Our City! Jewish Vienna - Then to Now - Part 1 (after 1945)
Our City! is the permanent exhibition on the Jewish history of the city of Vienna. It begins here in the first part with the year 1945 and goes on until the present. It describes how the Jewish community, which was almost completely destroyed during the Shoah, progressed in spite of opposition by post-war Austrian politicians, to its present status as a small but diverse and vibrant community. It is deeply rooted in the Viennese history of immigration: first from Eastern and Central Europe, and then from the former Soviet Union, particularly Central Asia. After looking at the present day Jewish community, the exhibition continues in the second part with the Jewish history of Vienna before 1945 – from the Middle Ages to the Shoah. It focuses particularly on the third Jewish community, which between the 1848 revolution and the turn of the twentieth century became the largest German-speaking community and the third largest overall in Europe. The title Our City! has an exclamation mark, which can be interpreted not only as an assertion and a claim but also, paradoxically, as a question mark. It invites visitors to approach the history of Vienna from a new angle.
Vienna 1945 Return – the exception
April 1945. Only around 5,000 Jews from a community that once numbered over 180,000 members survived the war in Vienna itself. Most were protected by non-Jewish spouses or parents. Around 1,000 hid underground. By September 1945 some 2,300 Jews had returned to Vienna from concentration camps. Many wanted to leave again as soon as possible. This was the traumatic starting point for a community that was offered no assistance in Austria after 1945. Deliberately restrictive citizenship regulations and immigration bans made it difficult for émigrés to return, and new immigrants were discouraged. And yet the community still managed to rebuild: initially through returnees, then displaced persons, and finally above all through new arrivals from Central and Eastern Europe.
Rifle owned by Harry Weber (1917) by Donation Uta Omodeo-ZoriniJewish Museum Vienna
Mahjong game (1940)Jewish Museum Vienna
State Treaty and “Hilfsfonds”: May 15, 1955
Before the signing of the State Treaty in 1955, Austria managed at the last minute to negotiate the removal of a passage on shared responsibility for the Nazi crimes, although it was obliged to support those exiled. Laws were passed in 1956, 1962, and 1976 making possible small “assistance payments,” whereupon many letters were received by the "Hilfsfonds" from people in need from all over the world. Politicians never spoke of compensation, as that would have been tantamount to an admission of guilt.
The Herzl fetches Herzl
On August 15, 1949, an Israeli passenger airplane, the Herzl, landed in Austria for the first time. It came to take the mortal remains of the Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl to Israel. Herzl had requested this in his will in the event of the founding of an Israeli state. His remains had been exhumed the previous day and taken to the City Temple. Crowds of people, including many DPs, stood in line to take their leave of Herzl.
From transit to permanance Displaced persons and new Viennese
Between 1945 and 1955, 300,000 Jewish refugees, mostly survivors from Eastern Europe, lived in Austria, above all in the American DP camps. They wanted to go to Israel or the USA, and only a few remained here. Austria was also a transit land during the Cold War. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, 17,000 Jews came as refugees to Vienna. Once again a few remained and became members of the new Jewish community. Between 1968 and 1989, around 300,000 Soviet Jews passed through neutral Austria, including many Bukharan Jews on their way to Israel. Disappointed with their new life, some decided to return to the USSR, but the Soviets refused to take them back, so they were left stranded in Austria. They and their descendants now account for almost a third of the Viennese Jewish community. It is less well known that many Iranian Jews have also used Austria as a transit land since the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Reclaiming culture and history
As a “cultured nation,” Austria did little after 1945 to invite exiled artists to return. Among the few it welcomed were cabaret artists like Karl Farkas, Hermann Leopoldi, and Armin Berg. They made a marked contribution to the humor of the time – a remarkable phenomenon in Austria’s post-war history. Gerhard Bronner and Georg Kreisler, returnees from the next generation, laid the foundations for a new young cabaret scene, which for the first time took a critical look at Austria’s Nazi past and brought it to public attention. Many émigrés remained in exile, however. One of them was the Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry, whose essays questioned the concept of “Heimat.” His choice in 1955 of a French name, an anagram of his real name Hans Mayer, emphasized the traumatic break in his life
Seeking an identity in the “Free Community”
In 1977 "Jüdische Jugend Österreich" published a magazine "Die Freie Gemeinde" – in protest against the attempted censorship in " Die Gemeinde," the official organ of the IKG. The tongue-in-cheek questionnaire on page 10 is a guide to Jewish self-awareness and commitment in the “political Jewish jungle of Vienna.”
Inside and outside - Conflicts from the 1970s
Twenty-five years after the Shoah, the Austrians elected a Jew as Federal Chancellor – in itself a positive signal for the Viennese Jewish community. But feelings were ambivalent. Kreisky supported the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), classed as a terrorist organization at the time, and also worked with politicians with a Nazi past. The latter caused a conflict with Simon Wiesenthal, which ended in a political but also a highly emotional personal war. A further conflict rooted in modern Austrian history gave Viennese Jews reason to despair of their country. The Waldheim affair in 1986 occasioned massive anti-Semitic attacks. But alongside this disillusionment, there was also a new, positive experience, the emergence of a courageous civil society with, for the first time, strong public solidarity.
New Viennese realities Max Berger’s Judaica collection and Margit Dobronyi’s photo archive
Margit Dobronyi (1913–2009) and Max Berger (1924–1988) are both typical and unusual. Typical are their origins in Central/Eastern Europe, which they shared with the majority of Viennese Jews after 1945. Unusual is their legacy. Max Berger’s collection is an attempt to reconstruct the destroyed world of his childhood and to commemorate his family, killed in the Shoah. Margit Dobronyi’s photo archive, by contrast, documents modern post 1960 Jewish Vienna. The juxtaposition in the showcase might seem incongruous, but it highlights the importance in Jewish Vienna after 1945 of simultaneously remembering the past and focusing on the present. Berger and Dobronyi did not live in Vienna in 1938. They did not necessarily connect the Shoah with this city and its inhabitants. It was thus easier for them than for most of those driven out of Vienna to make it their new home.
Margit Dobronyi Chronicler of present-day Jewish life
“A photo please!” This is how Margit Dobronyi with her Hungarian accent would address everyone. Between 1960 and 2000 she photographed countless bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, charity functions, and Purim parties, usually without being hired to do so. She turned up during summer vacations and ski holidays in Semmering. Afterwards came the prints for approval, including payment slips. Her pictures reveal the irrepressible will of Viennese Jews to make up for the life they had missed and to forget the terror they had escaped. They also reflect the pride of the immigrants at having made something of themselves in their new city. Margit Dobronyi, born in 1913 in a rabbinical family, survived the Shoah in Budapest ghetto. After the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 she fled with her children to Vienna and bought a camera – an impressive achievement for a self-taught single mother.
Max Berger - Collecting and remembering
Max Berger was born in Gorlice, Galicia, in 1924. He was the only member of his family to survive the Shoah, arriving in Vienna before 1950. In 1960 he founded a furniture company, just after starting his collection of Judaica. Trude and Max Berger’s home soon became a private museum and meeting place for Judaists from all over the world. In 1987 Berger wrote: “My initial focus was on religious Jewish art used in the synagogue and the home. For me these are living objects that had a life and a purpose.” Berger was the first Jew in post-war Vienna to attempt to reconstruct the destroyed European Jewish world with the aid of memorabilia he could find. He safeguarded these remnants by purchasing them, researching their background, and finally passing them on to the City of Vienna for a new Jewish Museum. The Museum is now researching the provenance of the objects.
Nancy Spero - Remembrance / Renewal
In her 1996 wall installation, the New York artist Nancy Spero (1926–2009) addressed the Jewish history of Vienna, but also her own Jewish identity, which she saw as having been shaped in particular by the Shoah. The work also references the Berger collection – as shown not only by the depictions of ritual objects but also by Berger’s dedication to his family, who had been killed in Auschwitz and Treblinka. From the 1970s, the feminist artist sought a new description of the world through representations of women. In this installation too, women dominate: the dancer Gertrud Kraus, the singer Fritzi Massary, or the Maccabi sportswomen. It is thus all the more surprising that Spero came back to including depictions of men, such as Gustav Mahler or Jews threatened by the SS in front of Vienna City Temple in March 1938.