February 19, 2004
The Rebirth of Jewish Vienna
As our British Airways jet approached Vienna, we were able to make out the famous skyline of the Austrian capital. Excited, snatches of Viennese waltzes ran through our head, which somehow then turned to melodies by Mozart and Beethoven. But then more somber, darker images of the Jewish life that had been cut off as of 1938 slowly replaced the more beneficent thoughts. But soon we would see for ourselves what kind of reconstituted Jewish life pulsed in the city famous for music, pastries and good times.
Though Jews lived in Vienna over the centuries, the greatest efflorescence of Jewish life and contributions to European and world culture came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when world-class personalities like Freud, Herzl, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and scores of other creative geniuses, scientists, lawyers, doctors and journalists made their mark way out of proportion to their numbers in the population.
Before 1938, Vienna, with 182,000 Jews (the third-largest Jewish community in Europe), had 59 synagogues, a vast Jewish education network and a noted rabbinical seminary. But all this came to a halt, like a candle suddenly snuffed out, in March 1938, when Austria was annexed (the Anschluss) by Germany, and Hitler was welcomed by enormous crowds of ecstatic well-wishers. Torments of Jews soon began. Most of the synagogues were burned; thousands of Jews were arrested and some, especially the intellegentsia, community leaders and men of wealth, were either murdered outright or sent to Dachau where they were imprisoned or killed.
For decades, Austria suffered from a split personality. On the one hand, it claimed it was Hitler's first victim; on the other, most of Hitler's henchmen, a good number of concentration camp commandants and Hitler himself, were Austrian. But Austria now has a memorial of sorts made of stone slabs and cubes. The top lateral bears the words "Never Forget." A small Star of David is on the right corner, the gold star that Jews had to wear on their sleeves or chests, and on the left the inverted red triangle worn by political prisoners. Despite the "Never Forget," something indeed is forgotten. Nowhere in the long paragraph inscribed in the large stone cube below, which speaks of the Gestapo, suffering and the rebirth of Austria, is the word "Jew" mentioned.
However, for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the men who carried out Hitler's policies in Austria there is a memorial in the center of Judenplatz, in front of the Museum Judenplatz for Medieval Jewish Life in Vienna. The outer walls of this large concrete house-like structure represent shelves of a library lined with books. And the doors of this "building" are symbolically locked. No entry. Since Jews are called the People of the Book, the books represent the people (remember Dr. Goebbels, the German propaganda minister with a doctorate in literature, whose thugs burned Jewish books years before they burned Jews?), and the books, like the Jews killed, are no longer accessible. No one can fail to be moved to by this imaginative and powerful monument.
Inside the museum there is a database that lists all the Jews who were deported.
The only synagogue not destroyed during Kristallnacht in November 1938, when hundreds of synagogues across Germany and Austria were torched, was the famous one on Seitenstettengasse. Built in 1842 by a theater architect who considered a synagogue as "holy theater," its facade looked like an apartment building, but its sanctuary has an impressive classic simplicity. Since the synagogue abutted other apartment houses that would have been burned had the synagogue been set aflame, this Jewish house of worship was spared. Besides the main synagogue today there are also 15 shtibls (Chasidic prayer rooms). Vienna also has several Jewish schools, both primary and secondary.
Six-thousand Jews are registered with the community; about half are immigrants from other countries like Russia, Georgia and Israel. Like in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there are other Jews living in the city who are not officially affiliated.
One of the glories of Jewish Vienna is the Jewish Museum, reopened in 1993. When the Jewish Museum first opened in 1896, it was the first Jewish museum in the world. Its doors, like so many other doors, were shut in 1938, and were reopened in 1993, sponsored by the city government of Vienna and the local Jewish community.
Among the few kosher restaurants in Vienna, we had the pleasure of dining in the elegant Alef-Alef, where the menu was variegated and superb, and the prices moderate (the waiter even spoke Hebrew). In addition, there are some three dozen shops that sell various kosher provisions.
Vienna offers the tourist miles of architectonic delights. At our superb Best Western Am Park Ring Hotel we were perfectly located. Stroll in the center of the Old Town from St. Stephen's Cathedral to the opera -- a lovely pedestrian mall -- and then make a right turn and follow the "Ring" boulevard and you will see dozens of historic palaces, grand buildings, parks and museums. One must remember that Vienna was not only the capital of Austria, but for a long time was also the capital of the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire.
As a world-class city of the arts, like New York, there are dozens of choices daily for theater, concerts, opera, dance, art exhibits, clubs and cabarets. One afternoon we saw a superb production of our favorite opera, "The Magic Flute" at the Vienna State Opera, which was just a three-minute walk from the classic belle époque Hotel Astoria where we stayed. At another occasion, we enjoyed Vienna's other opera house, the Volksoper Wien, where the charming operetta, "The General's Wife" was staged .
While in Vienna be sure to get the Vienna Card that permits you to use all the subways, trams and busses without extra charge and, in addition, offers many discounts for shopping and tourist attractions. Since we were also traveling to other European countries, we got the Eurail Flexipass in the United States, which yields double savings. It saves money, for the cost of each rail journey is greatly reduced; and, more important, it saves time -- no standing in long lines to purchase tickets. It also lets you choose a new destination at a moment's notice.
For more information, call Rail Europe at (888) 382-RAIL.
Curt Leviant is the author of several works, including the two-novella collection "Ladies and Gentleman, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet and Weekend in Mustara" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). Erika Pfeifer Leviant has contributed travel articles and essays on Jewish art to various publications.