15 November 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
1, the chief rabbi and
a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

Edgar Degas, General Millinet and Chief Rabbi Astruc (1871), oil on canvas, Community of Géradmer, France (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz written by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) just over a century and a half ago, in 1868.

Strauss, whose other works include The Blue Danube and the Kaiser-Walzer, was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church. But he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, which they regarded as typically German, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over the next few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

One of the exhibitions in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse is a double portrait by the French painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and General Anne Francois Millinet (1768-1852) and Chief Rabbi Astruc. Although neither of these subjects is from Vienna, this painting, in oil on canvas, dates from 1871 and is currently on loan to the museum in Vienna from the Community of Géradmer in France.

The artist Edgar Degas (born Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas) is known for his paintings, sculptures, prints, and drawings. He is especially identified with the subject of dance, and more than half of his works depict dancers.

Degas is seen as one of the founders of Impressionism, although he rejected the term, preferring to be called a realist. He was particularly masterly in depicting movement, as can be seen in his paintings of dancers, racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are also known for their psychological complexity and for their portrayal of human isolation.

At the start of his career, Degas had many Jewish friends and patrons, including Charles Ephrussi, whose extended family is the subject of a major exhibition on one floor of the museum.

The double portrait by Degas of General Millinet and Chief Rabbi Astruc was painted during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. Later, during the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ (1894-1906), Degas became a fanatical anti-Semite and vocal opponent of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1859-1935), the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice and hysterical public anti-Semitism.

This vitriolic antisemitism provides some of the background for the forceful response to the portrait by Chief Rabbi Astruc’s son, the journalist and theatre director Gabriel Astruc. He saw the double portrait of his father and the general as an anti-Semitic travesty.

‘Degas, whose anti-Semitism has made him colour-blind, has destroyed his wonderful model by replacing his small thin mouth by thick sensuous lips and transforming his sensitive and warm regard into an expression of greed,’ Gabriel Astruc wrote. ‘This work is not art, it’s a pogrom.’

A photograph of Chief Rabbi Astruc in the exhibition serves to illustrate how his son’s response is justified.

Élie-Aristide Astruc (1831-1905) was a French rabbi and author. He was born in Bordeaux on 12 November 1831, and went to school in Bordeaux before studying at the French rabbinical college in Metz.

He was appointed assistant to the Chief Rabbi of Paris in 1857, and he became the chaplain of the Paris Lyceums of Louis le Grand, Vanves, and Chaptal.

Astruc was one of the six founders of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1860, and in 1865 he was the delegate from Bayonne at the convention to nominate the Chief Rabbi of France.

When he was elected the Chief Rabbi of Belgium in 1866, a special decree from the Emperor Napoleon III allowed him to remain a French citizen while he held that office.

During the Franco-Prussian war (1870-1871), Astruc distinguished himself both as a French patriot and as a Jewish minister. He was a member of the comité du pain, whose chairman, the Comte de Mérode, leader of the Belgian Catholic party, cared for the wounded. As secretary of the ‘Belgian committee for the liberation of the territory (Alsace and Lorraine),’ Astruc revisited Metz for the first time in 20 years.

Astruc resigned as Chief Rabbi of Belgium in 1879. Before leaving Belgium, the King of the Belgians made him a Knight of the Order of Leopold. Back in France, he was Chief Rabbi of Bayonne from 1887 to 1891, when he retired.

In the pulpit, Astruc expressed independent but moderate views, proclaiming his moral convictions and his attachment to the Jewish faith.

Astruc was a successful writer. His first work was a French metrical translation of the principal liturgical poems of the Sephardic ritual, Olelot Eliahu, Elia's Gleanings) (1865). His small book Histoire Abrégée des Juifs et de Leurs Croyances (1869) caused a sensation. As Astruc said, he wished ‘to separate the kernel from its shell,’ or to disengage the great ideas of Judaism from egendary traditions.

His more important sermons were published as Entretiens sur le Judaisme (1879). His Origines et Causes Historiques de l’Anti-Sémitisme (1884) was translated into German and Hungarian.

He contributed to many reviews, including the Revue de Belgique, Revue de Pédagogie, and the Nouvelle Revue, often seeking to correct non-Jews and their views of Jewish history and beliefs.

He died in Brussels on 23 February 1905 at the age of 73.

A photograph of Élie-Aristide Astruc at the end of the 19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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