The Jewish Traveler: Vienna
Strains of music waft from palaces, theaters and even a synagogue in this capital city, greeting visitors with the promise of culture – and a glimpse into the past.
Vienna’s Jewish Golden Age was brief, lasting from the 1860’s until the 1930’s. In those 70-odd years, Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis; Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg dominated the music scene; Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig were leading writers; and Theodor Herzl, a young journalist and playwright, laid the foundations for the future State of Israel. Sixty years after the Holocaust, Vienna’s Jewish community is a tenth of its pre-World War II size. But evidence of the Golden Age—and ages less golden—is everywhere in Vienna, and Jews walk easily in what remains one of Europe’s most alluring capitals. And if one can focus on a single odd fact that seems to echo the Jewish contribution to Austrian culture, perhaps it is this: Vienna has what is perhaps the world’s most spectacular synagogue choir.
Jews first appear in city records in the 12th century, and Vienna’s historic center has remains of a 14th-century synagogue. The community was expelled in 1421 and, after being readmitted, Jews were again expelled in 1670. In the 18th century, the first Court Jews came to Vienna to work for the Hapsburg emperors. In 1781, Emperor Joseph II issued an Edict of Tolerance, which began a series of reforms that guaranteed the civil rights of Jews.
In 1867, a new constitution for the Austro-Hungarian Empire ended residential restrictions and brought emancipation. Jews poured into Vienna from the empire’s hinterlands—Bohemia and Moravia (the present-day Czech Republic), Galicia (parts of southern Poland and western Ukraine) and Hungary. Between 1854 and 1923, Vienna’s Jewish population grew from 15,000 to 200,000.
The burgeoning Jewish community clustered in the Innere Stadt, or Inner City, as well as in Alsergrund, one of the upscale neighborhoods that radiate from the Innere Stadt like spokes from a wheel. The largest Jewish concentration, however, was in Leopoldstadt, just across the Danube Canal from the city’s central core.
Even the non-Jews who helped shape Viennese culture were influenced, and often supported, by Jews. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Mozart and Beethoven were among those who frequented the music salon of Fanny Arnstein, wife of the Court Jew Nathan Arnstein. In the early 20th century, the grande dame of Viennese culture was the journalist and salonière Berta Zuckerkandl.
With its defeat in World War I and the fall of the monarchy, Austria was transformed from a big empire into a small country. But Vienna maintained a great cultural twilight, sustained by its Jews. It all ended with Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany. Of the 180,000 Jews in Vienna in 1938, about two-thirds managed to escape. Most of those who remained died in death camps.
After the war a new Jewish community emerged in Vienna. The official population today, 7,000, includes only those who belong to the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, as the community is known (www.ikg-wien.at). Unaffiliated Jews bring the total to 15,000. Of these, about 20 percent have roots in prewar Austria, 50 percent are families that came from Eastern Europe in several waves after the war and 30 percent are Georgian and Bukharan Jews. Many still live in the same neighborhoods that the Jews called home a century ago, especially Leopoldstadt.
The community supports a wide range of cultural and religious organizations and more than a dozen synagogues. The Stadttempel (City Temple) has daily services and is the synagogue closest to many of the city’s hotels. It is located at Seitenstettengasse 4 (43-1-531-0417; firstname.lastname@example.org); the Jewish community offices are situated in the Stadttempel building. Another important address for visitors is the Jewish Welcome Service, which provides information and orientation on Jewish life in Austria, located in the heart of the city, opposite St. Stephan’s Cathedral, at Stephansplatz 10 (43-1-533-2730, www.jew ish-welcome.at). The only non-Orthodox congregation in Vienna is Or Chadasch, at Robertgasse 2 (43-1-967-1329; www.orchadasch.at). To contact Hadassah Austria, call 43-1-440-5549 (www.hadassah.at).
The election of Kurt Waldheim as Austria’s president in 1986 highlighted the country’s failure to acknowledge its Nazi past, but Jewish communal leaders now view the Waldheim presidency, and the world’s reaction to it, as a turning point. “That’s when Austria began to take responsibility,” says Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Vienna’s chief rabbi. Austria today is experiencing the kind of introspection about World War II that Germany went through in the 1960’s. The 2003 report of the Vienna-based European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia found anti-Semitic activity to be marginal in Austria compared with other West European countries.
The Innere Stadt is a compact area brimming with Vienna’s charms and tastes, from cafés to concerts, from sacher tortes to stunning architecture. Surrounded by the Ringstrasse, the elegant boulevard adorned by many of the city’s great imperial-era buildings, the narrow streets and pedestrian malls of the Innere Stadt can be covered entirely on foot.
Many of the city’s most important Jewish landmarks are also in the Innere Stadt. Built in 1826, the Stadttempel, Vienna’s largest synagogue, is part of a solid row of gray stone buildings that line an entire block of Seitenstettengasse. When it was erected the government insisted that it not be a freestanding building; that decree saved it in 1938 when, on Kristallnacht, 22 other synagogues in the city were destroyed. Though damaged, it was not torched for fear of destroying adjacent buildings.
Prominent features of the Stadttempel’s restored elliptical-shaped sanctuary are the blue dome and skylight, 12 marble columns and a three-tiered gallery. Perhaps the synagogue’s greatest treat is the choir, which sings on Shabbat evenings and mornings. The harmonies of the all-male a cappella chorus more than do justice to Vienna’s great music tradition.
At the top of Seitenstettengasse, on the corner of Judengasse, where Jews lived until 1938, is Alef Alef (Seitenstettengasse 2; 43-1-535-2530), Vienna’s leading kosher restaurant. A few short zigzag blocks from this more contemporary Jewish neighborhood is the Judenplatz, the square around which Vienna’s Jews lived until the pogroms and expulsion of 1421. The most prominent feature amid the square’s 18th-century buildings is a modern stone monument dedicated to the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis. The monument, created by the sculptor Rachel Whiteread and dedicated in 2000, is in the form of an inside-out library—books lined up with their spines facing in, doors with no handles—standing for the inaccessibility of so many stories.
At Judenplatz 8 is the Museum Judenplatz, a branch of the Jewish Museum of Vienna (43-1-535-0431; www.jmw. at). In addition to a computer archive with information on all the “inaccessible stories” of the martyred Austrian Jews, the main floor has a photo gallery, most recently hosting a stark exhibit of arms with concentration-camp tattoos. But it is below ground level that the museum takes visitors deeper into the past. The museum is built on the foundations of a synagogue destroyed in 1421, rediscovered by archaeologists in 1995. Parts of the red-tile floor, bima, Ark and exterior stone and mortar walls remain.
The Jewish Museum’s main building, a three-story, 200-year-old mansion that has maintained its original marble hallways and staircases, is at 11 Dorotheergasse, a narrow street in the center of the Innere Stadt. The central permanent exhibit is a series of 21 holograms that chronicles the history of Jewish Vienna, from the medieval community to the present. Adjacent to the holograms is a “huppa stone,” a sizeable rock from a synagogue in southern Germany, where instead of a groom stomping on a glass the tradition was to throw the glass against the stone. According to the inscription, such stones were placed along a synagogue’s north wall, believed to be the abode of demons. The glass-breaking was supposed to terrify the spirits and distract their attention from the wedding.
In addition to exhibits, the museum has an excellent bookshop and a café that is a popular meeting spot.
One place in the Innere Stadt with multiple Jewish connections is the area around the Burgtheater (located on Dr-Karl-Lueger-Ring), an Italian Renaissance building known not only for drama but also for its grand staircases and its frescoes by Gustav Klimt. During its first season (1888-1889), the theater hosted a comedy by the young playwright Theodor Herzl (it was a critical failure but a popular success). Just across the street from the Burgtheater is Café Landtmann, which was Freud’s preferred coffeehouse; its elegant paneling and upholstered booths look unchanged since the 1930’s. (Another old coffeehouse, Café Central, at Herrengasse 14, was a favorite spot of Herzl, Leon Trotsky and Arthur Schnitzler.)
Turn left walking out of Café Landtmann and you will be on Oppolzergasse. The building at No. 6 (which abuts the café) was the last Vienna address of Berta Zuckerkandl, who hosted the city’s most influential cultural salon between 1888 and 1938. Among the artistic milestones credited to her salon are the birth of the movement known as the Vienna Secession; the first meeting of Alma Shindler and her future husband, Gustav Mahler; and the arrangement for Auguste Rodin to do a bust of Mahler. There is a memorial plaque to Zuckerkandl on the building’s façade.
Across the Danube Canal from central Vienna is Leopoldstadt, the city’s old Jewish section. Its narrow streets were once filled with Jewish immigrants. Today, the Jewish atmosphere is still present (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say again present), with Hasidim, kosher shops and at least one street with three synagogues.
The heart of Jewish Leopoldstadt is Tempelgasse. No. 7, a five-story stone building, is the Sephardic House (43-1-214-3097), the main religious and cultural center of Vienna’s Jews from Georgia and Bukhara. Walk straight from the front door to enter the Georgian synagogue, highlighted by crystal lamps and oriental runners. Just to the left of the main hallway is the larger Bukharan synagogue, with its stone floor, marble central bima and crystal chandelier. Next door, at No. 5, is the site of a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht; on the sidewalk in front of the modern stone building that occupies the lot are four narrow columns that represent the height of the former shul.
Just up the street, at Tempelgasse 3, there is a large courtyard where you can typically see Hasidic children playing ball and riding on scooters. The Great Synagogue, Vienna’s largest, stood there until 1938. Though the main building and sanctuary were destroyed, one of the synagogue’s wings survived; it now houses schools, a mikve and a synagogue belonging to Agudas Israel.
Sigmund Freud spent his most productive years in the apartment building at Bergasse 19, in the Alsergrund section. The only original furnishings in the Sigmund Freud Haus Museum (43-1-319-1596;www.freudmuseum.at) are the red upholstered couch and chairs in the office waiting room and a small portion of his collection of Egyptian artifacts; the bulk of his belongings are in the London home that he established after fleeing Vienna in 1938. The Vienna apartment has a photo gallery devoted to the life of the father of psychoanalysis as well as conference rooms.
Another exhibit devoted to a Jewish son of Vienna is the Arnold Schönberg Center at Schwarzenbergplatz 6 (43-1-712-1888;www.schoenberg.at). Schönberg is the father of 12-tone music, the development of which was considered a musical watershed. The center has the composer’s scores and manuscripts, historical photos, his library and a reconstruction of his study in Los Angeles, where he spent the last 18 years of his life. Schönberg, like Mahler, chose baptism as a way to advance his career in Austria; in 1933, after Hitler came to power in Germany, he publicly declared his return to Judaism.
General Sights and Culture
Vienna is one of the world’s great centers of classical music and theater, and the venues—Burgtheater, Volksoper, Staatsoper and others—are as much a treat as the performances. You can also find short concerts of Mozart and Strauss in a variety of former royal residences; tickets are sold on the street by young people in 18th-century costumes or at a central box office in the Hofburg Palace (43-676-900-6387, www.viennaconcerts.com).
The city also has the best collections of Austria’s two signature artists of the early 20th century, Klimt and Egon Schiele. The best places to see their works are at the Belvedere Castle and the Leopoldmuseum.
Eisenstadt is 35 miles south of Vienna in the province of Burgenland. There were Jewish communities in seven Burgenland towns, but the best preserved ghetto is in Eisenstadt, the provincial capital, where Jews were once 20 percent of the population. The ghetto is entered through a yellow archway that leads to Jerusalemplatz. The yellow, rose, blue and cream buildings, most dating from the 17th century, look much as they did when the last Jews left in 1938.
At Unterbergstrasse 6 is the Jewish Museum (43-2682-65145;www.ojm.at), dedicated to Jewish life in Burgenland. On the façade is a memorial plaque to local Jews who died in World War I; one of the names is that of Fritz Austerlitz, whose namesake nephew became better known in America as Fred Astaire. The highlight of the museum is the private synagogue of Samson Wertheimer. The 19th-century interior features a high ceiling and a chandelier hanging from a painted rosette.
Two hours west of Vienna, just off the main highway and railway line, is Mauthausen, the largest concentration camp the Nazis built in Austria. Opened in 1938, it was designed for political prisoners, but as the war dragged on more and more Jews were interned there. Several original buildings house a museum (43-7-238-2269;www.mauthausen-memorial.at) dedicated to the history of the camp. The other prominent feature of the grounds is the collection of national monuments dedicated to victims of every nationality, including American POW’s and five Haganah soldiers who were captured in Slovakia trying to rescue Jews. Of the 200,000 prisoners interned in Mauthausen from 1938 to 1945, half died, mostly from forced labor.
Salzburg, three hours west of Vienna by train, is one of Europe’s gems, the “Golden City of High Baroque” and the birthplace of Mozart. It never had a large Jewish community, but it nevertheless owes much of its attraction to Jewish artists. In the 1920’s, it was the theater director Max Reinhardt and the playwright Hugo von Hoffmannsthal who were the leading forces in establishing Salzburg’s annual music festival. And in the 1950’s, two Jews from America, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, put Salzburg on the world stage with The Sound of Music. Today, sights associated with the von Trapp family are second only to Mozart in attracting tourists to the city.
Salzburg’s main street, Getreidegasse, is a pedestrian mall lined with elegant boutiques, arcades and plazas that offer restaurants and cafés. The street’s central attraction is Mozarts Geburtshaus, the birthplace of the composer. Just west of Mozart’s home, the street name changes to Judengasse, which was the site of Salzburg’s medieval ghetto. At Judengasse 15, the salmon-colored Hotel Altstadt, which dates from 1377, stands on the site of the 14th-century synagogue. Salzburg’s contemporary synagogue—a faithful reconstruction of the one destroyed in 1938—is a light-gray stone building behind a large lawn located at Lasserstrasse 8. There are 60 Jews in the city today, most over 80. They don’t guarantee a minyan, but the synagogue is open for services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings (43-6-628-72228; www.ikg-salzburg.at).
Postwar Vienna has produced many leading Jewish figures, including Bruno Kreisky, chancellor during the 1970’s; the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser; Ioan Holender, director of the Staatsoper; Oscar Bronner, publisher of the daily Der Standard; and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died in September.
If Vienna is a symphony in normal times, it will be even more so in 2006 as the city celebrates the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth with special concerts and performances. Contact the Austrian Tourist Office in New York (212-944-6880;www.experienceaustria.com) for information on cultural programs as well as Jewish sights. The best way to move around Austria is by train, and an economical way to ride the trains is with one of the many RailEurope passes (877-257-2887; www.raileurope.com). A hotel that combines a touch of nobility with proximity to the Innere Stadt and the Stadttempel is the Radisson SAS Palais (www.radissonsas.com). It’s an excellent place to wake up to the music.