The Vienna of Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Hitler

By Laura Morowitz

The new film, Woman in Gold is playing in many theaters around the country this week. The movie tells the victorious story of how Maria Altmann won back the Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis.

On a cold January day in 1939, Nazi administrators and museum officials raided the palais of the Bloch-Bauers — one of the wealthiest and most cultured Jewish families in Vienna — “Aryanizing” its contents and shipping them off to storage facilities and museums. Vienna, under the Anschluss, was the darkest and most tragic period in the city’s history. But Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I (1907), around which the current film focuses, was created in another Vienna, one sparkling with life and light, enlivened by the vivid Jewish culture of the city. In 1907, the very year the portrait was created, a young Adolf Hitler came to settle in Vienna and later vowed to crush the brilliant, daring society that flourished there.

In turn-of-the-century Vienna, Modernism had caught fire and exploded. In nearly every domain of culture, from painting, architecture and design, to theater, philosophy and psychology, brilliant artists and thinkers carried out experiments in the buttoned-up capital of the Habsburg Empire, and altered our understanding of human nature.

Vienna: A Radical Modernist City

Vienna  in 1900 was not only the most radical Modernist city, but the most Jewish. It had the largest population of Jews in Western Europe (8 percent) and its wealthy Jewish families firmly ruled the city’s cultural life. Its artistic and intellectual superstars were often of Jewish origin: Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Schnitzler, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Arnold Schoenberg, etc. And in the fields where Jews didn’t dominate, their financial support made many of the most important commissions and support possible. (Klimt’s patrons were so often Jewish that critics begin to complain of his “gôut juif”–his Jewish taste.)

It’s a true irony of history, then, that the individual most bent on the destruction of Jewish culture and Jewish life walked the very same streets, at the very same time as the Jewish luminaries above. Who among the artistic and intellectual groundbreakers of this city — Stefan Zweig, Karl Krauss — passed the scraggly teen-aged Adolf Hitler without giving him a second look? As he paid his small fee to watch Gustav Mahler conduct Wagner at the Hofopera, did Hitler stand beside Theodor Herzl, who was also smitten by the conductor’s Romantic dream worlds? (Herzl would later claim them as inspiration for his Zionist vision.) Did he pass un-noticed in the Kunsthistorische Museum as Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer took in the collections? For Hitler had arrived in Vienna to make his own mark artistically. He failed, and that failure was the first great disappointment of his life. He would never let the city forget it.

Hitler Arrived at Age 17

He’d come first at the age of seventeen, with a small fee saved by his mother. Arriving from Linz, Hitler was enchanted by the Ringstrasse, the Imperial collections, the statues and glittering monuments. Convinced of his artistic greatness, he vowed to return and attend the Vienna Academy of Art. He came back in September of 1907, sitting for the drawing exam the next month.

He failed.

A few days later he received word from Linz that his mother was dying of cancer. He went home and stayed beside her as she suffered and died.

When Hitler returned to Vienna in 1908, he was miserable and deeply receptive to the wide-spread anti-Semitism of the city. It’s yet another historical irony that a city so rich in Jewish talent was also the first to come under the sway of a politician who succeeded on an anti-Semitic platform. Mayor Karl Lueger—“handsome Karl”—was a Christian Socialist who made it clear that the Jews would no longer run his city. Hitler admired him, and became a regular reader of the pan-Germanist Georg Schoenerer, whose vicious racial anti-Semitism Hitler would take over as his own.

This time Hitler, still struggling to make it as an artist, was sent with a letter of introduction from his neighbor, to ease the way. The letter recommended him to Alfred Roller, co-founder of the Secession (his sets for Wagner’s operas would impress Hitler all his life; In 1933 he brought the designer to Bayreuth to design a new production of Parsifal). But the eighteen year old Hitler was too intimidated to use the introduction, hesitating three times in front of Roller’s office.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907 (exhibited as “The Lady in Gold” in 1943)

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, oil, silver and gold on canvas, Neue Galerie New York. This acquisition made available in part through the generosity of the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Instead, Hitler ignored the modern art igniting all around him. In the spring of 1908, Gustav Klimt organized the Kunstschau, exhibiting 176 artists, and revealing Adele Bloch Bauer I to the Viennese public. If Hitler went to the most important artistic event of the season, he was silent on it.

While artists like Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka caused scandals, Hitler did nothing worthy of attention. Mostly he walked the streets, arguing with the other men in the homeless shelters where he stayed, painting postcards to earn a small living. Later in Mein Kampf, Hitler would claim Vienna as the place where he first became aware of “the Jewish question.”

Creators and Destroyer Share Time in Vienna

Seldom in history do the creators and the destroyer of a culture come so closely in to contact. As a young man, Hitler had stood close enough to feel the heat emanating from Mahler’s symphonies, Klimt’s portraits and Zweig’s stories. But he was too consumed by the fires of his own rage to feel it. As the clouds of the war rolled over Europe in 1913, Hitler left Vienna, refusing to fight for what he saw as a mongrel and dilapidated Austro-Hungarian Empire. He headed for Munich, joining the first World War, and cultivating the hatred that would lead to the second.

When he rose to power, Hitler was determined to keep both this past, and Vienna itself, in the shadows.

On Tuesday, March 15, 1938 Adolf Hitler rode his Mercedes triumphantly into Vienna. The crowds that lined the streets threw roses, rang bells and hoisted their children in the air. The next morning hundreds of thousands of Viennese jammed the Heldenplatz to hear Hitler’s speech from the balcony. Vienna adored their new Führer. The life enjoyed by Maria Altmann, and the rest of Vienna’s Jews, came to an end forever.

Despite the roaring crowds that greeted his arrival, Hitler still carried his hatred for the “Jewish” city. In a diary entry Josef Goebbels, Reichminister for Propaganda, summed up Hitler’s plans for the city: “Under no circumstances must anything be given to Vienna; rather whatever can be taken away, should be taken away.” While other important cities—Berlin, Munich and above all his hometown, Linz–would receive grand redesigns, Vienna would indeed get nothing “It was my mistake to have sent you to Vienna,” Hitler screamed at the mayor of the city in 1943, “It was a mistake that I ever brought these Viennese into the Greater German Reich. I know these people. In my youth I lived among them. They are the enemies of Germany.”

Turn-of –the-century Vienna, an intoxicating and profoundly Jewish city, nearly consigned Hitler to the dustbin of history. While art like Adele Bloch Bauer I still exists to testify to its glory, the light and genius of that city can never be brought back to life.

lauracloseupLaura Morowitz is Professor of Art History at Wagner College, New York. She is the author of many articles and reviews appearing in The Art Bulletin, The Oxford Art Journal, Art Criticism, The Journal of Popular Film and Television and The Journal of the History of Collecting among others. In the Fall of 2014 she was an invited speaker at Duke University’s Art History Speaker Series, Art, Conflict and the Politics Memory where she spoke on “Erasing Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: The 1943 Gustav Klimt Retrospective and the Making of an Artistic Hero.” Her work on the art of the fin de siècle and Vienna under the Anschluss has been supported by the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Passover Matzo and Bitter Herbs – The Song of Freedom of the Passover Seder

By Rabba Ayala Miron-Shashua

At the height of the pre-Passover cleaning chaos, I remember my young son asking me, “Mother, what are you doing?” Without a pause, I answered, “I’m making seder” (Hebrew for “order”)! When he didn’t respond, I looked up and saw the confusion on his face: nothing around us looked in any way like what he associated with a Seder. I sighed and explained, “What choice do we have? In order for there to be a Seder, there first has to be a big mess!”

Such are my thoughts these days about freedom. Freedom is only reached after passing through a corridor of confusion, blurred boundaries, discomfort, and even suffocation. And then, generally without great fanfare, a door opens to freedom.

In my experience, the expectation that freedom will be sweet is usually met with disappointment. Indeed, the taste of freedom is bitter. In The Prince of Egypt, Universal Studios’ animated movie version of the Exodus story, the journey out of Egypt is made in high spirits and with enthusiastic song that anticipates the Song of the Sea, but the impression that arises from the Biblical story, even though, not surprisingly with only some of its details, is that the exodus from Egypt occurred in the middle of the night, in secret, in a hurry and without pillars of fire and billows of smoke leading the tribal wanderers. On the contrary, it seems that more than anything else the sounds that accompanied the exodus from Egypt were the screams from the Egyptian homes, mourning the death of their first-born children.

The songs of wonder, the thanksgiving and the elevated spirits came, as mentioned above, only later, after the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Even the four expressions of redemption: ”Delivered, Saved, Redeemed, and Taken,” relate to the description of the exodus from Egypt in retrospect, after the fact, in the memory of the Passover holiday that is observed for generations to come, and it is difficult to imagine that those who left Egypt experienced them in all their power. This also in the personal sphere: when we are in a position of freedom we are generally aware of the true significance of it in retrospect, and then the joy appears.

I would like to suggest a modest observation on freedom.

Freedom is experienced in my opinion in two possible scenarios: the first is the capacity to create for ourselves an opening, window or channel where we once perceived a dead end. The second is the capacity to discover a cascade of options when it seems like we’ve entered a one-way path.

This relates to the most important lesson from the Exodus story and the parting of the Red Sea: an opening of possibilities and choices in places where it seemed there weren’t any. Choice. This may be one of the ways to understand the concept of ‘Chosen People’ – the people who believe in the ability, perhaps even the imperative, to choose.

And here lies the question: how does the Passover holiday or the Seder itself reflect the idea, the potential of freedom? The Seder ceremony reflects a simple principle upon which freedom is also based: the courage to observe reality in a way that is different from what we are accustomed to. Our ability to step outside our comfort zone – to change our perspective, assume a different vantage point, investigate a different pattern of behavior without checking it within ourselves first.

The symbols most clearly identified with the Seder, eating while reclining, the four cups of wine, and the unleavened bread, all resonate with this basic assumption: the exodus from our comfort zone and usual habits is equated with freedom. We sit in a different, and strange way, the most basic food on the table, bread, takes on a different form, without its familiar, comforting consistency, and furthermore, no less than four glasses of wine!

All of this illustrates an idea that is almost painfully simple – that freedom demands change: change of positions, change of interpretations, and reconsideration of the ways that we act and react. Without blurring the borders of the known and familiar, the practiced and routine, there will be no exodus from Egypt.

And if we don’t remember this – then the children ask and remind us with their questions during the Seder: “Why is this night different?”

I also find an expression of this basic idea of freedom in the three elements of the Seder mentioned by Rabbi Gamliel: Passover, Matzo and Maror (Bitter Herbs).

Passover – Since we allow ourselves to “pass over” two customary actions: not to respond automatically and not to enter into regular habits.

Matzo – Since we consciously desist from the option of swelling our egos and adhering to our opinions, while blockading ourselves in a fortress of our own righteousness. We make an effort to reduce the ongoing run-around of the ego, which tends to swell up and ferment, we do everything in our power to observe ourselves from a distance.

Bitter Herbs – The unavoidable taste of choice and of freedom, as I explained above, is not sweet. The consistency of freedom is not airy nor does it slide smoothly down the throat. Perhaps the contrary: freedom leaves a bitter taste, and maybe even gets stuck in the throat. But this bitterness is stimulating, energizing, and demands the kind of attention that the sweet and the smooth don’t. And the understanding in retrospect of what we have done, of the way we have behaved, of the choices that we have made, ultimately will bring with it a bit of sweetness, like the maror that we eat during the Seder.

And after we have fulfilled our obligation to these three things: the Passover, Matzo and Bitter Herbs, comes the part that, for me is engraved in my earliest memory and even today I eagerly and joyfully await: the sandwich of Hillel the Elder. To take two pieces of matzo, which is the bread of poverty and of freedom together, and fill them with some bitter herb, which is the memory of slavery but also of the possibility of freedom from it, and the Haroset, which symbolizes mortar and hard labor but also adds sweetness and complexity to the mixture – and the opportunity to experience all those flavors and memories together, to assemble them in one sandwich – dripping, crumbling, bitter and sweet. That, to me, is the song of freedom of the Seder night.

The invitation from the Song of Songs: “Lkha Dodi, Nitze l’sadeh” can be interpreted as an invitation or command to step out from what is comfortable and familiar.

What or how is it different” How are we going to make the difference?

Rabba Ayala Miron-Shashua, is Rabbi of Congregation Bat Ayin in Rosh Hayin and is a contrayalaibutor to V’hee Sheamda – a Passover Haggadah with a new women’s midrash produced by the Elga Stulman Institute at HaMidrasha. It is the first Feminist Israeli Haggadah and includes the traditional text.


Jewish Life under a Caliphate

By Shulamit Reinharz

The country of Yemen is regularly in the news as radical Islamists overwhelm the existing government. Although this has been the fate of various countries lately, Yemen provides an instructive case for those of us interested in Jewish survival.

Scholars debate the exact origins of Jews in Yemen, but all agree that Jews have been a part of the Yemeni landscape since ancient times. Fast forward to the 20th century and what becomes important is that after World War I, when the British assumed control of the Middle East after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Yemen actually became two countries – the Northern Kingdom of Yemen and the British Protectorate of Aden.

The Northern Kingdom constituted a Caliphate, meaning that it was entirely under the rule of an Imam and was governed by Sharia law. The British section was a Protectorate governed by British law, which, among other things, enabled Jews to have travel documents, educate their daughters, and pursue modernization, while the Moslem population also adhered to Sharia law.

Given the current success of organizations such as ISIS in imposing their version of Islamic Law on the areas they have conquered, we can look at the conditions of Yemeni Jews in the Northern Kingdom to learn what life is like for Jews in a Caliphate. Various articles such as Persecution Defines Life for Yemen’s Few Jews have appeared lately in the New York Times describing the fate of Yemen’s miniscule Jewish community.

A second vivid and accessible source about Jewish life in Yemen is available in Nomi Eve’s recently published historical novel, Henna House,  selected by several HBI Conversation groups in Florida for discussion with the author.

To make the last century’s history (since 1918) of Yemenite Jews come alive, Nomi Eve creates the character of Adela Damari, whose life in the Northern Kingdom we follow from her pre-teen girlhood until she became a mature woman after immigrating to Israel on the Wings of Eagles. Also known as Operation Magic Carpet, this famous Zionist rescue mission secretly airlifted 49,000 Yemenite Jews to the State of Israel between June 1949 and September 1950 in 380 flights from Aden.

Living in the north, Adela never received formal education, but she learned to read surreptitiously when exposed to people engaged in henna practices. As a youngster, Adela was perpetually terrified because of a rule called “The Orphans’ Decree,” an unevenly enforced law under the Caliphate that obligated the state to take under its protection and educate in Islamic ways any dhimmi (i.e. non-Muslim) child whose parents had died when he or she was a minor. Nomi Eve calls the man who abducts the orphans – the Confiscator.

First introduced or revived in the 17th century, the Orphans’ Decree was ignored during Ottoman rule (1872–1918), but was observed during the rule of Imam Yahya (1918–1948).

Although forced conversion is not widely recognized under Islamic laws, historian and Arabist Shelomo Dov Goitein believed that the forced conversion of orphans could have been justified by the revelation attributed to Muhammad that states: “Every person is born to the natural religion [Islam], and only his parents make a Jew or a Christian out of him.”

Adela’s father, a shoemaker, had severe respiratory illness, perhaps brought on by the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, the year Adela was born. The Confiscator made periodic visits to the shop to see how her father was faring, preparing to snatch her away. Fortunately, there was a loophole in the Orphans’ Decree – married girls (and boys) were immune from the Confiscator. Thus to protect their children, Jewish parents married them off at a very young age.

Nomi Eve’s book reveals much more about Jewish life as dhimmi (i.e. second-class minority citizens under Moslem law) under the Caliphate of the Kingdom of Northern Yemen, all of which serves to clarify the precarious position of the few Jews who live in Yemen today. Although some of the 100 or so Jews who remain in Yemen choose to stay regardless of opportunities to leave, Jewish activists from around the world should make it clear that Jews must not be subject to the laws of a Caliphate and must be allowed to leave if they wish. The Wings of Eagles must make one more rescue operation before it is too late.

Shulamit Reinharz, founder and director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is the Jacob Potofsky Professor of Sociology and director of the Women’s Studies Research Center.

The 21st Century Agunah Problem: A Reaction Against Women’s Equality Gains?

by Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

Lisa Fishbayn Joffe

The day before Purim is marked by many Jews around the world as Agunah Day; a day to remember and speak out on behalf of women trapped in dead marriages unless and until their husband decides to let them go. Recently, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of women gathered at Mayyim Hayyim about the agunah problem in the 21st century.  I spoke about how there have always been agunot, women whose marriages are effectively over, but who are unable to divorce under Jewish law and go on with their lives.  The shape of this problem has, however, changed over time. I believe that the contemporary version of the agunah problem reflects an attempt, by some men, to undermine the equality already won under American family law.

The Talmud, (our redacted oral teachings) describes the sad plight of the classical agunah whose husband could not consent to divorce.  This might be because the man had disappeared while travelling to another town to trade or been lost on a ship at sea.  No one could be sure whether the husband had drowned, fallen victim to bandits on the road or whether he had simply taken up with a new companion somewhere else.  Perhaps he had been injured and lost his memory of where home was and of who waited there for him.  In those situations, rabbis wanted certain evidence of death before allowing a woman to remarry, lest her wayward husband should someday return.  Alternatively, the husband might have been physically present but unable to form the requisite intent to consent to divorce because of mental illness or a malady rendering him unconscious.  In these situations, rabbis developed strategies to try to minimize the suffering of these women, through establishing grounds to presume death or to validate the consent of a mentally ill man during moments of lucidity, but still many women remained agunot.

The historian, Haim Sperber, identifies a second dramatic change in the agunah problem which came in the late 19th century.  In this era, the agunah problem became one of men abandoning their families.  Sperber, currently a scholar in residence at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law, studies how agunot used popular Yiddish media to try to find their missing husbands, putting advertisements in the classified sections or writing to advice columns.  These men had disappeared into another province, another European country or on a boat to America.  With the emancipation of Jews in Europe, Jewish men could for the first time travel freely outside of Jewish ghettos and find even greater freedom in the promised land of America.  They could leave behind their Jewish identities, and for many, this meant leaving their Jewish wives as well.

An open letter to a missing husband in the Bintel Brief, the advice column of the Jewish Daily Forward in 1908, captures one such woman’s pain:

Have you ever asked us why you left us?  Max, where is your conscience; you used to have sympathy for the forsaken women and used to say that their terrible plight was due to the men who left them in dire need.  And how did you act? I was a young, educated decent girl when you took me.  You lived with me for six years, during which time I bore you four children.  And then you left me.

From the late 20th century to the present day, we have seen a new kind of agunah problem emerge.  We still have instances where the husband has absconded or is unable to consent, but now the most common context for the creation of an agunah is a contested civil divorce.  This husband is physically present and mentally sound, but seeks to use his power to withhold a religious divorce to inflict pain on the wife or as a bargaining chip in negotiations over property, alimony and custody in the civil divorce.  He demands that the wife give up her rights to family property or make cash payments in order to be granted a divorce. Why has this transformation taken place?  One explanation may be the dramatic changes that have taken place in civil family law over this period.

In the wake of the second wave feminist movement, states across the U.S. rewrote their family laws to recognize the value of women’s contributions to the family enterprise and award spouses equal rights to assets accumulated over the course of marriage.  Some men perceive their rights to withhold divorce under Jewish law as an appropriate tool to use to claw back some of the hard-won gains of the women’s movement.  Our community should be united in rejecting these actions.

Feminist legal scholars are divided on how to fix Jewish family law. Some argue that the problem can be prevented if those marrying in Orthodox ceremonies sign an halachic(within the framework of Jewish law) prenuptial agreement in which the husband undertakes to give a divorce when asked. Others argue that the time has come to create a new understanding of Jewish marriage that recognizes our contemporary understandings of the fundamental equality of men and women, and allows women to initiate divorce, too. Just as Mayyim Hayyim has worked within halacha to re-imagine a mikveh experience that speaks to women’s needs, it is possible that both of these options provide an opportunity for a creative revision of marriage and divorce rituals.


Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe is the Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and the Law. This is printed in collaboration with Mayyim Hayyim.

From Scalding to Prodding: Is This Any Way to Get Divorced?

Wood background Wild West styleBy Amy Sessler Powell

In a Boston Daily Globe story dated April 17, 1904, via the sensational headline, “Crippled Wife Scalds Brutal Husband,” we learn that Mrs. Jacob Deutsch boiled a large pot of water, added fat, scalded her sleeping husband from head to toe and disappeared.

Slightly more than 100 years later, Rabbi Mendel Epstein stands trial in Trenton, N.J. accused of torturing recalcitrant Jewish husbands, sometimes with an electric cattle prod to the private parts, until they give their wives religious divorces, known as “gets.” Rabbi Epstein was allegedly available for hire, for $60,000, by women who believed they had nowhere else to turn.

What do these two stories have in common? They both highlight the desperation of Jewish women stuck in failed marriages who believe their best way out is through torture. Why would they believe this? Because the only way for a religious Jewish woman to get a divorce is to be granted a get by her husband. If he does not want to give it, is unable to give it or unable to be found, she is stuck.

As we approach the Jewish holiday Purim, we pause on the Fast of Esther, also known as Yom ha’Agunah, March 4, a day Jewish women have designated to protest the ongoing plight of agunot, women stuck in bad marriages because they cannot get the get.

There are differences between women like Mrs. Deutsch and those who allegedly hired Rabbi Epstein and his gang of thugs. At the turn of the century, many women became agunot due to immigration patterns. The Globe article describes Mrs. Deutsch as a “cripple with a rubber foot, and she was not beautiful to look upon, but her dowry was a fortune.” She marries in Moscow, but we learn that the husband, Jacob, absconds to America with her $2,000 dowry, leaving her penniless and without the option to remarry unless he grants her a religious divorce. She goes to America to find him.

Dr. Haim Sperber, a historian of agunot and a scholar-in-residence for the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute (HBI) Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem, unearthed her story. Dr. Sperber’s research relies newspaper archives in many languages to trace the historical patterns of agunot between 1865 and 1914. He knows that today’s agunah presents differently than those of the past.

Today, an agunah usually knows exactly where to find her husband, but get refusal has become a new sort of domestic violence. The husband wields his power over the divorce to extort money or favorable property and custody conditions. Sometimes, he uses it simply to torture, because he can.

What else do we know about Mrs. Deutsch? She finds her husband in America, “but he had spent all her money.” The Deutsches attempt reconciliation but it does not go well. Her co-workers at the factory where she sews for a living report that her husband taunts her about her deformities, their poverty and “made her life unbearable,” turn-of-the-century code for a woman who is abused. We learn how she exacts her revenge and that Jacob was not expected to live. We don’t know if Mrs. Deutsch was ever found or charged.

Sadly, Mrs. Deutsch and the solution to her problem husband, a pot of boiling water mixed with fat, is not much different in scope than the cattle prod allegedly used 100 years later by Rabbi Epstein. As we turn our attention to the plight of the agunah on March 4, we need to make sure it is not a one-day affair. We do not want to spend another 100 years without better solutions.

Amy Sessler Powell is the HBI communications director. Visit here for more information about the HBI Spring Seminar: New Approaches to the Agunah Problem.

Dr. Haim Sperber is the GCRL/Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel Scholar-in-Residence and a senior lecturer at the Western Galilee College in Israel where he chairs the Interdisciplinary Studies department.