Today’s Jewish Life In Vienna

A snapshot in time: Vienna Today 2012 documents a ­thriving community

Henriette & Olga Medak (l., ca. 1929) and Hansi Tausig (cen. r.) in a flat on Semperstraße | Photo: centropa

Abusy day at Kosherland | Photo: Josef Polleross

On a side street off Karmeliterplatz in the 2nd District, Kosherland is a hub of Jewish life. Here, the community feel is tangible. Parents send their school-age children to Dr. Marina Plistiev’s store unaccompanied and instead of paying for their groceries on the spot, the shopkeeper sets up a tab and waits for their parents to come by later.

“The community is small,” Plistiev explained. “Everyone knows everybody.”

Her shop was one of the first of its kind in modern Vienna. When photographer Josef Polleross set out to take pictures of the community 20 years ago, there was one butcher shop, one bakery on Hollandstraße and a street festival once a year. “Nothing else,” Polleross told The Vienna Review. “No cultural programme, no Klezmer music, no Film Festival.” Now there are restaurants, Konditoreien, kosher fish stores, supermarkets and one to two cultural events per day.

The exhibit Vienna Today 2012, now at the Jewish Museum Vienna, portrays a self-confident Jewish community, “whose members have long ago abandoned sitting on their packed suitcases or keeping them ready just in case”, wrote the museum’s director, Dr. Danielle Spera, in the exhibit catalogue. Rather than turning a blind eye, it is a community that takes a clear look at the future and floats with the current. “We have a bit of everything in our small community,” Spera stated. “Tradition, orthodoxy and secular Judaism.”

Henriette & Olga Medak (l., ca. 1929) and Hansi Tausig (cen. r.) in a flat on Semperstraße | Photo: centropa

Henriette & Olga Medak (l., ca. 1929) and Hansi Tausig (cen. r.) in a flat on Semperstraße | Photo: centropa

In part, this is a progress report: The exhibition traces the changes in the community that happened since Harry Weber (1921-2007) worked on a similar cultural portrait almost two decades ago. Today’s exhibit shows as many different aspects as possible of contemporary Jewish life, to give an adequate picture of a diverse culture.

Adorned with lively snapshots of home and community, the bleak concrete walls of the museum show only a third of Josef Polleross’ photos. “The pictures span about four years, but the project for the museum itself took a bit over two,” he said.

A scene from a coffeehouse, with Austrian writers Robert Menasse, Doron Rabinovici and Robert Schindel chatting over coffee, beer and cigarettes, is a stark contrast to the neighbouring images in the same dimly lit room, those of the sorrowful faces of Holocaust survivors and relatives, as they commemorate lost lives with names engraved on metal plaques inlaid in the sidewalk, part of a project called “Stones of Remembrance”.


A life less orthodox 

Slowly making one’s way through the museum, party pictures of Purim (a holiday commemorating the deliverance of Persian Jews in the 5th century B.C.) show the active nightlife of Jewish youth – the flashy clubbing scene at the S Club looks like any raucous Fasching (carnival) celebration with costumes, cocktails and fake tattoos.

Most scenes were un-staged Schnappschüsse in everyday situations. Often, somebody would talk to Polleross and suddenly invite him to family events: “They’ll tell you ‘my son has his Bar Mitzvah [coming of age celebration] next week, why don’t you come along?’”

To round out his project, Polleross wanted to find private pictures taken before 1938.

“I found this photo, one of the best, of two women, both very self-assured, their hair style so typical of the ‘20s,” he explained, his speech speeding up with excitement as he peered very closely at two photos, one in black and white, the other in colour, depicting an almost identical scene: two women seated at a small table in deep conversation. The colour picture shows a relative of the two women in the original – Henriette and Olga Menak – Henriette’s niece, Hansi Tausig. Polleross decided to re-enact the scene with Tausig and the present owner of the apartment, setting it up to match the original.  “It was very emotional for both of them, and for me to witness it.”


The uneasy future 

Proceeding through the exhibit, the adjoining wall portrays some of today’s anti-Semitic groups. “Some ask why right-wing fraternities are part of the exhibition,” admitted Polleross, lowering his voice to an almost unintelligible level. “I wanted to show that there is still a march on 8 May. Victory Day [usually called V.E. Day] is a ‘Day of Defeat’ for right-wingers, so to speak,” he said, standing very close to the photographs with his back to the room, as if to shield the conversation from other visitors.

Abusy day at Kosherland | Photo:  Josef Polleross

A busy day at Kosherland | Photo: Josef Polleross

With the memory of the FPÖ-sponsored Viennese Academics Ball at the Hofburg on 1 February still fresh, the Jewish community knows it is still faced with right-wing extremism. Still, in Austria, the pressure seems less than in some parts of Europe.

“Looking at our neighbours in France or Scandinavia, we know we live a quieter life here in Austria,” the museum’s director Dr. Spera explained. “We aren’t confronted with constant assaults like Jews in say, France, Denmark or Sweden. The murders by neo-Nazis in Germany, especially, have hit us hard”.


Rootless in Vienna

“To a large extent, the community is composed of Jews who came to Vienna after 1945 from various countries of the former Danube Monarchy, survivors of the Shoah and their children,” explained Spera. In the ‘70s, many Jews emigrated to Vienna from the then Soviet Union. “They all brought their own traditions and customs with them, thereby enormously enriching the community,” said Spera.

Kosherland offers an eclectic assortment of goods, ranging from American Kellogg’s “Froot Loops” to kosher pizza and Israeli newspapers, some even in French. Like its food, Vienna’s  Jewish community is international. It is more visible than in the ‘90s, but, at the same time, if someone isn’t wearing a Kippa (cap) and Peyot (side-curls), their religion is almost invisible.

“Apart from someone who goes to the synagogue on a Saturday, people usually don’t know what is going on,” Polleross observed. A lot happens behind closed doors.

As Jewish culture thrives again in Vienna, Spera feels the city is quickly catching up to other regions. “Vienna has now finally arrived.”


Heute in Wien 2012 (Eng. and Ger.)

Josef Polleross, Metro Verlag, pp. 157

See Events page 23 for exhibition details

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