The visit of the couple from London
April 6th, 2017 will surely go down in the annals of the Jewish Museum Vienna. Visits from the British Royal House do not appear on the agenda of Austrian museums. We were even happier that HRH (= His Royal Highness), the Prince of Wales, had chosen the Jewish Museum Vienna for his visit in Vienna. When the Austrian newspapers reported at the beginning of February that the Royal Highnesses Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were to make a short trip to Vienna, it would have never crossed our minds that precisely our institution could be one of their destinations.
This decision was preceded by exciting weeks. In mid-February I received a call from the British Embassy. One was commissioned to suss out cultural institutions for the royal visit. For this reason a delegation of the “Royal Household” would take a very close look at our museum. The surprising announcement followed with the request to maintain the strictest secrecy. The eight-person Royal Household delegation showed up right on the dot at 4 p.m. on February 28. Since we were meeting at the café of the Jewish Museum Vienna, the codes “male principle” (= Prince Charles) and “female principle” (= Duchess Camilla) were used and from that point on became winged words for us. During our tour, we placed great attention on objects with a reference to Great Britain that are found in our collections, due to the fact that tens of thousands of Viennese Jewish women and men found refuge in Great Britain after the Nazis had seized power.
Even after this initial gauging by the delegation from London, we didn’t think that our house in particular could be chosen. When a group of security people from the Royal House were flown in a few days later and the Jewish Museum Vienna was examined for its security situation, a possible visit by the successors to the throne still also seemed beyond all reach. Countless e-mails followed with just as many questions. After a repeated inspection, it emerged about three weeks before the planned visit that we would be chosen with high probability. A little bit later the news was conveyed that we had indeed won the race!
Under the aspect of the strictest confidentiality still, we received the request that our guests would not only see selected objects, but also wanted to meet a group of Holocaust survivors, as well as take part in an education programme with Muslim refugees from the Middle East. To prepare all of this under the pledge of secrecy represented one of the biggest challenges and led to one of the Holocaust survivors texting me three days before the visit, asking when he would finally be allowed to tell his dear wife about it.
In the meantime, a minutely detailed order of events was forwarded to us by Clarence House, the official residence of the royal couple, which didn’t leave even a millimetre of leeway, and we were able to hold a general rehearsal two days before the visit. Both of our VIP guests were to be attended to separately: our head curator Werner Hanak-Lettner on the side of the Duchess of Cornwall, and I on the side of the Prince of Wales.
On the day of all days, our house was searched from the early morning hours on by police and security teams, including bomb-sniffing dogs. The British press corps travelling with Charles and Camilla established small base camps in our facilities. One hour prior to the arrival of our prominent guests, Dorotheergasse was closed for cars and pedestrians. We had long been prepared and already knew the “screenplay” by heart when the notice came that it would be happening in a minute. We, Head Curator Hanak-Lettner, our Commercial Manager Markus Roboch, and myself, took position and were indeed able to welcome Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall a few moments later in the foyer of Palais Eskeles.
Both appeared to be extremely attentive, informed and interested. Following a brief tour, the meeting with the survivors took place. Chairs with cushions were provided for both Royal Highnesses, but the Duchess of Cornwall promptly chose a different chair than the one intended for her. A trifle, one would like to think, but every divergence from protocol sets the royal entourage into a slight tizzy. With the highest concentration focused on their respective counterpart, they both spoke with all of their conversation partners and wanted to find out the life stories of everyone. Charles posed the question to those who had survived as Jewish Viennese child refugees in Great Britain in foster families as to how they fared with their respective families and mentioned that his own grandmother, Alice of Battenberg (the mother of Prince Philip), had hidden Jewish families herself and was also honoured for that in Israel as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”. This fact still remains relatively unknown to date.
He was particularly taken by hearing the fate of Wolvi Klein, who was deported to Auschwitz as a 16-year-old. While I accompanied Prince Charles on foot to the second floor (for safety reasons he is not allowed to take the lift), he spoke of his deep respect towards Shoah survivors.
After we had presented further objects and events from Viennese Jewish history, our guest couple devoted themselves to the education programme for Muslim youth. Our visitors held conversations here with the head of our education department, Hannah Landsmann, and every single one of the young persons from Afghanistan. In this programme point as well, it was the stories of survival and flight that interested the Prince and his spouse.
At the end, time still remained for a little small talk with a lot of humour, especially about the gifts we had prepared: an original caricature of Sigmund Freud from our children’s book “Victoria Blitz”, as well as a kosher gin from the Mostviertel region. Particular interest in the organic production was shown here.
The Royal Highnesses signed a guest book on a table which had recently been donated to us by Nobel Prize laureate Martin Karplus. His grandfather, Johann Paul Karplus, had played cards with Sigmund Freud on this table in the 1920s – and now the Prince of Wales and his wife were writing in our guest book on it.
As he was leaving, His Royal Highness explained that he is the Royal Patron of the Jewish Museum London and asked me whether our budget is sufficient. So I sent Prince Charles off with the news that the City of Vienna reduced our subsidies in the past two years. With the hope for improvement, we bid farewell. After the departure of the Royal Couple, we drank the prepared English breakfast tea and let the intensive hours sink in.
alle Fotos (c) JMW / Ouriel Morgensztern