I spent the last few days in Vienna,¹ Austria’s capital and largest city, which is located about seven hours by train from Hohenems.
Vienna is nothing like any American city I’ve visited. The buildings are older; the streets meet in odd angles; people drink their coffee sitting down; public transportation is both prevalent everywhere and remarkably clean.
The city is also saturated with Austrian history. Allusions to Kaiser Franz Joseph, who ruled Austria from 1848 until his death in 1916,² are common on street corners and building names, as well as in the city’s many museums. I visited the Schönbrunn Palace—the imperial family’s old summer home—as well as the Kunsthistorisches and Naturhistorisches museums, which house old imperial collections of jewelry, art, taxidermied animals and more.³
As several people had advised me, one of the most remarkable aspects of old Viennese buildings are the ceilings, which were often very intricate.
History, though, is hardly limited to museum collections. The ring in the center of town marks the boundary of the old city wall. Vienna also had significant green space—public parks which often date back to the Kaiser’s time and make the city’s heat slightly more bearable.
A bit of Viennese history was also personal for me. I walked down the street where my grandmother lived until her family left Austria in 1940 and visited the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), where several of my ancestors are buried. The cemetery is home to over 300,000 graves—making it the largest in Europe and among the larget in the world—and is interdenominational, with separate sections for different religious groups. Founded in 1874, it still takes new burials today.
Vienna, of course, has changed a lot since my family lived there. Today, the flag of the European Union flies proudly next to the Austrian one. I walked through the Naschmarket, an open-air market located near the city’s center and found excellent Turkish food. And I talked contemporary Austrian, European and American politics over cappuccinos a typical Viennese kaffeehaus and wine down by the Danube.4
Although Vienna is remarkably different from the places that I know, I also found some similarities. Graffiti in public parks and under bridges dealt with issues like refugees and police brutality, which are familiar to me as an American.
Vienna today is also a different place from where my ancestors and relatives once lived. It will continue to grow and change and morph as cities do. I hope to return someday, and in the meantime I’ll hope that the roads stay cute and the street food stays good.
Bis nachher, Wien.
¹ The city known as Vienna in English is called Wien in German, thus the title of this post. I find it strange that English uses a different name. On a related note, Austria is actually called Österreich.
² Austrian imperial rule collapsed in 1918, shortly after the Kaiser’s death.
³ I would highly recommend that everyone travel to Austria at age 18. I still qualified as a child, which meant I could get into most museums free or substantially reduced.
4When I explain to people that I only speak English, I now also find it worthwhile to note that I’m American, not British. Thanks, Brexit.
On Saturday, the museum welcomed performers from both near and far for a concert featuring the music of the Hohenems-born composer Salomon Sulzer, Franz Schubert, and Sulzer’s sons, Julius and Joseph.
The performers including American pianist Lorne Richstone, Israeli-born vocalist Shira Karmon (who now lives in Vienna), Finnish cellist Liina Leijala (who comes by way of Ramallah, Palestine and Vienna), Austrian vocalist Veronika Dünser (from Vorarlberg), Berlin-based pianist Karl Kronthaler, and four Palestinian students from East Jerusalem: Rita Tawil, Jamileh Zaatreh, Hiba Awad, and Sama Shafea.
It was a unique (and extremely talented) ensemble. In the words of its creators, the purpose of the production was to “baut Brücken zwischen den Welten,” or build bridges between worlds. Indeed, the show seemed to bridge several different worlds: the 19th century compositions of Schubert and the Sulzers were performed by contemporary musicians; vocalists from Austria and Palestine were accompanied by pianists from Germany and the United States; the show itself bridges the gap between Austria and Jerusalem, where its performers will travel later this year.
Although the performers will continue their tour, the show also had a special connection to Hohenems.
Salomon Sulzer was born in Hohenems in 1804. He rose to the position of choirmaster at the synagogue by age 16 and, after moving to Vienna in 1826, became known for his compositions, both Jewish and secular. According to lore, non-Jews often came to the temple in Vienna, just to hear him sing. He also worked alongside many famous composers, including Schubert.
To many people, Sulzer represents a classic example of Jewish coexistence within Europe. Although he admittedly lived before anti-Semitism became a potent political force, his music nonetheless united Jews and non-Jews.
The auditorium which held the concert bares Sulzer’s namesake, and is also the building that housed the former Jewish synagogue, originally constructed in 1771. Although the synagogue avoided substantial damage during Kristallnacht (The Night of the Broken Glass on November 9, 1938), most objects of historical and religious significance had already gone missing following the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria in March 1938). Many of these objects have never been found. After the forced disintegration of the Jewish community of Hohenems, the town seized the building in 1940.
Since there was no Jewish community in Hohenems after 1945, the synagogue was restituted to the Jewish community of Innsbruck. The town of Hohenems purchased the building in the early 1950s and converted it into a fire station, effectively removed all traces of religious or spiritual significance along the way. The building was used as a fire station until 2001, and, after considerable reconstruction, opened as a music hall in 2004.
The concert series continues in Vienna on Tuesday and in Jerusalem later this year.
During the 2008 Hohenems Descendants Reunion, a group of kids—which included me—helped make (and star in) a video, documenting the reunion, the museum, random spiders, and everything in between. It’s available on the museum’s Youtube channel:
I make several appearances as the awkward-looking brown-haired 11 year-old wearing a teal collared shirt. While I cringe a little bit whenever I watch my younger self, the video is also adorable and perhaps provides some insight into the things that kids find interesting. At the very least, I remember that I had fun helping create it.
We might be planning a similar activity for kids at the 2017 reunion. If you are a kid, have kids, like kids, or have other ideas, don’t hesitate to let me know what you think.
Last weekend, I traveled to the Diaspora of Hohenems exhibitions. “Family Affair,” our show about the diversity of Israeli families, including the whole range of Jewish immigrants, Muslim and Christian Arabs and foreign workers—all those who form this fragmented society, is now being shown at the concentration camp memorial of Flossenbürg. A weird location one would say. Reli and Avner Avrahami, the artists, and Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, came from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the opening. Burg expressed his puzzled feelings about his own presence on this site. He does not like the shoah business, the attempt to make the suffering and the annihilation of masses a subject of education and representation, esthetics and political interests.
But the Flossenbürg camp, once situated in the woods next to a village and a castle at the German-Czech border (and to a quarry the prisoners were forced to exploit) now offers all these contradictions as a starting point for a discourse about the present and the future. Even the history of the camp site after 1945 is discussed at length: the puzzling effect of turning such a site into a beautiful cemetery (already in 1947 by survivors and Polish DPs), a new suburbian housing project for German refugees from the East (in 1958), a park (administered by the Bavarian office for the preservation), a modern education center (since the 1990s), and even a “museum’s cafe” (in the old SS casino, now run by a integration project for young people with special needs).
For me and my wife, meeting our friends Reli, Avner and Avrum was a family affair in a disturbing setting, but also a heartfelt one. We did not present our reality of societies formed by intercultural exchange, migration, and the competition for legitimate identities, resources and power at such a place before. And that makes this playful exhibition, the family portraits and fragmented stories told by average people from all “tribes” all the more meaningful.
But this trip to the North-East end of Bavaria—the region is called Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinum)—was a family affair for me in a more profound way. The earliest Loewys in my family lived in two small villages on the Bohemian side of the border, Dlouhy Ujezd and Porejov. I found it difficult to pronounce these names when I was speaking to the audience that came to the opening in Flossenbürg… One of these villages—Porejov—was wiped out after the war, when American tanks liberated the area, and a year later the “German” villagers were forced to leave by the Czechs and became refugees in Western Germany. There is not much left of Porejov, but a ruined church and the Jewish cemetery, situated a few hundred meters away in the forests.
My ancestors in these villages were in cattle trade, and one of them, my great-grandfather made it to the “West,” which for him meant ten kilometers into the Oberpfalz, to Waidhaus, where he lived in a nice house that is still standing on main street. There, he did not sell only cattle anymore, but also the equipment for butchers.
Today, my greatmother and my young grandfather no longer stand in front of the house, but there is a signpost directing tourists to the memorial of Flossenbürg.
I had been here once previously, 36 years ago, with my father on memory lane, or better on the traces of memories we both never had. What struck me most when I went there with my father was the World War I memorial in the center of Waidhaus. With my “father” inscribed in the list of German patriots who gave their life for the Fatherland.
Indeed it was not my father but his uncle, whose name my father recieved five years after his “patron” fell in Galicia, in 1915. My father’s story was different. He fled his “fatherland” in 1936 to Palestine, in order to save his life and returned to Germany twenty years later. He did not run away from European nationalism to end up with another one after all…
I think I will not wait another 36 years to visit this landscape of unfamiliar memories again. After all, it is a family affair of sorts.
Like the town’s Jewish community, the Jewish Cemetery in Hohenems will turn 400 next year. When the town’s imperial count issued a Letter of Protection for twelve Jewish families in 1617, he also granted them a plot of land for use as a cemetery. It’s located on the Schwefelberg, or sulphur hill, a little bit outside the main part of town.
National-Socialist authorities confiscated the cemetery in 1938, but it remarkably survived the war with relatively little damage. Since there was no longer a Jewish community in Hohenems after 1945, the cemetery was restituted to the Jewish community of Innsbruck,¹ from whom it was later bought by a group of Hohenems descendants living in Switzerland. They founded an association which still manages the cemetery today.
Today, there may be over 500 people buried in the Jewish cemetery, although only 370 headstones are visible. Several of my ancestors are among those interred. To help visitors navigate the cemetery, the museum offers a database with the names, inscriptions, and grave numbers here. (It is in German). Additionally, pictures of a majority of the gravestones are available here with connections to information from the Hohenems genealogy database, thanks to ongoing work in the museum’s archives.²
According to Jewish tradition, graves are forever. A grave site can only be allocated once; that plot of land belongs to the person who died. In this way, Jewish graves create a permanent connection to place—regardless of the size of the Jewish community of Hohenems or the presence of the diaspora, the cemetery is a permanent reminder of the Jewish claim to, and influence in, Hohenems.
Like a lot of things in Hohenems, the Jewish cemetery is currently under construction. The work should be finished by next summer.
As the Jewish cemetery celebrates its 400th birthday next summer, the area’s Islamic cemetery will hit its own milestone—it turns five years old, having opened in 2012.
The Islamic cemetery is officially under the jurisdiction of the town of Altach, although geographically it lies just off the road between Hohenems and Götzis, while Altach is slightly to the northwest. The drive between the Jewish and Islamic cemeteries takes only a few minutes.
The Islamic cemetery’s prayer room was designed by Azra Akšamija, a Bosnian-born Muslim architect who currently teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the United States. She and Austrian architect Bernardo Bader were awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the cemetery in 2013.
While the Jewish cemetery in Hohenems remembers a population whose time seems to have passed, the Islamic cemetery represents a community that is still in formation. Previously, many of Vorarlberg’s Muslim residents sent their remains home (usually to Turkey) for burial so that their final resting place was with their family. Now, whole families have laid their roots in Austria.
Populations are rarely permanent, but gravestones usually are. Regardless of religious faith, cemeteries serve as a reminder of historical heritage and of places that once felt like home. And there’s something beautiful about that.
¹ Geography Lesson: Innsbruck is the capital city of Tyrol, the Austrian state directly east of Vorarlberg. It is about two hours from Hohenems.
² This post was updated at 10:41 on 21/06/2016 to include this point. The new gravestone pictures are still a work in progress.
I’ve been in Austria for a week now. I’m starting to get used to the trains, the weather, and the fact that the computer I use at work operates in German. But a set of recent events and experiences have me thinking a lot about the United States.
Theaster Gates is a black American artist from the South Side of Chicago. My uncle lives in Chicago so I’ve visited the city on several occasions, although I knew nothing of Gates or his work. Coincidentally, Gates currently has an exhibition titled Black Archive at the Kunsthaus museum in Bregenz, which is two train stops from Hohenems. I visited the museum yesterday.
Much of Gates’ exhibition deals with images of blackness in the white gaze—in non-academic terms, how a society in which white people are in the majority in terms of both population and power (like the U.S.) represents black people in things like movies, books, and other aspects of culture.
I found it slightly ironic that I was observing Gates’ art on blackness in the U.S. while I was in Europe. His works are laden with allusions to American culture and history—dealing with subjects like minstrelsy, the n-word, and the American Civil War. Had I been raised in Austria, I probably would have interpreted the art differently than I did.¹ I’ve learned in my short time here so far that the predominant notions surrounding race are fairly disparate between Austria and the U.S.
There’s a popular beer brand here in Vorarlberg known as Mohren.² Its logo is an exaggerated stereotypical African facial profile, and I was told that the name has negative racial connotations as well.
I wonder what Gates might say about Mohren beer, which isn’t available in the U.S. That logo would be considered obviously racist in America, but I’ve been told that most Austrians think its normal.
At the same time, there are certain cultural components that don’t bother anyone in the U.S. but strike a nerve in Austria. For instance, bloodline is a perfectly normal word in English that describes people who are biologically related. But—as I learned last week—the equivalent word in German still has Nazi connotations.
History substantially affects how we interpret language and culture. Austria didn’t have chattel slavery; the United States didn’t have the Holocaust. Of course, that doesn’t mean that stereotypical representations of black people are OK in Austria or that discriminating against a entire religion should be acceptable in America.³ But the existence of the past impacts how each contemporary society tolerates these acts.
On the subject of tolerating things that are bad, I woke up last Sunday morning as news of a mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, was first making its rounds on the internet. That afternoon, I learned that forty-nine people (plus the shooter) were dead. Like everyone else, I think it’s a horribly tragic situation, I feel for the victims and their loved ones, and I wish something like it would never happen again.
The United States has a surprisingly high tolerance for mass shootings. Even before the events in Orlando, several people I’d met here in Austria told me that they thought America’s obsession with guns is crazy; the tragedy proved them right once again.
Although I read the news and have seen my friends’ posts on social media, I haven’t talked with any other Americans about Orlando. I don’t know what I’d say—while the shooting was terrible, it wasn’t unique, seeing as the United States averages nearly 90 gun deaths each day. And I feel like I’m at a point where I just expect these things to happen and pray each time that no one I know gets hurt.
As it turns out, many things can become routine. And though it’s good to get used to rainy weather or a new language, it’s worthwhile to look at ourselves and ask if tragedy or discrimination have become normal to us. I know I need to do that.
¹ The piece of art that most struck me in Gates’ exhibition was a towering minstrel doll that moved when someone stepped on its base. Minstrel figures occupy a shameful place in American history. Minstrel shows—which became popular in the 19th century—typically involved white actors in blackface dancing and singing while portraying stereotyped black people. The shows often depicted black Americans as unintelligent, clownish, happy-go-lucky, or lazy.
Minstrel dolls, which arrived shortly thereafter, were an at-home, do-it-yourself version of minstrel shows. They were simple figures representing black bodies; their faces were often cartoonishly happy or leering. (If you can’t imagine what that looks like, here is an example). With a simple flick of the finger onto the attached paddle board, the doll would bobble up in down. It still reinforced African-American stereotypes and the owner had full control over its movements, alluding to America’s embarrassing days of chattel slavery.
Gates inverted the concept of a minstrel doll by creating a huge one. To make his minstrel doll move, you have to do much more than simply flicking your finger—you’d have to put a lot of body weight on the paddle. The curator of the exhibit (who happens to be a Hohenems descendant as well) informed me that, when someone moved it, its clunking figure sometimes scared small children.
I had no interest in trying to make the giant minstrel doll move. I could see Gates’ intention with the art, but it made me deeply uncomfortable. Did the doll’s size relative to me really change that I would still be controlling its movements? And if it was leering down on me as I moved it, didn’t that still reinforce the American stereotype about scary black men? (Such a stereotype is one of the reasons that the South Side of Chicago has a bad reputation).
I have no idea if I interpreted this work in the way Gates intended.
² Geography lesson: Vorarlberg is the Austrian state in the far western part of the country where Hohenems is located. Bregenz is its capital. Beer lesson: I can’t personally speak to the quality of Mohren. I’m 18, two years older than Austria’s legal drinking age, but medically necessary dietary restrictions prevent me from drinking beer.
³ A substantial number of people in the U.S. (including the presumed Republican nominee for president) have called to ban Muslims and refugees from entering the country in light of recent terror events. While Austria has been debating similar questions, Hohenems (which is 20 percent Muslim) has also been taking a number of Syrian refugees.
The street in front of the museum has been under construction for several weeks. Ultimately, the road will be repaved with stone. In the mean time, it is closed while workers tear out the asphalt, beginning laying the stones, and engage in other road-work-related activities.
I do most of my work in the library building across the street from the museum, so I cross through the construction zone several times each day.
Although the construction poses a slight inconvenience to museum goers, it is a great source of joy and amusement for the many young Hohenems residents who like to watch the trucks.
Other things that are under construction:
-My German language skills. (I can introduce myself and count to ten now, which is progress).
-Austria’s national football team. (Or soccer, if you’re in America). Austria qualified for the European Championships, which is a big deal, seeing as their record in international football has historically been dismal. (Previously, the only year they had qualified was 2008, when they auto-qualified as co-hosts of the tournament. That year, over 10,000 fans signed a petition to have the team pull out of the tournament to avoid humiliation. The team did not withdraw, but they were eliminated in the first round).
Austria plays Hungary* in their opening match at 18:00 (Central European Time) on Tuesday, June 14.
-My typing skills. The German keyboard is slightly different than the English one—most notably, the letters “y” and “z” are swapped and the German keyboard has several characters that the English one doesn’t.
-Plans for the 2017 Hohenems reunion. I’ll keep you posted!
*Yes, there are many jokes about Austria-Hungary once being a single country.
The museum’s current temporary exhibition is titled Übrig. While I don’t know much German, I’ve been told that übrig is a word that doesn’t translate well into English. The exhibition’s official English title is “odd,” which is one way to interpret the word. But übrig also implies a sense of being leftover, or left behind.
I had a chance to visit the Übrig exhibit a few days ago alongside some art history students from Vienna. It’s an exhibition made up of leftovers: the items included are mostly from the museum’s archives but, for one reason or another, they had not previously been displayed.
The items in the Übrig exhibit—though a odd collection—are each fascinating. On display, they are grouped by theme. A collection of locks and keys cut from the doors of Hohenems’ formerly Jewish homes accompanies a ripped piece of Torah scroll that a German soldier had used to send a package home. In another room, a friendship book and a piece of sheet music entitled “Faith-Love-Hope“ (written by a Hohenems emigré living in the United States) create a sense of optimism and resiliency.
Still, the appearance of these objects in the museum signifies a disruption from their intended use. A Torah scroll and mitzvoh plates, for example, do not serve their religious purposes when they are behind the museum glass. The bicycle that sits in another room belonged to a Jewish man who was deported from Hohenems in 1939 and murdered in 1942. No one is riding it.
In some ways, übrig might be an appropriate way to characterize the Jewish history of Hohenems. The town no longer has a Jewish community; the museum itself tells of a past that has been left behind.
After visiting the exhibit, the Viennese students engaged in a discussion about a number of things they had seen. One issue they brought up was the place for the Holocaust in Jewish museums. Obviously, Jewish history is much deeper and richer than those events; on the other hand, failure to include the Holocaust as a part of Jewish history might risk forgetting or denying it.
I was interested in the perspective that the students brought as pupils of art history. I didn’t initially think about the items in the museum (including the Übrig exhibition) as art. However, the idea of art is an interesting way to examine the exhibit. At a basic level, the purpose of art is to be looked at and hopefully challenge the viewer to see something differently. In this way, the Torah scroll or the mitzvoh plates or the bicycle—though deprived of their original uses—take on a new purpose. That purpose involves educating the art students, the young kids who visited the museum earlier that day, the man visiting from Bangladesh who I met yesterday, and so many others.
It might seem odd, but it’s definitely worthwhile.
I was around six years old when my grandmother first told me the story of how she’d immigrated to the United States from Austria. It was a watered-down version of her tale; she didn’t want to scare me so she emphasized the food on the boat, not the reasons why her family had left.
When I was six, Austria seemed like a mythical place to me, like a Narnia or Hogwarts. But I grew up, found Hohenems on a map, and eventually learned how to spell it. I studied the Holocaust in school. The word diaspora entered my vocabulary. Shortly after my eleventh birthday, I visited Hohenems for the first time. The next time my grandmother told me the story, she told me about Kristallnacht and how difficult it was to get an American visa.
Having finished my first year at university, I’m returning to work at the museum this summer. Now, of course, I know that my family’s story isn’t unique. Hohenems is a very real place and my ancestors’ history in the town intersects with that of so many other people. As a member of the diaspora, their legacy impacts me too. And the broader concepts at play in Hohenems—issues like coexistence and migration—affect nearly everyone.
I look forward to spending the summer in Hohenems. More importantly, I look forward to deepening my understanding of Jewish history while connecting with and learning from other members of the diaspora.
You’ll definitely be hearing more from me. I’d love to hear from you too—don’t hesitate to reach out.