Otta Soap


Koží, that is, Goat Street, the former Ziegengasse in the old town of Prague preserves, like a geologic fossil, the traces of where the asanace – the rehabilitation, that is, the complete elimination of the crowded poor district, especially the Jewish quarter, which began with seismic force in 1893 – ended in the 1920s. The left side of the street was raised to the level of the newly erected Neo-Renaissance and Art Nouveau palaces, which lies, like a smooth-surfaced lake, above the vanished crooked streets of the former Josefov, enclosing the negative island of the lower-lying Jewish cemetery and the two surviving synagogues. The right side of the street, however, remained at the pre-rehabilitation level, and its winding streets also continue the missing tissue of Josefov.


I am rambling in the quarter of Saint Castalius, which goes for only a hundred meters, but at least a hundred years away from the palaces of the Art Nouveau Prague, when in the Street of the Sisters of Mercy, on the back wall of the deserted and decaying medieval Gemeindehaus, I catch sight of a curious plaster ad.


The ghost ad promotes Otta Soap. Its logo, the crayfish (in Czech, rak) suggests that the company was founded in Rakovník, that is, Rakonitz, by Joseph Otta in 1869. But when did they paint it here? The time delimiters are sufficient, as the Otta company, albeit nationalized, was still a going concern after the war, up until the 1990s, when it was acquired by Procter & Gamble.

I am researching in the library the traces of a disappeared inn of Prague, the Golden Angel in Smíchov, on the other bank of the Vltava, when among the old photographs of Smíchov I suddenly stumble upon this one, which depicts the building Štefánikova 9/57:


The adjacent number 10/53 was built in the 1920s, leaving the firewall of number 57 free and suitable for advertisements. This photo was made in 1935. The ads change rapidly, for their effectiveness is contingent on novelty. Therefore the plaster ad in the Street of the Sisters of Mercy probably also comes from that period. In this way, it has advocated for Otta Soap for at least eighty or ninety years, since the end of the rehabilitation of the Old Town, already in its fifth generation. Time has really stopped on Koží Street.

Tábor, the tower of the South Bohemian Industrial and Military Exposition of 1929, from where the President of the Republic was greeted with trumpets, from here

“A riddle. Children, what is this? A figure? No! It is the name «Otta», the soap with the crayfish logo! Excellent and good for everything.”

“Soars the world over without wings / the excellent reputation of Otta Soap.”


Postcard with unknown children


Family album:
Alba, 1867
Hong Kong, 1897
Marseille, 1900
Paris, 1904
Valenciennes, 1918
Buenos Aires, 1930
Not a photo from the album but one of those I found in the box. A photo with a stamp on it, and a letter on the reverse.

It’s impossible to decipher the date on the stamp, but from the gist of the letter I can imagine it was written shortly after the birth of my grand-aunt – let’s say, in 1904.

I also don’t know where this picture was taken, so perhaps my reconstruction is just mere imagination.

Let’s say that I found a place which, more than a century ago, might have been this place.

A place deserted today, in fact deserted since the death of the old blacksmith, thirty years ago. His widow then closed the house and the workshop, and she left.


Might the blacksmith have been one of the children on the picture? No, he was too young when he died, he could have not born before 1910. Perhaps he is rather the son of one of the men smiling at us.

And the two small girls, then? Born around 1900?
I know nothing of them.


But there are stories about two such small girls in the village, two orphaned sisters, charity cases. They never married, remained servants until their death. The elder by just one year was Louise, the younger Blanche.
I knew only Blanche, when I was a child. Louise had already been dead for years, but my father still remembered her chasing him as a small boy and whipping him with nettles in a fit of anger. The Blanche I knew was a large, wild woman with a knot of white hair, pushing a wheelbarrow full of laundry, and talking to herself. She had a tired old black dog, and she kept yelling at him in the village lanes “Allez viens, Gamin!” – “Come on, Lad!”
A very frightening old lady indeed, but she too must have been a child long time ago, like everybody else. One day, as she came uphill from the washhouse, she met my mother on the road and, though she never spoke to anybody, she dove into her basket, took out a bunch of  onions, and gave it to my mother. “Take, it’s for you”, she said. I hope that, for those onions, she got a peaceful little corner in Heaven.

As for the deserted workshop, I presume it’s the same old place as the one on the postcard. The craftsman was a modest iron-worker, who made iron gates, gutters, grates, chains, tie rods for the masons and carpenters of the village – some of these pieces are still waiting to be used, leaned up against the wall. And behind the dusty windows, the workshop appears very quiet, ghostly quiet, with all the machines waiting to start the work again.

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Carte postale aux enfants inconnues


Album de famille:
Alba 1867
Hong-Kong, 1897
Marseille, 1900
Paris, 1904
Valenciennes, 1918
Buenos Aires, 1930
Ce n’est pas une photo de l’album, mais une de celle que je tire de la boîte. Une photo avec un timbre et une lettre au dos.

Impossible de déchiffrer la date sur le timbre mais, du contenu de la lettre, on peut supposer qu’elle fut écrite peu de temps après la naissance de ma grand-tante — disons vers 1904.

Je ne sais pas non plus où la photo a été prise ce qui fait que ce que je vais reconstituer n’est sans doute que pure imagination.

Disons que j’ai retrouvé un endroit qui pourrait avoir été, il y a plus d’un siècle, ce lieu.

Un endroit aujourd’hui désert, déserté en fait depuis la mort du vieux forgeron il y a trente ans. Sa veuve a fermé alors la maison et l’atelier, et puis elle est partie.


Le forgeron pourrait-il être l’un des enfants sur la photo ? Non, il était trop jeune lorsqu’il est mort, il n’a pas pu naître avant 1910, le fils peut-être de l’un de ces hommes qui nous sourient.

Et les deux petites filles, alors ? Nées vers 1900 ?
Je ne sais rien d’elles.


Elles me font penser à deux de ces petites filles du village, deux sœurs orphelines, qui ont grandi grâce à la charité publique, ne se sont jamais mariées mais sont restées servantes jusqu’à leur mort. L’aînée, plus âgée d’un an, se nommait Louise, la cadette Blanche.
J’ai connu seulement Blanche dans mon enfance, Louise était déjà morte depuis des années mais mon père se souvient encore comment elle l’avait pourchassé en le fouettant avec des orties dans un accès de colère. La Blanche que j’ai connue était une grande femme farouche, ses cheveux blancs noués en arrière, qui poussait une brouette chargée de linge en parlant toute seule. Elle avait avec elle un vieux chien noir fatigué qu’elle appelait continuellement en passant par les ruelles du village « Allez viens, Gamin ! ».
Une vieille femme très impressionnante — mais elle aussi avait dû être un enfant longtemps auparavant, comme tout le monde. Un jour, comme elle remontait la colline depuis le lavoir, elle rencontra ma mère sur le chemin et, alors qu’elle ne parlait jamais à personne, elle s’était arrêtée, elle avait plongé la main dans son panier pour en tirer une botte d’oignons qu’elle lui avait offerte : « tenez, c’est pour vous ». Et j’espère que, pour cette botte d’oignons, elle a gagné un petit siège au Paradis où se reposer.

Quant à l’atelier déserté, j’imagine que c’est le même que celui sur la photo. L’artisan était un modeste métallurgiste qui fabriquait des grilles d’entrée, des gouttières, des garde-feu, des chaînes, des tirants métalliques, pour les maçons et les charpentiers du village — dont certains attendent encore de servir, posés contre le mur. Et derrière les vitres poussiéreuses du hangar, l’atelier apparaît si tranquille, fantomatique, avec toutes ses machines prêtes à reprendre du service.

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Dissolving: Traditional roller skates

Berlin, Schloßstraße, Week of the Dutch shoe, February 2014, from here

Prague, Old Town, Řetězová 245/8, “U černého strevíce” (Black Shoe House), facade 1603

Bread


In the crowded market, there is no respite. The endless scurry and buzz of the buyers and sellers flies in the face of the dusty heat of mid-afternoon, which commands lethargy. Scarved women move through, wearing long dresses of printed fabric in screaming loud colors, their ready smiles revealing walls of golden teeth. Stocky men in long overcoats and four-sided embroidered caps clasp their hands together in the small of their backs and study the goods with a wary eye and a practiced indifference, ready to haggle for even the smallest reduction in price.

Young men, some of them boys really, watch over stalls selling tape cassettes of unclear provenance, with photocopied insert cards but no labels. Other boys man stalls that offer cold drinks mixed on the spot, dribbling candy-colored syrup from racks of glass tubes into carbonated water. Butcher stalls reek in the heat from the blood of freshly slaughtered animals as shoppers inspect the offerings and argue for a better cut for their money.

No respite, that is, except for the tea houses, where people sit in the shade, sometimes on elevated platforms with divans and low tables; at other times around western-style tables and chairs. Placed before them are pots of tea — green or black? with milk or without? — sweetened with golden nuggets of grape sugar. Almost invariably, the tea comes to the table in simple ovoid teapots glazed in blue, gold, and white with the stylized image of the cotton boll, representing the major cash crop of the region.

We order our tea — зелёный с молоком, пожалуйста — and consider the journey we have undertaken, to this far side of the world, this most landlocked of places, this Andijon, in the cornucopious and fabled Fergana Valley of eastern Uzbekistan. Here, the foreigner is always watched and cannot rely on the crowd for anonymity. Eyes follow us everywhere, sometimes wary, sometimes curious or bemused, perhaps wondering why we have come, of all places, to this corner of the globe.

We slowly sip, and give our swollen feet a few minutes to shrink a bit from the confines of our road-weary boots, and we watch the baker as he supervises his young assistants, who are loading ball after ball of raw dough into a traditional pit oven, each one destined soon to become today’s fresh bread.


Vienna mine-free


It is the nature of the WWII Soviet mine-free inscriptions that they constantly become fewer. At best they stop their decay, as on the Stephansdom of Vienna, where it was put under protective glass, or on the museum of Dresden, where it was even cast in bronze. But it is rare that a new copy emerges, which I have seen now for the first time, in Vienna on Josefsplatz, at the corner of Bräunerstraße. For years I passed right by when going to the ancient reading room of the Nationalbibliothek, but it has come to light only now, and it has also been beautifully restored. Sarcastically, it confronts old Franz Joseph calling his peoples to war against the Russians, across the way on the facade of the library.



Día del Juicio en Viena


El catálogo y el volumen con el estudio salieron hace unas semanas, y el cartel está ya colgado en la cafetería Alt Wien, donde el público se informa mirando las paredes de los acontecimientos más recientes de la vida cultural vienesa. El autor, sentado bajo el póster, hojea su obra satisfecho –con todo motivo–. Ayer tarde, en la inauguración de la magnífica exposición Weltuntergang. Jüdisches Leben und Sterben im ersten Weltkrieg (El Día del Juicio. Vida y muerte judías en la Primera Guerra Mundial), la gran sala del Museo Judío de Viena estaba completamente abarrotada. Además de la directora del museo Danielle Spera, el comisario de exposiciones Marcus G. Patka, y el presidente del Banco Raiffeisen, patrocinador de la exposición, también intervinieron el príncipe Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen, bisnieto del mismísimo archiduque Federico, Comandante en jefe del ejército de la Monarquía Austro-Húngara –que hace un siglo se reunió con los judíos de Podhajce– y el profesor Oliver Rathke, uno de los mayores expertos en la historia de Austria del siglo XX. Este último, en su recorrido por la historia de los judíos de la monarquía desde la edad de oro de finales del siglo XIX hasta la década de 1920, recordó que Francisco José también fue llamado «el Emperador Judío» por sus contemporáneos porque rechazó el antisemitismo y contribuyó cuanto pudo a la seguridad jurídica de sus súbditos judíos, más tarde eliminada por los estados sucesores. Así, no es casualidad que los judíos desde Austria a Galizia se encontraran entre los más fieles partidarios de la Monarquía. Su participación en la Primera Guerra Mundial como soldados fue del 10 %, muy por encima de la ratio del 4 % de la población total. Pero además colaboraron en el apoyo a la zona de influencia con la suscripción de préstamos de guerra y auxiliando a los 80.000 judíos de Galizia que huyeron del frente oriental hacia Viena.

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La exposición comienza también recordando la memoria de su lealtad al gobernante y a Austria. Desde las imágenes familiares de la celebración de la Pascua bajo la imagen del Emperador y con el rabino dando la bendición de Año Nuevo a los reclutas judíos, llegamos poco a poco hasta el estallido de la guerra y la masiva leva de judíos, mientras que un mapa digital grande al fondo muestra, segundo a segundo, los cambios sucesivos de los frentes de guerra.

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Aunque no relacionados específicamente con los judíos, uno de los más fascinantes temas de la Primera Guerra Mundial ahora redescubiertos, los carteles de la guerra, tienen dedicada también una pequeña habitación. La exposición selecciona casi al azar entre los miles que se produjeron durante la guerra, con una abundante selección, asimismo, de carteles de la Entente, que representan a las potencias centrales como hunos sedientos de sangre y émulos del diablo. Un pequeño rincón, bastante más deprimente, observa los anuncios de los comerciantes de prótesis y de los cirujanos plásticos de guerra.

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El segundo mayor frente de guerra, el de Galizia, casi olvidado después de la década de 1920 pero que en los últimos tiempos ha recibido nuevos enfoques, afectó fundamentalmente a los judíos de la Monarquía, muchos de los cuales vivían en aquella zona. Así, la exposición dedica una sala aparte a Galicia y a los judios galizianos afectados por la guerra. Presenta su vida antes de desencadenarse el conflicto, las imágenes del teatro de la guerra, los refugiados, los affiches de las autoridades, e ilustra con muchas imágenes nuevas aquel evento sobre el que hemos escrito ya un par de veces: los comandantes en jefe de los Habsburgo visitando el frente oriental y encontrando allí a los judíos de Galizia.

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Sin embargo, lo más destacado de la exposición tiene que ver con Jerusalén. No se trata de afirmar que fuera entonces, durante la guerra, el centro de gravedad de los judíos de la Monarquía, pero las investigaciones de los últimos años han descubierto aspectos muy interesantes gracias, entre otras personas, a los co-autores de los capítulos sobre Tierra Santa del catálogo y el estudio: Robert-Tarek Fischer y György Sajó –nuestro Két Sheng del Río Wang–. La presencia de las tropas austro-húngara y alemana en el frente de Gaza, en alianza con el imperio otomano, dio un sentido más amplio al título de «Rey de Jerusalén» que ostentaba Francisco José por herencia de los Habsburgo desde la cruzada del rey húngaro Andreas II. El gran número de judíos de origen galiciano –ciudadanos austríacos– que por entonces vivía en Palestina dio la bienvenida a aquellos ejércitos como auténticos compatriotas. La sala central de la exposición enriquece esta parte poco explorada de la historia con muchas contribuciones nuevas y toda una serie de objetos expuestos por primera vez para iluminar un entresijo fascinante de la Primera Guerra Mundial y sus vínculos con los judíos de la Monarquía .

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Al fondo de la sala se proyecta un cortometraje donde nuestro amigo el médico Norbert Schwake, cuidador del cementerio militar alemán de Nazaret de la Primera Guerra Mundial y principal conocedor de las tumbas de los soldados alemanes y austro-húngaros en Israel, presenta los cementerios militares de la Primera Guerra Mundial en Tierra Santa. Aquí está enterrado el comandante en jefe de la división de artillería austro-húngara en Palestina, el Capitán Truszkowski, sobre cuyo ajetreado destino después de morir, con sus otras cuatro tumbas, ya hemos escrito.

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El tiempo vuela mientras nos sumimos entre estos objetos de Jerusalén reviviendo las anécdotas que esconden. A las 10 de la noche los conserjes, pidiendo disculpas, comienzan a instar a los numerosos asistentes para que vayan saliendo. Apenas tenemos tiempo de echar un vistazo a las últimas tres salas donde se expone el papel de los soldados judíos en el servicio británico en Palestina, el trabajo de las mujeres judías en el interior del país y la aparición de organizaciones judías en la Viena de la posguerra, con el fortalecimiento del sionismo. Lo contaremos pronto, después de haber estudiado el catálogo y el volumen de ensayos.



Doomsday in Vienna


The catalog and essay volume were published a few weeks ago, and the poster is already hung in the Alt Wien coffee shop, where the public is informed from the wall about the most recent events of Vienna’s cultural life. The author, sitting under the latter, leafs through the former contentedly, with good reason. Yesterday evening, at the opening of the gorgeous exhibition Weltuntergang. Jüdisches Leben und Sterben im Ersten Weltkrieg (Doomsday. Jewish life and death in the First World War), the great hall of Vienna’s Jewish Museum was completely packed. Aside from museum director Danielle Spera, exhibition curator Marcus G. Patka, and president of the Raiffeisen Bank, sponsors of the exhibition, a speech was also given by Prince Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen – the great-grandson of the same Archduke Frederick, Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s army, who a century ago met the Jews of Podhajce –, and Professor Oliver Rathke, one of the foremost experts on 20th-century Austrian history. The latter, in his overview of the history of the Monarchy’s Jews from the late 19th-century golden age until the 1920s, recalled that Franz Joseph was also called “Jewish Emperor” by the contemporaries, because he rejected anti-Semitism, and created much legal certainty for his Jewish subjects, later unkown in the successor states. It is no coincidence then, that Jews from Austria to Galicia were among the most loyal supporters of the Monarchy. Their participation in WWI as soldiers was 10%, which exceeded by far their 4% ratio in the complete population. But they also did their share in the support of the hinterland, the underwriting of war loans, and providing for their 80 thousand Galician fellow believers fleeing from the Eastern front to Vienna.

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The exhibition also begins by recalling the memory of their loyalty to the ruler and Austria. From the images of the family celebrating Passover under the image of the Emperor and the rabbi giving New Year’s blessing to the Jewish recruits, we gradually come to the outbreak of the war and the massive joining up of Jews, while a large digital map in the background shows second by second the day-to-day changes of the war fronts.

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Although not specifically Jewish-related, nevertheless one of the recently rediscovered topics of WWI, posters of war also receive a separate small room. The exhibition almost randomly selects from the wartime production of several thousands, also with an abundant selection of posters of the Entente, which represent the Central Powers as bloodthirsty Huns and the rivals of the devil. A small, but more depressing corner looks over the ads of the artificial limb dealers and war plastic surgeons.

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The second largest front of the war, the Galician front, which was almost forgotten after the 1920s, and has only recently received a new focus, fundamentally affected the Jews of the Monarchy, many of whom lived here. Thus the exhibition devotes a separate room to Galicia and the war-torn Galician Jews. They present their pre-war life, the images of the theater of war, the refugees, the affiches of the authorities, and illustrate with many new images the event about which we have written twice already: the Habsburg commanders-in-chief visiting the Eastern front and encountering there the Galician Jews.

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However, the highlight of the exhibition is clearly Jerusalem. Not as if it had been the center of gravity of the Monarchy’s Jews during the war, but because research in recent years has produced the most impressive result in this field, due to, inter alia, the co-authors who penned the Holy Land chapters of the catalog and essay volume, Robert-Tarek Fischer and György Sajó, río Wang’s Két Sheng. The presence of the Austro-Hungarian and German troops at the front in Gaza in alliance with the Ottoman empire gave a new emphasis to Franz Joseph’s title of “King of Jerusalem”, inherited by the Habsburgs from the early 13th-c. crusade of the Hungarian king Andreas II. The large number of Galician Jews – Austrian citizens – then living in Palestine also welcomed them as fellow citizens. This central hall of the exhibition enriches this aspect with many new contributions and objects exhibited for the first time concerning this little-known chapter of the history of the First World War and the Jews of the Monarchy.

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A short movie is screened at the back of the hall, in which our friend, the physician Norbert Schwake, curator of the WWI German military cemetery of Nazareth, and the chief expert of the German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers’ graves in Israel, presents  the WWI military cemeteries in the Holy Land. Here is buried the commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian artillery division in Palestine, Captain Truszkowski, about whose troubled fate after death and his four other graves we have already written.

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Time runs unobserved, while we browse among the objects of Jerusalem, reviving the anecdotes connected with them. At 10 p.m. the attendants, apologizing, start to urge the still numerous attendees toward the exits. We barely have time to look around in the last three exhibition halls presenting the role of the Jewish soldiers in British service in Palestine, the work of the Jewish women in the hinterland, and the post-war emergence of Jewish organizations in Vienna and the strengthening of Zionism. However, about all these we will write soon, in a detailed review of the catalog and essay volume.