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The Jewish Museum Vienna: A Personal Look

The Jewish Museum Vienna: A Personal Look

I know, you can’t go home again, especially if home is a country your family was forced to flee. I was under no illusion that a lilting Strauss waltz would be the soundtrack to my visit to Vienna, where both my parents were born. Still, I’d traveled to the city earlier this summer to see how my relatives had lived, not to dwell on their victimization. Which is why I was looking forward to exploring the Jewish Museum Vienna–and why I was also dreading it.

Members of the Hakoah Jewish Swim Team, photo courtesy of the Jewish Museum Vienna

I figured that, just as the Anschluss looms over all the books I read about fin-de-siecle Vienna, the horrors of the Holocaust were bound to shadow a place devoted to tracing the city’s Jewish past. Indeed, the institution itself was collateral damage. The world’s first (established 1895) Jewish museum, it was shuttered by the Nazis in 1938, its sacred objects and cultural artifacts from throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire dispersed.

The main Dorotheergasse branch of the museum is on one of the narrow streets that thread through the city center, just blocks from such popular attractions as St. Stephan’s Cathedral. It’s only natural that the words “Jüdische Museum Wien” would appear on directional signs helping visitors navigate this maze-like tourist hub. Nevertheless, I was spooked to encounter the word “Jüdische” in bold German letters on an arrow pointing towards my destination. I felt suddenly exposed, like I had sprouted a yellow star.

My anxiety dissipated once I entered the airy, light-filled building, the former Palais Eskeles. It was a relief to discover that the permanent exhibition on the ground floor, “Unsere Stadt! (Our City!),” doesn’t dwell on World War II, at least not directly. Rather, such displays as the photographs of Margit Dobronyi, which document everyday Jewish life from 1960 to 2000, are meant to convey that a small but vital Jewish population is now thriving in Vienna. (Estimated at between 10,000 to 12,000—down from 185,000 before the war–some of the Jews are returnees but more are immigrants from Eastern Europe.)

Courtesy of Jewish Museum Vienna

But I was more interested in my parents’ era, the interwar years, and it was a photograph on the mezzanine of the women’s Hakoah swim team that resonated. I had never heard of the once-renowned Viennese Jewish sports club, whose athletes shone in many arenas, but my mother was an aquatic fanatic, swimming 50 laps in an Olympic-size pool three times a week up almost until she died at age 78. I was also tickled to see Theodor Herzl represented by a bicycle hanging from a rafter of the soaring atrium, and to learn that Herzl was taught to ride by another bookish Jew, playwright Arthur Schnitzler. It’s a clever visual shorthand for the transition from intellectual Jewish Vienna to the muscular, kibbutznik Zionism that Herzl birthed there.

Theodor Herzl’s bicycle, hanging from the ceiling of the Jewish Museum Vienna. Courtesy Jewish Museum, Vienna

This light touch is carried through to the second floor, which highlights famous Jews of the pre-war era. For example, the Sigmund Freud display features a Freud action figure and plush doll as well as an Andy Warhol portrait. I suspect the father of psychoanalysis would have enjoyed the conceit. I base this impression not only on the fact that Freud wrote a book titled Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious but also on the self-deprecating wit of a Viennese Jewish man I knew well, my father.

Freud plush doll, from my personal collection

On first glance, the third floor collection of Jewish artifacts seems the most conventional, and the most poorly displayed. Ornate silver torah crowns, candlestick holders, Sabbath plates, many of them seemingly identical… all are crowded together, making it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the individual objects. Then you realize that this is a Visual Storage area, with rows of shelves receding into the distance. This type of exhibition is not particular to this museum but it is particularly meaningful here, with its evocation of the confiscation and storehousing of Jewish property.

Storeroom of Jewish artifacts, courtesy of the Jewish Museum Vienna

It is one of the many ways that the museum tells all the truth about the war years, but tells it slant, as Emily Dickinson put it. Another branch of the museum, across town, deals with war loss more explicitly, if not more graphically, through an artistic Holocaust Memorial. Having successfully achieved the goal of examining the milieu of my relatives, while avoiding unpalatable representations of their fate, I decided to pass. Besides, although I overcame my initial anxiety at seeing the signage at the Dorotheergasse location, I was not sure I was ready for a visit to the museum’s other address, a square called Judenplatz.

Courtesy of the Jewish Museum Vienna

 

Note: This essay was written after my trip to Vienna three years ago, and originally appeared in The Forward. I added several pictures — the one in the header is the last one that my mother and her parents had taken in Vienna –and posted it here. Call it a revival. 

 

Return to Vienna

Return to Vienna

There’s so much to report about my recent trip to Vienna, hosted by the Jewish Welcome Service, and so little time to do it right now as I prepare to leave for a book tour. But I won’t bury the lede. I’m thinking very seriously of returning to Vienna next year for a much longer timeContinue Reading »

Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Opening Up to Elijah: A Passover Story

Call me a seder skeptic. I’m fond of the Passover story, its message of exile and redemption. I especially like the ritual of saving a place at the table and a glass of wine for the prophet Elijah. Like Santa Claus, he is required to visit millions of homes in a single night. Opening the door for him to comeContinue Reading »

Grief, Food, & Nudity: A Story About My Mother & My New Book

Grief, Food, & Nudity: A Story About My Mother & My New Book

Not long after my father died, I went to Martinique with my mother. I remember three things about that trip.  My mother’s grief. The profiteroles. And the topless beach. Grief, food, and nudity My mother was in a raw stage of mourning, subject to fits of literal wailing. But no one in my family was everContinue Reading »

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

Of Chutzpah, Kickstarter, and Keeping a Low Profile

When I was growing up, my mother always implied that my sister and I should keep a low profile. We were supposed to excel in school, sure, but not to stand out because otherwise “they” would find us, even though we grew up in America, even though “they” found everyone they wanted to find inContinue Reading »

A New Journey

A New Journey

Dear Freud’s Butcherites Friends of Freud’s Butcher, As you may have noticed — at least I hope so — I haven’t been around much lately. The short version of the reason: I’m not a very good multitasker. For many years, I’ve had a travel memoir on my back burner. And I finally decided to finish itContinue Reading »

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Of Genealogies and Possibilities: A New Year’s Musing

Happy 2015. It’s that time of year when all the possibilities seem to open up. January 1 is an arbitrary date, of course, but who doesn’t want to believe in fresh starts, in learning from our experiences, even if those experiences sometimes seem arbitrary too? I ended last year on a sad note, with the accidental death of aContinue Reading »

In Memoriam, Jean Phillips, 1953-2014

In Memoriam, Jean Phillips, 1953-2014

This page is for those who knew and loved Jean to post pictures and remembrances, long or short. Feel free to post text remembrances in the comments section here. Edie Jarolim, Tucson, AZ I’ve met many wonderful people through this blog. I never know when a relative I didn’t know I had or someone with information about Freud or rolledContinue Reading »

If Freud Celebrated Sukkot

If Freud Celebrated Sukkot

Jews around the world recently celebrated Sukkot, a joyous holiday that follows five days after the very solemn Yom Kippur; it has its roots as a harvest/agricultural festival. I won’t attempt to explain it in detail here; if you want to read all about it, including a discussion of how to pronounce it, here’s a linkContinue Reading »

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sigmund Freud, Including His Eyeglass Prescription

7 Things You Didn’t Know About Sigmund Freud, Including His Eyeglass Prescription

I’d be hard pressed to guess how many pages have been devoted to the life and times of Sigmund Freud. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? I’ve contributed more than a hundred here alone. But there are still a few things about the father of psychoanalysis that most people don’t know, 75 years after his death, details about hisContinue Reading »