As exemplified in Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937, a cooperation of the MAK and LE STANZE DEL VETRO, Austrian glass from 1900 to 1937 emerged from a confluence of ideas, individuals, and cultures. Advanced in large part by the support of Jewish patrons, artistic works of this period captured a newfound modern spirit. This year marks the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht – a horrific night of destruction aimed at Austrian and German Jews – (November 9–10, 1938), effectively signaling the end of this innovative period of artistic production.
This is the story of a vase.
Like so many old family heirlooms, this particular vase sat at the back of a china cabinet, unnoticed and hidden from view. For almost 50 years its story went untold. That is, until one strange moment of serendipity led its owner to reawaken her family’s past. A moment that would forever change her own life.
Donated to The Corning Museum of Glass in 2017 by Roberta Elliott, the vase is now on display in the exhibition, Glass of the Architects: Vienna, 1900–1937, a cooperation of the MAK and LE STANZE DEL VETRO.
Before its donation, the vase had been in Roberta’s family for close to a century; it was passed down from her grandmother to her father and finally to Roberta, “bearing witness to an incredible tale of craftsmanship, persecution, and resilience,” says Alexandra Ruggiero, assistant curator of modern glass, and curator of the exhibition at The Corning Museum of Glass.
The story begins in a region of Europe formerly known as Bohemia. Here, at the intersection of present-day Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic, the vase was designed by the technical school K. & K. Fachschule für Glasindustrie Haida for the 1914 Deutscher Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, and fulfilled by local glass manufacturer Karl Meltzer & Co. It is tall, with wavy exterior walls cut to create the optical illusion of thin red lines running from top to bottom. The striking design was emblematic of modern aesthetics being produced by architects and designers during this period, and particularly appealing to the rising Jewish middle class.
Shortly after its production, the vase was sent to Vienna and purchased by Roberta’s grandparents, Elisabet and Hugo Engel. It made a wonderful addition to their distinctive collection of household objects, including paintings, Weiner Werkstätte silverware, oriental rugs, and other cut glass objects.
The story takes a sinister turn when, in 1938, German forces invaded and occupied Austria under the pretense of unifying the two countries – this was known as the Anschluss. In the months that followed, Jews and Jewish homes and businesses were attacked and denigrated by Nazi soldiers and Austrian Nazi sympathizers. The destruction and depravity reached an apex that year on the night of November 9 and 10, when Jewish homes, schools, businesses, synagogues and other places of worship across Germany and Austria were systematically vandalized and burnt down. Almost 100 Jewish men were killed during the events, and approximately 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps. In the aftermath, as the smoke lifted, shards of glass littered the streets and the night became known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night, or Night of Broken Glass). The world looked on in shocked silence.
Roberta’s father, Franz Engel, who owned a successful margarine factory with his father in Vienna, knew it would not be long before his family and business were also identified and targeted. Five months after the Anschluss began, his fears were confirmed. Learning that their names had been placed on the Nazi Schutzstaffel’s (SS’s) list for deportation, he made the decision to hide the family’s valuable possessions and flee Vienna. A non-Jewish business associate of the factory was willing to risk his own life to help.
Leaving behind everything that they owned, the Engel family crossed the Austrian border into Italy under cover of nightfall. From there they took the arduous journey across Switzerland and into France. In Paris, the family was separated and Franz was imprisoned in an internment camp in the south of France for the next two years. Upon his release, he was reunited with his family in Paris and they sought papers to relocate to Lisbon, Portugal, where only the Atlantic Ocean separated them from freedom. With family in the United States willing to sponsor them, the Engels finally boarded a ship destined for America.
As they made their way across the Atlantic, they left behind not just their homes and loved ones, but a war that had destroyed the lives of millions just like them. Sadly, they could not have foreseen what would be waiting for them on the distant shore. Arriving at the Port of Elizabeth in New Jersey on December 7, 1941, they were welcomed with the headline that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. had entered the war. Distraught that the war had found them again, they were none-the-less resolute to start a new life.
In the years that followed, Franz (who soon changed his name to Francis Elliott upon arriving in America) began working at the Pentagon translating German ballistics documents. Here, he met and fell in love with Roberta’s mother, Esther Bender, a first generation American of Polish parents. Esther had volunteered with the Women’s Army Corps during WWII believing it was the patriotic thing to do. “The joke of the family,” Roberta remembers, “was that my mother out-ranked him. He was a corporal, and she was a sergeant.” The young couple married in 1945.
In 1946, Francis returned to Europe for the first time to serve as a translator during the Nuremburg Trials. As the trials ended, he successfully contacted the business associate with whom he had entrusted his family’s possessions eight years earlier. Remarkably, everything the family had packed and hidden away had escaped the Nazi plunder and survived without a scratch.
With the world recovering from the war, it was time to reclaim and reunite the family with their most beloved belongings. The red vase moved to America.
Check back in December to learn about the rest of this vase’s story, including how it eventually arrived at The Corning Museum of Glass.
Glass of the Architects, Vienna: 1900–1937, a cooperation of the MAK and LE STANZE DEL VETRO, is on view at The Corning Museum of Glass through January 6, 2019. Learn more about the exhibition.