“Only one Photo! Only a Photo!”

Norbert Mayer

Die Presse (03/19/2008)

Jewish Museum. “Life!” – a colorful cross-section through contemporary history of Jewish Vienna.

The exhibition, “Life! Jews in Vienna after 1945,” which can be seen as of this Wednesday until June 22 in the Jewish Museum, is layed out like a garden. Some 2,000 private photos are exhibited, most of them in color, and they are like an undulating garden of flowers. Every individual picture is attached to a support anchored into the floor; diverse groups and sub-groups offer the effect of a blooming aggregate – the prominent, the orthodox, newcomers from the former Soviet Union and from countries belonging to the former Habsburg Empire - who came to Vienna after 1945 to rebuild. It is seldom to see so much joy and character in such concentrated form. The pictures are so natural and personal that one feels a bit like a voyeur.

All of these photos were taken by Margit Dobronyi (today aged 95), who began photographing in Vienna after fleeing Hungary in 1956. It is said that not a single Jewish celebration or occasion went by without being photographed. “In those days one was happy that there was a Jewish photographer because such events allowed one to dance and sing without feeling observed by someone who didn’t belong,” says Jonas Zahler recalling the ever-present Frau Dobronyi. “Only one photo! Only a photo,” she would cry. Until 2000, some 150,000 pictures grew to become an entire collection, which the Museum purchased in 2004.

What Happened before 1945 was Omitted
Ruth Beckermann combed through the mass of photos and created a preliminary, all-encompassing installation. What happened before the Shoa is omitted, says the renowned documentary filmmaker and author: “This exhibition is about the Jews who are alive; in other words, the survivors.” After the war, they were fulfilled by a lust for life. Most of them stayed in Vienna, the city that embodied their nostalgia; the idea of leaving was deferred to the next generation.

One sees people who are celebrating their wedding or Bar Mizvah, or are enjoying their holiday, posing in their new car, standing proudly in front of their new shop, sitting in a coffeehouse or simply expressing joy. Paparazza Dobronyi appeared whenever something special was happening. These pictures, although claiming no particularly artistic value, exude a sense of renewal. In general, however, they are becoming part of a first-class historical collection, says curator Werner Hanak-Lettner.  

Based on the number of the picture, one can look up the names of those photographed on the computer. The exhibitors also hope that the exhibits’ visitors will offer more information so as to determine more precisely who was in contact with whom at a particular place in time – the Wiesenthals or the Hellers, with Kahane, Schlaff, Deutsch or Beckermann. “One simply knew one another,” says one visitor, whose parents managed to come from Czernowitz to Vienna. This exhibition focuses on details.