Time of Change

Die Presse - Schaufenster (05/04)

Ute Baumhackl

The exhibit, 'Vienna, City of Jews - The World of Tante (Aunt) Jolesch", describes the city during the 20s and 30s as providing the medium for political, social and cultural utopias. Does this require a new way of looking at the entire era? "Die Presse" spoke with museum curator, Joachim Riedl.

Apart from Warsaw, Vienna witnessed the largest community of Jews within Europe living in its city during the time of the First Republic. "Viennese Jewish life...," wrote the historian in 1933, "is an integral part of Vienna. It participates in all of the precariousness of the Viennese, with whose spirit it has mixed for so long. Vienna - City of Jews depicts the Jewish experience in this city at its peak, along with the political, social and cultural effects it had on the society," says museum curator, Joachim Riedl.

Schaufenster: Vienna, City of Jews can be traced back to your initiative. What made you chose the topic?

Riedl: The idea originated from my irritation at the debate over Restitution and the idea that the majority of the public believed that the issue involves a former Jewish population in Vienna made up of primarily four to five dozen wealthy families and a few famous names - from Mahler to Freud - rather than a largely representative segment throughout the entire population. Only a few are aware of the fact that the Jewish community at that time consisted of more than 200,000 people - a number in no way to be overlooked.

Schaufenster: So, do you wish to show who these people really were?

Riedl: The goal of the exhibition is to show what happens when a society thinks that it must radically separate itself from over one-tenth of itself. All that is remaining is an historical vacuum. Nothing grows afterwards. This segment of the population would equal the population of a city almost the size of Graz, with all its intellectual, cultural, crazy and criminal energy. We are trying to offer a view of what has been lost.

Schaufenster: Has this lack of growth led also to not having noticed the gaps?

Riedl: It is practically the central idea of the exhibition to correct a major misunderstanding which still exists. The era of the First Republic is looked upon today as a period carrying within itself the seeds of early and inevitable misdeeds, comparable to a child suffering from progeria. The main thesis of this exhibition is that it was exactly the opposite case. The years 1918 to 1938 were a time of change and upheaval.

Do You mean that the end of the Monarchy did not carry within itself the collapse of the First Republic?

Riedl: The fall of the Habsburg Empire was an act of liberation to an extent which would hardly be possible today, that set free unbelievable intellectual, cultural and political energy. Everywhere reforms and changes were being initiated.

Schaufenster: You describe that also as the "search for the new man?"

Riedel: The search for radical newness in all areas - in art, science, and politics. A new wealth arose and suddenly there were investors like Bosel who defined matters. New medias were created - cinema, radio, the popular press, and new cultural politics, such as that of David Josef Bach, influential to this day. Also Social Democracy took itself to be not so much of a party but a cultural and educational movement that aimed at change - Austrian Marxists like Breitner as director of the region’s bank, stood verbally left of Lenin, but were pragmatic and rational in their policies. In science, the first hormone substance, "Progynon," was developed and the biologist, Kammerer, wanted to turn genetics upside down. It was also the time of the sexual revolution, more radical than the 1960s.

Schaufenster: Does this allow us to conclude that in its entirety, the exhibition is less about the Jews than about the city?

Riedel: The problem is: Who is a Jew? There were 200,000 members of the Israelite Religious Community. But what about those who because of anti-Semitism were made Jews? The trouble is that we would actually have to use a definition that in itself is racist and anti-Semitic in order to be able to find the historical truth.

Schaufenster: How does the exhibition handle the topic?

Riedel: We don’t explicitly assign labels as here, Jew, and there, not. The biographies at the end of the exhibition give enough hints.

According to which criteria were the twenty-one stations of the exhibition selected?

Riedel: There is neither a chronological nor biographical order. We approach the topic on hand through certain key events that are central to the topic: politics, social change, psychoanalysis, entertainment, financial speculation, philosophy, journalism, etc. Persons appear due to their dramaturgical and not only their historical significance. "Incompleteness" [of information] is an essential element of the exhibit. One need not expect a "best of" the one hundred greatest Viennese Jews.