Jewish Danube day 2: Vienna Austria - 2 September 2015


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Europe » Austria » Vienna
September 2nd 2015
Published: December 29th 2015
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We started socialising this morning and sat at a big round table for breakfast. We are travelling with some very nice people and we are starting to get to know our fellow travellers.

Before describing the places we visited, here is a little about the Danube River. The Danube is the largest river in Europe. It flows through 10 countries and is a hub of transport and commerce. The cities emerged from the medieval towns which grew along the banks of the river. These countries make up Central Europe, being the modern states of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovenia.

The Jewish history of the region provides important background for this focussed cruise. The Jews came to Central Europe before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. However, the Diaspora began with the destruction. The Roman empire was destroyed by the “barbarians” ie those who did not speak Latin. Jewish communities under the Romans flourished but in the early medieval time (dark ages) the only literate people were the clergy and the Jews. These dispersed groups each spoke a common language. After the Romans left, the Jews remained and stayed within their own communities. They became advisers, translators, and were involved in commerce as they had contacts all the way to the Far East.

The Christians wanted to get rid of the Jews for commercial reasons. The Lateran Council of 1215 was convoked by Pope Innocent III (who was not so innocent in the context of the Jews). The council wanted to get rid of the Jews because of jealousy at their success in business while others were not. The complaints however, were wrapped up in ideology – the murder of Jesus. It lasted up until the French Revolution and in Central Europe until the time of Emperor Joseph II in the 1790s.

The Jewish communities have been extant since the dark ages but they are not the same. During the period of emancipation of the Jews there was urbanisation due to industrialisation.

We drove around the Imperial town of Vienna. Ring Street surrounds the town. The town is divided into 23 districts with 1.5 million inhabitants. Austria has a population of 8.5 million.

The monarchy came to an end in 1910. After that time the government built blocks and blocks of social housing, the older blocks looking like social housing everywhere: low-rise square blocks. The modern housing is in high-rise buildings. Some of the older blocks have individual apartments painted in various colours to brighten the neighbourhoods.

In 1900 there were approximately 200,000 Jews living in Vienna and now there are approximately 10,000. The largest synagogue was the Leopoldstadter Tempel which held about 4000 people. This and 19 other synagogues were destroyed on Kristallnacht – 10 November 1938. Only one synagogue was left standing. This was in a small lane opposite a church and a building housing the Gestapo. If this synagogue had been burned down there was a risk that the Gestapo building and the church would have been destroyed. Also close by was the archive of Jewish communities and this had to be maintained.

In 1955 Austria became a neutral country. The standard is a double headed eagle which is indicative of royalty.

We went to the memorial for all the victims of the war. The Gates of Violence (pictured above) seem like the entrance to a concentration camp. The memorial is divided into four parts. The first column on the right is dedicated to the soldiers and the second on the left to the civilians who perished. You can see images of gas masks. On this pillar is a memorial to the Jews. It shows images of Jews who had to clean the streets. The base of the memorial is from Malthausen (a former concentration camp). Underneath the base are the bodies of 200 people which had not been excavated. There is a statue of Orpheus in the underworld reminding Austria of its Nazi past. And finally behind that is the first part of the constitution of Austria written in 1945 into which is carved and enshrined human rights. There is barbed wire around the statue – this is not a reminder of anything but is to stop tourists from sitting on it.

Then on to the Jewish museum in Judenplatz. The first museum was established in 1895 but was destroyed. The square in which the museum stands was formerly full of Jewish shops and businesses. The money to rebuild the museum was donated by Max Berger. After the war in 1945 the politicians were not aware of their duty to welcome back Jews and didn’t deal with the Jewish question. On the 10th anniversary of the pogrom of 1938 there was no commemoration by the government so the Jewish community decided to make its own commemoration. It took until 1991 before there was finally a change in attitude to the Jews and the Chancellor stated in the Austrian houses of Parliament that the government would make a contribution towards highlighting the wrongs that had been done to the Jews. Today part of all children’s education is to visit the museum and to learn of the Holocaust. There are exhibits of many torah scrolls, and Jewish paraphernalia. But one of the things that stood out for me was a picture of the Chatam Sofer – Rabbi Moshe Sofer (more of him later).

Outside the museum is the Jewish memorial. It is known as the Nameless Library as it is made up of shelves of books carved into the memorial. This represents the large number of “the people of the Book” killed in the Holocaust.

Then it was back on the bus to visit the main synagogue. There are currently three Jewish communities in Austria. In 1491 Jews had to convert or they were burnt or sent down the river. 3000 people and the Rabbi committed suicide and their bodies were found in 1995.

During the 30 Years War in the 17th century, Ferdinand II co-operated with Jewish bankers and invited Jews to Vienna to the 2nd district. Two generations later the new Emperor, Leopold I and his Catholic wife came to the throne. She had a miscarriage and it was blamed on the Jews. There was a pogrom and the Jews were expelled. This coincided with a plague and famine in Austria. 50 families moved to Berlin and founded the Berlin community. The economy suffered and Vienna was bankrupted. Samuel Oppenheimer was appointed as a financier to the court and started the salt trade and the economy of Austria improved.

The synagogue was erected in 1826 after 400 years of absence of the Jewish community with a synagogue. From the beginning two fundamental things changed:

(a) the language of prayer changed from Hebrew to German; and

(b) an organ was installed.

Jews were tolerated in Vienna especially rich families like the Oppenheimers and 40 more families. It was an extremely important economic and social life. There was no synagogue until 1824 when it was deemed ok to build one. Jewry became assimilated and important families moved the bimah (the platform) from the centre of the synagogue to the front as it needed to look like a regular (Christian) house of worship.

The chazzan (cantor) of the synagogue, Salomon Salzer was Orthodox but he changed some of the music and installed a choir. This was the only synagogue that survived Kristallnacht as mentioned earlier, because of its closeness to the archive of Jewish communities and to the headquarters of the Gestapo.

There isn’t usually an afternoon minyan these days, and it was our mitzvah to doven mincha in the synagogue.

Then back to the boat for a lovely dinner. There were two doors to the dining room and we entered via the left hand side, then and for all subsequent meals. So did a number of other people and we started a very nice deeper travel relationship with these other travellers. The boat proceeded down river.

(scroll down for Additional photos below if all 5 not visible here)

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