Of all the cities in Europe, Vienna has perhaps the richest and most deeply rooted Jewish heritage. Vienna’s Jewish community has remained vibrant and significant, and today Vienna’s Jewish heritage sites are some of the richest in Europe. It’s impossible to overestimate the contribution of the Jewish community on the social, cultural and political life of Vienna. In the 20th century alone, Vienna’s Jewish community included brilliant figures such as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, the writers Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, and Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. In fact, three of the four Austrian Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. In the 1900s, Vienna was home to 175,318 Jews, comprising the third largest Jewish population in Europe after Warsaw and Budapest. Ten percent of the city’s population and 60 percent of its doctors were Jewish. Twenty-four synagogues and some 40 smaller prayer houses were completely destroyed during Kristallnacht in 1938 and afterward. Of all these structures, only the Stadttempel built in 1826 survived.
Jewish Life Today
Today, after much struggle, Jewish culture in Vienna is flourishing again. Due mostly to immigration from the East, the city’s Jewish population has slowly been growing all over the city with Leopoldstadt, one of Vienna’s more diverse neighborhoods (Second District), has the highest Jewish population. Today there are between 15,000-20,000 Jews living in Vienna, and there are 15 synagogues, along with numerous impressive sights, including the Jewish Quarter, which is in the center of the city. There are also numerous Jewish institutions, for instance, the new IKG campus, the Lauder Chabad Campus, the Jewish Vocational Education Center, prayer rooms, mikvehs (ritual baths )and other religious educational institutions. But you wouldn’t know by walking past them. You may notice a guard booth or concrete barriers in front of a nondescript building that could tip you off to the presence of a Jewish day school or synagogue. In the Second District, you will also find Jewish shops, kosher supermarkets, butchers, bakers, restaurants, snack bars and, in the area around Tempelgasse, the Sephardic Center and Synagogue. The site that until 1938 contained the Leopoldstadt temple is now home to the ESRA psychosocial institution for survivors of Nazi persecution and their descendants. There is also a Jewish Institute for Adult Education at Praterstern which also gives non-Jews the opportunity to learn more about Judaism in courses on Yiddish, kosher cookery, Israeli folk dancing, Klezmer music, and religious issues. As Cantor Shmuel Barzilai told NYJTG, “Jewish life in Vienna today is very colorful and lively. We have Reform and Sephardic and Chasidic Jews. There are kosher restaurants, a dozen Jewish schools, and you can get any products needed to live a Jewish life.”
Here are some of the highlights of Vienna’s Jewish heritage sites.
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. It is the site of the world’s first Jewish Museum in 1895 that was sponsored by a group of Viennese–Jewish citizens. Its first exhibition opened in 1990 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. The permanent exhibitions in the Jewish Museum are distributed over three areas: the newly arranged Display Depot presents collections and the collectors behind them, such as Max Berger. The Studio is a workshop and exhibition space for ritual everyday objects. Since November 2013, the new permanent exhibition “Our City!”, provides a comprehensive insight into Jewish life, and the history of Jewish Vienna from the past through the present day. The journey begins on the ground floor with the years spanning 1945 to today. On the second floor of Palais Eskeles, visitors experience Jewish history from its beginnings to the years 1938-1945. A 3D animated film provides virtual access to Vienna’s synagogues that were destroyed in 1938.
The library here tops those of all other Jewish museums in Europe, preserving 25,000 volumes in German, Hebrew, Yiddish, and English. At the museum’s entrance, you will find a bookstore stocked with catalogs and texts. On the same floor, you will find also the Teitelbaum Café, among the city’s best, which serves Austrian kosher wines, Viennese pastries, and vegetarian dishes.
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. The 15th–century plaque in Latin on the house at Judenplatz 2 still commemorates 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 multimedia 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 with rows of books with their spines facing inward. The text in front of the door reads “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945.” Also engraved on the monument are the names of the camps where Austrian Jews were killed. In April 2001, a plaque outside the museum was dedicated to the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews, at great risk to themselves during the Holocaust.
Two additional museums examine the importance of Jewish heritage to the cultural and intellectual history of the city: the Schoenberg Center and the Sigmund Freud House. The Freud Museum is located in the apartment where Freud had his consultation rooms and also lived until National Socialism forced him to move to London in 1938. Personal memorabilia that were not moved to London are on view. An exhibition in the former practice rooms traces the life and work of the founder of psychoanalysis. Connected to the museum are a library and a modern event room in which small exhibitions are mounted. A few years ago, the Arnold Schoenberg Center was established at Palais Eskeles. It documents the life and work of this eminent modern Austrian composer. Various exhibitions are also arranged here. Not far from the Schoenberg Center, you find the Vienna Konzerthaus where many Jewish upper-middle-class families were among its founders and patrons. If you walk along the Ring Boulevard, you will pass numerous splendid mansions, many of which were once owned by Jewish families such as Palais Todesco near the Vienna State Opera, Palais Schey, Palais Epstein, and Palais Ephrussi, to name but a few.
The Jewish Welcome Service Center
A center of knowledge and information about all aspects of Jewish life and cultural heritage in Vienna, The Jewish Welcome Service Center is an excellent place to get acquainted with the most important Jewish areas in the city. It’s also where you can learn about any cultural events taking place during your stay.
I learned from Ms. Beatrice Auymar, my guide, about a program to place memory stones on houses and embedded in sidewalks in front of homes where Jews once resided. In this spirit is the setting of the “Stones of Remembrance” in an effort to keep alive the memory of these murdered Jewish inhabitants who lived here before the Holocaust. Their culture and tradition were an important part of Viennese life and their huge impact is still visible today. It is also to raise the consciousness of those that walk past the stones by making them reflect on this period of Viennese history.
Morzinplatz: Gestapo Victims Memorial
Situated in a park in Morzinplatz is a memorial that pays tribute to the victims of the Nazi tyranny in Vienna and elsewhere during World War II with a bronze sculpture and a block of granite from Mauthausen that symbolizes the fate of the victims. The text reads: “Here stood the House of the Gestapo. To those who believed in Austria, it was hell. To many, it was the gates to death. It sank into ruins just like the ‘Thousand Year Reich.’ But Austria was resurrected and with her our dead, the immortal victims.”
The Main Synagogue: The Stadttempel
It is the only synagogue to survive World War II and is today Vienna’s main synagogue. Located in the former Jewish quarter on the sloping Seitenstettengasse, it is also known as the Seitenstettengasse Temple. You might be surprised that it doesn’t have a grand entrance. That’s because it was erected in 1824 at a time when Emperor Franz Josef demanded that all non-Roman Catholic places of worship be clandestine from street view. It is housed between two apartment buildings and lacks a grand façade, and was the only one of 94 Viennese synagogues saved from Nazi destruction. This beautiful synagogue was designed by the architect Josef Kornhäusl, who was highly respected in his time. A specialist in theaters, he created this small theater or Italian-style Baroque opera house with a circular shape, a stage, three balconies, wings, and a foyer. What I loved the most about this synagogue is the ceiling which was painted a sky blue and evoked an ethereal, sublime atmosphere. A gilded sunburst surmounts tablets of the Ten Commandments above the ark.
The building complex houses not only the synagogue, but also the offices of the Vienna Jewish Community, the Vienna Chief Rabbi, the editorial offices of the official community newspaper Die Gemeinde (The Community), the Jewish community center that stages various events, the Library of the Jewish Museum and a kosher restaurant called Alef-Alef. What sets the synagogue apart these days are the armed guards outside. Be sure to bring your passport for entry (Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.) to pass through tight security to enter the magnificent sanctuary.
For a deeper understanding of the former Jewish quarter, you need only to stroll through Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s Second District, across the Danube Canal from the inner city. 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. It became known as Mazzes -Insel (“The Matzo Island”). This was also the Central European stronghold of Zionism and Chasidism. Most of these sites no longer exist, but you will find plaques along these streets and Stolpersteine, or commemorative stumbling blocks, such as the ruins of one of the synagogues destroyed during Kristallnacht, where only the four columns remain. In its place is ESRA, a center dedicated to counseling the victims and witnesses of the Shoah and racism. At number 7 on the same street sits the Sephardic Center, which brings together associations of Jews from Bukhara, Georgia, and their respective synagogues.
Near the Opera House stands a large “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. The granite is from the former Mauthausen concentration camp, located two hours west of Vienna. The stone incorporates the sculptures of victims of the concentration camps on one side and Austrian soldiers killed during World War II on the other. After the memorial had been set up in 1988, many tourists mistook the Jew for a cozy bench to have their sandwiches: He has been wrapped up in barbed wire since.
Vienna has five Jewish cemeteries that are worth exploring, both for their historical importance and for the artistic beauty of the tombs. One of the cemeteries to visit is the Rossau cemetery which is also one of the most beautiful and the oldest preserved Jewish cemetery in Vienna. You enter by walking straight through the lobby of a modern municipal old age home at Seegasse 9, in Vienna’s 9th district. 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. Set in a leafy green compound, it lets you explore up to 500-year-old inscribed tombstones. It was only in 2013 when Vienna unearthed unique antique tombstones dating from the 16th century. Many of the stones are massive and feature elegant calligraphy, lengthy epitaphs and some vivid carvings of Jewish symbols and floral and other decorations. Be ready to see the last homes of Rabbi Sabbatai, Rabbi Menachem Hendel, banker Samuel Oppenheimer, and other famous Jewish Viennese residents. Wertheimer’s tomb, a white mausoleum with carved end pieces, is the cemetery’s most imposing mausoleum. I was lucky to meet Ms. Andrea Sandner, who knew where this cemetery was located, took me there, and spent time explaining its history.
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. Theodor Herzl‘s remains lay in state in Vienna in the 19th district before they were transported in 1949 to the top of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, named in his memory. Herzl was the first in a long series of Zionists who wanted their final resting place to be in the Jewish homeland. He never gave any instructions about where he wanted to be buried. He wrote in his will that he wanted a simple funeral and to be buried beside his father until “the Jewish people shall take my remains to Israel.” Today, there is only a cenotaph paying tribute to him in the Doebling Cemetery.
Other sites in Vienna to explore:
Austria, one of Europe’s most popular holiday destinations, attracts tourists year-round with places to visit in both summer and winter. In fact, with some of Europe’s finest skiing, winter is almost as busy as summer in the spectacular mountain regions. Visitors are drawn as much for the scenic beauty of this Alpine republic’s provinces as they are for splendid cities like Vienna (Wien), the historic capital, and beautiful Salzburg, birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The Vienna Hofburg: Austria’s Imperial Palace
The spectacular Hofburg Palace in Vienna was the seat of Austria’s monarchy for centuries, the powerful Habsburgs. Now the president conducts state business in the same rooms that once belonged to Emperor Joseph II. Together with its squares and gardens, the entire Hofburg complex occupies 59 acres encompassing 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms. Highlights include the Imperial Silver Collection and an array of dining services giving a taste of the lavish imperial banquets that once took place here. The Sisi Museum, focusing on the life and times of Empress Elisabeth, and the Imperial Apartments, a series of 19 rooms once occupied by Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife.
Then walk down toward the main pedestrian street, the Graben. You will pass Stephan’s Cathedral, the city’s most beautiful landmark, and an important Gothic structure symbol of Vienna. St. Stephan’s is particularly famous for its majestic towers that have dominated Vienna’s skyline for centuries. It was here in 1893 that Theodor Herzl, the father of the modern state of Israel, developed the idea of holding a mass public conversion of Jews to ward off the city’s growing Judeophobia. St. Stephan’s is in the heart and soul of Stephansplatz, an important square that marks the city’s geographical center. An interesting mix of new and old architectural styles, it’s a wonderful place to simply hang out and watch the world pass by from the comfort of a café patio, or perhaps do some shopping.
The Spanish Riding School, Vienna
The Spanish Riding School dates back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the man responsible for introducing the famous Lipizzaner horses to Austria in 1562. Today, it’s one of the only places where the classical style of riding preferred by the aristocracy is still practiced. Tickets to watch these magnificent animals perform their ballet are highly sought after, so book online as far in advance as possible.
The Vienna State Opera House
One of the world’s largest and most splendid theaters, the Vienna State Opera House has hosted many of the world’s most prominent composers, conductors, soloists, and dancers. Operatic and ballet performances are staged at least 300 times a year, with music that goes as far back as 1625, when the first Viennese Court Opera was performed.
Founded in 1786, the famous Demel is not only the oldest café and bakery in Vienna. It is perhaps the most memorable food experience you’ll have in this wonderful city. This exquisite café serves dishes and cakes carefully prepared by hand to traditional centuries-old recipes. A highlight here are the Demelinerinnen, the modestly dressed waitresses wearing black dresses with lace collars who still address customers with the formal, “Haben Schon gewählt ?” (“Has Madam/Sir already made her/his choice?”). The other highlight, of course, is drooling over the mouthwatering displays of cakes and pastries (not kosher), including special creations resembling characters or creatures from history and mythology, each a work of art.
Natural History Museum
Vienna’s Natural History Museum is a fascinating place to visit. It is best known for its huge Dinosaur Hall and for the world’s largest exhibit of meteorites, which includes the Tissint meteorite from Mars that fell in Morocco in 2011. Its 39 exhibit halls trace such subjects as the origins and development of humans and the evolution of human culture from prehistoric times. The museum’s newest feature is its Digital Planetarium with full-dome projection.
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Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Austrian National Tourist Office.