HOHENEMS, Austria (Jul. 23)
“There are a handful of Jews living in Vorarlberg,” said 83-year-old retired businessman Erik Welsch. “But I’m probably the only one who will be buried here — and therefore stay here permanently.”
Vorarlberg is the small region at the far western tip of Austria near the Swiss border and Lake Constance. Jews lived in the region from the 17th century.
Today, besides Welsch, a Vienna-born Jew who moved to the region 40 years ago, the few Jews who live among Vorarlberg’s 300,000 people include one or two Israelis married to local people, and others who are living there temporarily for business reasons.
There is no organized Jewish community — the nearest functioning synagogue in Austria is nearly 120 miles away in Innsbruck.
The small town of Hohenems — population 15,000 — was once home to Vorarlberg’s largest Jewish community. But most Jews moved away from Hohenems to bigger towns after 1860, and by 1938 fewer than 20 still lived there.
Hohenems’ synagogue was turned into a fire station in the 1950s.
Since 1991, however, Hohenems has had a Jewish museum — a Jewish museum set up by non-Jewish civic authorities. Today, it is the town’s leading tourist attraction, drawing more than 10,000 visitors a year.
The Hohenems museum is one of three Jewish museums in Austria — the others are in Vienna and in Eisenstadt — and is one of dozens of Jewish museums and exhibitions in towns in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Central Europe where there is no longer a Jewish population.
One of the few Jews who lives in Vorarlberg is the museum’s director, 27-year- old Esther Haber, from Vienna.
She occasionally feels lonely in her job — but believes that it is important to convey Jewish history and culture to people who have no knowledge of Jews.
“I get tired of explaining everything,” she said. “I know it’s necessary. But it’s hard sometimes, especially here, where there’s no Jewish community to back me up.”
Hohenems’ city fathers, led by then-Mayor Otto Amann and local historians, founded a Jewish Museum Association in 1986 and opened the museum in April 1991 in the former Jewish quarter in the center of town — in a villa which had belonged to a wealthy family of local Jewish industrialists.
“To my mind, it shouldn’t be called a Jewish museum, but a Museum of the History of Hohenems Jews,” said Welsch, who as the only Jew living in Vorarlberg when plans for the museum were drawn up formed part of its founding committee. He now serves on the museum board.
Welsch said the museum’s main goal is educating youth. “When youngsters are taught about Jews in their youth, they won’t fall victim so easily to primitive attitudes,” he said.
The last Jewish owner of the villa had sold the building in 1936, and was murdered in 1942 in the Terezin ghetto.
“In creating the museum, we wanted both to document and to memorialize our fellow Jewish citizens,” Amann, a devoutly religious Roman Catholic farmer, said in an interview.
Despite the dedication of Amann and other city officials, at first the museum was not universally welcomed — some did not want to be reminded of Austria’s past under Nazi annexation.
But “it has been a tremendous success, and there are no problems now,” said Welsch. “It has made Hohenems well-known internationally and has also helped to improve the idea people here have about Jews.”
At its peak in the 19th century, the Jewish community in Hoehenems numbered 500 of the town’s 4,000 people.
The town had two main streets — known as Jewish Street and Christian Street. Local Jews were merchants, craftsmen and industrialists — and one local Jewish son was the 19th-century liturgical composer Salomon Sulzer.
The museum documents all these phases of local Jewish history and also deals with the post-war period, when the town was a center for displaced persons.
There are also audio presentations on the local Yiddish dialect and the music of Salomon Sulzer, and reminiscences by Jews who lived in the town before and after the war.
The museum’s founding director was not Jewish. Haber took up the post last year.
Haber has definite priorities of what she wants to depict in a Jewish museum in a town without Jews.
“For me, it’s important to find a good mixture,” she said. “You have to talk about the historical side, again and again. But here, where there is no Jewish community, it’s important to show people that Jewish life is not dead, that it’s really alive.
“People here don’t know a lot about Jews and Judaism,” she said. “They are very interested in religion, and I think we might include more in the museum about the Jewish religion.”
To this end, the museum sponsors concerts, exhibitions, seminars and other programs throughout the year — even a course in Yiddish which draws more than a dozen students. A reading room displays current Jewish newspapers from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, and there is a reference library open to the public.
The museum can also be visited at its Web site: http://www.vol.at/jmh