Archive

Memorials

I haven’t posted to this site for more than two years. The substance and rhythm of work and daily concerns had absorbed me as I immersed myself anew into the small wonders and demanding pressures of life in my native New York.  New impressions, discoveries, and rediscoveries defied short-form articulation and political conflicts and issues of social and economic inequality and change diverted my thoughts and emotions.  Then came the all-consuming pandemic, the “lockdown” and economic implosion, and the weeks of protest and upheaval that followed.  What prompted me to resume posting anew — and to begin with this seemingly obscure subject — was the appearance this week of an electronic “reprint” of one of my old posts portraying memorials to two of the vanished synagogues of Vienna.  The “reprint,” posted on the wien: postkolonial blog, is interspersed with commentary by Austrian sociologist Marietta Mayrhofer-Deak, a valued colleague and interlocutor.  Marietta posted the “reprint” in connection with a series of urban walks tracing places and trajectories relevant to the experience and daily lives of the waves of immigrants and refugees who have settled in Vienna in recent decades.  In that context, it is important that the diversity, rise, accomplishments, and murderous denouement of one of Vienna’s most characteristic and influential minority populations be remembered, honored, and learned from, for it is wise to know in whose footprints one treads.

Humboldttempel

The Humboldttempel, the towering, domed synagogue of the largely working- and middle-class quarter of Favoriten, the 10th District of the city of Vienna, was looted, dynamited, and burnt to embers eighty-one years ago, on the morning of November 10, 1938, during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a twenty-four hour orgy of intimidation, violence, and destruction of synagogues, dwellings, and livelihoods of Jews throughout the territory that constituted Germany at the time.

Memory

Favoriten is a quarter of Vienna that I came to know well.  Even from afar,  its daily rhythms and the heights and depths of its history, like that of much of Vienna, haunt me.  I wonder how often, if ever, the thoughts of present-day residents of the 10th District –recent Turkish, Balkan, and Middle Eastern immigrants, and working-class descendants of 19th-century Viennese- and provincial-born Austrians and Czechs– turn to the Jewish workers, small-scale merchants, craftsmen, and workshop owners who, long ago, formed a significant part of the quarter’s population, or, for that matter, to the Jewish social activists and politicians who spearheaded the shaping the progressive social ethos, infrastructure, and culture from which today’s Viennese, whatever their origins, still benefit.

The organized Jewish community of Favoriten was founded in the 1870s. The Humboldttempel was constructed in the 1890s and took its name from the tree-filled square on which it was sited: Humboldtplatz.  The main hall of the synagogue was large enough to seat more than 700 attendees.  For decades, the dome of the Humboldttempel was a towering feature of Vienna’s skyline.

The architect of the Humbolttempel, Jakob Gartner, was responsible for three other synagogues in Vienna, as well for as a dozen more in cities and towns across the the former Hapsburg Empire. Gartner died in the 1920s.  Every one of the fifteen synagogues he designed and built was destroyed on November 10, 1938 or in the carnage that Germany — and Austria, as an integral part of Germany during the Nazi years — took with it abroad in its orgy of conquest, looting, destruction, and murder during the six-year-long world war that began less than a year after Kristallnacht.  Indeed, Austrians, as has become clear over the decades, played an out-sized role in the torment and murder of Jews and the destruction of Jewish life throughout most of Europe.

When the Humboldttempel was conceived and built, few would have would have imagined that it would vanish in flames only forty years later, or that its members and community would be deported and murdered. Despite sharp inter-ethnic friction and clerical and popular antisemitism at the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, most Viennese Jews, ten percent of their city’s population, were confident of their places and prospects and of the protection of the state.  Others, however, had well-founded doubts and sensed that Jews would be denied a place in the societies and economies of post-imperial Europe — thus the deep roots of Zionism in Vienna.

Memorial

The wonderful glass and concrete memorial monument to the Humboldttempel — pictured in the three photos above — was installed only a few years ago, at the edge of the park and playground that now fills Humboldtplatz, at a site diagonally across from two post-war apartment blocks that stand on what was the footprint of the vanished synagogue.

The memorial is both a three-dimensional architectural model and a near-incorporeal chimera.  Two-dimensional renderings of the exterior of the Humbolttempel are inscribed in black on the thick vertical transparent glass elements of the memorial.  These, combined with a floor plan inscribed on the concrete base of the model and a street plan inscribed on the surrounding asphalt, give an accurate rendering of exterior, interior, and location of the Humbolttempel.   However, with each shift in viewpoint, and with each change in the angle and intensity of sunlight, the three-dimensional recreation of the Humbolttempel seems to dissolve — first into a multiplicity of disconnected planes, and then into abstraction and phantasm.

So far as I gather, the Humboldttempel memorial is the work of an artist named Barbara Asimus. I have yet to track down her.  If anyone reading this post is acquainted with her, please convey my appreciation and admiration or, if you happen to know how I can reach her, please put me in touch.  I am also curious about what led the authorities of the 10th district to commission and place the monument when they did, the process involved, and, not least, in the reactions of people in the district.  As to the Humbolttempel itself, I would welcome information on the demographics of its former membership, as well as on the long-ago Jewish population of Favoriten.

For anyone planning a walk through Favorieten, I would recommend pausing for a moment of silence in front of 106 Favoritenstrasse, the one-time site of  Ansche Emes (People of Truth) prayer house (i.e. a small apartment or storefront synagogue, a “Shtiebl” in Yiddish) and at 22 Rothenhofstrasse, the one-time site of Newe Schalom (Well of Peace) prayer house, both looted and destroyed on Kristallnacht.  Nothing remains of either but, maybe, if one lingers in front of either address, whether on a quiet Friday night or a busy Saturday morning, one might imagine or even sense a distant echo of  sounds of prayer and celebration that once emanated from them.

A word of caution: It is not enough not to obey

One thing bothers me about the monument, however.  The inscription on its base is an oft-cited quotation from Hannah Arendt: “Niemand hat das Recht zu Gehorchen” (“Nobody has the right to obey”).  This is a powerful and indeed worthy admonition but, when applied to Kristallnacht, it obscures matters and provides far too easy a way out.  Ultimately, Nazism was a grassroots movement — a legally sanctioned criminal pyramid-scheme of theft, extortion, corruption, and divvying-up and handouts of the proceeds — and Kristallnacht was as much or more of a bottom-up affair than a top-down one.  Whatever impetus from the top may have sparked it, Kristallnacht was a popular act of hatred, jealousy, sadism, and self-aggrandizement that individuals chose to participate in — or didn’t — of their own free will.  Yes, we should not obey evil, but we must also curb the evil within ourselves and part from the crowd whenever evil reigns.  Better yet, we should cultivate the integrity and the courage to rise up and actively intervene, whether injustice is in the offing, underway, or embedded in the world around us.

(Note: The three photos above were taken in December, 2018; the text is based on a draft written in November, 2019.)

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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.

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.

 

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River.  Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that underlies the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known.  Anderson Avenue, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River. Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that comprise the reality behind the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known. Anderson Avenue, Bronx, NY, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

In the headline above, I’ve intentionally left out Miss Gladys’s family name.  No matter.  Even if I’d included it, you wouldn’t find Miss Gladys on the internet or in books or newspaper archives.  You can, however,  find Miss Gladys deep in the hearts and memories of scores of people in the Bronx and in Harlem.  And, to search these, no last names are required.

Miss Gladys passed away two years ago yesterday.  As per the title of this post, her life was one of ascent through a world as stark and roughly surfaced as the stairways and alleyways of the Bronx.  In it bare-bones outline, Miss Gladys’s biography was paradigmatic of many African-American women of her generation: Born in the south, traumas at a young age, a move north, single motherhood, years of hard work while studying to become a nurse, disability from an on-the-job accident, and a final earthly rise into the rarefied world of Alzheimer’s.  Miss Gladys’s ascent through life was as steep, deliberate, and demanding as that of the stairways that slice through the west Bronx.  Miss Gladys climbed her way upwards with outspokenness, arch humor, and energy, and with love and devotion to her daughter, a magnificent, courageous woman in her own right.

I met Miss Gladys only a few months before her death, at a party celebrating her daughter’s 50th birthday.  From the rarefied heights of Alzheimer’s, Miss Gladys introduced herself to me over and again, each time explaining that it was actually her own birthday party and asking me to bring her her first slice of cake, since she hadn’t yet had one. Between a growing tally of first slices, she conversed with adult guests and passed life’s lessons and worthy admonishments to the children present.

Several weeks ago, a lengthy and extremely read-worthy article on the treatment of Alzheimer’s appeared in the New Yorker magazine.  The article framed Alzheimer’s, not as an aberration, but as a higher, possibly purer form of being, in which parts of the cognitive self peel away and allow personality to shine through in a manner closer to the origin of self and of human antecedents.  The article also documented a “new” and “novel” form of treatment: regarding of Alzheimer’s patients and their whims as normal and prescribing their full integration into social contexts.  It seems that the author, Rebecca Mead, never searched for Miss Gladys, her daughter, fellow church-goers, or myriad of friends and former co-workers.  If Ms. Mead had, she would have found to her surprise that what she called novel and innovative is simply the way life is lived within at least one tightly-knit circle of African-Americans and a sprinkling of “whites” in Harlem and the heights of the West Bronx.

What did I learn from Miss Gladys?  Something quite simple: That if I live life as if I am ascending the steep steps of the west Bronx, that if I protect those who I love, remain outspoken, truly believe in the worth of things beyond the boundaries of my own self, and continue against growing odds to try to “get ahead,” I might yet find that I still have a goodly number of slices of cake in my future.