Known for its waltzes and sweets, Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg empire and the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. After World War I, it became the capital of Austria and, from 1938 until 1945, served as the provincial capital of the German Reich. Vienna was home to many influential Jews, including Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Gustav Mahler, Martin Buber and Arthur Schnitzler.
Jews have a mixed history with Vienna, ranging from prosperity to persecution. After the first influx of Jews arrived in Vienna in the late 12th century, sixteen of them were murdered by Christians with the blessing of the pope. During the Black Death epidemic in 1348-9 however, Vienna was one of the few cities that did not blame the Jews for causing the scourge and it became a haven for many Jewish refugees.
The Judenplatz in the center of Vienna was the site of one of the largest synagogues in Europe. Jews comprised about five percent of the city's population during the 14th century. In 1420, however, Duke Albrecht V expelled the Jews from Vienna, confiscated their property, and destroyed their synagogue (its stones were used to build the University of Vienna).
In 1451, Jews were allowed to return and were given special protection from the Hapsburg Emperors. A second round of Jewish immigrants came to Vienna from the Ukraine, fleeing pogroms and persecution. Jews were granted their own quarter in the city — later known as Leopoldstadt — in 1624. Two synagogues were constructed in this ghetto, which Leopold I destroyed when he disolved the ghetto in 1670. Leopold Church was built on the site of one of these synagogues.
Another round of expulsions began in 1669. The Jewish expulsion caused grave economic repercussions however, so the emperor invited the wealthier Jews to return and a third wave of immigration started. An agreement was ratified on February 28, 1675, that allowed the Jews to return to Vienna if they paid a large one-time lump sum, and an annual tax. In 1683, Samson Wertheimer and Samuel Oppenheimer, Jewish imperial court agents, provided financial support to the Austrian army to get rid of the invading Turkish army, thus strengthening Jewish ties with the local community.
Under the reign of Maria Teresa, a rabid anti-Semite, many discriminatory laws were passed and the situation worsened for Vienese Jewry. The tense atmosphere eased in 1782, when Joseph II, Maria Teresa’s son and successor, came to the thrown and lifted many of the restrictions. A Jewish printing press was started and Vienna became the center of Hebrew publishing in Central Europe.
The Jewish renaissance in Vienna began in 1848 and lasted until the start of World War II. Jews were granted civil rights, partially due to their participation in the 1848 civil war and were allowed to form their own autonomous religious community, which served the Jewish population of Vienna and of Austria as well. Vienna also became a center of the Haskalah, a movement toward secular enlightenment.
Full citizenship rights were given to the Jews in 1867, leading to a large influx of immigrants from the Eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, especially from Bukovina, Galicia, the Czech lands, and Hungary.
Jews became predominant in all spheres of life and contributed to Vienna’s cultural and scientific achievements. Jewish merchants, traders, entrepreneurs and businessmen enjoyed wealth at the turn of the century. Some of the famous figures of the time included, Fanny Arstein, who hosted a salon attended by the major personalities of the time, including the emperor and Mozart. Prominent Jewish physicians included Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Wilhelm Reich and Theodor Reik. In the field of Zionist politics, Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau reigned. A well-known theologen, Martin Buber also lived in Vienna during this period. Jews were also active in music and theater, including Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schonberg, Oscar Straus, Emmerich Kalman, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Kortner, Lily Darvas and Elisabeth Berner. Writers Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig and Felix Salten have also become world-renowned for their works.
In the field of medicine, three out of four Austrian Nobel Prize winners in Medicine at the time were Jewish. More than half of Austria’s physicians and dentists were Jews and so were more than 60 percent of the lawyers and a substantial number of university teachers. Many Jews were leaders of the Social Democratic Party.
Jewish religious life centered around Vienna’s two main synagogues, the Vienna Synagogue and the Leopoldster Temple. The Vienna Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse was built between 1824-1826. It was one of the symbols of the new tolerance in Vienna and the Jewish community wanted it to be splendid. The building was designed by Josef Kornhausel and constructed similar to a residential building, because only churches could be free-standing at that time. This saved the building from destruction in 1938 because the Nazis did not realize it was a synagogue. The building was used as a synagogue and school and had a mikvah inside it. Its cantors, Salomon Sulzer, and religious director, Rabbi Isak Noa Mannheimer, reinterpreted Jewish prayers and created the "Wiener Nussach" prayer tradition. The second synagogue, the Leopoldster Temple, was consecrated in 1858. Besides for these two main synagogues, Vienna had another 40 smaller shuls and minyans on the eve of the Anschluss.
A number of Jewish institutions were established in Vienna, including a Rothschild hospital in 1872 and a Jewish Gymnasium and Jewish Pedagogium, founded by Zwi Perez Chajes, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna. The first Jewish museum in the world was founded in Vienna in 1895. The museum was closed in 1938 and its contents confiscated by the Nazis.
Because of the atmosphere of economic, religious and social freedom, the Jewish population grew from 6,200 in 1860 to 40,200 in 1870 and, by the turn of the century, it reached 147,000. By 1938, the Jewish population of Vienna peaked at 185,000 members.
While Jews were making great strides in Viennese society, a backlash of anti-Semitism developed. One famous anti-Semite was Georg Schonerer, who portrayed Jews as evil incarnate and was responsible for ransacking the office of Neuss Wiener Tagblatt (a Jewish-owned newspaper) and for hitting its Jewish employees. Schonerer was jailed for his actions, but after his release, 21 members of the anti-Semitic nationalist party (Alldeutsch Parti) were elected into the Austrian Parliament.
A second anti-Semite, Karl Leuger, had even more influence over the racist atmosphere in Vienna. Leuger was elected mayor of Austria five times between 1897 and 1910. At first, Emperor Franz Joseph refused to support him, however, after Leuger’s fifth reelection he accepted Leuger’s power. Leuger blamed the Jews for Vienna’s financial problems and roused the crowds with anti-Semitic fervor, while in private he still had a number of Jewish friends and dined at their houses. Both Leuger and Schnorer influenced Adolf Hiter, then a young man from Bravau on Inn, Austria. In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler claims he learned anti-Semitism from them.
In the 1930's increased anti-Semitism was directed at the Social Democrat party, which was mainly run by Jews.
In March 1938 Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany, in an event that came to be known as the Anschluss. Following the annexation, Jews were chased through the streets and forced to scrub sidewalks. Jewish stores and apartments were pillaged. The Social Democratic party was crushed and thousands of Austrians who opposed Nazi rule were deported to concentration camps and murdered.
The Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Racial Laws in occupied Austria in May 1938. Within a short period, Jews had lost nearly all of their civil liberties: they were unable to attend university, were excluded from most professions and were forced to wear a yellow badge. All Jewish organizations and institutions were shut down. The Nazis encouraged emigration and nearly 130,000 Jews left Austria, including 30,000 who went to the United States.
Many Jewish stores, factories, and buildings were destroyed during Kristallnacht on November 9-10, 1938. Public displays of hatred commenced across the city and all of the city’s synagogues were ravaged. The only synagogue that remained untouched was the central synagogue, hidden because of residential surroundings. That night about 6,000 Jews were apprehended and sent to Dachau.
The situation further deteriorated after the Wanassee Conference in January 1942. The remaining Austrian Jews were killed or sent to concentration camps; more than 65,000 Viennese Jews were deported to concentration camps. Of those who were sent to the camps, only 2,000 survived. About 800 Viennese Jews who managed to hide survived the war.
Anti-Semitic feelings persisted in Austrian society for many years following World War II, and are still present today.
In 1986, Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim, a Nazi collaborator, as president of Austria. Born near Vienna, Waldheim had held numerous diplomatic and political positions, from Ambassador, to Foreign Minister, to Secretary General of the United Nations. During World War II, Waldheim served as an interpreter and intelligence offer for the German army unit that was responsible for the deportation of the Jews of Salonika and for brutal actions against Yugoslav partisans and civilians.
In the late 1980's, the Austrian government began reexamining their role in the Holocaust, and in July 1991 the Austrian government issued a statement acknowledging their role in the crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich.
In October 2017, an exhibition at the Herminen Alley subway station opened to remember hundreds of Jews who were forced to live together as prisoners on Herminengasse. “Two houses on the street were mini concentration camps, where Jews were kept in crowded conditions inside apartments until they were taken away one day on a lorry,” according to historian Tina Walzer. “This all happened publicly, at day time, on a street where also many non-Jews lived. Everybody saw what was going on.” The Jews imprisoned on this street were taken to the Aspangbanhof train station (where a mounment was unveiled in 2017) where more than 40,000 Jews were loaded onto trains and transported to death camps.
Despite government efforts to acknowledge the past and promises for a better future, Jews still face anti-Semitism on both the grassroots and state level manifested in vandalism, swastika grafitti and attacks in the press. The recent rise to power of Joerg Haider’s anti-immigration and ultra-nationalist Freedom Party has caused great concern among community members. Throughout his political career, Haider has used Holocaust terminology and has legitimized Nazi policies and activities.
A number of Viennese Jews are trying to educate Austria society and the international world about Austria’s role in the Holocaust. One was the renowned Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, whose documentation center has become a world-wide clearing house for information pertaining to the Holocaust. A second well-known educator was Peter Sichrovsky, whose book Strangers in Their Own Land addresses how Jews can live in Germany and Austria today.
Jewish community institutions
The Jewish community (Gemeinde) is run by the Bundesverband der Israelitischen Kultusgemeinden. All Jews active in the community pay a percentage of their annual income tax to the community to subsidize its services. The Gemeinde helps fund an old age home, the Jewish day school, kindergartens, the Austrian Jewish Students Union, Jewish student organizations and several Zionist youth groups (i.e. B’nai Brith, B’nai Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair). It also maintains the Jewish cemeteries.
Vienna’s Sephardic community reestablished itself in May 1992 and built two synagogues and a room used for festivities. Its activities are run by the Sefardi Federation, which is separate from the primary Jewish communal organization.
The “welcome service” center was created in 1980 to serve as a resource center and provide information about Jewish life and history of Viennese Jewry.
Today, Vienna has 15 synagogues, but the only surviving synagogue from the pre-war era is the Vienna Synagogue (Stadtempel), which houses the community offices and chief rabbinate. The synagogue was damaged during the war and reopened in 1963 after extensive renovations. The synagogue has limited visiting hours and heavy security (due to a 1982 terrorist attack). The spectacular round sanctuary has the look and feel of a Reform temple, but it is an Orthodox congregation with a separate gallery for women. Long discussions were held over whether to permit an organ and adopt more elements of Reform Judaism, but, ultimately, the decision was to stick with orthodoxy but to have some modern touches; for example, the bimah was placed in front of the ark instead of the middle of the sanctuary.
Besides for the Stadtemple, there are a number of prayer rooms serving various Hassidic sects and other congregations. Efforts made by the Lubavitch movement have increased synagogue attendance, especially of Georgian and Bokharan Jews, who have since opened their own synagogue. In 1984, the Zwi-Peretz Chajes-shule was reopened and, in 1986, the Lauder Foundation established the Beth Chabad Shules and other educational institutions. In 1990, Or Chadasch, the first and only Progressive Synagogue in Austria, was established and built with the help of the Israelitischekultus Gemeinde.
Education and Culture
Vienna has Jewish kindergartens and a primary school and the Zwi Peretz Gymnasium opened in the late 1990's after being closed for more than 50 years. During World War II, the Zwi Peretz Gymnasium served as a deportation point for the city’s Jews. The ultra-Orthodox community has its own educational system and separate schools. In February 2004, the first yeshiva built in Vienna since World War II was inaugurated.
Vienna also hosts a Jewish sports club, S.C. Hakoach and, in the late 1990's, a Jewish center opened on the site of the former Leopoldster Temple, which was destroyed during the Holocaust. The Jewish center houses the ESRA Center for Psychosocial Care and other institutions. Vienna also has two kosher restaurants, a kosher supermarket, kosher butcher shops and bakeries.
There are a number of Jewish journals and newspapers. The monthly, Die Gemeinde, is the official organ of the community. Another publication is the Illustrietere Neu Welt. The Jewish students also have their own bulletin called Noodnik.
Vienna's Jewish population consists of Eastern European refugees from the Holocaust era and their children, returning expatriates who lived abroad during World War II and Iranian Jews seeking asylum. Vienna has also served as a transit point for Jews leaving the Soviet Union en route to the United States or Israel. Since the 1960's, many Austrian Jews have immigrated to other countries. More than 5,400 Austrian Jews have immigrated to Israel. At the end of the 1990's, Vienna had 7,000 Jews registered in their community. Nevertheless, the total Jewish population comes to 15,000, including unaffiliated Jews.
The Jewish Museum chronicles the history of Viennese Jewry and their role in the development of the city. A second interesting museum is the Austrian Resistance Museum, which contains documents and oral history relating to the Austrian struggle against Nazism. Throughout the city are plaques and statues honoring the underground fight against Nazism. More information about the Austrian role in the Holocaust can be found at the Simon Wiesenthal Documentation Center located in Vienna.
The Rossauer Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in Vienna, dating back to the 16th century. Many of the tombs were devastated in World War II, but have been renovated.
Located in the heart of Vienna is the Stephansdom, a beautiful 12th century church, which contains stained glass windows depicting the Viennese Jews during that period. Nearby is the Stadtempel and the Judenplatz, the main square of the Jewish community for nearly 500 years. Today in the Judenplatz, one can find the offices of a number of Sephardic organizations and a small beit midrash. Inside one of these beit midrashes, is a subterranean mikveh dating back to the 15th century.
The Judenplatz Museum contains a room where archaeologists discovered the remains of the synagogue destroyed more than 500 years earlier by Duke Albrecht V.
Also within the Judenplatz is the Memorial to Austrian Holocaust Victims. Unveiled in 2000, the reinforced concrete cube resembles a library of 7,000 volumes turned inside out. The doors are locked and the books face inwards. The base of the memorial has the names of the places where 65,000 Austrian Jews were murdered by the Nazis. Created by British artist Rachel Witeread, the memorial's barred room and books that cannot be read represent the loss of those who were murdered.
Only a ten-minute ride from Stephansdom, the Sigmund Freud House has been preserved as it was during Freud’s life. Inside one can find memorabilia, including his pipe, walking stick, cigar boxes, books, letters, photographs, writing desk and psychoanalytic couch.
While most of the Jewish life in Austria is centered in Vienna, there are other sites of Jewish interest around the country. These include the Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt, located in the one-time residence of Samson Wetheimer, a Hapsburg court Jew, and the Jewish Museum in Hohenems. Another important historic site is Mauthausen, perhaps the worst concentration camp of them all, located on the Danube River, near the city of Linz.
The Stadttempel (City Temple)
Vienna's only non-Orthodox congregation
Jewish Welcome Center
Vienna's Leading Kosher Restaurant
Branch of the Jewish Museum of Vienna
Joerg Haider: The Rise of an Austrian Extreme Rightist, ADL (December 11, 1995).
Dr. Avi Beker, (ed.) Jewish Communities of the World. Lerner Publication Co., 1998.
Jewish Vienna. Gangway #1, (June 1996).
Jewish Religious Community, IKG
Alan M. Tigay, (ed.). The Jewish Traveler. Jason Aronson, Inc. 1994 & 2005.
Michael Zaidner, (ed.), Jewish Travel Guide 2000, Vallentine Mitchell & Co., 2000.
Cnaan Liphshiz, “Vienna subway remembers city’s little-known apartment concentration camps,” JTA, (October 20, 2017).
Photos (except for Mahler) © Mitchell Bard
Or Chadasch photo courtesy of the synagogue