23
Nov
2012
Ruth Ellen Gruber's picture

Vienna

Ruth Ellen Gruber

photo taken by Magnus von Koeller, on July 3, 2006, CC licensing 

 

Vienna looms large in Jewish history and memory.

The imperial Habsburg capital was the vibrant hub of a vast, multi-national Empire that stretched across Europe and encompassed a colorful and sometimes contentious mix of peoples, languages, religions and local cultures. Jews lived here for centuries. Surviving pendulum-swing periods of tragedy and triumph, prosperity and persecution, they made key contributions to the cultural, economic and intellectual development of the city.

Nineteenth and early 20th century Vienna in particular was home to some of Europe's most influential artists, authors, musicians and thinkers -- from the writers Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler and Stephan Zweig, to the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Gustav Mahler, to the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Vienna was also the cradle of some of the icons of popular culture: the filmmaker Billy Wilder grew up in the city, and the novelist Vicki Baum, the author of Grand Hotel and other best-sellers, was born here and wrote about her Viennese childhood in her memoirs. "To be a Jew is a destiny," she once said.

The Holocaust swept this world away. But monuments, museums and other vestiges of this long and creative Jewish presence can be found in many parts of the city.
What's more, Vienna is home, now, too, to a new flowering of Jewish life and creativity, both religious and secular. Vibrant schools, synagogues and other Jewish centers bear living witness to a remarkable Jewish rebirth in the decades since the Shoah. And Jewish writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers are putting their stamp on contemporary culture.
Visitors to Vienna can get a taste of both worlds. Most Jewish historical sites and monuments, as well as most active synagogues and Jewish centers, are located in central parts of the city, embedded in a historic urban setting that conjures up the grandeur of the past amid the contemporary bustle of modern-day life. The following itinerary highlights some of the most important (and most easily visited) Jewish sights, but still, alas, gives only a brief taste of the richness of Jewish experience in the city.

 

The Jewish Museum

Vienna's Jewish Museum is a good place to start for both an overview of the city's Jewish history and a taste of today's Jewish cultural offerings. 

The Museum's main location opened in 1993 in the Palais Eskeles, a downtown mansion at Dorotheergasse 11, in the heart of Vienna's First District. Its unusual exhibition arrangement offers a unique view of Jewish history and memory. On the ground floor there a display of Judaica objects from a noted collection is paired with an artistic installation reflecting Viennese Jewish history by the American artist Nancy Spero. Upstairs, there is another display of Judaica -- in what is called the "Viewable Storage Area." Here, massed together on shelves, are hundreds and hundreds of ritual and every day objects, many of them salvaged from destroyed households, synagogues and prayer rooms. Some of the silver objects are charred and smoke-stained from the fires of Kristallnacht. The intent of showing the objects this way is to underscore the pride and prosperity of the Jewish community, as well as the extent of the destruction.

The permanent historical exhibition is something quite different. It comprises no physical objects at all. Instead, it consists of 21 holograms, arranged in a bare room. Each is a sort of holographic still life that represents a specific stage, facet or theme associated with Austrian Jewish history and the relationship between Jews and Austrian society. These themes include "Houses of God," "Zionism," "Anti-Semitism," "Loyalty and Patriotism," "From Historism to Modernism," "Shoah," "Vienna Today Š", "Banishments" and "Fin de Siecle."
Key components of the museum are also a comfortable cafe -- reminis cent of the coffee houses where Jewish writers, intellectuals and luftmenschen alike once passed long hours -- and a well-stocked bookstore featuring hundreds of titles of Jewish interest or by Jewish authors on a wide range of topics.

The Jewish Museum also has a branch at Judenplatz, the heart of Vienna's medieval Jewish quarter, which forms part of a complex inaugurated in 2000 that also includes a Holocaust memorial commemorating the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed in the Shoah and a Holocaust documentation center. Vienna's flourishing medieval Jewish community was snuffed out in 1420/21 by persecutions that culminated in expulsions, murders and the torching of the synagogue on Judenplatz, with Jews inside. A 15th century plaque in Latin on the house at Judenplatz 2 still celebrates this, reading, in part: "Thus arose in 1421 the flames of hatred throughout the city and expiated the horrible crimes of the Hebrew dogs."
The underground remains of the synagogue were discovered during excavations in the 1990s and these now form the core of the Judenplatz Jewish museum, along with a multi-media exhibit about Medieval Jewish life.
Above, at ground level, stands the Holocaust Monument, a massive cube of reinforced concrete that dominates the square. Called the Nameless Library, it was designed by the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread and takes the form of an "inside-out" library -- rows of books with their spines facing inwards. Also inscribed are the names of the sites where Austrian Jews were killed.

Not far away, near the Opera House, stands a big Monument against War and Fascism, by the artist Alfred Hrdlicka. Among several big symbolic sculptures it incorporates a bronze sculpture of a bearded Jew on his knees, almost prostrate, covered by barbed wire, forced to scrub the street. And as you walk about parts of the city, keep an eye out for the Stolpersteine, or stumbling blocks -- these are brass cobblestones put down to mark the houses where Jews and others killed by the Nazis once lived, as part of a commemorative  project by the artist Gunter Demnig.

What is today Vienna's Second District, across the Danube Canal from the inner city, was long a Jewish neighborhood. Before World War II about 60,000 Jews -- one-third of Vienna's Jewish population -- lived here, and the district was home to so many synagogues, Jewish theaters, schools and other Jewish institutions, that it was dubbed "The Matzo Island." Most of these sites no longer exist, but a number of plaques AND STOLPERSTEINE, OR COMMEMORATIVE STUMBLING BLOCKS, evoke the neighborhood's Jewish history, and new synagogues and other institutions make it a center of Jewish life.

 

 

The Main Synagogue

The Stadttempel, Vienna's Main Synagogue, is located on sloping Seitenstettengasse. Designed by the architect Josef Kornhausel, it was built in 1824-26. From the outside, it looks like a plain, anonymous building -- in fact, many synagogues in Europe were hidden behind featureless outer walls. This was either for protection or in compliance with edicts that allowed direct access to the street only for churches. This in act saved the synagogue during Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938; it was not torched for fear that the entire block could go up in flames. All of the other nearly 100 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Vienna were either destroyed or severely damaged. What sets the synagogue apart these days are the armed guards outside.
Inside, the a graceful oval sanctuary is encircled by two tiers of women's galleries and topped by a sky-blue domed ceiling sprinkled with gilded stars. A gilded sunburst surmounts tablets of the Ten Commandments above the ark.
At Jewish holidays, every seat is full, and the building complex also houses the Jewish communal offices and archives.

Cemeteries and other sights

What is today Vienna's Second District, across the Danube Canal from the inner city, was long a Jewish neighborhood. Before World War II about 60,000 Jews -- one-third of Vienna's Jewish population -- lived here, and the district was home to so many synagogues, Jewish theaters, schools and other Jewish institutions, that it was dubbed "The Matzo Island." Most of these sites no longer exist, but a number of plaques evoke the neighborhood's Jewish history, and new synagogues and other institutions make it a center of Jewish life.
Vienna has several Jewish cemeteries that are worth exploring, both for their historical importance and for the artistic beauty of the tombs.
The vast Zentralfriedhof or Central Cemetery, at Simmeringer Hauptstrasse 234 in the 11th district, was consecrated in the 1870s and has an extensive Jewish section where about 100,000 people are buried. There are many stately tombs and mausolea, testifying to the prosperity of the community.
One of the easiest cemeteries to visit -- and also one of the most fascinating -- is the Rossau cemetery, the oldest preserved Jewish cemetery in Vienna. It is entered by walking straight through the lobby of a modern municipal old age home at Seegasse 9, in Vienna's 9th district, a five minute walk from the Rossauerlaende U-Bahn stop. (It may seem a cruel juxtaposition to enter a cemetery through an old-age home, but from 1698 to 1934 this was the site of a Jewish hospital.)
The Rossau cemetery is believed to have been founded in 1540 -- the oldest legible stone dates from 1582 -- and it operated until 1783, when the Emperor Joseph II issued a decree banning burials inside what today is the "Gurtel" ring around inner Vienna. Many 17th and 18th century luminaries were buried here, including the financiers Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer.
According to the useful guidebook Jewish Vienna published in 2004 by Mandelbaum Verlag, some of the few local Jews still living in Vienna in 1943 managed to rescue some of the tombstones, either burying them on the spot or transporting them to the Central Cemetery and burying them there.
In the mid-1980s, after the discovery of these stones, the cemetery underwent a full restoration -- and the surviving stones were set up in their original places thanks to a map of the cemetery that had been made in 1912. Many of the stones are massive and feature elegant calligraphy, lengthy epitaphs and some vivid carving of Jewish symbols and floral and other decoration, similar to that on tombs in the Jewish cemetery in Mikulov, Czech Republic, and elsewhere in Moravia. Fragments that could not be put together were used to construct a memorial wall, similar to those that exist in other countries at restored cemeteries. Wertheimer's tomb, a white mausoleum with carved end pieces, is the cemetery's most imposing.
The Rossau Cemetery is a short walk from the Sigmund Freud Museum, at Berggasse 19, which occupies the building where Freud lived and worked from 1891 until 1938, when he fled to England to escape the Nazis. The museum includes original furnishings, some of Freud's antiquities collection and library, films and other material that provide insights into his life and work. The museum also houses a collection of contemporary art and a research library.

 

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