Ringstrasse: A Jewish Boulevard, a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Vienna, reminds us that Jewish built heritage includes more than cemeteries, synagogues or other building used for communal purposes.
Curated by Gabriele Kohlbauer-Fritz and Sabine Bergler, the exhibition, which runs until Oct. 4, is one of several this year that will mark the opening of the grand Ringstrasse Boulevard that encircles the central part of Vienna, following the path of the old city walls.
Many of the stately mansions that arose on the Ring were built by wealthy Jewish bankers and industrialist, many of whom fell victim to the Holocaust — the family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund De Waal, provides a powerful evocation of those times.
The Jewish Museum states that its exhibition “looks at the light and dark sides of the Ringstrasse era, the social rise of a small Jewish elite, the daily struggle for survival of the masses of Jews, and the political exploitation of anti-Semitism and its consequences.”
It tells the story via maps, information panels on the notable mansions and families, family portraits, household furnishings, period newspapers and publications, photographs, memorabilia and other material.
After the Vienna city walls were dismantled, the buildings on the stately boulevard that was constructed in its place around the inner city became status symbols for the nobility and grande bourgeoisie. Many Jewish industrialists and bankers, who had contributed to the economic boom in the Gründerzeit and were active as collectors and patrons of the arts, built magnificent residences on the Ring. In contrast to the splendor of the Ringstrasse façades, social problems and increasing political radicalization emerged as a concomitant to the massive economic and social changes in Vienna in the late 19th century. The lower middle classes were the classic losers in this modernization process and were thus highly receptive to politically incited anti-Semitism, which did not stop at exploiting stereotypes such as the “poor ragged Ostjude,” the “socialist Jewish firebrand,” or the “capitalist Jewish banker.”