by Thorsten Eisingerich
The photo shows Danielle Spera with Austrian Federal President Heinz Fischer and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz at the Austrian Cultural Forum in September 2015.
Would you like to tell us a bit about your personal and family background ?
I come from a quite diverse background, as it is common in Austria. Most of the Viennese families consist of mixtures of different cultures and ethnic backgrounds [owed to the multinational, multilingual and multiethnic imperial past]. My mother grew up in Carinthia, the southern part of Austria; my father is a Viennese Jew, the roots of his family were in the Czech Republic before they came to Vienna in the 1850ies. My father was born in 1928, was kicked out of school when he was 10 years old, and was ordered to do forced labor at the age of fifteen. He somehow survived the war [WW II] as a child, hiding with family members who had previously converted to the catholic religion. However, one of the worst things I found out very recently, is that he had to excavate dead bodies after the allied bomb attacks on Vienna, which must have been a terrible experience for a boy at his age. As he was finally rounded up at a train station to be deported, he and a friend managed to run away and found refuge in a old destroyed building. They hid there until the war ended. They had water in there, but barely any food. They experienced the liberation of Vienna like that. After the war, my father continued his education, because he hadn’t attended school since he was 10 years old. He later on graduated, studied further, and then taught at the University, and still is - at the University of Innsbruck. He is still a active member of both the Jewish and the academic communities.
In the 1950ies, my parents met at the Communist party as they were thinking that after the NS-Regime, a Communist government based on the idealistic values of its early theorists would be needed. Having experienced the Red Army as the liberators from tyranny and from their own ordeal, they considered them sort of their family for a long time. Even if they drew their backs on the communist party for a long time, in their heart, they probably still feel that everything should be shared among everybody.
My husband’s family is initially from Krakow, Poland and from Lemberg/Lviv [in today’s Ukraine, back then yet another part of imperial Austria]. After the Soviet invasion of Lviv my mother in law was deported at the age of 15 or 16 together with her parents to Siberia together with other bourgeois Jews and their families. This was actually their lucky day, because when they Nazis arrived, there would have been no escape and they would have died in a concentration camp.
So was there ever any discussion about communism among the older generation of your families?
My husband and I often reflect about that, but unfortunately my parents in law passed away very early, so it never came to such a discussion. But yet another interesting fact in that respect: My father in law came from Krakow. He somehow managed to get a false identity and joined the red army. So he came to Vienna with the Soviets as a liberator! By the way, only him and two of his sisters survived out of his large family. His parents and all the other 8 siblings perished in the concentration camps with their entire families. As you can see, we have many victims in our family: It’s a very sad story.
My parents in law met in Vienna after the war as my mother in law and her family also had decided to come to Vienna, as it was so conveniently located just past the Iron Curtain. This is why so many Jews from the new Soviet Republics settled in Vienna and this is also how they met. This was actually how the Jewish community in Vienna was reborn.
Does that include the Bukhara Jews coming to Austria?
No, that was much later. Immediately after the war, the Austrian Jews who had fled were reluctant to come back. They came back for a short period of time to look after surviving relatives, but then most of them left again. So very, very few came back. Also because of the politics, as Austrians were not very welcoming to returning Jews as they were living in their apartments and houses, driving their cars, using their offices or owned any other former Jewish property (like artwork). So, many Austrians didn’t want to have them back, so the Jews didn’t feel welcome either. The Jews who came were mainly displaced persons, i.e. Jews who had survived concentration camps or Jews who didn’t have a home anymore, and so they settled in Vienna. Most of them wanted to move on, but many stayed. This was the first period of immigration to Vienna and it really formed the community anew. Those Jews were from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, and a big group from Poland – in short, from the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy.
The second big immigration after the Hungarian Jews [who arrived after the failed uprising against communism] in 1956, were the Soviet Jews, especially those from Soviet Republics in Central Asia starting in the late 1970ies/1980ies. And then again a big group only went through Austria, but very few stayed. Most of them had to go to Israel via Vienna, because this was the only way they could leave the Soviet Union. However, some of them did return to Vienna because they couldn’t adapt in Israel. They came back to Vienna and stayed, thus today nearly one third of the Jewish Community consists of people who came from former Soviet Republics.
Let’s get back to the part of your life which best known to the Austrian public, i.e. when you were the prime time news anchor for the Austrian Broadcaster ORF’s “Zeit im Bild 1”, after you spent two years as their correspondent in DC. That was probably not the easiest of times for Austrians here. What were your impressions in these times, when Austria was high in the media because of the Waldheim-Affair?
It was a very exciting time. I arrived in Washington in April 1987, just a couple of days before President Waldheim was put onto the so called Watch List. I had hardly time to adapt, because I had to immediately plunge into communicating what had happened. So, I went very often to the ministry of justice and of course also to the White House. I was always confronted with the question “How can you live in Austria with the Nazi-Past?” In retrospective, I have to say that the Waldheim-years led to a catharsis in Austria. For the first time, discussion started within families. Before that, everything was somewhat covered and not discussed openly. At the Jewish Museum in Vienna, we just made this experience with an Austrian politician, whom we showed our permanent exhibition where we also have a chapter on Waldheim. As he was standing there, he said “I remember when I heard Waldheim speaking out the sentence ‘I only obeyed the orders and fulfilled my duties’ and I asked my father ‘did you think the same way?’ and he said ‘Yes absolutely!’” So within families, a discussion started instantly, which was overdue. I still remember Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky coming to Washington very soon after the watch list decision had been made. Everybody had suspected him to cancel his visit and it was really important not to do. He felt that something had to be done and he really felt it strongly from his heart. Only the entire Waldheim-Affair made Vranitzky’s apology speech at the Austrian parliament possible, in which he acknowledged Austrian co-responsibility to the atrocities of WWII. Later he repeated this speech at the Knesset, and I had the chance to attend this trip to Israel for the Austrian state TV.
Did your Jewish background play any role in the way you communicated? Were people aware of that background of yours as representative of the Austria State TV?
Some people were aware, some people were not, but the most interesting discussion was the one we had in our office with the American staff. It was a very strange situation, raising the question “Could Americans and Austrians still be friends?” Very often, I was confronted with the question “How can Jews live in Austria?”
Moving on from a life of a news anchor, being on air almost on a daily basis, to become a director of a museum: How did you adapt to that? What was your idea to reinvent yourself and how did you obtain that position?
I always followed what the Jewish Museum Vienna was doing with lots of interest. I am very interested in arts, contemporary arts mainly, also of course Jewish art and tradition, which I live. The Jewish Museum Vienna produced many interesting exhibitions on a very high scientific level, but it did not have a lot of attendance, in the contrary to Berlin, where the Jewish Museum is known and visited by almost everyone. But Vienna had a much stronger Jewish history, a much bigger community than Berlin. Before 1938, it was the third largest Jewish community in Europe, the biggest German-speaking community. The lack of attention towards the Jewish Museum Vienna was a pity. In 2009 the city of Vienna who is the proprietor of the Museum was looking for a new director. My husband said to me: “You’re always talking about this museum and what you would do better: Now you could take the challenge!”
So, what did you do better then? Are you satisfied with the development of the Jewish Museum?
Absolutely. We multiplied our visitors within the last five years. My main goal was to open the museum to the public, to give our visitors a warm welcome and to turn it into an interesting place of encounter and discourse.
What about the background of the visitors?
The Austrian visitors are, I would say, 95% non-Jewish and our foreign visitors are 95% Jewish.
We also have lots of school classes, hosting thousands of school kids within the age range from 6-18 in our museum. On a daily basis, we have not one but a couple of school classes for what we consider our most important work: Education. The school classes are of course very diverse with a lot of Muslim kids and that’s why it is really important to connect and to show what we have in common. There is always a very useful discussion, for example when we had an exhibition on kosher life and kosher food: We talked about halal with the school classes and what it means in comparison to kosher. There are so many things that are really fascinating to discover for the kids, also the common roots.
Does that mean the museum has become a dialogue platform also with the non-Jewish population?
Absolutely, and this is so important! As we are subsidized with tax payers’ money, we have to give them something back. This is my utmost goal.
Besides the core exhibition, you also present special exhibitions - some of them travelling around the world.
This is actually exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to reach out, I wanted this museum to open up to the public and not only be a museum that is for scientists or for people, who are interested in Judaism on a scientific level, but it should really show how much the Jewish community influenced this city, what Jews did for this city, especially if we look at the big exhibition on the Ringstrasse. This outstanding boulevard would not have been created without the contribution of a group of Viennese Jewish families. People were not aware of that fact but now they know. This goes for every aspect of Vienna’s history, we want to point out how much the Viennese Jews contributed to the development of this city and its society: Infrastructure, medicine, science, art, psychoanalysis – you name it.
It is so important to tell what was lost, and at the same time to show how vivid the community is currently. Today it is rather small but lively, and consists of many different ethnic groups which is why it is also important to show the traditions. For example, we wanted people to be aware of the holidays e.g. the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah. We perform a New Year’s concert for Rosh Hashanah in September, which gets a lot of attention and is always sold out.
A concert in the museum? Where is the space for that?
In our auditorium. Our permanent exhibition on the second floor is moveable, so in the evenings when we have our events, we can move the whole exhibition away to create an auditorium to host a lot of people. When our audience visits the core exhibition during the day they would not notice that our showcases are portable. We started five years ago with a Jewish New Year concert on one day and it was such a success that the next year we had concerts to celebrate 2 days around the date of Rosh Hashanah. It is amazing because we do not do a lot of PR but we are still sold out as soon as we publish the event on our website. So maybe next year we’re going to broadcast the concert.
Your special exhibition on photographic icon Erich Lessing was opened by the federal president and the foreign minister in New York last September and is moving on to DC very soon. Do you have any further contacts already? Do you plan to bring more of your exhibitions to the U.S.?
Luckily, we are showing a lot of our exhibitions abroad. We had a lot of success with our show on Andy Warhol´s Jewish Geniuses at the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. We also took our show of Peter Rigaud “Being Jewish” to 36 cities around the world from Buenos Aires to Berlin. So we have lots of our exhibitions traveling.
And more U.S.-focused? What are the activities here?
At the moment we are showing to exhibitions: “Lessing presents Lessing” which is the very personal choice or photos by the renowned Austrian photographer, Erich Lessing, done by his daughter Hannah, who is the Secretary General of the Austrian National Fund and at the same time also the exhibition “A good Day” by Andrew Mezvinsky. We combined two different generations and two different artistic positions. Erich Lessing had to leave Austria in 1939 and fled to Palestine, his mother and grandmother perished in the concentration camps. Erich Lessing returned after WWII to Vienna and help restore a democratic Austria. Andrew Mezvinsky is a young American, who decided to live and work in Vienna as he loves it.
As a counterthesis to “How can you still live there?”
Exactly! And this was so important for me to show with both Lessing and Mezvinsky. Mezvinsky is young, has travelled many countries, but considers Vienna home. We also inaugurated the circle of the “U.S.-Friends of the Jewish Museum in Vienna" in October.
Is that your newest outreach product?
Correct. We have an outstanding honorary board, with interesting board members, Nobel Laureates as Eric Kandel, Martin Karplus and Walter Kohn or the legendary movie producer Eric Pleskow. The singer Matisyahu also joined our board, after he visited our museum and spent nearly a day there. This is the biggest success, that people are so attracted by the museum that they stay for many hours.
As to the composition of the U.S.-Friends: It struck me that there are some Austrian sportsman on (the) Board? Is that a coincidence or what is their direct link with the museum?
Absolutely not! First of all, [former Austrian Olympic swimmer] Markus Rogan came to the museum and he was totally impressed. He now lives in California and has converted to Judaism. His wife has roots in Vienna too, so that closes the circle.
Thank you very much for your time. I am glad we will meet again at the opening of the Lessing/Mezvinsky exhibition at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, DC on January 20, 2016!