New exhibition at Sydney Jewish Museum has its roots in Austria

The Yiddish songs have fallen silent in the village of Hohenems. The cantor is long gone, the synagogue's congregants taken by the Holocaust or dissolved into the Diaspora. But the memory of those who lived in this hamlet flourishes in the museum housed in Villa Heimann-Rosenthal, once home to a prominent Jewish textile family, on Schweizer Street.

The townspeople's stories are resurrected, somewhat ironically, in the Jewish cemetery in the shaded slopes of nearby Schwefelberg. And their love of music and culture is acknowledged, still, in the vaulted synagogue – one of the most impressive in the Alpine region, it's said – located in the heart of the Jewish quarter. Although deconsecrated and turned into a fire station after the pogroms swept through, the baroque edifice has been re-transformed, the prayer room restored to its original size, the women's gallery and ox-eye windows partly reconstructed.

Today this imposing structure is known as the Salomon Sulzer Auditorium, named for the cantor who led his choir here in the 19th century and who commissioned Austrian composer Franz Schubert with the composition of the 92nd psalm. Fittingly, the auditorium is the venue for cultural events including Schubertiade, a music festival held here and in nearby Schwarzenberg every year in celebration of Schubert's music.

And this Jewish love affair with music will be celebrated half a world away when an exhibition curated collaboratively by the Jewish museums of Hohenems and Munich opens at the Sydney Jewish Museum on  April 15. Jukebox Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl tells the story of Jewish involvement in music, from the invention of the gramophone record by German-Jewish immigrant to the US Emil Berliner to the expression of the Jewish experience by musicians, composers and songwriters from synagogue cantors all the way to Barbra Streisand.

"One could say that, with Sulzer's influence on the whole profession of cantors and on cantorial music, Hohenems was a cradle of popular music of the 20th century," says Hanno Loewy, curator of the exhibition and director of the Jewish Museum of Hohenems. "One dimension of the museum is the Hohenems Diaspora of descendants living all over the world, many of them  in Australia, like the Sulzer descendant, pianist and composer Danny Blaker."

This Diaspora is knitted back together in Hohenems, on the cobblestoned streets once strictly divided between Christians and Jews (Christengasse and Judengasse), in the mikvah (ritual bath) and the adjacent Jewish school which is now a restaurant.

But it's in the cemetery that the community's spirit lingers most profoundly. The oldest of the gravestones – laid in 1617, when an edict was issued allowing Jewish families to settle here – have disappeared into the soft hillsides, never to be exhumed. The newer ones contain the remains of those who helped Jews thrive here, despite their ongoing persecution.

Although the community has long disappeared, the bodies of descendants have been returned to this sunny, tranquil spot for burial while others have reserved their plots for the future. And there's music here to welcome them, too: birdsong and breeze and the buzzing of nectar-seeking bees, a most gentle of harmonies inspiring the repose of their souls.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

Emirates flies to Zurich via Dubai. See emirates.com/au

Hohenems is around 120 kilometres from Zurich by rail and road. See raileurope.com.au

STAY

Seehotel am Kaiserstrand, on the banks of Lake Constance, is around 25 minutes from Hohenems by car. See en.seehotel-kaiserstrand.com

SEE

Admission to the Jewish Museum Hohenems is $13 for adults, $8 for children. See aejm.org/members/judisches-museum-hohenems/ 

Jukebox Jewkbox! A Century on Shellac and Vinyl is at the Sydney Jewish Museum and includes performances, films and lectures. See sydneyjewishmuseum.com.au

Schubertiade is on from April to October, 2019. See schubertiade.at

Catherine Marshall was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

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