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Can you play mahjong?

Nov 18, 2020 | JMW News

Since November 2013, the mahjong game that Oskar Rosenzweig brought with him from his exile in Shanghai when he arrived at the Meidling Train Station in February 1947 and was greeted by the Mayor of Vienna Theodor Körner has been in the permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Vienna. Entitled “Our City! Jewish Vienna – Then to Now,” the exhibition not only includes all visitors, regardless of whether they really come from Vienna or have traveled as guests from far away, but also all things and all stories, even if they can no longer be told. Oskar Rosenzweig never talked very much, but after his return to Vienna he had become even more silent and also more mistrustful. His stepdaughter Elisabeth Buxbaum gave us the game on loan and said that we should now do in the museum what she was no longer able to do with her father: talk. Mr. Rosenzweig – and his game – are important protagonists in children’s programs and workshops. We know from American Jewish visitors that there is an “American way” of playing the game and that it is much easier than the Chinese one. And that there are clubs and associations where people can meet to play mahjong. So it is not too surprising that the players in American clubs often tell a Jewish-European story of exile and new beginning.

Take a detailed look at the Mahjong game on Google Arts & Culture.

Image © Sebastian Gansrigler

Ingeborg Mannheimer, born in Frankfurt in 1926, met Fritz Hungerleider from Vienna in Shanghai. The two married and returned to Vienna in 1947. As a lender of the exhibition “Little Vienna in Shanghai,” Ingeborg Hungerleider made countless objects available, including a mahjong game. When we get the chance, we have to ask Ingeborg Hungerleider if she can play it.

That’s not so easy. There is quite a large and rather unmanageable number of tiles, you need four people to play, the table must not be too big, the oldest begins to roll the dice, the sum of the two dice is used to determine where the “East Wind” tile is. The table is viewed as a map of the sky. The game starts in the east. After what feels like an eternity, there is a winner. After a two-hour introduction by a gentleman from Korea, the author of this article neither understood the rules of the game, nor was able to distinguish the symbols on the tiles. He assured her it would be fine. Mahjong can also be played on the computer. Perhaps this version is even easier than the supposedly easy American version?

The American Joseph Park Babcock (1893–1949) wrote a set of rules in the 1920s based on different variants of the game that he had come across during his trip to China. He named it Mah-Jongg and had it registered as a trademark. This name, common in the west, denotes a sparrow, which is depicted on a tile.

Cover image © David Peters