…on the Border again

On the Swiss side of the border. Approaching One of the cabins of the border patrol.
On the Swiss side of the border. Approaching one of the cabins of the border patrol.

On a rainy October day the border between Austria and Switzerland, more precisely between Lustenau and Diepoldsau, became a hub of curious folks from both sides of the Old Rhine. The association for the protection of nature (at least that’s my guess how to translate the „Naturschutzgruppe“) from Diepoldsau in Switzerland – next to Hohenems – presents a very special kind of outdoor exhibition along the Old and New Rhine. Our friends from Frankfurt are here for the weekend. In the summer we walked along the river Main with them, from the European Central Bank to the new pubs on the banks, where Frankfurt is posh and enjoying itself. The European Central Bank might be the true heart of Europe, but the innocent banks of the river Rhine might be the stomach. So we offered our friends a tour.

Three little cabins, or shelters so to say, that once helped border police to find refuge from rain and snow, are now neatly painted in red, green and yellow – and filled with installations about three subjects that informed the life of this region for many years: smuggle, refugees, and border control. Three perspectives on the same liminal space: the one of the locals, many of them having a story of smugglers in their own family. The one of those who try to find refuge from something more serious than bad weather. And the one of the state, and the young man engaged in what was considered the essence of Swiss sovereignty: the control of its borders.

Thousand of Jewish refugees were seeking a way to freedom here in 1938, some crossed the river where it was shallow. Some sneaked over the bridge in the night. There were many ways here, and nobody knew for sure which one was working, when, and at what time. Some of these refugees had their roots in Hohenems, like Alfred Munk and his sister Gertrud from Vienna, who crossed the border here already in April 1938. But the number of stories one could tell is endless. We’ll work on it, one by one by one.

The little exhibitions inside of the huts are simple and thoughtful, not partisan but emphatic, giving all these conflicting perspective their voice. And leave it to the eye of the beholder to draw conclusions. Who knows wether we are confronting only the past, or some future?

Margit Bartl-Frank, the artist and friend of the museum, living on the Swiss side of the Rhine, made the story of the Jewish refugees already several times a subject of her installations. This time she confronted the account of the Kreutner family, who succeeded to enter Switzerland in the fall of 1938 through Hohenems with the story of the Abdolzaher family from Herat in Afghanistan. Their odyssey lead them by foot through Iran and Turkey, on a boat to Greece, through Macedonia and Italy to France, and finally to Diepoldsau in Switzerland, where they now learn German and seek a job. Faride and her little daughter Setayesh answer questions patiently and stood beside the old border post in the rain. What will be their future? Nobody knows. But many got an idea: it will not only depend on them, but also on us.

Our friends are a bit ahead of us. In Frankfurt they have two kids from Afghanistan at home, giving them shelter and a bit of support for their possible start into a new life. Not easy at all. The boys have to start from scratch, they hardly visited school in their life before. Working on construction sites in Pakistan was their education. Faride might be better off, she was a nurse in a hospital, her daughter already speaks German with a heavy Swiss accent. A little later we see her on her little bike, riding joyfully between the yellow and the green cabin. She seems to be at home in Diepoldsau. Unbelievable.

Telling stories in the rain
Refugees from Afghanistan: Telling stories in the rain

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.