Knick Knack, Kitsch and Cheese

Profil (04/30/2007)

Marianne Enigl

Vorarlberg. The Jewish Museum in Hohenems is considered one of the most innovative in Europe. Now it is on a new course.

There are no Jewish citizens living here any more and yet the former Jewish district in a city consisting of 14,000 residents is considered today one-of-a-kind in Central Europe. There is the synagogue, the poor house, the school, the ritual bath house, the houses of the peddlers, the merchants and factory owners, and it is relatively complete because after the obliteration of the Jewish Community during National Socialism, it was simply left for decades to deteriorate instead of being torn down.Somewhat differently than in Vienna, the Jewish settlement 400 years ago had not been restricted to a ghetto. Together with the former Christenstraße (referred to todays as Markstrße), the houses in the Kudengasse (called Schweizer Straße today) formed the urban core of the city. After a broad discussion of the city’s future, essential parts of the Jewish area are now protected and preserved as historic sites.

Aron Tänzer, Rabbi and avant-gardist, gave some thought to Darwin’s teachings on evolution. That’s why the only single, orthodox member of the community of Hohenems was in 1903 head of an “Israelite Community descendant of Monkeys.”

Harry Weil, cantor of the Jewish Religious Community, established a workers’ song association, called the “Nibelungen Treasure,” and was considered the radical socialist in the area. After having fled to the U.S., he made a career as representative of Rupp Cheese. On a photo from Vorarlberg made while on holidays he wrote, “Memories of our trip home in 1966,” although his return request to his lost home had been denied: “That he wanted to continue his service as organist of the Israelite Religious Community is indeed an illusion because there is no Israelite Religious Community any longer.

Traces of life stories in the century-old Jewish community of the Vorarlberger city are the contents of a new, permanent exhibit by the Jewish Museum of Hohenems which opened last weekend. However, the project conceived by Hannes Sulzenbacher has nothing to do with conservation. Museum director, Hanno Loewy, speaks about a change in paradigms: “Jewish museums are coming closer in their approach to people. They are no longer only museums which offer private instruction in Jewish tradition, where non-Jews speak about the Jews.” Instead of society’s majority viewing Jewish history from the outside, it is about being confronted with individual, life sketches and ways to become a part of society with its Christian majority.” Loewy: “We are looking at Jewish history from the experience of migration and international life styles and asking questions about the present day.” The question as to whether and under which circumstances societies with different cultures have a place in Europe is permanently present in the border triangle characterized by migration movements. Not far from the Jewish cemetery in Hohenems is a burial place in Altach for the Muslims in the area.

The Jewish Museum in Hohenems, located in the villa of the former Heimann-Rosenthal factory bought up by the city, has attracted interest from the beginning. One year after its opening, it was distinguished by having been presented with the Austrian Museum Prize in 1992. Forward, a Jewish newspaper in New York, described it as one of most innovative Jewish museums in Europe.” One showed the highly acclaimed exhibition, “The Wonderful World of Jewish Kitsch,” and presented anti-Jewish knick knack - pipe holders and canes topped with the distorted physiognomy found in popular “pictures of Jews,” provoking a discussion on anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism and conspiracy theories.

Hanno Loewy, who established the renowned Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt, sees in his larger, more spatial surroundings the freedom of choice absent in Jewish museums located in larger cities. “Here we are not so pressured by interests. That allows us, when dealing with history, to include all the inconsistencies with great candidness and in a relaxed atmosphere.”