Chess at the Jewish Museum of Vienna

by Stefan Löffler
6/27/2019 – Simon Wiesenthal (1908- 2005) is well-known for hunting Nazi war criminals. Originally he had been an architect. One of his last designs was for a lavish coffee house and included a chess room. The drawings are for the first time on display at the Jewish Museum in Vienna. | Pictured: Porcelain chess set of Viennese artist Arik Brauer | Photos: Stefan Loeffler (unless indicated)

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The Chess Room of Simon Wiesenthal

"Café As" was the name of the planned coffee house and is also the name of a small exhibition at the Jewish Museum Vienna through January. The design included a patisserie, a milkbar, a show stage and side rooms.  Playing card motives were all over Wiesenthal´s drawings. Yet it was the chess room that was selected for the catalogue cover and the poster that is advertising the exhibition. The chess room´s furniture and wall are refined by figurine and checkered patterns and accompanied by a painting of heavily armed chess pieces in battle.

Wiesenthal had studied architecture in Prague and run his own architect business in Lemberg, today´s Lviv, from 1936 to 1939. In 1941 he was interned and afterwards held at a dozen different work and concentration camps. When he was moved to the concentration camp Mauthausen in Austria in early 1945 he was emaciated and depressed and had little hope to survive. When someone to draw a greeting card was sought he volunteered. His reward was an extra plate of soup. The fellow inmate who delivered the soup was Edmund Staniszewski. He found paper, pencils and more drawing jobs for Wiesenthal. They became friends. Staniszewski dreamed of refurbishing his family´s house in the centre of Poznan in Western Poland as a lavish coffee house. Most probably Wiesenthal did his first sketches even before the Mauthausen camp was liberated on 5 May 1945.

chess room

The exhibit at the Jewish Museum | Photo: Wulz

As a "Displaced Person", Wiesenthal had to stay in Mauthausen for several more weeks. Besides continuing his design for the café he made drawings of brutalities he had observed during his four years at the camps. He also started to collect witness reports on Nazi crimes. What started with an assistance to the Counter Intelligence Corps became Wiesenthal´s life mission. He stayed in Austria and meticulously investigated war criminals and their hiding places in order to bring them to justice. As early as 1954 he was able to inform the Mossad that Adolf Eichmann was hiding in Argentina. Eichmann was kidnapped six years later and his trial at a Jerusalem court in 1961 was a worldwide sensation. 
Wiesenthal´s investigations, best-selling books and public appearances put pressure on the justice systems in Germany and Austria to prosecute war criminals. Even though the courts´ frequent inactivity and dismissal of some cases kept frustrating him, he continued to hunt Nazi criminals well into his 90s.

Wiesenthal never really returned to his former profession as an architect. The Café As project nurtured his will to survive during his last weeks at the concentration camp but it was never to be built in real. Poland came under Soviet control. The Staniszewski house was confiscated. The posh café Staniszewski and Wiesenthal dreamt up would not have thrived in this newly communist country.

Design of a chess cafe with war pictures on the wall | Photo: Jewish Museum Vienna

Chess has something of a firm place in the Jewish Museum Vienna. In another current exhibition, a retrospective of the versatile Viennese artist Arik Brauer, an opulent porcelain chess set is on display (pictured above). In 1996 the museum had a full show, entitled "Ein Lied der Vernunft" (A Song of Reason), on the history of the game. During that exhibition a Grandmaster tournament was staged in the museum. Its catalogue "Acht mal Acht" by Ernst Strouhal was awarded as "Austria´s Most Beautiful Book".

Café As. Das Überleben des Simon Wiesenthal. Jewish Museum Vienna until January 12th 2020.

Stefan Löffler writes the Friday chess column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and succeeds Arno Nickel as editor of the Chess Calendar. For ChessBase the International Master reports from his adopted country Portugal.


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