The catalog and essay volume were published a few weeks ago, and the poster is already hung in the Alt Wien coffee shop, where the public is informed from the wall about the most recent events of Vienna’s cultural life. The author, sitting under the latter, leafs through the former contentedly, with good reason. Yesterday evening, at the opening of the gorgeous exhibition Weltuntergang. Jüdisches Leben und Sterben im Ersten Weltkrieg (Doomsday. Jewish life and death in the First World War), the great hall of Vienna’s Jewish Museum was completely packed. Aside from museum director Danielle Spera, exhibition curator Marcus G. Patka, and president of the Raiffeisen Bank, sponsors of the exhibition, a speech was also given by Prince Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen – the great-grandson of the same Archduke Frederick, Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s army, who a century ago met the Jews of Podhajce –, and Professor Oliver Rathke, one of the foremost experts on 20th-century Austrian history. The latter, in his overview of the history of the Monarchy’s Jews from the late 19th-century golden age until the 1920s, recalled that Franz Joseph was also called “Jewish Emperor” by the contemporaries, because he rejected anti-Semitism, and created much legal certainty for his Jewish subjects, later unkown in the successor states. It is no coincidence then, that Jews from Austria to Galicia were among the most loyal supporters of the Monarchy. Their participation in WWI as soldiers was 10%, which exceeded by far their 4% ratio in the complete population. But they also did their share in the support of the hinterland, the underwriting of war loans, and providing for their 80 thousand Galician fellow believers fleeing from the Eastern front to Vienna.
The exhibition also begins by recalling the memory of their loyalty to the ruler and Austria. From the images of the family celebrating Passover under the image of the Emperor and the rabbi giving New Year’s blessing to the Jewish recruits, we gradually come to the outbreak of the war and the massive joining up of Jews, while a large digital map in the background shows second by second the day-to-day changes of the war fronts.
Although not specifically Jewish-related, nevertheless one of the recently rediscovered topics of WWI, posters of war also receive a separate small room. The exhibition almost randomly selects from the wartime production of several thousands, also with an abundant selection of posters of the Entente, which represent the Central Powers as bloodthirsty Huns and the rivals of the devil. A small, but more depressing corner looks over the ads of the artificial limb dealers and war plastic surgeons.
The second largest front of the war, the Galician front, which was almost forgotten after the 1920s, and has only recently received a new focus, fundamentally affected the Jews of the Monarchy, many of whom lived here. Thus the exhibition devotes a separate room to Galicia and the war-torn Galician Jews. They present their pre-war life, the images of the theater of war, the refugees, the affiches of the authorities, and illustrate with many new images the event about which we have written twice already: the Habsburg commanders-in-chief visiting the Eastern front and encountering there the Galician Jews.
However, the highlight of the exhibition is clearly Jerusalem. Not as if it had been the center of gravity of the Monarchy’s Jews during the war, but because research in recent years has produced the most impressive result in this field, due to, inter alia, the co-authors who penned the Holy Land chapters of the catalog and essay volume, Robert-Tarek Fischer and György Sajó, río Wang’s Két Sheng. The presence of the Austro-Hungarian and German troops at the front in Gaza in alliance with the Ottoman empire gave a new emphasis to Franz Joseph’s title of “King of Jerusalem”, inherited by the Habsburgs from the early 13th-c. crusade of the Hungarian king Andreas II. The large number of Galician Jews – Austrian citizens – then living in Palestine also welcomed them as fellow citizens. This central hall of the exhibition enriches this aspect with many new contributions and objects exhibited for the first time concerning this little-known chapter of the history of the First World War and the Jews of the Monarchy.
A short movie is screened at the back of the hall, in which our friend, the physician Norbert Schwake, curator of the WWI German military cemetery of Nazareth, and the chief expert of the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers’ graves in Israel, presents the WWI military cemeteries in the Holy Land. Here is buried the commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian artillery division in Palestine, Captain Truszkowski, about whose troubled fate after death and his four other graves we have already written.
Time runs unobserved, while we browse among the objects of Jerusalem, reviving the anecdotes connected with them. At 10 p.m. the attendants, apologizing, start to urge the still numerous attendees toward the exits. We barely have time to look around in the last three exhibition halls presenting the role of the Jewish soldiers in British service in Palestine, the work of the Jewish women in the hinterland, and the post-war emergence of Jewish organizations in Vienna and the strengthening of Zionism. However, about all these we will write soon, in a detailed review of the catalog and essay volume.