This week, a historic Hanukkah menorah which was created sometime before 1835 is on display at the Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem. The Hanukkah menorah belonged to a Jewish soldier from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to the Times of Israel, “The menorah was fashioned from a brass front-plate emblazoned with the Hapsburg dynasty’s double-headed eagle and the initials of an 18th-century emperor. Such plates were long a traditional feature of the tall uniform hats of Austro-Hungarian soldiers.”
Curators at the Museum of Italian Jewish Art believe that the Hanukkah menorah reached Italy around World War I, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied part of Northern Italy. The Austro-Hungarian occupation of Italy included Conegliano Veneto, which was home to a small Jewish community and a spectacular synagogue built in 1701. Among the Austro-Hungarian imperial troops were Jews, some of whom were photographed in the synagogue around 1918. Since the times of Emperor Joseph II in the 1780’s, Jews in the Habsburg Empire were able to serve in the military and 100,000 Jews fought for the Habsburgs during WWI.
After the conclusion of World War I and the withdrawal of the Austro-Hungarians, it appears that Italian Jewish craftsmen fused nine circular cups of a type commonly found in Italian Hanukkah menorahs to the bottom of the Hanukkah plate, perhaps to commemorate a time of violence that ended in victory, like the Maccabee campaign commemorated on Hanukkah. The Hanukkah menorah also honors Habsburg Emperor Francis I, who passed away in 1765.
According to Andreina Contessa, the Museum of Italian Jewish Art’s chief curator, the menorah was a reminder of a time when Jews — whether in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Italy, or elsewhere in Europe — saw integration as possible and military service as one way of expressing allegiance to the states where they were born. She asserted, “They felt loyalty to their countries, and believed that you should respect the regime.” Indeed, the Jews of Austria were very much assimilated from the times of the Haskalah Movement up until the Holocaust.
Starting in the 1780’s, the Jews of Austria were granted religious freedom and other basic rights. After Jews were granted these privileges in Austria, Jewish families in Vienna began to acquire significant wealth and political influence. Some of these civil liberties were curtailed following the death of Emperor Joseph II, but Jews once again gained more rights following the Revolution of 1848, when discrimination based on religion was outlawed. While there was regression under Emperor Franz Joseph I, following the “Ausgleich” between Austria and Hungary in 1867, Jews finally gained full citizenship rights. After that, many Austrian Jews aligned themselves principally with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Jews aligned themselves to the countries where they were born in many places across Europe, up until the Holocaust.
Following the Second World War, the gilded woodwork and floral Torah ark curtain that used to be displayed in the Conegliano synagogue when the Austro-Hungarian Jewish soldiers visited was brought to Israel, where it is currently on display in the Museum of Italian Jewish Art. In Jerusalem, prayer services are held weekly utilizing this historic floral Torah ark curtain. Also this week, a Hanukkah Party was held there. Indeed, this Hanukkah menorah, along with this floral Torah ark curtain and gilded woodwork are remnants of European Jewish communities that were vanquished during the Holocaust.
By Rachel Avraham
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