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Special to the JTA a Glorious Past, a Questionable Future

August 13, 1986
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The ghosts of the Jewish past haunt Vienna, a stately city now nearly bereft of Jews. There was a time, not that long ago, when Vienna was one of the most important capitals in the diaspora. Before the onslaught of Nazism, Vienna was a place where the flower of Jewish creativity in every conceivable field of human endeavor bloomed.

Today, more than 40 years after the Nazis carried out their last deportation of Jews from Vienna, there are relatively few signs reminding a visitor of what used to be. The glory that was pre-war Jewish Vienna is kept alive in old buildings, plaques, street markers and in the minds of people with long memories.

By the early 1930’s, when the threat of German National Socialism seemed imminently real to some and far off to others, Jews comprised about eight percent of Vienna’s population.


Despite being a minority, Jews played a dominant role in practically all aspects of life in Vienna. It is probably fair to say that the influence they exercised here was far more pervasive than Jews exercise in the U.S. today.

Jews were granted full civic equality in 1848, but it was not until 1867 that Jewish emancipation was made permanent by law. Now able to let their energy, talent and imagination run free, Jews took advantage of the relatively liberal political and social climate in Austria and, in unprecedented numbers, entered professions like law and medicine.

Hans Kelsen, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Vienna, wrote Austria’s post-1918 constitution, the tenets of which were incorporated into its present-day constitution.

Robert Barany won the Nobel Prize laureate, Karl Landsteiner, discovered the four main human blood types. Sigmund Freud opened up new horizons in psychiatry.

They were prominent in every facet of the economic system. They published newspapers; they ran banks; they owned factories.

Arguably, they made their greatest mark in the arts. There were writers like Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Werfel and Stefan Zweig. There were stage directors and actors like Max Reinhardt and Elizabeth Bergner. And there were musicians like Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Carl Goldmark, Artur Schnabel and Bruno Walter.


Vienna was a center of modern Zionism. Theodor Herzl, the author of The Jewish State, lived and worked in Vienna. As a correspondent in Paris for the Neue Freie Presse, he was converted to Zionism by the notorious Dreyfus Affair. Vienna, for a while, became the headquarters of the Zionist Executive.

Peretz Smolenskin, one of the founders of the Zionist reawakening, resided in Vienna. And Nathan Birnbaum founded the first Jewish nationalist student association, Kadimah, here.

At the height of the Jewish renaissance, Vienna was home to approximately 170,000 Jews. The less successful ones lived in the first district, now a prime shopping area, and the better-off ones were concentrated in the ninth district, the site of the venerable University of Vienna.

The 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of Austria into Germany, spelled finis to the Jewish community. Nazi Germany, having devastated German Jewry, proceeded to humiliate and disenfranchise the Jews of Austria.

Jews lost their livelihood, their synagogues were burned on Crystal Night, and they were forced out of the country. Many emigrated, but 65,000 would not or could not leave, and by 1945 they had been killed.


Today, 41 years after the downfall of the Third Reich, Vienna is like a Jewish mausoleum. In Juden Platz, once a choice address for wealthier Jewish families, there are non-sectarian restaurants and shops, as well as masses of parked cars. The Judengasse, formerly the center of Jewish commercial activity, is just like any other street in contemporary Vienna: the Jewish names are gone.

In a little park near the Judengasse, a plaque commemorates the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. This was where the luxurious Hotel Metropol, the headquarters of the Gestapo, stood. During the war, Allied bombers destroyed it.

Up the street, one can find the magnificent Seitenstettengasse Synagogue. An impressive structure with a starry blue dome, it was built in 1826, concealed behind an apartment house on a narrow, cobblestone street.

The Nazis, in their maniacal effort to eradicate all traces of Jewish culture, tried to burn it to the ground. The arsonists damaged the interior considerably, dousing the fire only because they feared it would spread to the rest of the neighborhood.

In 1963, the synagogue — the site of a 1981 Palestinian terrorist attack which resulted in three deaths — was renovated. The area around it has become a fashionable, somewhat bohemian nightspot.

There is a kosher restaurant, the Arche Noah, but it has fallen on hard times because few Jewish tourists are visiting Vienna in the wake of the Kurt Waldheim affair. And there is an Israeli restaurant, Mapitome, a non-kosher facility which attracts a young, beautiful clientele.

Compared to Vienna’s other synagogues, the Seitenstettengasse Synagogue suffered a rather mild fate. The so-called Polish synagogue, constructed in a Moorish-Byzantine style, was firebombed. A featureless housing estate stands on its site.

There is a vacant lot on Grosse Schiffgasse, and a glimpse through the fence reveals rotting car chassis, fruit trees growing wild and a rusting crane. This is where the Schiffschule, the synagogue of Vienna’s Hungarian Jews, stood.

The Turkischer Tempel, where Vienna’s Sephardic Jews worshipped, is now nothing more than a weed-choked lot behind a wall of billboards. The Grosser Tempel, designed by one of Vienna’s foremost architects, Ludwig Frankl, is occupied by a car park.

Sigmund Freud’s house, on 19 Berggasse, has not met such a sorrowful fate. Now a museum, in the ninth district, it chronicles his life and career through the media of photographs, letters and documents. Freud, who emigrated from Vienna to London a year before he died, lived in this apartment building from 1891 until 1938.

There is a framed photo of Freud posing with his children, and one of the great man obviously enjoying himself in the German Alpineresort of Berchtesgaden, which Hitler favored.

When Freud was 70, he was honored by B’nai B’rith. Freud, in a letter, recalled the event by commenting on his Jewishness: “What tied me to Judaism was — I have to admit it – not the faith, not even the national pride, for I was always an unbeliever…But there remained enough to make the attraction of Judaism and the Jews irresistible.”

The saddest picture is of Freud’s aged mother and her daughters in an Austrian resort, circa 1925, on the occasion of her 90th birthday. The faces are neither sad nor happy, and they look down at you from the immense distance of another era. Most of the people in the photograph were murdered in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt.

The Freud museum reinforces the belief that Jewish Vienna, or what is left of it, cannot be seen outside the context of the Holocaust. Leon Zelman is one man who firmly believes this. Zelman, a Polish survivor who lost his whole family in the war, runs the state-subsidized Jewish Welcome Service, which encourages Jews and non-Jews alike to explore Vienna’s Jewish legacy.

“Austria wants to forget the Holocaust,” he says, “but Austria does not want to forget the contribution of Jews to this country. Hitler killed the Jews of Austria, but we will not allow him to kill off the spiritual Jewish life of Vienna.”

In that optimistic spirit, the Jewish Welcome Service publishes an annual book on various facets of Jewish Vienna and organizes occasional exhibitions.

Last year, Zelman, in conjunction with London’s Institute of Jewish Affairs, mounted Vienna’s biggest postwar Jewish festival. Entitled “The Lost World,” it revolved around the photos of Roman Vishniac, the Polish Jewish photographer who captured the essence of East European Jewry before the Nazi calamity.

The Mayor of Vienna, Helmut Zilk, tendered a kosher reception in the city’s gothic city hall, and the speech he delivered best sums up the wonderful, but erratic, symbiotic relationship that arose between the Jews and Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

“No history of Vienna,” he said, “would be complete if it did not include an account of the city’s Jewish community, which has perhaps done more than any other group … to mold its cultural and intellectual life. Vienna owes a profound debt of gratitude to its Jewish residents.

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