Michal and I recently returned from a visit to Vienna. We had as good a time as Jews can have there. (More about that later.) Vienna is the capital of Austria, one of several Central and Eastern European countries which have established close governmental ties with Israel. In contrast to Israel’s “traditional” Western European allies, Austria and others (i.e. Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania) often support Israel in United Nations votes and European Union discussions. They also closely coordinate with Israel on security and other matters.
A trip to Vienna cannot be appreciated without some knowledge of the Habsburg Empire, of which Vienna was capital. I learned a little about Austria’s history as a child, when my paternal grandmother told me that she grew up in Austria. Later, I realized that she’d said Austria-Hungary, and that her home town of Kolymea in Galacia changed nationality numerous times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Habsburg Dynasty began in 1291. In its heyday, the Habsburgs headed the Holy Roman Empire and controlled much of Europe. The Empire waxed and waned until the end of WWI, when the victors set its truncated boundaries. Austria was later annexed by Nazi Germany and at the end of WWII was occupied by Allied forces. On October 26, 1955, the Austrian Parliament passed the constitutional law on permanent neutrality and celebrated Austria’s independence.
(Watch this fascinating, short, animated video of the history of the Habsburg Empire https://www.youtube.com)
Vienna reached its modern apex in the second half of the 19th century. To this day, Vienna is a cosmopolitan city with an unbelievable collection of palaces, monuments, and substantial apartment blocks which display the former Empire’s grandeur and wealth. The riches of the Empire must have been incalculable to have built this glorious display of pomp and bourgeois decadence.
During our visit we stayed at the very central Grand Hotel Wien, which we highly recommend. The hotel was deluxe with beautiful rooms and public areas, impeccable service, and a very nice breakfast. The price was reasonable, about the same as one would pay for a much less plush hotel in Israel. While we avoided eating any meat (except for schnitzel in the Aleph-Aleph kosher restaurant), there were plentiful options in the many restaurants, including cuisines from around the world. Of course, the famous Viennese pastries and excellent coffee were something I enjoyed every day, at a very reasonable price.
We quickly became accustomed to walking throughout the town center, which is circumscribed by a ring road, the Vienna Ringstrasse. Until the 19th century, a defensive wall ringed the city. When it was determined that the advanced state of warfare made the wall obsolete, it was torn down, the ring road was constructed in its place, and construction within the central district proceeded at an astonishing pace, with gorgeous buildings befitting an imperial capital.
Although our visit was six days, we didn’t try to see “everything.” We concentrated on museums and walking the streets. Here’s a quick rundown of our itinerary:
We arrived in the evening at the airport, where a car service whisked us to the hotel. In the morning we meandered, passing the Vienna State Opera House, the Albertina Palace/Museum, and the main pedestrian shopping street on our way to the central tourist information office. That afternoon we took the tram (light rail) to the Belvedere Palace/Museum, built on the south-eastern edge of the city center. The beautiful grounds are set on a gentle slope with decorative tiered fountains and cascades, Baroque sculptures, and majestic wrought iron gates. The palace complex was built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, after his defeat of the Ottoman Turks.
The Belvedere is famous for its Gustav Klimt collection, especially “The Kiss.” The most prominent of Austria’s symbolist painters, Klimt was the most prominent member of the Vienna Secession movement (see below), famous for his paintings, murals, sketches, and other objets d’art. We spent a few hours in the main, Upper section of the museum, enjoying the many Klimt works, along with other artists’ paintings and sculptures.
The second day we walked the short distance to the Vienna State Opera for the house tour, which took us through the huge purpose-built building, the first major edifice on the Vienna Ringstrasse. It was completed in 1869. The Vienna State Opera is closely linked to the Vienna Philharmonic, which supplies the musicians of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra from its ranks.
The Vienna State Opera is one of the busiest opera houses in the world, producing 50 to 60 operas in a repertory system per year, plus ten ballet productions, in more than 350 performances. It has a huge number of employees, many of whom we witnessed working on the gigantic stage. Interestingly, there are many “standing” positions which are sold before each performance at a very low price, some placed near the higher price seats. (One area was directly below the Emperor’s box! The downside: standing throughout an entire 3-4 hour opera.
In the afternoon, we joined guide Barbara Timmerman for a “Jewish” tour of modern Vienna. We met her along the Danube canal, from where we walked across a bridge into Leopoldstat, where most of the present Jewish population lives. Barbara, speaking in English to us and in German to all the others (about 10 people), told how the Jews were serially welcomed to live in Vienna and then thrown out at the Emperor’s whim – usually when he couldn’t repay his debts to the Jewish moneylenders.
We walked throughout Leopoldstat, where Jews were mixed into the general population, gathering more information than we could remember. We were most impressed at the site of the largest synagogue in Vienna, the Leopoldstädter Tempel. We marveled at the size of the destroyed synagogue which was destroyed during Kristallnacht (1938), evidenced by four gigantic pillar delineating its dimensions. Nearby, we saw one of the new Star of David symbols which are being erected at former sites of Jewish institutions (emphasis on former).
We also saw brass “stumbling blocks” (Stolpersteine) set in the pavement to commemorate Jews who lived at that location and were killed during the Holocaust.
That evening we attended a Mozart concert at Musicverein, also known as the Golden Hall. Located just across the street from our hotel, the gorgeous auditorium was as much, or more, an attraction as the costumed performers playing classical music by Mozart.
On our third day, we walked to the Secession museum. The Secession Movement, founded by Klimt, was an art movement formed in 1897 by a group of Austrian artists who had resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists, striking out on their own in unconventional ways. The striking building, ridiculed by critics when it was built, has been completely restored and is a beautiful example of Secession architecture.
We continued on to the Museum Quarter where we took in the Leopold Museum. One of many museums in the Quarter, the Leopold is a unique treasure-house of Viennese Jugendstil (an offshoot of the Secession movement, comparable to Art Nouveau), and the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshops, co-founded by Josef Hoffmann), a group of architects, artists, and designers who worked in ceramics, fashion, silver, furniture and the graphic arts. Secession pioneered modern design; its influence is apparent in later styles such as Bauhaus and Art Deco. We finished touring for the day at the Architecture Museum, which was much less grand than any other museum, but interesting nonetheless.
The fourth morning we walked to the MAK Decorative/Applied Arts Museum, housed in one of Vienna’s myriad grand buildings. The museum displays furniture, glass, china, silver, and textiles from the Middle Ages to the present day, as well as precious crafts from the Wiener Werkstätte, bentwood furniture by Thonet, many outstanding pieces by Josef Hoffman, and art nouveau highlights. There is a room full of Biedermeier style furniture of simple and clear shapes, which greatly influenced subsequent furniture design. And of course, more Klimt works, which we saw everywhere, including museums, gift shops, souvenir stands, and nearly every kind of store in the center. Klimt can almost be called Vienna’s mascot.
We next visited the Jewish Museum, a repository of Jewish history, life and religion in Austria, especially Vienna. The museum has two locations. This was the branch in the Palais Eskeles ( a relatively modest palace) in the center of town. An excellent history of Jews in Vienna was presented there, with an emphasis on the mid-20th century. We spent several hours on its many floors, including time for an excellent lunch in the museum cafe beforehand.
We had never visited a concentration camp, a difficult but enlightening endeavor. In researching Vienna, we discovered that day trips to the Mauthausen camp were available. On our fifth day, we booked the Vienna a la carte tour, via the Viator site. It was a good choice. Our guide, Fleming (originally from Denmark) drove about eight of us in a nice minibus for a journey of a few hours. He explained many sites along the way. Outside the camp walls, there are a number of memorials to the many victims at the concentration camp from various countries. The concentration camp is located next to a quarry, just outside of Mauthausen.
Fleming provided us with the requisite self-guiding earphones and we made our way through the camp’s 24 stations. Although I have read many books and been to various museums dealing with the Holocaust, this visit provided a whole different level of information. I was particularly affected by the eye witness accounts at the end of many of the recorded excerpts. We visited the quarry before we left the area, in which the inmates were required to do back-breaking labor. Just the very long descent down very, very steep stairs into the quarry was scary. Fleming explained that Jews were sometimes singled out and pushed over the edge of the quarry to their deaths. Sometimes inmates jumped to their deaths voluntarily to escape the horrors of the camp. Visiting Mauthausen was a harrowing experience, one that a visitor will never forget.
The sixth and last day of our trip we went to the Albertina Palace/Museum, next to the Opera, which was partially constructed on one of the last remaining sections of Vienna’s fortifications. The building went through many reconstructions, depending on which member of the Habsburgs was the inhabitant. We had wanted to view some palatial state rooms; this was a very good place to do it. One interesting thing that we learned is that when the royals (sometimes generals) lost their palaces in battle, it was permitted for them to remove their personal belongings, as substantial as they might be. After all, these European wars were a constant, and the winner of this battle could easily be the loser in the next war.
There was a lot more to see at the Albertina, but time constraints limited us to viewing the fabulous Batliner collection, featuring Picasso, Chagall, and many others of their ilk. That such a great collection was in private hands is amazing. Due to the fact that the Batliners were childless, their entire collection was left to the Austrian public.
Lastly, we walked once more to the former Jewish quarter, hoping to visit the beautiful synagogue which is concealed in a mundane building. Unfortunately, we missed the 2 pm tour, the only way to see it. We did get to the (second) Jewish Museum, at the Judenplatz, which is located on the site of the original Jewish ghetto. This was another interesting look at Jewish life in Vienna, with a tunnel under the vacant plaza where the original synagogue stood. Directly under the plaza are the remains of the synagogue, with the bima and the niche for the Torah clearly visible. A monument to the Jewish victims of the Shoah is the primary feature of the plaza just above.
The current exhibit being featured at the museum was the story of Leonard Bernstein in Vienna. He had no interest at first in conducting Vienna’s Philharmonic in the city, for obvious reasons in the wake of WWII, but he eventually agreed and had a long career there. To quote from a letter to his parents in 1966, Bernstein said: “I am enjoying Vienna enormously – as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming “Bravo” for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead.”
A fitting reflection about our trip to Vienna…