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Jews

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The night of November 9-10, 1938: Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass:  Throughout Nazi Germany (including Austria, which had folded itself seamlessly into Nazi Germany some months before) synagogues were plundered and set afire, with crowds of bystanders cheering, and police and fire brigades standing idly by.  Shops owned by Jews were looted and destroyed, Jewish men beaten and arrested, Jewish women terrorized and molested.  All this a seeming apotheosis of European religious antisemitism, exclusionary nationalism, “scientific” racism, nostalgia for a past that never was, and urban economic, social, and spatial competition.

In Vienna, all but one of the city’s monumental synagogues and modest prayer-houses were destroyed during the 24-hour rampage.  How are they remembered today?  Barely, and by few.  Memorial plaques mark the sites of a quite a number of the city’s destroyed synagogues, but their texts are as often as not confusing and bland, with events sanitized and the perpetrators obfuscated by overuse of euphemisms and passive voice in German and by shoddy accompanying translations into English.

Phantasm and Reflection: Two Photos of Monuments without Words

The photographs above and below portray two impressive memorials to two Viennese synagogues destroyed on Kristallnacht.  Both memorials eschew words for silence and didacticism for emotion.

The photo at the top was taken through a large plate-glass plaque set as a memorial on the corner of the Eitelbergergasse and Neue-Welt-Gasse in the posh Viennese suburb of Hietzing.  The plaque stands across the street from the one-time site of the “Neue Welt Tempel,” a freestanding structure, quite modern in its time, designed by architect Artur Grünberger in a style seemingly influenced  by the Viennese Secession. The Neue Welt Tempel was constructed in the late-1920s and early-1930s in the midst of Hietzing’s quiet tree-lined sidestreets and Jugendstil mansions.

Silkscreened onto the surface of the glass plaque is a finely-rastered, semi-translucent reproduction of an archival photograph of the exterior of the Neue Welt Tempel taken sometime in the mid-1930s, probably from the exact location where the plaque now stands.  By positioning oneself at just the right angle and distance from the plaque, a viewer is treated to a mirage … suddenly, the present and past are juxtaposed, and a ghost-like image of the Neue Welt Tempel appears to sprout from the surface of the yellow apartment house now standing on its former site. For a moment, the Neue Welt Tempel reappears as if still there … and then, just as suddenly, juxtaposition is lost and the illusion fades.

In the photograph below, a sparse, minimalist garden fills the length and part of the width of the one-time footprint of the 1870s, Neo-Renaissance style, “Turnertempel” synagogue at Turnergasse 22 in Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus, not far from the Gürtel and the shopping thoroughfare of Mariahilfestrasse.   The greenery at the edges of the garden offsets the starkness of the gravel surface, concrete pathways, and benches of well-weathered wooden beams.  The trees at the left of the photo are lindens. Summers, the scent of linden blossoms fills the garden and, as the weeks pass, fallen linden petals turn into perfumed dust that cushions the garden’s gravel surface. The total effect is apt: life emerging from, but never quite obliterating, destruction.

This past summer, I stopped at the Turnergasse memorial garden a number of times to read, write, reflect and rest.  There were few other visitors: workmen on lunch and cigarette breaks, occasional pairs of daytime beer drinkers, small numbers of neighborhood residents, judging by their appearances and voices, immigrants mostly, from the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East.  Did they know what once stood at the site where they were sitting?  Were they aware of its fate?  Could they sense the one-time prayers, concerns, and celebrations of people who had preceded them, and who had played out-sized roles in Vienna’s former greatness and in the shaping of the city in which they now live and the rights and security they now enjoy?  Probably not.  Most people in Vienna,  like most people elsewhere, are propelled by the intentionality of their own immediate concerns.  Others in Vienna, native-born Austrians and immigrants both, turn up their noses at the memories of Jews and bristle at reminders of their murder.  But for those of us open to it, to those of us who bear the weight of its absence, a presence seems to hover in the garden at Turnergasse.

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Footnote on Resources

For the past months, a small exhibition at Vienna’s Jewish Museum showcased the research and meticulous computer-generated recreations of the exteriors and interiors of Viennese synagogues and the urban contexts in which they once stood, done by Bob Marten and Herbert Peter, and published in book form some years ago as Die zerstörten Synagogen Wiens: Virtuelle Stadtspaziergānge and later in English as The Destroyed Synagogues of Vienna.

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Five fast-food “boxes” in Favoriten, the 10th district of Vienna.  A (somewhat lengthy) bit of background plus a few reflections — mostly factual but partly speculative —  on the content of the photos follows the last of the four images below.

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Background

In Vienna, during the 19th-century, wandering vendors sold cooked sausages from baskets and from portable bins — low-cost fast-food for time-pressed workers, many having no cooking facilities in their rented rooms and over-crowded apartments.

By the early-20th century, wheeled sausage carts appeared on the streets Vienna. From the 1960s on, semi-permanent kiosks — würstelstände — took root on the city’s sidewalks and street corners, serving food and drink and providing places to linger and gather — cafe-restaurants, as it were, for people with the shortest of lunch breaks, the thinnest of pocketbooks, the most work-soiled hands and clothes, and the strongest of appetites.  As the decades passed, Vienna’s sidewalk würstelstände increased in size, variety, and numbers, and their menus evolved to reflect waves of demographic change.

Today, the backbone of würstelstände offerings remains “traditional” sausages, their origins grounded in the tastes of 19th-century economic migrants to Vienna from the one-time expanses of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire: Germanic white and frankfurter sausages, Polish kielbasa, Slovenian meat- and cheese-filled sausages, and paprika-laden sausages of putative Hungarian origin. In recent decades, however, such “traditional” sausages  yielded counter-space to fast-food dishes descended from the cuisine of more recent economic migrants from Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Middle East, as well as to Austrian oversimplifications of Asian cuisine.  The results have shaped new “traditions” that challenge the imagination and, more painfully, the digestive capabilities of all but the hardiest diners. Not least, the offerings, menus, and signage of the present generation of Viennese würstelstände have also brought about linguistic transformations that compromise the integrity of German, Turkish, and other languages.

Each of the five kiosks portrayed in this post expounds on this tale. All are located along a short stretch of Quellenstrasse in Favoriten, Vienna’s 10th district.  From the late-19th-century until the Second World War, Favoriten was a district of factories, brick and tile works, garden farms, and craftsman’s ateliers, and the home of people who worked in and around them.  At the start of the 20th-century, the distinctly working-class population of Favoriten comprised large numbers of descendants of emigre Bohemians and Moravians as well as other groups including more than  8,000 Jews, many originally from Hapsburg Galicia.  (Favoriten’s immense synagogue, destroyed by arson during the Kristallnacht pogrom of November, 1938, was one of Vienna’s largest and dominated the neighborhood’s skyline). By the middle of the 20th century, the district’s Bohemian and Moravian population had folded into mainstream Vienna, and the Jews of Favoriten had been segregated, terrorized, deported, and murdered by and at the behest of Nazi Germany, of which Austria formed an integral part from 1938-1945.

In the final days of World War II, a large portion of Favoriten’s industrial and housing stock was destroyed by aerial and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house combat. A massive rebuilding program began in the 1950s. By the 1960s, an exodus of  long-time residents from Favoriten to more attractive housing estates and, eventually for some, to more upscale suburban quarters, made room for new arrivals.  The first to settle were Turkish “guest workers” followed by their families and then by subsequent waves of Anatolian immigrants.  During the decades straddling the turn of the present century, Turks were followed by Serbs, then Bosnians, and, in more recent years, by Chechens, Afghans, Iraqis, and other peoples fleeing places of conflict.

Thoughts on the stands portrayed

The signage of Evin Imbiss, portrayed in the first photo above, is a study in multi-cultural amalgamation.  Evin is Turkish for “Your House” and Imbiss a German word  for snacks and, later, for snack-bar.  A click on the photo will enlarge it, revealing a menu guaranteed to deter all but the hungriest adolescents and low-budget diners with a penchant for the tortures of culinary post-modernism. For a half-century now, newly arrived foreigners in Western Europe have been badgered and oft-times harassed to “integrate.”  In its name, offerings, and even its yellow decorative highlights (which seem to blend with the yellow of the building behind it and with the logo on the phone-both at the left of the frame), Evin Imbiss provides an apt, albeit unintended, symbol of a merger of identities.

The stand portrayed in the second photo, Würstel Box, bears a straight-forward, more Germanic, generic name: Würstel being the diminutive of Wurst and Box an anglicism for kiosk.  The regular clientele of Würstel Box, however, consists of an uninterrupted day- and night-time stream of boisterous and moderately antisocial  high-volume beer drinkers drawn from nearly as many nationalities as now populate the district.

Tiger’s Box,  portrayed in the third photo, with its wonderful slogan, Tierisch Gut! (“Beastly Good!”), sells takeaway noodle dishes, bland Austro-Anatolian re-imaginings of Asian mainstays.  Note the black-lettered text on the left side of Tiger’s Box, partly obscured by the stand’s half-lowered louvered protective gate.  The full text, a vestige of the days when the very same stand sold döner kebab (nb. Middle Eastern shoarma, Greek gyros) reads: “Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen,” in English: “Eat kebab, forget your problems” — a straight-forward spiritual prescription of sufficient wisdom and simplicity to warrant adoption as a mantra.

“Kebap Essen, Probleme Vergessen” also reveals a linguistic shift made by the word  Kebap, a  phonetic spelling of kebab, a Turkish catch-all word for roasted or grilled, cubed, sliced, or ground, and sometimes skewered, meat dishes.  At Viennese street kiosks such kebabs are served in bread, Middle Eastern, Turkish, or traditionally Viennese. As a result, kebap transitioned from signifying meat dishes to meaning meat sandwiches, and then to meaning sandwiches in general. Going one step further, kebap made a third leap to mean snacks in general.  As evidence, note the sign at the far right of the photo: “Kebap Haus,” underscored by its very non-kebab menu:  Pizza, Schnitzel, Fisch, and, as an afterthought, Felafel.

The facade of the stand in the fourth photo has an elegant contemporary finish but the modestly small print of the menu stenciled on its display window mirrors the standard neighborhood fare visible in its interior: i.e. pizza and döner.

The stand in the fifth photo takes the word kebap a quantum leap further on a trajectory from its eastern and carnivore roots westward and vegetarian-wards via the somewhat contradictory offering of Gemüse Kebap, i.e. Vegetable Kebab.  Not surprisingly, the display window on the other side of the kiosk, not visible in the photo, betrayed an immense, slowly-turning, very non-vegetarian döner kebab.

Photographic note

All five photos were taken with with a dated and increasingly malfunctioning Fuji X100 digital camera augmented with “50mm-equivalent,” screw-on “tele” converter.  I’ve also taken a few photographs of the stands on medium format film; depending on the results, I’ll consider posting a few examples following long-overdue processing and scanning.

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Mannequins in Black and White, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100.

The image above is from a series of photos treating mannequins in Istanbul, their manufacture and display, part of an in-depth look into the urban geography of a traditional sector.  Mannequins, as I discovered, are designed and produced according to a complex web of typology and hierarchy — price-wise and according to the class, incomes, tastes, beliefs, cultures, and aspirations of the “markets” targeted to purchase the garments in which the mannequins will be clad.  In a future entry, I hope to post more photos from the series and comment further.

Saturday’s bomb attack

For now, in light of the murderous bomb attack this past Saturday on Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi, I am posting this photo as an all-too-obvious metaphor for the dualiities and contradictions that enrich but also plague Istanbul — its peace and its violence, its tolerance and its hatreds, its physical location straddling two continents, and its seeming temporal spanning of the world views of multiple centuries.

Metaphor

The black-white duality of the mannequins’ garb also suggests the extremes of Istanbul’s and Turkey’s ruling AK Party and its leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan — a propensity towards confrontation, bluster, and intimidation that yields and masks a polarized polity at home, failed ambitions in the middle east, failed outreaches towards the west, and dual failures in dealing with complex conundrums of Syria and predominantly Kurdish eastern Anatolia.

Black-white contrasts also characterize the history and transformation of Istiklal Caddesi and surroundings. In Ottoman centuries Istiklal was a street of palatial Ottoman homes and western embassies and, by the early- to mid- twentieth century, a western-style avenue of shops, cinemas and entertainment, with backstreets sheltering tenement housing and offering drink, music, and food, as well as bordellos, “straight” and transvestite.

In recent years, Istiklal continues to change, becoming less and less upscale on the one hand, and less local and bohemian on the other, and more and more like an open air shopping mall, with rising rents forcing out independent merchants and restaurateurs in favor of chain operations with deep pockets and with historic buildings gutted, their restored facades masking modern shopping emporiums.  In the backstreets, “vice” and seediness fade and “cute” coffee shops take their place. The flow of pedestrians, locals and tourists, up and down Istiklal increases each year, with the noticeable changes that the crowds seem progressively younger and the tourists as often as not (mid-)eastern as western.

Even in the midst of such changes, Istiklal remains the site of political demonstrations and of symbolic acts, both democratic in aspiration, ala the summer of 2013 (scroll through the following group of posts) and, tragically, murderously anarchic as per Saturday.

The black-white metaphor also points to another of the city’s contradictions.  Istanbul is marketed as “multicultural” and “tolerant,” but the reality plays out otherwise.  Few Istanbul Greeks remain in the city, its Armenian population stagnates, and its Jewish population ages and declines year by year as younger Jews leave for abroad. What remain of all three of the city’s traditional minority populations have moved to the comfort, anonymity, and security of neighborhoods far afield from the surroundings of Istiklal.

Irony

By chance, three of the victims of Saturday’s bombing were Israelis and the attack took place within fifteen minute’s walk of the lower reaches of Istiklal, the neighborhood of Galata which, a century ago, had been home to a large Jewish population and that still houses three of Istanbul’s regularly-functioning synagogues.  The three synagogues operate under extreme security, precisely due to eventualities such as Saturday’s attack — indeed, one of the synagogues was bombed fifteen years ago and attacked by machine gun and hand grenade wielding murderers fifteen years before that.  Ironically, at the time of Saturday’s attack, the visiting Israelis would have been far safer attending one of the nearby synagogues than enjoying the sybaritic luxury of a peaceful Saturday morning stroll on Istiklal.  This too is amongst the contradictions and ironies of Istanbul.

Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2013.  Inscriptions, extent and obliterated, on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul.  (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

Main entrance section of the original building of Or Ahayim Hastanesi, the Balat Jewish Hospital, Balat, Istanbul, 2011. Inscriptions — both extent and obliterated — on its facade give insight into realities of past and present-day Istanbul. (Fuji X100) Click on image to enlarge.

The Or Ahayim Jewish hospital in Balat was founded and built in the last decades of the 19th century.  Its construction and original endowment was funded by large donations from wealthy Istanbul Jewish families, as well as by masses of small coins placed into collection boxes by Istanbul’s far more numerous Jewish working poor.   The monumental former entrance way as shown above, built in 1898 to replace an earlier structure, was designed by Architect Gabriel Tedeschi who, if I am correct, was also the architect of the Ashkenazic Synagogue (built as the Austro-Hungarian Synagogue) near the Galata Tower on Yüksek Kaldιrιm in the Karakoy section of Istanbul.  Today, Or Ahayim complex comprises the only buildings in Balat still standing on the shore side of the Golden Horn coastal road, on what is now a park but was once the site of a shore-front slum.

A Shining Light

The Hebrew name “Or Ahayim” literally translates as “Light of Life” — and a true light of life the hospital has been and remains to be for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.  Originally founded as a dispensary for the Jewish poor, the hospital, still funded and administrated by the Jewish community of Turkey, now serves the almost completely Muslim population of Balat, a sign of the commitment of Istanbul Jews to the city in which they live and have been rooted since early-Ottoman times and, in the cases of those who can claim Romaniote origins, far longer.

Cautious Discretion or Imposed Anonymity?

In the face of realities of contemporary Istanbul, the identity and history of Or Ahayim, like those of many other “minority” institutions, seems discreetly obscured.  The “history” page of the hospital’s website never directly mentions the institution’s specifically Jewish identity but subtly suggests such by listing the characteristically Sephardic- (and, in one case, Ashkenazic-) Jewish family names of the original founders and donors, including, amongst others: Dalmediko, de Kastro, Gerson, Molho, Halfon, Levi, Kohen, and Grayver.  Some of the donors named held military titles, including one physician with the naval rank of Admiral, others held the honorific of “pasha.” My own favorite amongst the names listed is that of Yuda Levi Kebapçıoğlu — kebapçıoğlu meaning “son of the kabob vendor,” an honorific seemingly rooted in hard work and, in culinary terms, more to my own taste.  Likewise, the website mentions that the hospital housed refugees that arrived in Istanbul from Russia in the 1920s and Poland in the 1930s but similarly sidesteps any mentions of their ethnicities.

The facade of the hospital also displays a ambiguous blurring over of identity.  A very large Hebrew letter inscription in the central panel of the architrave at the apex of the structure, formerly visible from afar, was plastered over late sometime late in the last decade (according to my memory either soon after disturbances in the aftermath of the Israeli incursion into Gaza or the Mavi Marmara affair).  Vague traces of the inscription can be seen in the full sized raw file of the photo above, my reading thereof being the Hebrew words “Beit HaHolim Or Hayim” (Or Ahayim Hospital). Somewhere in my archives, I have a photo taken early in 2008 in which the inscription was still clearly legible. Oddly, a similar blurring over of the inscription is shown on the ostensibly vintage illustrations on the hospital’s website.  Two other inscriptions near ground-level, both less obvious to passersby, still proclaim the origin and  identity of the building: Over the main doorway, in Latin characters, the words “Musevi Hastanesi” (Jewish Hospital) and, on a small plaque tucked away at the lower left corner of the facade, in Hebrew characters but in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish, the former language of the Jews of Istanbul) the inscription “Ispital Or HaHayim” followed by the Gregorian date 1898 and its Hebrew calendar equivalent, 5658.

Erasure of Urbanity

Erasure and obliteration of Hebrew inscriptions, six-pointed stars, and building construction dates according to the Jewish calendar from communal structures and residences originally built by Jews has been a feature of renovations and gentrification of quarters of Istanbul including Galata and Kuzguncuk.  Whether intentional or out of ignorance, such erasures dovetail with the present-day rejection of the past urbanity of Istanbul as well as with the reformulation of identity and history in a self-styled, and thus increasingly, homogeneous and mono-religious Turkey.

 

Balat, Istanbul, late-afternoon, December 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Late afternoon light. Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

The birthday last month of a friend with a sharp and compassionate eye for the poignancy and ironies of urban details provided an impetus for me to cull the archives and print images including the ones above and below, both taken late afternoon some years ago in the quarter of Balat on the shore of the Golden Horn, Istanbul.

Changing Populations

For centuries, Balat and surroundings had been home to Jews, Armenians, and Greeks.  From the 1940s on, these “minority” populations, both of Balat, and of adjacent, once mostly-Greek, Fener, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, plummeted.  Traditional occupations, including those of Jews as boatmen and stevedores in Istanbul’s once-nearby port facilities (which, during the mid-20th century, in search of ample space, shifted outwards towards the urban edge) faded away, contributing to the departure of poorer Jews for Israel and better-off ones to newer neighborhoods north of Taksim Square, along the upper shores of the Bosporus, and on Istanbul’s Asian side.  Armenians followed similar patterns of migration within the city.  Greeks were pressured to leave Balat, Fener, and, for that matter, all of Istanbul en masse following the anti-minority riots of the mid-1950s and a series of expulsions and seizures of property thereafter. By the 1960s and 1970s, Balat became the province of a new wave of residents, emigrants from towns and villages in north and central Anatolia.

Recently, the population of the quarter has begun to change again.   Neighborhood ties have loosened and descendants of the new arrivals of two and three generations ago seek better housing elsewhere.   Developers have razed older structures at the northern edge of Balat and begun to build modern, higher-priced ones in their place.  Refugees from Syria, Arabs, Turkmen, and Kurds, monied and poor, have found homes in the Balat’s still ample stock of dilapidated housing.   The very same housing supply provides a magnet attracting a first wave of gentrifiers with tastes for traditional housing near the urban core and with sufficient financial resources to purchase and renovate individual apartments or entire buildings.  Their presence is signaled by the openings of antiques stores and espresso bars.  Their arrivals and the arrivals of those in their footsteps cause local real estate prices to skyrocket.

Afternoon Light and Shadows

As some buildings are razed and others renovated, as established locals depart, and as gentrifiers pursue their dreams of authenticity and refugees build new lives in the face of uncertainties, memories and echoes of those who lived in Balat long before  them vanish.   Decades of newer residents walk past shuttered synagogues, underused churches, and Jewish and Christian communal buildings only peripherally conscious of what was once central to the lives of those who they replaced.  One thing still remains constant, however … the afternoon light, ricocheting off the facades of Balat’s east-west streets and shrouding its north-south ones in shadows.

Row Houses, Balat, Istanbul. Late afternoon, December, 2011.  The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses is one of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul's most densely populated Jewish neighborhood.

Late afternoon shadows, row houses, Balat, Istanbul, December, 2011. The nameplate of a Jewish physician on the entrance-way of one of the houses shown  is a of the rare signs of the remaining presence of Jews in the buildings of what was once one of Istanbul’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood. Click on image to enlarge.

Rowhouses and Sea Walls Saved by … Automobiles!

Six or seven years ago, I joined a friend/colleague from the architectural department of one of Istanbul’s universities to trace the remainders of Byzantine and Ottoman sea walls in the court yards and backstreets of Balat closest to the water’s edge.  Over the centuries, progressive silting, intentional landfill, and the construction of a shore line roadway and green space had stranded extant fragments seawalls a few hundred meters inland.  The purpose of our survey was to ensure that historic seawall fragments would remain untouched in the face of a proposed real estate development project that would transform rows of houses, like those below, into upscale townhouses by restoring their facings but fully gutting, enlarging, and rebuilding their interiors.  Ultimately, the project did not go through.  Ironically, it was done in by the automobile: to wit, Istanbul residents of the income levels the development consider automobile ownership and parking within meters of their doorsteps as an entitled prerogative.  The narrow streets of Balat simply could not provide sufficient access and parking space.  Automobiles to the rescue, thus!

A Long-Vanished Nightspot: A patch of pavement, a corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria –  the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by  Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years preceding the Second World War.  In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicities and walks of life.  Fuji X100, 2014. Click on image to enlarge.

The probable site of a 1930s nightspot, Cafe Keva, owned and run by a popular Romani singer of the time, Sofia, Bularia, 2014. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

A Tentative Return

After a six-month hiatus, I’ve decided to reactivate this site, in part due to the encouragement of a small circle of readers in New York, Luxembourg, Vienna, Sofia, and Istanbul.  We’ll see how it goes…

A Long-Vanished Nightspot

A patch of pavement, a graffiti covered corrugated metal fence, and a rundown cottage from a past age on a main thoroughfare in Sofia, Bulgaria – the likely location of a nightclub once owned and run by Keva, a legendary Romani (Gypsy) vocalist in the years between the two world wars. In its day, Cafe Keva was a popular gathering-place for Sofia residents of diverse ethnicity and walks of life.

The prosaic stretch of sidewalk portrayed in the photo above is one of many subtle, non-monumental reminders of the presence, history, labor, and  social and cultural contributions of the Roma (Gypsy) population of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital.  Over the past century, processes of nation-forming and of economic change, coupled with social and spatial segregation, have solidified and sustained the marginalization Roma.  In parallel, the official historiography and anti-minority sentiments of Bulgaria’s self-styled mono-ethnic society and the pretensions of its post-communist monied classes have booted Roma out of their rightful places in urban consciousness and mainstream memory.

Monuments Spatial Rather Than Physical

As mentioned in a previous post, a decade ago, at the behest of an obscure US congressional commission, I conducted an extensive survey of architectural monuments across present-day Bulgaria germain to the histories, lives, and identities of a number of “minority” religious and ethnic groups, Roma amongst them.  Output included databases, background monographs, and a shortlist of sites worthy of conservation or restoration.

My recommendations for sites relevant to Roma history focused as much on spatiality as on edifices.  For Sofia, my recommendations included a program of markers, urban walks, and print- and/or computer-based mapping that would identify relevant locations but also chart the progressive displacement of Roma from the interactivity of Sofia’s urban core to the isolation and apartheid of its urban – and, along with it, social and economic – periphery.  I now debate implementing the project on my own.  (Note: Some years previously, I had begun to map the outward displacement of the Jewish population of Sofia during the late-19th and early-twentieth centuries. Indeed, in the aftermath the selection of Sofia as the capital of newly-independent Bulgaria nearly a century and a half ago, neither Gypsies nor Jews were considered welcome in the city’s redeveloped, self-consciously “European”-style inner core and were exiled to its furthest-most reaches.)

Afterword …

A test for Sofiotes: Anyone who’d like to hazard a guess as to the exact location of the patch of sidewalk in the photo above is welcome to post a comment, as is anyone who would like to share more about Cafe Keva or any other markers of Romani life in Sofia, past or present.  I should mention that the location portrayed above was pointed out to me years ago by Dimitar “Mitko” Georgiev, a resident of the Roma quarter of “Fakulteto”  whose family has lived in Sofia for generations.  If the location of Cafe Keva as portrayed in the photo is correct, he gets the credit; if it is wrong, I’ll take the blame.

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, 1999. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Cick on image to enlarge.

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, Autumn, 1998. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Digital scan of black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In the late 1990s, work on a series of projects for Dutch and Czech national telephone companies took me regularly to Prague. My workdays were long and pressured but, evenings and weekends, while many of my expatriate colleagues drank beer, I took to the streets of Prague with camera, light-meter, film, and tripod.

The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life-s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.  At the upper left of the tableau, a stylized two-dimensional Jugendstil angel leads a fallen officer away to another realm.  At the right, the officer’s pleading, grieving mother is restrained and comforted by no less a person than Kaiser Franz Josef I himself.  The focus is more on the emotions of the living than on the sad fate of dead.  The soldier, who no doubt died in agony, is portrayed as physically intact and unmarked by his miserable end.  The Kaiser is is portrayed as fatherly and gentle.  The only emotion to be seen is in the griefcontorted face of the mother.  The entire ensemble portrays a social structure and value system that would collapse by war’s end, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell victim to military defeat from without and economic collapse and nationalist demands for ethnic geopolitical autonomy from within.

Guns of August/Books of August

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the tense and, in retrospect, gruesomely euphoric weeks of mobilization prior to the outbreak of World War I, the weeks that Barbara Tuchman documented in her now-classic book, The Guns of August.  This month been a stiflingly hot one in southeast Europe, and the high temperatures led me to restrict my movement, limit my work, and increase my reading.  By seeming chance, I turned to books portraying life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or by writers marked by the sensibilities of the Empire or by its implosion and aftermath.

I began with Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Post Office Girl and continued with Joseph Roth’s proud and moving portrayal of the westward migration of Eastern European Jews, The Wandering Jews, followed by his epic novels Radetzky March and The Emporer’s Tomb and his Kafkaesque Hotel Savoy.  I then turned to The Burning of the World, the newly published early-World War I memoir by the minor Hungarian artist Bela Zambary-Moldovan.  I am now in the middle of Martin Pollack’s German-language Kaiser von Amerika: Die große Flucht aus Galizien, a book that strips away sentimental idealizations of the lives of Jews and Christians in the the poorest and eastern-most province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shines that light on the economic manipulation that empoverished Galizia and on the deliberate exploitation that characterized the emigration “industry” of the time.

The Wandering Jews, The Emperor’s Tomb, The Burning of the World, and Kaiser von Amerika touched me particularly close to home.  Three of my four  grandparents were Galizian Jews who arrived in New York in the decades prior to World War I.  The Emporer’s Tomb gives ample attention to the wartime lives and travails of Galizian Jews and Christians.  The battles and wartime devastation described by Zambary-Moldovan took place in and between Rawa Ruska, Hroniec Zdroy, and Lubaczow (towns straddling the present-day border of Poland and Ukraine) the very area from which my maternal grandfather hailed and where his parents, brothers, and sisters somehow survived the carnage of World War I only to be murdered by Germans and their local helpers a quarter century later.

Afterthought: For more on the theme of wartime devastation of civilian life, see another title in my August reading list,  The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, a thinly fictionalized eye-witness indictment of the callousness of the American occupation of Naples during the final years of World War II, an antidote to sentimental tear-jerking pap about America’s World War II soldiers being “the greatest generation” and to  exultation of the volunteer soldiers of “The War on Terror” as “warriors” and “heroes.”