Contemporary Vienna Is a Diverse Jewish Mosaic
It is morning, and the sun rising in the east throws its light upon the Kashmir Gold granite of the Shoah Wall of Names, Vienna’s recently unveiled Holocaust memorial. The monument—composed of around 160 stone walls, each a little under 7 feet in height—stands in parkland before Austria’s National Bank. The slabs run for around 220 yards in an oval shape, encircling a central green space planted with saplings. On the day of my fall visit, the bases of the walls were dotted with pebbles and extinguished candles, while leaves littered the ground. Upon the walls are etched the names of the 64,400 Austrian Jewish men, women and children who died in the Holocaust.
The memorial was officially opened by then-chancellor Alexander Schallenberg in early November 2021 and is one of the newest additions to the Austrian capital’s collection of monuments and memorials. The city already has two Holocaust memorials invested with Jewish memory: Rachel Whitehead’s depiction of a library whose rows of books have been turned inside out so that their spines are not visible, which sits prominently on Judenplatz; and a pair of railway tracks that mark the site of the former Aspang station from which 47,035 Holocaust victims were deported. The Wall of Names, however, is fundamentally different since it renders the Shoah not in the abstract but according to its human dimensions: as a tragedy affecting the individuals and families whose names are now set in stone for all eternity.
Once the capital of a vast central European land empire, contemporary Vienna is a multinational city of 1.9 million residents and a focal point for German-speaking culture and international diplomacy. Located at the Eastern end of the Alps and bisected by the Danube River—Europe’s second longest—the city is composed of 23 districts. The hills and forests ringing the city constitute its green lungs and serve as the perfect spot for late summer walks in the woods or a glass of wine in the vineyards. In the fall, winter and spring, the evenings are for the opera or the cozy confines of the coffeehouse.
Vienna is home to the vast majority of Austria’s Jews, a population that currently numbers an estimated 8,000 to 10,000. As the successful initiative to build a wall of victims’ names demonstrates, the community remains central to Austrian political and cultural life, and its stature far exceeds its size. In recent years, the state has tripled its funding to the official Jewish community, the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), led by president Oskar Deutsch, at a time when the community’s Reporting Center for Antisemitism has noted a rise in antisemitic incidents. This funding should liberate the IKG to spend more of its membership dues on religious and cultural projects, such as the Festival of Jewish Culture, held annually in November. The government has also finalized a new National Strategy Against Antisemitism that includes a plan to strengthen hate speech legislation.
Austria’s continuing efforts to reconcile its Nazi past was also evident in an amendment to the Austrian nationality law that came into effect in 2020. The change means that, for the first time, descendants of victims of National Socialism can apply to reclaim the Austrian citizenship that was taken from their ancestors by Nazi authorities. Within a year, by August 2021, 6,600 eligible persons—among them Anne Frank’s friend and stepsister, Eva Schloss—had received Austrian citizenship.
In Vienna, the central synagogue, the Stadttempel, located in a part of the city known as the Bermuda Triangle for its hectic nightlife, acts as one of the hubs of formal communal life. Set back from the street, as was required by law when the shul was built in the early 19th century, the Biedermeier-period Stadttempel is noteworthy for its oval-shaped interior ringed by 12 classical columns and capped with a cyan-colored domed ceiling. It was the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to survive Kristallnacht. In 2018, a series of star-shaped light fixtures designed by the artist Lukas Maria Kaufmann were installed across Vienna at the sites of the 25 synagogues burnt to the ground during the pogrom.
In all its diversity, the Austrian Jewish community can best be described as a mosaic. Its core is composed of Jews who can trace their roots back to those who rebuilt the community after World War II: Holocaust survivors who were liberated from the concentration camps and elected to rebuild their lives in a country that, after 1945, remained hostile to their very existence. Later, their ranks were augmented by refugees of communism from Central and Eastern Europe, in particular from Poland and Hungary.
Perhaps the most significant change to the face of post-war Austrian Jewish life came in the late 1970s, when Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union began to arrive in Vienna. Today, the capital is home to a large Bukharian Jewish community, which has its own parallel communal structures and institutions, including the Association of Bukharian Jews in Austria, known as the VBJ. The city also boasts a small Georgian Jewish community, a Chabad house and a liberal Jewish community named Or Chadasch, led by Rabbi Lior Bar-Ami.
Those who in the coming years are successful in claiming Austrian citizenship are entitled to become members of the IKG—and in doing so might spur local Jewry to expand and enrich itself yet again.
WHAT TO SEE
St. Stephen’s Cathedral on Stephansplatz marks the center of Vienna, and it is from here that the city’s main axes branch out: Rotenturmstrasse heading north toward the Danube Canal; Kärntnerstrasse, which will take you south toward the State Opera House; and Graben running roughly east-west. Take Rotenturmstrasse to get to the Stadttempel (Seitenstettengasse 4). On the other side of the canal is the site of the former Leopoldstädter Tempel (Tempelgasse 6), where an outdoor exhibit details the history of the synagogue that once stood there.
The Jewish Museum Vienna (Dorotheergasse 11), one of Europe’s finest Jewish museums and the ideal starting point for understanding the city’s contemporary Jewish history, is located on a side street off Graben. Highlights include a bicycle that once belonged to Theodor Herzl, which now hangs in the museum’s atrium, and a private collection of Judaica located on the museum’s top floor. The institution’s sister branch, at Judenplatz 8, showcases the Judaism of medieval times in a newly renovated exhibit that includes the foundations of a synagogue destroyed in the 14th century.
The city center is encircled by the Ringstrasse, and a walk around the famed thoroughfare will put travelers in the footsteps of Vienna’s Jewish history. On its eastern side stands the Karl Lueger Monument (Dr.-Karl-Lueger-Platz), a statue of the now disgraced antisemitic mayor from the turn of the 20th century with the word “schande” spray-painted all over its base—an act of graffiti that officially has been preserved by Jewish activists and artists. Palais Todesco (Kärntner Strasse 51), Palais Epstein (Dr.-Karl-Renner-Ring 1) and Palais Ephrussi (Universitätsring 14) are former dwellings of prominent Jewish families that showcase the heights to which the Jewish elite ascended in the 19th century.
Be sure to stop in Café Landtmann (Universitätsring 4) to rest your feet and sip a (nonkosher) coffee in the room where Freud once dined. Once your walk around the Ringstrasse ends, head over to the Sigmund Freud Museum (Berggasse 13) to learn more about his life and the practice of psychoanalysis that he pioneered prior to his flight from Vienna after the Anschluss of March 1938.
Away from the city center, the new Shoah Wall of Names (Ostarrichipark) complements Vienna’s existing Holocaust memorials: the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial, in the shape of a library, and the Aspang Train Station Memorial (Leon-Zelman-Park). The Wall of Names and the Aspang memorial are accessible via tram.
IF YOU GO
Vienna holds its public transport network of subways, buses and trams in high regard, and a visitor to the city should never need to call a taxi.
While the best weather in which to visit Vienna arrives in spring and fall, the run-up to the winter holidays brings its own joys, as the lights go up and outdoor markets sell trinkets and steaming mugs of boozy punch and mulled wine. If you arrive during Hanukkah, Chabad’s menorah is hard to miss, standing in the very center of the city at the intersection of Graben and Kärntnerstrasse.
For the latest Covid-19 travel regulations, consult the Austrian Embassy Washington. Coronavirus testing is currently free and widely available in Vienna.
For general sightseeing information, consult Vienna’s official tourism board. A helpful resource for Jewish tourism is Info Point Jewish Vienna (Rabensteig 3), located in Cafe Book Shop Singer. Via the Info Point link, one can arrange participation in guided tours of the Stadttempel, which take place at 10 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays, as well as English-language Jewish walking tours of Vienna.
A full list of kosher hotels, restaurants, grocers and purveyors is available online at the website of Vienna’s Israelistiche Kultusgemeinde (Jewish Community of Vienna).
In recent years, a number of excellent Israeli restaurants have opened in Vienna, the non plus ultra being NENI (Naschmarkt 510). Star chef Eyal Shani has a branch of his Tel Aviv-based chain Miznon (Schulerstrasse 4) here, while Maschu Maschu (Rabensteig 8) is a late-night staple just around the corner from the Stadttempel.
Liam Hoare is Europe editor for Moment Magazine and author of The Vienna Briefing newsletter. He lives in Vienna.