The permanent exhibition covers two floors of the former villa house of one of Hohenem’s more prominent Jewish inhabitants. The first floor covers the period from the Middle ages when the first references to a Jewish population were made, through to the early 20th century. What is most striking about the way the exhibition is developed is the way in which the stories and objects seek to tell the story of the Jewish population is how personal the items are. For example, a series of letters and lists that was found in the attic of one of the houses very recently, and illustrates how a family (and the community at large) went from writing Yiddish and German with Hebrew letters for everyday correspondence and admin and how their children then transcribed it into German.
Another striking element is the way in which the exhibition does not simply tell the story of the community using only the examples of prominent members of the society. Attention is given to the difficulties of named people whose jobs meant a great deal of travelling around, pedalling low cost items, and the problems that an itinerant lifestyle entailed for Jewish peddlars, such as ensuring they were somewhere with a Jewish community for Shabbat.
The first floor ends in the early twentieth century with an examination of the what a Jewish-Austrian identity might have meant after emancipation and tolerance was legally mandated decades before and after families had lived in towns and communities for up to 400 years. A discrete and well-designed enclave (see picture on right above which is actually a photo of the reflection in the mirror which faces it) explains and illustrates some of the causes and stereotypes linked to Jewish communities and which lay the foundation for the outrageous anti-Semitism in Europe in the early 1900s. Two computer screens show boxes - altogether approx. 20, each of which contains a myth or stereotype (ranging from ‘Desecration of the Host’ to ‘Beautiful Jewess”). If you touch ones of the headings, the box will then begin by showing text that describes the categorisation. Touch again and you are given examples (quotes from people/literature, pictures, etc) that show this prejudice in action. The most shocking are those that show that anti-Semitism is not a thing of the past, but show politicians, books etc talking in unspeakable ways as late as the 1990s:
It’s a real shame however, that this was one of the only things to be in German and English. All the exhibitions texts excluding multimedia exhibits were solely in German.
The second floor of the permanent exhibition details the fate of the Jewish population of Hohenem’s and the surrounding areas during the Holocaust and into the Diaspora. Unlike the first floor, only the walls are used to showcase objects and offer information, rather than the somewhat maze-like case below. Two recessed allow visitors to browse through survivor video testimonies, complete with subtitles in three languages (unlike the rest of the exhibition, which has only panels and text in German). The exhibition does not offer an exhaustive account of the Holocaust, rather it maintains the focus on the individual experiences of members of the local community, and relies on the visitor to know what “Murdered in Auschwitz” or “deported to …” might mean.
What is most refreshing about the museum is that it doesn’t try to cram in everything about Jewish life and experience into a small space. The important festivals/life events are discussed in context of the personal stories of the Jewish community of Hohenems, but the community is presented squarely within the wider context of political, religious and economic history. It maintains a breadth of information whilst avoiding being an encyclopaedic history of Judaism. Families are followed through generations, so the visitor starts to recognise the recurrence of surnames. This adds a natural-feeling human element that makes the coming devastation of the 20th Century, the events - so often overwhelming in terms of sheer scale and numbers - are represented as the endless series of personal stories and tragedies that it was.
Hopefully I’ll get round to writing up the temporary exhibition in the next few days too.