Vienna is one European city with a rich Jewish history. Since the Middle Ages, the Austrian capital has been a refuge to numerous Jews who settled in the city notably on the Danube area.
Not many people know that Vienna’s Jewish community was one of the largest in Europe before 1938. During that time, some 185,000 Jews were living in the city.
After the Second World War, a small yet active community reestablished itself once more. Today, between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews are living in Vienna with 7,000 being active members of the community. Many of them came from the Eastern European countries. A 2001 census noted a total of 8,140 Jews in Austria with 6,988 of them residing in Vienna.
The Leopoldstadt in the second district is well known for its Jewish settlers and institutions. Reports have it that eight Ashkenazi and three Sephardic synagogues or prayer houses in this district of the city. Jewish institutions existing here are the Jewish Vocational Education Center, prayer rooms, ritual baths, the new IKG campus and the Lauder Chabad Campus. Jewish shops, kosher supermarkets, butchers, bakers, restaurants and snack bars are in place as well.
But apart from this place, there are other areas that feature Jewish structures and memorials such as the Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna, the Schoenberg Center, Sigmund Freud House, the Memorial against War, Fascism on Albertinaplatz and the Shoah Memorial. The Dorotheergasse and the Judenplatz Square in the first district are home to various Jewish museums and memorials.
Then there’s the Jüdisches Museum in the Palais Eskeles founded in 1896 making it the world’s oldest museum of its kind. While this building was closed by the Nazis in 1938, it was reopened in 1989. This particular museum has four floors featuring different kinds of exhibition.
A popular religious institution with a rich Jewish heritage in the Austrian capital is the Vienna City Temple or the Stadttempel built between 1824 and 1826. Situated in the first district specifically at the Seitenstettengasse 4, this is the only synagogue that survived the pogrom in 1938. The Stadttempel complex is also home to the offices of the Vienna Jewish community, the Vienna Chief Rabbi, the editorial offices of the Die Gemeinde, a community newspaper and the Jewish community center. The Jewish Museum and a kosher restaurant are here as well.
The second synagogue in the city was the Leopoldster Temple which was consecrated in 1858. In addition to this, Vienna had 40 other smaller shuls and minyans. In total, 93 synagogues have been established in Vienna.
The Old City Hall, meanwhile, is where the Documentation Archives of the Austrian Resistance can be found. The archives contain the documents that recorded the crimes of National Socialism and information on more than 62,000 Austrian holocaust victims.
The Judenplatz Museum located at Judenplatz 8 showcases the history of Jews in Vienna during the Middle Ages. It also houses the Misrachi synagogue on the first floor and another museum in the basement which offers archaeological findings from the excavations on Judenplatz. It features as well a multi-media presentation of Jewish life in the Middle Ages, a medieval city model and information about the medieval synagogue. It covers the first Jewish settlements which date back to the 11th century as well as the major expulsions of Jews from 1420-1421 known as the Vienna Geserah.
The Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna is another building with Jewish history. Located in an old mansion at Dorotheergasse 11, the place showcases the history of Jews in the Austrian capital. A highlight of the exhibition here is the Judaica Collection by Max Berger. The collection takes into account the Jewish life in the context of the Shoah and looks into the post war developments from the perspective of Berger’s personal story. On the third floor is the Show Depot which houses ritual objects saved from the various synagogues in Vienna destroyed during the pogroms in 1938.
The Shoa Memorial still at Judenplatz pays tribute to the victims of the Shoah. Designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread and measuring 10 by 7 meters and almost 4 meters high, the concrete cube which was unveiled in October 2000 symbolizes library walls that are facing outwards. Inscribed on the ground surrounding the memorial are the names of places where 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed.
Another building in Vienna boasting of a rich Jewish history is the Vienna Konzerthaus. It should be noted that among the founders and patrons of this structure were Jewish families belonging to the middle class.
The Ring Boulevard also features numerous mansions many of which were owned by Jewish families in the past.
Today, the Jewish Institute for Adult Education (Volkshochscule) located at Praterstern is one important institution in Vienna. It offers various courses including kosher cookery, Israeli folk dancing, Klezmer music and Yiddish courses which are even open for non-Jews interested to learn about Judaism.
Jewish residents of Vienna who pass on also have a specific final resting place designated for them – a large cemetery found in the Central Cemetery. There’s an old Jewish cemetery which contains the graves of prominent Viennese Jews at the first gate and a new cemetery with ceremonial hall is situated by the fourth part.
Early Jewish Settlement
It was in the Middle Ages or more than 800 years ago when the Jews first settled in Vienna particularly on the Danube and even at that time, the Jewish community in the city was already large. Despite two major expulsions, they continued to stay in the Austrian capital.
By the end of the 19th century and during the start of the 20th century, Vienna became one of the most prominent centers of Jewish culture in the European continent. It was only during the Nationalist-Socialist rule in Austria when the Jewish population was almost entirely deported and killed notably in the Holocaust. In March 1938, Jews in Vienna were constantly harassed, driven out of their homes and shops through to the streets. Except for the Stadttempel, all synagogues and prayer houses in the city were destroyed. Shops were plundered and closed down and more than 6,000 Jews were arrested in just a single night.