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.



Wenn in Wien

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.

Vienna is full of streets like this one, which I find really cool.
This street isn’t famous or notable. It’s very typical and I think it’s cute.

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.

A ceiling at the Kunsthistorisches museum, an art museum in Vienna.
A ceiling at the Kunsthistorisches museum, one of Vienna’s several art museums.

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.

Graves in the old Jewish part of the Central Cemetery.
Graves in the old Jewish part of the Central Cemetery.

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.

Graffiti along the Danube reads "refugees welcome."
Graffiti along the Danube reads “refugees welcome.”

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.

4 When 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.

Die Wanderer

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.

Rita Tawil, Jamileh Zaatreh, Hiba Awad, Sama Shafea, and Veronika Dünser singing.
Shira Karmon singing; Lorne Richstone on the piano.
Lorne Richstone on the piano; Liina Leijala on the cello.
I visited Bregenz with the musicians a few days ago. Everyone in this picture except me is really good at singing.
I visited Bregenz with the musicians a few days ago. Everyone in this picture except me is really musically talented.

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.

Throwback Thursday: the 2008 Reunion

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:

(If the video player isn’t working for you, try this link:

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.

Family Affairs

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.

Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, outside the __ Jewish cemetery.
Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, outside the Floss Jewish cemetery.

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).

The former prisoners’ kitchen at Flossenbürg. Today, it’s an exhibition space.
A view of the neighborhood built in 1958 on the former camp grounds. The former prisoners’ kitchen is on the right.
Symbolic tombs of prisoners on the camp grounds.
Symbolic tombs of prisoners on the camp grounds.

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.

The Jewish cemetery near Porejov.
The Jewish cemetery near Porejov.

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.

My great-grandmother Julie and my young grandfather Richard in front of their house, taken in 1908.

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.

A sign outside of my grandparent's old house points to the Flossenbürg memorial.
A sign outside of my grandparent’s old house points to the Flossenbürg memorial.

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.

A World War I memorial lists my great uncle among the German soldiers who died fighting.

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.

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

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.

A photo of the Jewish cemetery from 2007.
A photo of the Jewish cemetery from 2007.

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.

The view overlooking Vorarlberg's first Islamic cemetery.
The view from Vorarlberg’s first Islamic cemetery.

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.

A design at the Islamic cemetery in Altach, Vorarlberg.
A design at the Islamic cemetery in Altach, Vorarlberg.

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.

Race, Beer, Orlando, and Finding Normal

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.

A description for one of Gates' works of art.
A description for one item in Gates’ exhibition.

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.

A sign outside a restaurant in Hohenems advertises that they serve Mohren. The beer's name and logo have racial connotations.
A sign outside of a restaurant in Hohenems advertises that they serve Mohren. The beer’s name and logo have racial connotations.

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.