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Exhibition of Jewish artefacts celebrates 'true' Austria

An exhibition currently running in Vienna, titled I Would Like To Be an Austrian, has raised a few eyebrows since its opening on February 9. Given the recent political turmoil in the country resulting from the inclusion of far-right nationalist politician Jörg Haider into the government coalition, it's odd to hear any cultural group boasting of their love for Austria, particularly if they happen to be Jewish.
The Jewish cultural artefacts celebrated in I Would Like to be an Austrian are on display at the Palace Eskeles (the Jewish Museum), which lies on Dorotheergasse 11 near the Stephansplatz amidst antique shops and baroque architecture. The exhibition consists of one of the largest private collections of Jewish ritual objects from the Austro-Hungarian empire such as Torah crowns, finials and Torah shields, Esther scrolls and spice boxes. There are also paintings representing a selection of Jewish art.


A Hanukah lamp from 1900 is displayed in Eisenberger's collection.
photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

An exhibition currently running in Vienna, titled I Would Like To Be an Austrian, has raised a few eyebrows since its opening on February 9. Given the recent political turmoil in the country resulting from the inclusion of far-right nationalist politician Jörg Haider into the government coalition, it's odd to hear any cultural group boasting of their love for Austria, particularly if they happen to be Jewish.

The Jewish cultural artefacts celebrated in I Would Like to be an Austrian are on display at the Palace Eskeles (the Jewish Museum), which lies on Dorotheergasse 11 near the Stephansplatz amidst antique shops and baroque architecture. The exhibition consists of one of the largest private collections of Jewish ritual objects from the Austro-Hungarian empire such as Torah crowns, finials and Torah shields, Esther scrolls and spice boxes. There are also paintings representing a selection of Jewish art.

Hungarian-born Jenö Eisenberger, the collector of the Jewish ritual objects, explained in the exhibition catalogue that he was proud to have both Jewish and Austrian roots. Born in Hungary in 1922, Eisenberger fought for Israeli independence from 1947 until 1949, when he ended up in Vienna. There he laid roots, and fell in love with Viennese society.

"If I were reborn, I would like to be an Austrian," he wrote. "I love Vienna and its inhabitants. There is this dual love in me, for Jewish tradition and for Austrian folklore."

Much of Eisenberger's collection dates from the time of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and many of the relics are emblazoned with the monarchy's stamp. For Eisenberger, this era represented a time of peace and ethnic harmony.

"To me, the Habsburg era is the best time in the history of Austria, also one of the most dynamic," he observed. "In those days, Hungarians, Austrians, Serbs and Czechs were all able to live together."


This Torah Crown was made in Budapest in 1800.
photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

In light of Haider's recent ascent to power in Austria, Eisenberger's words on racial harmony struck a chord with Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz, the curator of the museum. Because Haider has in the past made sympathetic comments about Adolf Hitler's Nazi policies, Kohlbauer-Fritz said that the exhibition organisers had considered changing the title.

"Haider is not only a problem for Jews, he is a problem for all intelligent people," Kohlbauer-Fritz said. "While he is not openly anti-Semitic, he is openly xenophobic."

But Kohlbauer-Fritz added that Haider did not reflect the views of the typical Austrian, and that his support did not include artists and intellectuals.

"The whole cultural establishment in Vienna is against him," she said. "There is not one serious artist, thinker or intellectual who is for this government. But the title of the exhibition is ironic in the present context."

Georg Haber, managing director of the museum and a member of the Jewish community in Vienna, agreed that Austrians should not all be branded as pro-Haider, since over 70% of the citizenry did not vote for him. Furthermore, mass protests against Haider's inclusion in the government recently forced Haider to withdraw from Austrian political life.

"Besides this pro-Haider part of Austria, there is a much bigger part that did not vote for him," he said. "We at the exhibition stand for this other Austria which is, in fact, the real Austria."

"Furthermore, Eisenberger is Austrian in many ways" Haber continued. "He made great contributions to the Austrian economy and culture."

Eisenbeger, for his part, reported that his interest in his Jewish roots and the resilience of the Jewish people had encouraged him to present his collection in his adopted home of Austria. "It is impossible to destroy an entire people, since its roots and culture live on," he wrote.

Besides the Eisenberger collection, the Jewish Museum has many other exhibitions worth viewing. On the second floor, The History of Jewish Vienna is brought to life through the use of 21 unique holograms, three-dimensional film-like pictures. The flickering images present crucial historical moments from medieval times to the present.

The museum also offers a café on the ground floor and a shop with a large selection of books and CD's.

Palace Eskeles (Jewish Museum)
Dorotheergasse 11, Vienna.
Open Sun - Fri 10:00-18:00, Thur 10:00-20:00.
Admission: 40 - 70 shillings.
Internet: http//www.jmw.at
Public transport: U1, U3 underground lines to Stephansplatz station

Buses from Bratislava's Autobusová Stanica (main bus station) at Mlynské Nivy to the Vienna city centre leave daily at: 7:00, 8:00, 9:00, 11:00, 13:00, 16:00, 17:30, and 20:30.


What's on in major Czech, Slovak cities

Banská Bystrica

Art Exhibition: Artefact 2000. An association of independant painters exhibits landscape paintings of Banská Bystrica and nearby Banská Štiavnica. Showing till
March 24.
Tickets: 15 crowns. Stredoslovenské Múzeum, SNP Námestie 4.
Tel: 088 412 5897.
Open:Monday to Friday 8:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00, Sundays 8:00-12:00, 13:00-16:00.


Prague

Exhibition: Edward Grieg - Art and Identity. An exhibition organised in co-operation with the Norwegian embassy in Prague presents the life of this famous Norwegian composer through his art. Showing till May 15.
Admission free. Narodní Múzeum (The National Museum), Václavské námestí 68, Prague 1. Open daily 9:00-17:00. Tel: 00 420-2-2449 7119.


Košice

Live Music: Folk singer František Nedvěd. A local favourite, especially among younger generations, Nedvěd sings familiar Moravian and Czech folk songs at Košice's Sport Hall with ensemble on March 16.
Tickets: 200 crowns. Stará športová hala, Moyzesova, Košice. Starts at 19:00. For details call Košice information centre: 0956 258 888.

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