Vienna: Missing Its Jews?

Travelling with Jewish consciousness in Europe is not easy. There are constant reminders of past pogroms, expulsions and massacres and in Western European cities like Paris and London,a resurgence of anti-Semitism (often under the guise of anti-Zionism).

Yet Europe provides marvelous venues for Jewish tourism and I enjoy leading Keshet Jewish Heritage Tours from communities all over the USA to Europe. The Jews of Europe flourished and created a dynamic civilization for over 1,000 years, until the Nazis destroyed most of the Jewish communities of Europe- but their legacies are still alive and relevant in contemporary Jewish life and miraculously, some communities are coming alive again. Jewish sites and memorials feature prominently in many locations in Europe, making Jewish themed travel to Europe an important tool in awakening and strengthening Jewish identity.

For example, as a tourist in Berlin – you can’t help but be aware of Jewish history. The dramatic main Holocaust memorial is right in the center of the city near the Brandenburg Gate. The Jewish Museum with its dramatic new wing designed by Daniel Libeskind is a major tourist attraction – and not only for Jewish visitors.

In Prague, the Jewish Museum is one of the city’s major tourist attractions- after the Old Town Square and Castle Complex. The centerpiece of the Jewish Museum is the historic synagogues, one of which (the Pinkas Synagogue) has the names of the approximately 78,000 Czech Jews murdered by the Nazis inscribed on the walls. Day trips to the former Nazi Ghetto at Terezin are prominently advertised. There is a palpable consciousness of the absence of the 92,000 Jews who made up about 20% of Prague’s population before being murdered by the Nazis.

In Warsaw, the memory of the nearly 400,000 Jews who made up over 30% of the city until they were murdered by the Nazis, is front and center. Memorials abound and the new Polin Museum of Polish Jewry is a prominent landmark and destination for tourists and locals.

In Krakow, the Old Jewish Quarter Kazmierz is one of the major tourist attractions, on par with the Wawel Palace, The Old Town Square and the Salt Mines. Like in Prague, the centerpiece of the Jewish Museum is the historic synagogues, and day tours to Auschwitz are prominently advertised. You would be hard pressed to visit Krakow today and not become aware of the nearly 60,000 Jews (25% of the city) who lived here and were murdered by the Nazis.

Which brings me to Vienna. What a beautiful, enchanting city, rich in history and culture. The city of the Habsburgs and of Mozart,Schubert, Heydn and Klimt. A city of magnificent architecture, monuments, art and music. And once…a city full of Jews.

In the 1920s there were more than 200,000 Jews in Vienna, making up over 10% of the population of the city. There were rich Jews and there were poor Jews, there were heavily assimilated and acculturated Jews and traditional Jews – and they managed to succeed and prosper despite the ongoing official and grass roots anti-Semitism.

The Jewish contribution to the cultural life of Vienna – that which made Vienna world famous – far surpassed their percentage of the population. Jews were patrons and backers of the museums, the opera, the theater, the universities, the hospitals, artists and writers. They formed the backbone of the financial and banking establishments and built and lived in so many of the magnificent Palais which still line the Ringstrasse.
During the Nazi period, the Jews of Vienna were systematically stripped of their rights and property and were publically humiliated, beaten and murdered by the Germans and the Austrians. Thankfully, between 1938 – 1942 about 130,000 managed to escape – amongst them my father (who was born in Vienna) and his parents and sister. Almost all of the 60 – 70,000 Jews who remained were murdered.

Yet the typical visitor to Vienna will hear about almost none of this.

It is no secret that Austria never really came to terms with its Nazi past. Austria presented itself as the first victim of Nazi aggression rather than as the handmaiden and partner of the Third Reich. This perspective was encouraged and fostered during the Cold War by the USA and its allies and by the Soviet Union, each for its own purposes. Austria was not “de-Nazified” to the extent that Germany was (witness the election of former Nazi Kurt Waldheim as President in 1986) and many of the same bureaucrats and leaders who ran government services as Nazi officials during the war continued to do so after 1945. The resistance of Austrian society and government to the restitution of Jewish property is well known (mostly recently dramatized in “Woman in Gold”) and its attitude towards the few Jews who returned after the war was generally ambivalent at best.

So I guess that it should come as no surprise that for the typical visitor to Vienna the Jewish story is muted. Don’t get me wrong – in recent years there has been some improvement and it is important to note that today there is a flourishing Jewish community in Leopoldstadt, the historic Jewish neighborhood of Vienna once known locally as “Matzoh Island”. Once again, there are Kosher restaurants and synagogues, and the Jewish Museum of Vienna is one of the best that I have seen anywhere. There are also memorial plaques to medieval massacres of Jews by their Viennese neighbors and a dramatic Holocaust Memorial in the historic Inner City District.

But as a visitor, you need to seek out these sites. The former Jewish presence (and its destruction) is not front and center like in Warsaw, Krakow, Prague or Berlin. Some of the wonderful Viennese Tour Guides do try to correct for this absence by including the Jewish narrative in their presentation, but it often takes the form of “many of them left before WWII”.

During a recent trip to Vienna, my wife and I rode the “Ringstrasse Tram” a lovely narrated tram ride along the magnificent boulevards built by Emperor Franz Josef from 1860 – 1890 (with much Jewish financing) on the route of what had been the medieval city walls and moats. The narration pointed out many of the magnificent palatial homes which are now luxury hotels and corporate headquarters – without any mention of the Jewish families who were forced to abandon these properties in the 1930s and 1940s. As we approached the colossal Palais Ephrussi (immortalized in Eduard de Waal’s “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”) I thought that surely here there would be mention of the Jewish Ephrussi family who built and lived in this palais but were forced out and that perhaps we would now hear something about the other Jews of Vienna who were robbed, exiled and murdered. But I was wrong – there was not one word about the Jewish story. While I understand that it might be considered a downer for a tourist presentation to dwell too much on this, its total absence speaks volumes.

So Vienna still has a troubled and ambivalent relationship with its Jews – especially with those who once were and are no longer. Every time I say to non-Jewish Viennese, “My father was born in Vienna but escaped in 1939″, I get a strained reaction – they would much rather that I said that “he left in 1939” rather than “he escaped”.

But I would urge Jews to visit Vienna. It is a magnificent city of art, music, architecture and history. It has over 800 years of Jewish history and a growing contemporary Jewish community. It has a new generation of non-Jews who are both ignorant and curious about the Jewish history of Vienna and more open to learning about and recognizing the legacy of Jewish Vienna – and Viennese anti-Semitism – than their parents and grandparents were.

About the Author
Daniel Ehrlich is the Educational Director at Keshet: Educational Journeys In the USA he was the founding director of the Tehilla Aliyah Movement a Director of Yeshiva University’s Communal Services Division and Executive Director of the Bnei Akiva Religious Zionist Youth Movement After making Aliyah in 1996 with his wife Batya and their three children, he worked for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel as Coordinator of Diaspora Affairs, was the Program Director for the Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, served as Editor of the Rabbi Amiel Publications Project of the Religious Zionists of America and was a regional coordinator for Christian Friends of Israeli Communities. He also served as the high holiday Cantor of the Ashkenazi Jewish community of Curacao (Netherlands Antilles) for nearly 20 years. Mr. Ehrlich earned Masters Degrees from Yeshiva University in Community Social Work and in Jewish History and is a graduate of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism Tour Guides Course. His special areas of expertise include the development of early Christianity, Christian-Jewish relations, Holocaust Education and Contemporary Jewish and Israeli Identity.He has served as “Israel Educator” for a wide variety of Jewish, Interfaith and Christian groups. Mr. Ehrlich is the Director of Keshet’s Jewish Roots Journeys to Europe. He has been a scholar in residence and guest lecturer at churches and synagogues in the United Sates, Canada and Israel.