An Open Letter Concerning The Removal Of Our Voices From The Vienna Jewish Museum
We are writing in response to the meeting we had on December 4th with the Vienna Jewish Museum. We have needed some time to process this both in terms of the content of what was conveyed to us and the emotional experience of the meeting. It is a huge challenge for us to find the appropriate words for this letter, beyond the immediate anger that we felt, but here is our attempt.
Since January 2023, we have been in communication with your team, discussing and planning what would have been our part in your Holocaust ‘Generations’ exhibition. It was clear that the museum was genuinely interested in our father-son intergenerational dialogue and we were in the process of deciding which elements of our creative practices would work best. We appreciated this dialogue and were excited to bring our work to a prominent Jewish museum like yours. (In the document alongside this letter we have put together our email communications over the year to show the constructive nature of our communication).
Both of us are trying to make work that engages with the ethical, social and political issues that emerge from our shared family history in both Austria and Germany. This is a history of the Holocaust, of fascism, dispossession, theft and emigration; a shared history that links us as the descendants of German and Austrian Jews, to you as Austrians, your institution and your audience.
We expected that this meeting would be about the final curation of our work, but it was not. It became apparent that the decision to remove us from your group show had been taken before the meeting, and that you were talking to us merely to justify that decision. The focus was completely on Gideon’s history as an activist and an ethical choice he made some years ago to remove his work from a touring Prix Pictet group show to Israel. This act was a decision completely supported by Elias. Our support for the concept of a boycott is an act of peaceful, non-violent protest. In Gideon’s experience of documenting the final years of apartheid in South Africa, it became clear to him that the most effective tools in that struggle were the international boycotts of South Africa. In his opinion they were much more effective than the armed struggle in bringing about the downfall of apartheid, reinforcing his pacifist views. It is important to note here that the translation of the word ‘boycott’ in German has much more negative connotations than it does in English.
We do not of course, in any way, support Hamas and the horrific acts that were perpetrated on October 7th last year. Hamas is not Palestine in the same way as the Israeli government is not Israel. We should also clarify that we are not members of the group BDS, but we are supporters of the idea of a cultural boycott to put pressure on the Israeli government and those who tacitly support the continual occupation and settlements of Palestinian land. In this time when such extreme and horrific violence is being carried out by both sides on innocent people, the idea that advocating for a peaceful method of protest is anti-Semitic and an unacceptable position to take is deeply troubling. This is particularly so because our ethical position here is hugely influenced by our Jewish family history of murder and dispossession in Austria and Germany.
In the meeting, we heard that some of you privately agree with our opinions, but your institution could not take the risk of working with us. You stated that not only would you fear losing your jobs, but that the museum has some ‘enemies’ who might use our history of being critical of the Israeli government to attack the institution. We were shut down despite Elias’s call for an open critical dialogue, one that invites perspectives and discussions from all sides, and your agreement with this. Indeed, part of Elias’s work involves running anti- Semitism workshops to engage organisations with an open discussion on understanding anti-Semitism, both politically and in the workplace.
Our experience of being silenced is troubling, and follows a wider trend of critical Jewish voices and many others, being censored by institutions across Europe. We fear this is a sign of democracy in danger at a time when fascism is again rising across Europe. To exclude us from the exhibition means that you are shutting down our creative responses to our family history, which is so deeply linked to Vienna. What does this mean for the integrity of your institution?
We do not wish to personally blame any members of your team, as this is clearly part of a wider problem within Austria and Germany, where what began as a constructive policy of dealing with the legacy of the Holocaust has mutated into an unquestioning support for the Israeli state and the Netanyahu government and this in turn inevitably brings with it the suppression and silencing of critical voices.
We are also acutely aware that we are privileged and safe. Our ‘wound’ in this interchange is nothing compared to the daily horror of the collective punishment being visited upon the civilian population of Gaza. We are writing this letter to serve both as a public historical record and to ask you to reflect on your decision that we are not the ‘right’ Jews for your exhibition.
To conclude this letter, here is a brief record of our family history in Austria and Germany, a history that lies at the core of our creative work and our political stance in the world:
-Gideon’s grandmother, Irma Schwarz (formerly Milch) was educated in Vienna, where she spent much of her early life, before moving to live with her husband in Berlin and eventually escaping to South Africa in 1939. Three of her sisters and a brother were murdered in the Holocaust.
-Her mother (Gideon’s great-grandmother), Bertha Milch, was arrested at her home at Wien 2, Krafftgasse 6/12 in Vienna and transported to Terezín, where she was murdered.
-Gideon’s grandfather, Hermann Mendel, died in the First World War in 1915, fighting for Germany. His wife, Fanny Halberstadt (Gideon’s grandmother) was arrested at her home in Offenbach in 1942 and transported to Treblinka where she was murdered.