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 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.


This week is a busy (but exciting) one. The museum is hosting the European Summer University for Jewish Studies,¹ an event that brings together students and lecturers from across Europe and the world for a week of lessons and seminars. The theme this summer is “Jüdische Heimstädte. Jerusalem und andere Jerusalems”—a discussion of Jerusalem, based not only in the city’s role as a Jewish homeland, but on other notions of the city across spatial and temporal differences. The summer university is a cooperative effort between the Jewish Museum Hohenems and universities in Bamberg, Basel, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna and Zürich.

Most of the lectures are in German (I attended the only English one this morning). Yet the university attracts geographically diverse participants—while most have some affiliation with one of the sponsoring universities, some also originate from places as varied as the United States and Israel, Australia and Switzerland, and speak Yiddish, Hebrew, or other languages in addition to English and German. The university also attracts some of the top minds in the relatively small world that is German-speaking Jewish studies academia.²

Many participants are returners, some even for a third or fourth time. The university therefore gives them an opportunity to reunite with old friends and colleagues, while also encountering new perspectives.

After uncertain weather for most of the summer, it’s also been a beautiful week in Hohenems. For those interested in Jewish history and Jewish studies, there is no better place to be.

¹ In German, it’s the Europäische Sommeruniversität für Jüdische Studien, which is often shortened to Sommeruni.

² For anyone familiar with the academic circles of Jewish studies, a listing of lectures is available here.

London Calling #2

A Dannhauser born in Lyon, who has already lived in Göteborg. A Brunner born in Vienna and saved from the Nazis through a Kindertransport to Great Britain. A descendant of Rabbi Kafka who was born in Benghazi in Libya, a Brunner descendant who was born in Milan and grew up in Malaga in Spain, a British born Bernheimer descendant who only recently learned about her Hohenems connection. A violonist, a Catholic priest, an archivist of the British Library, a French language teacher, an artist, and a Rosenthal who is a curator at the London Jewish Museum and the only one at the table who was NOT a Hohenems descendant or spouse—that was the crowd meeting in the nice Market Restaurant on Parkway in Camden last Thursday.

Meeting “Hohenemsers“ at the Market Restaurant in Camden.

On the occasion of the London presentation of our exhibition “Jukebox. Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl!” we organized a little London pre-reunion of Hohenems descendants. After a tour through the exhibition, we enjoyed spending time together and I had the chance to give an update on the museum’s development and the preparations for the big event next year—when we expect descendants from all over the world for the third Hohenems Reunion, celebrating 400 years of Jewish presence in Hohenems and the Hohenems Diaspora.

For some, meeting in London was an opportunity to reunite with more or less distant cousins having already seen in Hohenems and to exchange updates on family events, careers and life. For others, it was a first encounter with each other and with the Hohenems background of their families.

It was also definitely an encounter with a dimension of 20th century popular culture that was unknown to most before our exhibition. Telling the history of the global music business and of pop music that connected the world with the invention of the gramophone and the record was a thrilling experience. It’s all about “identity” in the making. And as is common with this quest for identity, you end up with something round and nice, like a record of shellac or vinyl: with a long spiral trajectory and nothing but a hole in the middle—a blind spot, something that you must leave open as a question.

Hohenemsers meeting in record heaven.
Hohenemsers meeting in record heaven.

But there is one thing we do know—and it’s a funny story itself. In some way, the history of pop music starts in Hohenems. How could this be?

In 1826, a young cantor from Hohenems, Salomon Sulzer, was invited to become chief cantor of Vienna. Soon he became a star in this world capital of music of the time. He was the first Jewish musician that non-Jews listened to in great numbers. He ranked among the greatest composers of the time, along with Schubert and Liszt. He was among the first who set Jewish prayers in written, notated music that could be sung by professional choirs. His composition had a strong impact on his contemporaries. He composed and performed secular music with lyrics from Goethe to revolutionary songs. He was adored like a star by Jews and non-Jews alike. And he became the role model for many Jewish musicians who crossed the border between the synagogue and later Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, where Jewish musicians (especially the sons of cantors) became prominent and successful performers, composers and producers of popular music, shows and musicals after Sulzer’s time. They formed a line ending (preliminary) with punk bands like The Clash and singers like Amy Winehouse.

The story, therefore, of how pop music started is a strange bit of chance, and it might even be pure legend. When Salomon Sulzer was a child, he fell into the Ems creek but was saved. His parents swore an oath that he would serve his community by becoming a singer in the synagogue. We’ll say “se non e vero e ben trovato”—even if if it is not true, it is a good story to tell.

Getting together with a crowd from Hohenems in “Jukebox. Jewkbox!” in London—specifically in Camden town, the birth place of British pop, just a few blocks down from Camden Market where the Clash once rehearsed and where today a small monument commemorates Amy Winehouse—is a particularly nice spiral movement toward the riddle in the middle. I greatly enjoyed that.

London Calling

In the middle of weird times in London, it is still a joy to be in the city. At least there is no “Brexit” for Jewish Museums. Our London colleagues invited our exhibit “Jukebox. Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl,” which opened yesterday at the beautiful Jewish Museum on Albert Street in Camden.

Alan Dein (left, London based collector, and historian, who contributed to the project so much from the first minute), together with David Leigh, a descendant of the Levy’s family, whose record shop introduced black Jazz music in Great Britain.
Alan Dein (left, London based collector, and historian, who contributed to the project so much from the first minute), together with David Leigh, a descendant of the Levy’s family, whose record shop introduced black Jazz music in Great Britain.

The opening (which they called a “private view”) attracted hundreds of joyful guests. We didn’t exactly get privacy, but we did have many nice encounters, chats, and discussions. The crowd seemed like they could have stayed at the show forever, listening to the music samples and the intimate, poignant and thought-provoking stories told by some forty “witnesses” of the history of 20th-century global popular music from all over the world.

Abigail Morris (center left), director of the Jewish Museum London, obviously having fun.

These witnesses all came together digitally on the counter in the middle of our global record shop of “Jewish music.” (The eldest, a man from Warsaw who is now turning 101 years-old, told about his childhood memories of Jewish popular musicians and cantors in interwar Poland. The youngest spoke about her experiences with punk music and hip hop). Visitors explored the 20th century through the contributions of Jewish inventors, musicians, composers and business people to what became the first global culture: the gramophones and the records.

Joanne Rosenthal (curator of the Jewish Museum London, on the right) with Antony Lerman (left) and his wife Kathy.

Since the museum had asked me to say a few words at the opening, I took the liberty to question some of the myths about “Jewish music.” The history of popular music was definitely influenced by the rebellion of Jewish cantors and their children, Yiddish theatre stars and comedians against their traditions and the expectations of their peers—much more than by any continuity of Jewish culture. But maybe this rebellion against tradition, this ongoing struggle for reinvention is also continuity?

Jennifer Jankel from the Jewish Music Institute, daughter of British dance music legend Joe Loss, in front of records of her father
Jennifer Jankel from the Jewish Music Institute, daughter of British dance music legend Joe Loss, in front of records of her father.

Regardless, our show was a perfect stage for the crowd in the Jewish Museum London to bustle around, to share their own memories of moments where listening to a record could change their lives or perhaps the world, and to discuss the future of their country.

Guests discussing memories of pop culture or the future of their country.
Guests discussing memories of pop culture or the future of their country.

The same day our exhibit opened, the British got a new Prime Minister, jumping out of the box, who is able to say “Brexit means Brexit,” without having any idea what “Brexit” could mean. But maybe that is the secret of this tautology. “Brexit means Brexit means Brexit”—which is: it means nothing but a mess, without making sense to anybody. Be sure. We will get more of this in the future.

Alte Zeiten Museum

A seven-minute walk from the Jewish Museum, there is another old house that has been converted into a museum and tells stories about regional history. The Alte Zeiten Museum¹ explores Hohenems’ very early past—the building itself dates back to 1602.

While the house may be old, the museum is very new. The concept originated in 2012, when the building was actually set for demolition. A group of concerned citizens—searching for a way to preserve it—eventually settled on the idea of converting it into a museum. With the help of government and private funding, they restored the building and created inside it an exhibition on the early history of Hohenems.

The restoration of the old house sought to maintain its original character as much as possible. While the museum does have modern electric lighting, the ceilings remain very low.² The floor is composed of slightly uneven boards and a preserved flowery wallpaper is still visible in some places.

This wallpaper, from the old house, still is visible on the museum's walls.
This wallpaper, from the old house, still is visible on the museum’s walls.

The museum’s exhibits tell of early life in Hohenems. Living, of course, wasn’t the same for everyone—the museum highlights the relationships between the count, the aristocracy, and the commoners who made up the majority of the population but mostly lived in poverty and had few legal rights.³ Another room details the ignominious history of witch hunts in the region: during the 17th century, some Hohenems residents were accused of—and ultimately executed for—practicing witchcraft. The museum also examines historical events like the Black Death and the Thirty Years War, as well as aspects of everyday life like craftsmanship and weaving.

Across the street from the museum sits another old house. Although it appears run-down today, it was one a brilliant mansion. Built in 1637, it may have once belonged to the mayor of Hohenems, although this claim isn’t verified.

This house, built in 1637, may have once belonged to the mayor of Hohenems.
This house, built in 1637, may have once belonged to the mayor of Hohenems.

Sägerstraße—the street which today hosts both the museum and the old mansion—was once the main part of Hohenems, but is now nestled in the hills slightly above the center of town.

The building that houses the Alte Zeiten museum, and the constructions that once surrounded it, actually pre-date the foundation of a Jewish community in Hohenems. (The count issued his Letter of Protection for Jewish families in 1617). Although the Jewish quarter and the Sägerstraße are not geographically far apart, there is enough distance to imagine the two communities operating as separate, at least for a time.

Of course, Hohenems has grown substantially since the 17th century. Today, the town not only stretches from the Sägerstraße to the Jewish quarter, but extends outward in all directions. Perhaps because of such growth, it’s important to remember (and learn about) the the old times.

¹ “Alte Zeiten” is German for old times.

² Tall people will struggle a little bit.

³ Legal and economic inequality based on predestined social determinations existed both alongside and in the absence of inequality based on religion.

Something to Celebrate

The museum hosted a summer celebration this past Saturday. For me, this meant I had a chance to meet many friends of the museum—including a few readers of this blog.

I’ll confess, I was a bit nervous about the party. Large social events have never been my strong point and I still don’t speak German, so the prospect of interacting with a bunch of German-speaking people I had never met wasn’t very exciting to me. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised by the evening. Although I couldn’t understand the speeches and at times I had to resort to hand gestures when asking people what drink they wanted, I also had wonderful conversations with many people who have been involved with the museum for much longer than I have.

Over the years, the museum has built an incredibly strong community. I am grateful to be a part of it, at least for the summer.

The celebration on Saturday also featured excellent Syrian food, a subtle reminder of the connections between the past and the present, the history we preserve in exhibits and the events that shape our societies today. As the museum constantly reminds us, people migrate and communities change. But if we can welcome one another with open arms, maybe we’ll be all right.

Last week was a tough one back in the United States. Between major racially charged shootings in three separate American cities and massive wildfires in my home county, I was glad be part of such a community and momentarily have something to celebrate.

Old-Timers in Hohenems

For the most part, Hohenems is a fairly quiet town. It’s located in a rural area. There is no university nearby. The most common summertime activities—hiking, cycling, swimming—are dispersed in the nearby mountains or the Rhine valley. Even the main road through town doesn’t see much traffic—anyone who is just passing through will find that it’s quicker to circumvent the city center entirely.

But for a few hours today, the center of Hohenems was bustling with traffic, although the purpose was admittedly a bit different. The cars weren’t typical—instead, it was an old-timers rally, featuring an array of classic and vintage vehicles.

(If the video isn’t playing for you, try this link).

The event in Hohenems was part of a tour known as the Silvretta Classic. They’re touring in western Austria (Vorarlberg and Tyrol) as well as Switzerland and even Lichtenstein this weekend.

The old-timers rally is one of the many slightly-quirky-but-fun events taking place in Hohenems this summer. Although the town is small, there is plenty to enjoy here. There is a lovely open-air market on the Schloßplatz, in the center of town, on Saturday mornings. Live music is common. The week after next, the museum will host the European Summer University for Jewish Studies, bringing students from Austria, Switzerland, and Germany to Hohenems.

It may not typically be loud, but things are certainly happening.

The Other Rosenthal Villa

There is a dilapidated-looking building with the address 1-3 Radetzkystraße, located on one edge of Hohenems’ Jewish Quarter. Something green grows on the outside walls; one ceiling inside looks worryingly close to caving; plaster peels away from the walls; a number of the windows are broken. 

The villa wasn’t always like this. It’s a very old building, probably dating  back to the 17th century, although it underwent numerous renovations and additions over the years. Josef Rosenthal bought the neighboring post station in 1807, and his son August erected a new building in the same place in 1823. When Iwan and Franziska Rosenthal¹ made the grounds their home in 1890, they integrated the structures August had built to create the existing grand villa, with a bowling alley, carriage garage, and servants quarters, among other features.

A bathroom ceiling in the former Rosenthal villa shows signs of wear.
A bathroom ceiling in the former Rosenthal villa shows signs of wear.
The former bowling alley of the Rosenthal villa.
The former bowling alley of the Rosenthal villa.
Situated in the servants' quarters, this machine would buzz whenever a button was pressed in another room, indicating help was needed.
Situated in the servants’ quarters, this machine would buzz whenever a button was pressed in another room, indicating help was needed.

Many of the house’s once-great features no longer function. The bowling alley is now stacked with furniture and other miscellaneous items. An anachronistic car sits in the former carriage garage. Dust coats many of the villa’s surfaces and cobwebs occupy odd corners.

Despite this decay, certain signs of the villa’s former grandeur are still apparent. Artwork adorns the walls. Many of the original ceilings are still visible, as are some of the wall panelings and a single stained glass window. An engraving at the top of the main staircase outlines an R, for Rosenthal.²

A Rosenthal emblem, located at the top of the villa's staircase.
A Rosenthal emblem, located at the top of the villa’s staircase.
A decorated ceiling in the villa.
A decorated ceiling in the villa.
A stained glass window in the villa.
A stained glass window in the villa.

It has been a while since Iwan and Franziska resided in the villa. The couple emigrated to Vienna in 1914, although they sometimes returned to Hohenems. Iwan passed away in 1929 at age 86; his wife followed him two years later, so neither lived to see the rise of National Socialism in Austria. The couple had no surviving children, so following their deaths, the ownership of the villa passed to their niece, Amalie Hess. In 1938, Hess—who was living in St. Gallen, Switzerland—sold the building under significant political pressure. She was its last Jewish owner.³

The villa had various owners and occupants after 1938. At one point, it housed Turkish workers; at another, it was impacted by a fire. No one has lived in the main building for many years. The current owner resides in the former stable, while the villa itself has fallen into disarray.

Despite these struggles, parts of the villa are still intact and worth preserving. There is agreement the building ought to be restored, but how renovations will happen—and what the future use of the building will be—remain to be seen.

¹ My great-great-great-great uncle and great-great-great-great aunt, incidentally.

² The emblem might also include and F for Franziska and an I for Iwan, or possibly a J for Josef. Take a look at the photo and decide for yourself.

³ The story of Iwan and Franziska’s home mirrors that of another Rosenthal villa. The Heimann-Rosenthal villa, which now houses the Jewish Museum, was built in 1864. Its last resident, Clara Heimann-Rosenthal, was one of the final Jews deported from Hohenems and died at Theresienstadt in 1942. She was 76. For more on old Jewish houses, the museum has a German database on its website.

Brunner Family Reunion, June 16th-18th 2016

Dear Blog Community,

 My name is Anika Reichwald and I am Head of Archive and Collections at the Jewish Museum Hohenems since summer 2015. Earlier this year, Hanno Loewy offered me the opportunity to travel to New York and present at the Brunner Family Reunion. Since I’d never been to the Big Apple before, I took the chance. I was very fortunate to be invited by the Allison and Peter Cheston, the reunion’s organizers. They also gave me a tricky task: were there any Brunners in New York who we hadn’t discovered?

As you may know, many families emigrated from Hohenems at some point in the late 19th century, including parts of the Brunner family, whose descendants moved to places like Vienna, Graz, Trieste and the U.S. Beginning with this knowledge, I followed up with Peter Cheston’s suspicion regarding Arnold William Brunner, a famous architect who designed several landmarks in New York. We discovered that, although Arnold William had not been included in the Brunner family tree, he belonged to the Brunner family from Hohenems. His grandfather—also named Arnold—was one of two brothers who changed their surnames from Wolf to Brunner in 1813. The younger Arnold’s father migrated to America in the 1850s, so Arnold William Brunner was born in the U.S. in 1857. He had no children, so his bloodline ended with him—a fact that might have caused the gap in the family memories.

I was surprised to see how many Brunners were able to come to New York, where we gathered for three days to both hear about family history, the history of the Jews in Central Europe, and some very personal experiences as well as explore the city together. I learned that the family found each other again in the early 1990s and meet every three years, always in a different part of the world. Hohenems and the museum played an important role, since the very first reunion of descendants of the Jews of Hohenems (which took place in 1998) brought many Brunner family members back together. Therefore, the reunion 2017 in Hohenems, where all Jewish families will get together for the third time since the museum’s establishment 25 years ago, is a fixed date in most calendars, including those of the Brunner family. 

However, for many of these people, the bonding moment is not necessarily their Jewish origin. Instead, it is the feeling of belonging to a larger family, to a group with similar experiences and a similar history. This became quite clear when Pater Francis Wahle and Silvana Graf shared their memories and stories, touching the subject of persecution, new identities and the lost importance of whatever it means to be Jewish. I personally hope that the reunion in 2017 gives all participants the chance to not only reconnect with their family members, but also to become part of the memories of this very special place, Hohenems, its Jewish history and therefore the history of so many descendants from Jewish families, who emigrated from this town at some point.

Furthermore, I was surprised to see how many of the family members still have artefacts from their ancestors, such as photographs or documents. And I feel very honoured to be part of a place that is 1) well known to these people and 2) gives them the opportunity to preserve those artefacts, whenever the time is right to let them go. The Jewish Museum Hohenems is a place where artefacts can come back to their origins and where people know and honour the history of these (former) Jewish families. The attention the Museum gives to the genealogy of the Jews from Hohenems is certainly visible in our genealogy database, where you can find general information about 27,000 people who are somehow connected to “Jewish Hohenems.” Sharing information is the engine of our genealogical work, which is why joining a family reunion like the one in New York is so important to us. 

Last but not least, I want to thank Allison and Peter Cheston (as well as their kids Sophie and Alex) for organizing this reunion. The sightseeing trips were a great experience and rounded up my first visit of New York. I also want to thank the rest of the family for their warm welcome, all the beautiful stories they shared with me, and all the new information I gathered.

I look forward to seeing you all here in Hohenems next year.