Jewish Death is not Jewish Life
Yesterday, we took a tour of the Stadtmuseum in Graz that was, in theory, about Jewish life in the city. I was excited to learn about the vibrant life of Jewish Graz before WWII, to hear of the many contributions Jews had made to the civic life of the city, to hear about the reclaiming and rebuilding of Jewish life in the post-Shoah era.
I didn’t hear about any of that. The whole tour focused entirely on the atrocities committed against the region's Jews, as if the entirety if Jewish life in Graz was expulsion or murder. Even Otto Leowi, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of the role of acetylcholine as a neurotransmitter, was mentioned only in the context of his expulsion.
A tour about centuries of antisemitic terrorism is, by its very nature, a tour about the lives of the terrorists, not the lives of the terrorized.
I held up fairly well during the part of the tour that focused on the expulsion of all Jews from Styria in the 15th century. I had, of course, expected an acknowledgment of Austria’s antisemitic past, and because there are virtually no artifacts of Jewish life from that era, I was able to process the information intellectually instead of viscerally.
Which is to say that I didn’t start crying until we got to this model of the old synagogue:
The synagogue was completed in 1892, and then destroyed in 1938 during the Reichskristallnacht. My life is already two years longer than the life of the synagogue, and that was unexpectedly hard for me to hear. No wonder theres so little history of Jewish lives in Graz; we had very little time to lead them.
From there, the cataloging of atrocities just kept getting worse.
Pity our poor tour guide, Robert. He had to recall each one while I cried quietly, but not subtly, into my mask. (I’ve sent an apology email; he didn’t sign up for that.)
We’re promised that, in Vienna, we will find both more lived history and a currently vibrant and diverse Jewish community. I’m glad it’s our next stop (after a week’s rest at home in Salzburg). My goal for this project has never been to steep myself in the awful past. I’m looking for stories of surviving, and preferably of thriving. I’m not interested in finding new ways to talk about Jewish death. There is no great trick to dying. I want to hear stories of joyful, abundant, productive, and happy Jewish lives and, from those stories, discover how we might always live that way.