grand scale. Skate board enthusiast find refuge there, as does but anybody who wants to chill out, stroll around, or look for expensive housing.

Coming back to my friends, I know both of them from student politics. They became a family on their own, a little before I did the same. And their professional lives went to different direction from mine. Law, public finance, and business. A bit of another world. And still we never lost sight. We’d known each other 10 years when I learned of her family’s Jewish background, more by chance than by intention. It was not a subject to carry along in front of you. But it explained the mutual understanding of one or the other sensitive subject we’d had since we knew each other.

Some 20 years ago, my friend discovered her connection to the family named “Hohenemser,” that settled in Mannheim, founded a bank and partially moved to Frankfurt later. My friend is not a “descendant” herself. In Felix Jaffé’s genealogical universe—the one he introduced me to when I moved to Hohenems 12 years ago—she is something like a “very distant cousin.” When my friend got a huge genealogical collection of family charts from her mother, the frequency of the name “Hohenemser” made an impression on her. They became regular visitors in Hohenems.

This time, though, we were in Frankfurt. They took us on the promenade along the river—that so much informed my own childhood experiences—as well as the Main and its harbor.

The European Central Bank is a masterpiece of a skyscraper, following the deconstructionist design of the Coop Himmelblau architects from Vienna. It’s located right next to the former and truly giant Market Hall. The Frankfurt Market Hall was an icon of modernity in itself, built in 1928 by Martin Elsässer and functioning til 2004, when it became part of the future European Central Bank complex, which finally opened last year.

But there was a time when the Market Hall was not only delivering food— fruits, vegetables and meat to Frankfurts grocery shops—but human cattle for transport to the East. From October 1941 until February 1945, the deportations of Jews from Frankfurt to the camps and Ghettos began here in the market hall, where the deportees had to assemble  in the basement of the building and wait of their transport. A number of “very distant cousins” of the “Hohenemser” and other Hohenems families started their last journey from here. (The Jaffés, Felix’s Frankfurt-based part of his family already had left the town in the 1920s).


Last year—the same year the European Central Bank building opened—there also opened a memorial that reaches from within. Due to ECB security, visitors can only enter with special permits and elevated security standards, but passerby are drawn to the environment of the building and the story with inevitable curiosity. “What is written there?” a little girl asks her father as we walk by. To my disappointment, I was not able to follow their family discussion. I am a curious person, that’s one of my “deformations professionelle”—or the other way round: one of my weak points that put me on the track of museums.

I took a few photos of the outside portion of the memorial and the awesome scenery around it that puts everybody in a time machine between modernity, catastrophe and post-modernity with all its playfulness and contradictions. And then we went to a little boat house in a once proletarian swim club between the bushes (literally) and forgot about modern life.


One of the few German words I knew when I arrived in Hohenems was “danke,” which means thank you. It’s an important word, and one I used frequently. But, as I reflect on my time and prepare to leave Hohenems tomorrow, I also feel like it’s a word that I haven’t used enough.

Any list of the things and people that I ought to give thanks to will be incomplete, and I’m skeptical of my own ability to capture my gratitude in words. Still, I’m aiming for some semblance of closure and I would rather say “thank you” than “goodbye,” so here is a partial list:

Thank you to the entire Jewish Museum staff for welcoming me into their workplace. Thank you for the morning cups of tea, for making do with my language skills, and most importantly for giving me the opportunity to work and learn in a wonderful environment. Thank you especially to Hanno and Anika, for overseeing my work and finding tasks that fit my interests and abilities.

Thank you to each of my lovely host families for not only giving me a place to live, but treating me—a complete stranger—as one of their own. And thank you to their friends and extended families for welcoming me to their birthday parties and baptisms, their backyards and homes. It means a lot to be included.

Thank you to each of my host siblings for sharing their friends with me and giving me “people my own age” to hang out with. Thank you to my (exactly one year younger) host sister for also graciously sharing her birthday. Thank you to her brother who took me hiking that day (even if we sort of went the wrong way) and their mother who convinced me to go swimming (it was worth it) and made sure I had a gluten-free birthday cake.

Thank you to my younger host brother for the games of backyard football, the spray-on tattoos, and for teaching me how to count past ten. And thank you to his father, whose constant sense of humor never failed to make me laugh internally.

Thank you to my first host sister, who was my first point of contact in Hohenems beforehand, who told me not to be too scared about coming here and helped me meet people once I did arrive. Thank you to her friends for frequently switching into English on my behalf, and her father, who helped me find places to hike despite my terrible sense of direction.

Thank you to my first host mother, who valiantly attempted to teach me German and stayed up until an ungodly hour in case I needed a ride home the first time I went out on a Saturday night. Thank you to her son, who graciously tolerated my temporary occupation of his space and picked me up at the train station at another egregious hour after I’d gotten confused and missed my earlier train to Hohenems. And thank you to the several of his friends who gave me rides home on other very late nights.

Thank you to everyone who served as a translator for me, planned or impromptu, in the museum, a backyard, a nightclub or an ice cream shop—I would have been even more confused without you. Thank you to everyone who did talk with me in English (or Spanish) at various venues—I know that I’m the foreigner who didn’t learn your language, and I’m grateful you included me anyways. And thank you to everyone who invited me places, who met me and decided to offer food and wine and conversation, rather than saying “who is this girl and why can’t she talk?”

Thank you to the people with whom I didn’t share a language, but who nonetheless smiled, welcomed me, and treated me with respect. And thank you to all the young children who accepted my wild hand gestures and silly facial expressions as valid forms of communication.

Thank you to the various fellow foreigners I met, some of whom jarred me with their American accents, others who wowed me with their language abilities, and all of whom reminded me how complex and interconnected our world is. And thank you to the fellow Hohenems descendants and friends of the museum who visited or contacted me, from near or far—it was a pleasure to meet each one of you and I hope we stay in touch.

Thank you to each of the people who let me sleep on their spare mattresses and showed me around some pretty awesome European cities. And thank you to the Hohenems pharmacist, the Turkish vendor in Vienna, and the countless other strangers who will probably not be reading this blog, but who greatly helped me in one way or another.

Thank you to the American Friends of the Jewish Museum Hohenems for sponsoring my internship.

Danke, dass Sie sich Zeit genommen haben. Danke für Ihre Hilfe. Danke für Ihr Verständnis. Bis später.

(Still) Under Construction

When I arrived in Hohenems in early June, the museum’s street was under construction. Now, the area directly in front of the museum has been paved and the construction has moved a bit further down to the area in front of the Salomon Sulzer Saal.

Like many things I’ve experienced during my two months in Hohenems, construction is a process. At times it can be noisy and difficult, but the end result is usually something better.

With my own time in Hohenems coming to an end, there are a lot of things that I’ve worked on constructing. Some of them are complete; some will probably be left unfinished; some will hopefully be finished by others in the future.

-My German skills are still dismal, and as I’ve realized that most people speak English, I’m even quicker to revert to my native language than I was when I arrived here. Perhaps I’ll speak better next summer…

-I did get used to my German keyboard, however, which means my hands get a bit confused when I switch back to my English laptop and the “z” is no longer in the middle.

-Plans for the 2017 Hohenems reunion are continuing. Though I’m leaving Hohenems, I’ll continue to stay in touch with the planning process as a member of the Descendants Committee.

-This blog will also continue in some form, although updates might not be as frequent. Keep checking back (or subscribe to email notifications) to hear from me, the museum, Hohenems Desecendants, future museum interns, and other cool people.

-I’ve met some wonderful people during my stay here, and I’ve heard from many more who I hope to meet some day. I plan to return to Hohenems for the reunion next summer. If you’re attending the reunion (or coincidentally will be in Hohenems during that time), please say hi! If you can’t wait until next summer, send me an email and we’ll find a way.

Gefällt es Ihnen hier?

“Do you like it here?”¹ It’s a question I’ve been asked a lot over the last few weeks.

The short answer is yes, I like it here. I like the museum. The work I do is interesting. The staff is wonderful. I like Hohenems. It isn’t the busiest, but I’ve had no trouble finding things to do—in town, across Vorarlberg, and when I’ve been lucky enough to travel around Austria and Germany. I like the people here. I’ve felt incredibly welcome basically everywhere I’ve gone, and I’m grateful to everyone who has tolerated my lack of German language abilities.

Something else that I’ve been asked a lot is why I don’t speak German. After all, I’m here because of my Austrian heritage, which inspires more questions: “Does your mom speak German?” “Your grandmother?” “Did she ever teach you any?”² I always tell people that I wish I spoke German—there are many aspects of my stay here that would have been much easier, and knowing multiple languages is cool.

That said, my Austrian heritage isn’t exactly an inspiration for me to learn German. My relatives didn’t leave Austria because they wanted to, and I have family members who were killed during the Holocaust, when the Austrian government was largely complicit with the goals of Nazi Germany.

Growing up in America—the proverbial nation of immigrants—I know many people who are very proud of their family origins. My father’s father, for example, used to attend Scottish festivals every year. I have friends who still speak the language of their parents or grandparents, or who recognize the holidays of another culture or nation. For me, it’s hard to be proud of Austria when I’m also aware of how my family’s time here ended; I don’t think I’ll ever be able to celebrate my national heritage in the way that some people do.³

This image, as well as the one at the top of this post, are quotes written on the outside of the Jewish Museum in Munich. Both are relevant to me as I've grappled with my stay in Austria.
This image, as well as the one at the top of this post, are quotes written on the outside of the Jewish Museum in Munich. Both are relevant to me as I’ve grappled with my stay in Austria.

That said, the Austria of my heritage isn’t the Austria of today. I wrote last week that I don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking about my family’s persecution; I likewise don’t dwell on Austria as my ancestral homeland. It’s a past that I am aware of, and that I remember. But it’s not a key part of my identity.

At the same time, my adventures in Hohenems this summer have also created an Austria that is firmly part of my present. I’ve enjoyed the last eight weeks. I don’t want to forget the people I’ve met here, the places I’ve visited, or the lessons I’ve learned. And (setting aside my lack of German abilities), nationality and religion have been completely irrelevant to my experiences. Yes, I like Austria. Not because my family is from here, but because today it’s a lovely place.

It’s a long answer to a simple question. But as I prepare to leave Hohenems later this week, I’m certain about how I feel. Es gefällt mir sehr gut—I like it very much.

¹ “Gefällt es Ihnen hier?” is German  for “Do you like it here?” Thus, the title of this post.

² Please don’t read this like I’m complaining—I like it when people ask me questions! My presence here certainly invites plenty and I enjoy talking about myself, so keep asking.

³ I’m far from the only person grappling with this issue. Since 1949, Germany has offered citizenship to German Jews and their descendants. Here is a recent article on some American Jews considering German naturalization.

Memory and Beer in Munich

I spent the last few days in Munich, the sprawling city in the southern German region of Bavaria where adventurous surfers navigate a single wave in the Eisbach river and people drink beer by the liter.

Munich is also home to a Jewish Museum, which opened in its current form in 2007. I’m slightly biased, but I think Jewish museums are really cool. Visiting the one in Munich also gave me the opportunity to think about the complicated process of telling Jewish history.

The Jewish museums in both Munich and Hohenems teach about Jewish history in a manner that addresses the Holocaust without making it the sole focus. Hohenems largely examines the contributions of Jews in Vorarlberg prior to 1938, while the museum in Munich provides a lengthy look at the city’s Jewish history after 1945: the rebuilding of a community, the contributions of displaced persons, and the generational divides between those who remember the Holocaust and the people (like me) for whom it really is just a chapter in the history books.

These differences are summarized beautifully in a comic strip by American Jewish cartoonist Jordan B. Gorfinkel, which is displayed in the museum’s permanent exhibition. (It’s also online here, so assuming you aren’t currently in Munich and running to visit the Jewish Museum right now, take a moment to read it before you continue with this blog post).

In classic Munich fashion, the two floors that make up the museum’s special exhibition are currently devoted to documenting Jewish contributions to beer.¹ Exhibitions like this one matter not only because beer is culturally important in the region, or because old beer advertisements are funny. They serve as a reminder of the breadth of Jewish history and the range of Jewish identities. Sure, some Jews are debating the role and future of Israel, but others are trying to figure out whether beer is kosher. (And plenty of people are doing both).

To reduce Jewish history to only the Holocaust means missing out on some (supposedly) good beer. But telling Jewish history through only the lens of the Holocaust isn’t just neglectful, it’s dangerous.

In America, talk of the Holocaust is often accompanied by the phrase “Never Forget.” On the surface, this isn’t a problem—the Holocaust is something that we should absolutely always remember. At the same time, treating the Holocaust as the focal point for all studies of Jewish history runs a risk of also treating it like an isolated incident.

There is also a problem with treating the Holocaust like a piece of completed history. As someone who grew up vaguely Jewish in America, I don’t have to think about my family’s persecution on a daily basis. But as the Jewish Museum Munich highlighted, the trauma of those years remains a reality that some people have to confront every day.

The lesson, therefore, that I took away from Munich is that my perspective on this history is also incomplete. Although my ancestors were persecuted in Austria, I feel safe and welcome here.

“Never Forget” is too easy, too simple. Anyone can acknowledge that the past happened. Understanding the consequences and what they mean going forward requires much more introspection.

I definitely have some thinking to do.

¹ I have been blogging about beer a lot more than I thought I would this summer.

Searching for People

Fellow Hohenems descendant (and my "cousin") Juergen and I. We met for the first time this summer.
Fellow Hohenems descendant (my “cousin”) Juergen and I. We met for the first time this summer.

The Jewish Museum Hohenems has been always been committed to maintaining a relationship with the descendants of Hohenems Jews. This constant engagement is one of the reasons that it was possible for me to visit and work here this summer.

Of course, engaging with descendants requires knowing who they are and where they live now. The museum keeps a database of the relatives and descendants of Hohenems Jews dating back to the 17th century.¹ However, the museum’s research is incomplete—over the last several centuries, people have moved and married, crossed borders and had children. It’s impossible to track all these changes, and the database (despite including over 27,000 people) is riddled with dead ends and stories lost to the depths of time.

One of my tasks this summer has been investigating these dead ends and seeing what lies behind them. I sort through birth, death, marriage, and immigration records, trying to discover where descendants might have moved and where their families might be today. I read a lot of old digitized newspaper clippings and even more obituaries.

At times, the work can be difficult. Some people have really common names; some people changed their names when they migrated or married; some cultures follow different naming customs; some countries have strict privacy laws; a lot of records are in languages I don’t know.²

Many of the dead ends in the database are not attributed to poor record-keeping but to persecution. I’ve stumbled across a fair number of my distant cousins who died in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz.

At the same time, there is also a lot of beauty in the scattered history of Hohenems descendants. I’ve encountered crazy news of carjackings,³ miraculous tales of escape, love stories, adoption stories, and narratives of migration and persecution that still feel relevant today.

There’s a greater purpose to this research. When the museum “discovers” new descendants, we try to contact them. If they’re interested, they can visit the museum and learn more, attend a reunion, or get in touch with other distant family members. Some descendants now live in faraway places like Australia or Chile, the United States or Israel, while others are still in Austria—a man I met during my time here was born in Bregenz and now lives in Hohenems but didn’t know he was a descendant of Hohenems Jews until quite recently. Obviously, not everyone is interested in learning about Hohenems or their family history, but the museum wants to be a resource for people if they decide they want to discover more.

For anyone interested in searching through these records themselves, a public version of the museum’s database is available online (in both English and German) at http://www.hohenemsgenealogie.at/. Information about living people is omitted from the public version for privacy reasons.

¹ With the database, I can trace my own family history to Urban Veit Rosenthal, born in Hohenems in 1765.

² I prefer to read records in English or Spanish, so most of my research has been of descendants living in the UK, the US, or Latin America.

³ Don’t worry, everyone made it out OK.