Aerial view of Vienna
Jewish History of Vienna
Before the war, the Jewish population of Vienna was one of the largest in Europe, numbering approximately 200,000 people. It was a cosmopolitan city. A melting pot. The Jewish community originated from many places and backgrounds: they were rich and poor, secular and religious, Ashkenazi and Sefardi. In March 1938, life changed almost overnight with the Anschluss (Nazi annexation of Austria). Jews struggled to get visas to leave. Many managed. 65,000 did not and were tragically, murdered in the Holocaust.
It may surprise you to learn that 1938 wasn't the first time the Jewish community was destroyed. The Jewish history of Vienna is one of banishment and return. In medieval times, there was a thriving Jewish community until 1421 when, much like the Inquisition in Spain, the Jews were killed, exiled, or forcibly converted to Christianity. In 1619, Emperor Ferdinand allowed Jews to return and settle in Austria. However, they were forced to live outside of what was then the entire city of Vienna (today the central first district) and live in a ghetto below the River Danube, which today is the second district of Vienna. Their settlement was brief. In 1670, a conspiracy against the Jewish community led to an order for their exile by Emperor Leopold. They then renamed the former Jewish Ghetto Leopoldstadt in his honor.
Judenplatz, outside the Jewish Museum
Thriving Daily Jewish Life in Vienna
In a twist of irony, the Jewish community is now mainly centered in Leopoldstadt, the second district. Here you can find all the kosher facilities you may need: restaurants, bakeries and groceries. We particularly enjoyed a meal at Novellino, a Mediterranean-style milky restaurant at Zirkusgasse 15. At the Prego bakery at Taborstrasse 43, we were excited to find kosher Sachertorte, the famous Viennese chocolate covered, jam filled, chocolate cake.
Although the community is far smaller than before the Shoah, Jewish life is once again thriving and just as diverse as it ever was. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly (considering recent history) whether religious or secular, the community is proudly and openly Jewish. On our first morning, I saw a young Jewish boy, on his way to school, wearing a kippah and tefillin bag in hand. Unlike other places in Europe where Jewish men might don a baseball cap, here they walk around openly in kippot, even in the heart of the city center. Yet, armed Austrian soldiers guard many of the Jewish buildings.
Interior of the main Synagogue of Vienna, the Stadttempel
The Synagogues of Vienna: Old & New
We visited the magnificent main synagogue of Vienna in the first district. Although ransacked, it was the only synagogue to survive Kristallnacht. Adjoining the synagogue is a kosher restaurant called Alef Alef. It’s the place to go if you want to eat proper veal Wiener schnitzel.Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz
After visiting the main synagogue, we went to visit an ancient one. In the 1990s, archaeological excavations uncovered the remains of a synagogue from medieval times. The site is housed in one of the two Jewish museums, in a square, aptly called Judenplatz (Jewish space). The entrance fee gives you entry to both museums. Right in the center of the square, directly above the remains of the ancient synagogue, is a memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah. Designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread, it looks like rows upon rows of books which stand for the many victims, and their life stories. Except, you cannot see their spines. It is an introverted, non-accessible library. It’s an apt and poignant memorial.
The Ferris wheel in the Prater Amusement Park
There are so many other museums and attractions for tourists to Vienna to visit, including the Imperial Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens, the Spanish Riding School and the Danube Tower. Unfortunately, our visit was too short to squeeze in everything. However, I was able to fulfil a childhood dream. My grandmother used to tell me stories about how when she was a child, she would visit the Prater amusement park and ride on the giant Ferris wheel. During our stay, I got my chance to ride on it, at long last. It was definitely worth the wait.
Sarah Ansbacher was born in London, UK and is now based in Israel. She is the author of the novel, Ayuni, and a short story collection: Passage From Aden: Stories From A Little Museum In Tel Aviv. You can read more about her work here: www.sarahansbacher.com