A unique and mysterious remnant of Jewish life in Europe went on display in Jerusalem this week: a Hanukkah menorah made from the ornamental headgear of a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The menorah on display at the Museum of Italian Jewish Art is thought to have been made in Italy, but its precise origins are unknown. It was donated to the museum by a collector who wished to remain anonymous, and no details of its provenance survive.
After nightfall Monday, Jews worldwide will celebrate the third of the winter festival’s eight nights.
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.
Experts have ascertained that the plate was made sometime before 1835. But the plates, which were expensive, remained in use long afterwards, according to curators, serving as part of ceremonial dress even after the Austro-Hungarian military abandoned the traditional finery of its uniforms and adopted drab modern-style caps and fatigues.
Curators at the museum suggest the plate might have reached Italy during WWI, when the Austro-Hungarian army held part of the country’s north. The Great War pitted the empire, allied with Germany, against Italy, which was allied with Britain and France.
The Austro-Hungarian occupation area during the war included Conegliano Veneto, home to a small Jewish community and an exquisite synagogue built in 1701. Among the imperial troops were members of a large Jewish detachment, some of whom were photographed in the synagogue shortly before the High Holidays in the fall of 1918.
The last service ever known to have been held there was conducted that year by Jewish Austro-Hungarian soldiers and their chaplain, Rabbi Harry Deutsch, on Yom Kippur.
The Austro-Hungarians were then decisively defeated nearby at the battle of Vittorio Veneto. The Great War ended not long afterward, and with it the heterogeneous empire of the Hapsburgs.
The victorious Italian army also included Jewish troops. The Jerusalem museum preserves uniforms, photographs, and an ornamental saber belonging to some of those soldiers, as well as postcards sent to and from the front during the Great War.
The identity of the front-plate’s original owner has been lost. It is not clear if he was a Jewish soldier, or in what circumstances the plate remained behind in Italy.
But at some point after war’s end, it seems Italian Jewish craftsmen soldered nine circular cups of a type commonly found in Italian Hanukkah menorahs to the bottom of the plate, turning it from an implement of war into one of worship. Perhaps it was meant to commemorate a time of bloodshed that ended in triumph, like the Maccabee campaign remembered on Hanukkah.
The plate bears the initials “FI,” representing Emperor Francis I, who died in 1765. Plates of this type were manufactured until 70 years after the emperor’s death, according to curators.
Andreina Contessa, the museum’s chief curator, said the menorah was a reminder of a period 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.
“They felt loyalty to their countries, and believed that you should respect the regime,” she said.
After WWII, the Conegliano synagogue where the Austro-Hungarian troops had been photographed, with its gilded woodwork and floral Torah ark curtain, was brought in its entirety to Jerusalem and re-assembled at the Museum of Italian Jewish Art. Prayer services are held there weekly, and a Hanukkah party was held there on Monday.
The museum, located in a 19th-century building once owned by a Catholic order in central Jerusalem, displays the ritual art of Italian Jewry, including a five-century-old Torah ark in meticulously carved wood and a silver Torah crown decorated with wheeled cannon and dedicated in honor of the unification of Italy and the emancipation of the Jews in the mid-1800s.
Today there are about 30,000 Jews in Italy, with the biggest community located in Rome.