Schön, Sie wiederzusehen: Reunion 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Schön, Sie wiederzusehen, Hohenems.


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 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.

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.