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Golden Era for Jewish Life Under the Habsburgs

My great-grandfather, born on April 20, 1892 in Vienna, was drafted into the Imperial and Royal “k.u.k.” Army of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire during World War I. As a physician for the police, he was stationed at the Isonzo in present-day Slovenia, where battles against the Italian army cost more than half a million lives.

He considered himself loyal to Kaiser Franz Joseph, and later to the Austrian state, even as it became a fascist state in 1934. After the Anschluss in March 1938, he was immediately removed from his post and deported to Buchenwald.

He was freed several months later, and traveled to Italy, hoping to escape to Shanghai via Genoa, Italy. He was detained in a villa that served as a detention camp near Perugia, where he led a relatively peaceful life until the SS cleared the camp in 1943. According to family lore, one of the locals offered to help him hide in the woods.

“No,” he is said to have replied, “an officer of the k.u.k. army doesn’t run.” The hundred or so Jewish inmates were deported to Auschwitz. My great-grandfather was the only survivor.

Even if the family lore turns out to be untrue, it nevertheless aptly captures my great-grandfather’s relationship to his home country — and not just his but that of many of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who lived in the Habsburg Empire between 1867 and the 1930s.

“Doomsday — Jewish Life and Death in World War I,” currently on view at the Jewish Museum Vienna through September 14, looks at Jewish participation and suffering in the Habsburg Empire and beyond during the war, and provides context by highlighting Jewish military history from 1848 until today.

Growing up in Vienna, the three most important things I knew about the Kaiser, who ruled the Habsburg Empire from 1848 until his death in 1916, were that he built the Ringstraße, the sumptuous boulevard that replaced the city walls; that he was the husband of Kaiserin Sisi, who was murdered by an Italian anarchist in 1899 and was rendered immortal in a 1955 film (starring a gorgeous Romy Schneider as a romanticized version of the depressive, anorexic empress); and his mustache.

I vaguely knew that a new constitution established in 1867 gave all people in the multiethnic empire almost equal rights; Jews had full citizen’s rights but were not permitted to become ministers or diplomats, which required conversion. Jews were deeply loyal to the Kaiser, and the Kaiser praised the patriotism and bravery of his “Israelites.” I certainly did not know that the gratefulness of the “Israelites” extended so far that they gave him the endearing Yiddish nickname “Ephraim Yossele.”

The exhibit, one of several in Austria that commemorate the centenary of World War I, presents a plethora of such factoids regarding Jewish life before, during and after the war. For example, it was news to me that Jews had been allowed to join the army since 1788. Serving as army reserve personnel was especially popular because it was associated with higher prestige. In peace times, around 3% of the reserve contingent was Jewish. During World War I, 300,000 Jewish reserve personnel in all ranks fought for the Habsburg Empire. One-tenth of them lost their lives.

The meticulously researched exhibit, featuring an enormous wealth of census data and statistics, demonstrates that the Jews were as enthusiastic about the war as anybody else. After all, the young Kaiser’s ascent to the throne in 1848 (promising to be a more liberal force in the conservative Empire after the 1848 revolution) led to an explosion of the Jewish population of Vienna: from around 3,000 to 60,000 in the 1860s, and 175,000 in 1910.

The still-active Vienna Israelite Community was founded, as well as Jewish hospitals and synagogues. Despite consistent anti-Semitism (which pervaded even the government, and was promulgated by such officials as Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger, who was in office from 1897 until 1910), the late 19th century was considered the golden age of Judaism in the Habsburg Empire.

There’s no doubt that World War I was a dark and tumultuous period. It left millions of people dead, towns destroyed, and empires toppled. The exhibit doesn’t gloss over these facts, and not only displays photographs of wounded soldiers but also depicts the tragic fate of many Jewish communities in Galicia, a province in Austria-Hungary, and Bukovina, Poland. These communities fell victim to pogroms, were accused of spying by the Russians, and had to abandon their hometowns, fleeing west to Vienna. Seventy thousand came, causing the Jewish community to reach an all-time high of 201,000 members, or 10.8% of the population, in 1923.

Visitors to the Jewish Museum are likely to encounter some darkness and confusion. Banners which display portraits and short biographies of Jewish people affected by the war — such as the composer Arnold Schönberg, who served as a reserve officer, Alice Schalek, the first and only female reporter in the war information office — are almost impossible to decipher without a flashlight. The wealth of information is hard to access. The texts one would expect to find on the walls of each room accompanying the materials on display, have been replaced by two- to five-minute video loops. The clips consist solely of talking heads of numerous experts, with varying degrees of eloquence, who lecture visitors.

Other aspects of the exhibit also struggle to bring fascinating stories to life — for example, those of the field rabbis in the Imperial and Royal Army. They had their own field chapels, and held holiday services — some of which included Jewish prisoners of war. Most field rabbis came from more progressive, Reform backgrounds, while a majority of the Jewish soldiers stemmed from more Orthodox, traditional communities in the Eastern part of the empire. One video describes their encounters as “challenging,” but specific examples are missing.

Where the exhibit does succeed is in contributing to a broader understanding of what it must have felt like to be Jewish in the Habsburg Empire, and particularly in Vienna, at the turn of the century. My great-grandfather was not the only one who refused to leave the country when the Austro-Fascists and then the Nazis took power. Now I understand why.

Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern.

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