In a Corner of Austria, A Curator Plays With a Taboo

The far-western Austrian market town of Hohenems (population 14,000) is a good place to take in a chamber orchestra during one of many regional summer music festivals or to learn about water-driven mill technology, once a mainstay of the town’s economy. Less predictably, it’s also the location of one of Europe’s most innovative Jewish museums.

The director of the Judisches Museum Hohenems (pronounced HOE-nems), Hanno Loewy, doubles as the town’s sole Jewish inhabitant. (Hohenems’s 300-year-old Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust.) Since arriving from Germany last year, Loewy has transformed this provincial museum with a series of provocative, richly imagined exhibits. On October 16, he will unveil his boldest initiative yet: an exhibit of antisemitic objects likely to provoke not only those who oppose the educational display of antisemitica but also those in support of it.

Loewy’s exhibit opens at a time of increasing skepticism among curators and Holocaust educators about the ability of educational displays of antisemitic iconography — medieval engravings, Nazi-era publications, modern-day political cartoons — to enlighten Europeans about the tragic consequences of such propaganda. In England and the Netherlands, for example, Holocaust educators have started to focus on more constructive iconography meant to celebrate Jewish accomplishment rather than mourn Jewish tragedy.

“It isn’t the duty of a Jewish museum to exhibit these things,” said Bernhard Purin, a former director of the Hohenems Museum who now heads the Munich Jewish Museum. “The artifacts are made by non-Jews and address non-Jews. Jews are affected by it, but it’s not a Jewish problem.”

Loewy disagrees.

“Whatever we do, this imagery is out there,” he said. “Treating it as taboo only makes it more mysterious. We are living in a world where antisemitism has gained significance in political discourse. It’s part of our culture, and we have to face it.”

Even those who agree, however, are likely to be surprised by Loewy’s new offering. In contrast to the sobriety of most antisemitica exhibits, whose primary mission is a solemn call to commemoration, Loewy will present antisemitica “like commodities in a store, a lower-class antique shop where we go to buy and collect.” The ashtrays, walking sticks and beer steins — drawn from the collection of Gideon Finkelstein, a Belgian Orthodox-Jewish businessman — will be displayed in weathered showcases that Loewy rented to create a suitably shabby setting. For centuries, such objects were as ubiquitous in European homes as Mammy and Mose salt and pepper shakers were in American households before the 1960s.

“These things were something people lived with every day, which gave them an appearance of harmlessness,” Loewy said. “You held the beer mug or the walking stick — it was a paranoid fantasy of controlling the controllers, the Jews, who were seen as controlling everything.”

The idea is simple, but revolutionary: Instead of battling to disprove the myths about Jews alleged by the antisemitica on display — the agenda of most such exhibits — Loewy’s exhibit asks viewers to consider what myths may have motivated its producers and consumers.

Loewy’s unconventional approach implicitly takes issue with a 1993 show sponsored by the Jewish Museum Vienna, which featured 5,000 antisemitic objects mounted on massive walls that arched over viewers. The looming display overwhelmed visitors, Loewy argues.

“You don’t want to make these objects as powerful as their producers wanted them to be,” he said. “We have a more ironic approach: We want to show them as part of everyday life — cheap, commonplace — and as a means of creating an identity. There are a lot of non-Jewish fantasies about Jews. They have to do with desire, longing, weakness, fetish culture. How and why do people need these objects to express their desires?”

The exhibit wishes to provoke reflection about the Jewish side of the transaction, as well; it presents Jews as something more than victims, though by means of a more ambivalent portrait.

“Why do Jews collect these things?” Loewy asked. “I think that, in turn, it has to do with controlling the antisemite, with disempowering the person who wanted to control you.”

The exhibit also features explicit Jewish self-representations. Do modern-day mementos of sidelocked Hasidic musicians, featuring hooked noses and gnarled fingers virtually identical to “antisemitic” productions, challenge our assumptions about what constitutes antisemitism? Why not?

At a time when Jewish monitoring groups continue to deride Holocaust commentary that doesn’t mourn, in “exceptionalist” terms, the tragedy of its 6 million Jewish deaths, Loewy’s postmodern, ironic, almost playful inquiry — which opens just days after Yom Kippur — amounts to provocation, if not heresy.

This is familiar ground for Loewy, whose German Jewish parents left Israel — where they had immigrated separately before the war — in the 1950s to return to Germany. Loewy’s exhibits have disdained hagiography. For instance, a 2004 show celebrating internationally renowned Hohenems cantor Salomon Sulzer took time to ponder the self-mythologizations and vanities of an ambitious performer; a just-concluded exhibit titled “Jewish Kitsch” — a look at Jewish collecting and self-representation — opened with an interpretive dance by a local pantomime artist and closed with an auction of the displayed objects.

The result has been a steady stream of visitors to the museum — about 10,000 a year, by Loewy’s estimation, with many non-Jews among them. As Jewish watchdogs complain about occasional European indifference to calls for penitent commemoration, Loewy’s inclusive, irreverent exhibits have allowed non-Jews to appropriate the tragedy on their own terms and to imagine Jews as something more than mere martyrs — as the heroes and villains that they were, as fully drawn, recognizable human beings deserving of sympathy.

But Loewy is no panderer. His exhibit also considers “those philosemitic ideologies like Christian Zionism that just turn around the old prejudice from a favorable perspective, but keep the fantasies about Jews,” and features a modern kitchen containing antisemitic objects concealed in drawers and cupboards.

“It’s a ‘cleaned-up’ room,” Loewy explained. “In Europe today, there’s a taboo about antisemitic expression, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappeared. Antisemitic vocabulary is omnipresent in other agendas, from criticisms of globalization to Islamic perceptions of the West. If you don’t talk about it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

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