Austrian exhibit displays anti-Semitic trinkets

hohenems, austria | The exhibit in the basement of the Jewish museum has the feel of a cozy antique shop or an old-fashioned apartment.

But a closer look at the paperweights, pipes and other knickknacks reveals something chilling: They are all anti-Semitic, featuring large, crooked noses and other unflattering caricatures of Jews.

Curator Hanno Loewy went for the comfortable, homey look with a purpose — to unsettle visitors and get them thinking.

“These objects were part of a certain coziness. They were meant to be cozy,” he said. “It takes three to five minutes, and then people realize it’s not cozy at all. The disturbance they feel when they realize that themselves is much more effective than if we were to put up a sign saying, ‘This is dangerous.'”

On display are 580 objects from the collection of Gideon Finkelstein, a Belgian Jew who bought anti-Semitic items for 15 years.

Though the objects dating from 1880 to 1920 are nothing more than “kitschy knickknacks,” they were a way for their original owners to exert power over Jews, whom they perceived as threatening, Loewy said.

“They are in a way transforming a fantasy of something dangerous into something you could control,” he said.

Among the most eye-catching displays is a fairground shooting stand depicting a Jew and a ferocious dog. By hitting the target, shooters set off a mechanism that sets the dog on the Jew, who uses an umbrella in an attempt to fend off the attack.

In a separate room, visitors can listen to an interview in which Finkelstein says he considers it important to save these items because they show just how widespread anti-Semitism was long before Nazi leader Adolf Hitler rose to power.

“In the 80 years before Hitler, people in Germany, in Austria, in France, lived with anti-Semitism in their everyday lives,” Finkelstein said in the interview. “When someone like Hitler came and brought anti-Semitism to a climax, everything was already prepared. And I think it’s important to show that.”

The exhibit, which runs through Feb. 26, is the first public display of the Finkelstein collection. In his interview for museum visitors, Finkelstein said modern anti-Semitism is expressed in other forms.

“Today, there are books, there is the Internet, there are many other ways to disseminate propaganda like this,” he warned.

Such means are explored in another exhibit room, dubbed the “Rumor Kitchen.” Visitors open cupboards and drawers to find mini-exhibits illustrating modern anti-Semitism.

One cupboard is devoted to Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” which some Jewish organizations objected to for fear it would cause bad blood between Christians and Jews.

Another drawer, labeled “Remove the cover! What teachers don’t like to hear,” contains a copy of a note with anti-Semitic jokes recently passed around among girls in a nearby school. Scribbled in childish handwriting are statements such as: “When something doesn’t suit us Nazis, a Jew will be gassed!” followed by a smiley face.

A Jewish heritage museum might be expected to avoid this subject in fear of conveying a message that promotes rather than criticizes anti-Semitism. But to Loewy, anti-Semitism is a topic “Jewish museums can’t avoid if you don’t merely present a Judaica silver collection, and I don’t want to do that.”

“It doesn’t help to stick the head into the sand and pretend that this is not around,” he said.

In 1860, Hohenems, a town of 14,000 people near Austria’s western border with Switzerland, had a vibrant Jewish community of 560. Today, only Loewy and a handful of other Jews live here.

The town has an unusual relationship to its Jewish roots because its Jewish community had largely dissolved before World War II. That means the Holocaust is not “the overshadowing one aspect of history that dominates everything else,” said Loewy, who moved to the town from Frankfurt, Germany, in 2004.

American descendants of Hohenems’ Jews have formed a 150-member group that supports the museum.

Uri Taenzer of Moorestown, N.J., secretary-treasurer of the American Friends of the Jewish Museum Hohenems, praised the exhibit, saying it combats anti-Semitism by “exposing and demonstrating some of this stupidity that gave rise to anti-Semitism.”

“If the exhibit reminds people of how ignorant anti-Semitism can be, then it helps,” he said in a telephone interview.