‘Our motto must therefore be, now and ever: ‘Man, you are my brother.’” – Altneuland, Theodor Herzl, 1902.
I had no idea that a three-day stopover on my way home from Israel would lead to a profound journey back in time to the very foundations of my identity.
After arriving in Vienna late at night to an historic hotel beside the Mozarthaus, and having missed dinner, the concierge recommended a nearby cafe.
The cheese pancakes I decided on could have been made by my late grandmother – they were none other than the blintzes of my childhood, which “Ma” made only for Jewish holidays.
The cafe culture of Vienna – the impeccable service and old world customs, the individual coffee pots, the decadent pastries – struck a familiar chord. After all, my grandmother and her family had hailed from Galicia, part of the Austro- Hungarian Empire.
My great-grandmother “Baba” had been legendary in her prowess at strudel pastry, an art unto itself that I wish I had learned from her while she was still alive during my teens.
And so upon arrival in Vienna a sudden nostalgia tugged at me that was strangely foreign, like the German with which the hotel clerk greeted us – similar to the Yiddish of my grandparents, yet different.
On Shabbat I headed to the Stadttempel, Vienna’s main synagogue, the only one remaining since World War II.
An elegant and dignified structure built in 1824 in the Biedermeier style, it seemed both imposing and welcoming, the Hebrew prayers familiar, the German translation in the Siddur strange, but as it was the last day of Passover and included the Yiskor service, I was grateful to be there, even as I was banished to the second-floor women’s section.
The sermon in German was incomprehensible to me, but the beautiful tones of the choir were universal in their magic. Here was a congregation, which, like the culture surrounding it, took its music very seriously.
All in all, this shul was similar to any synagogue in the world, with this difference – a plaque with the names of the over 65,000 Viennese Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The next day I visited the Jewish Museum, which contained a room entirely devoted to the history of the Ringstrasse, the road encircling the Inner City, and its Jewish connection.
In 1857, the emperor Franz Joseph had ordered its construction, mostly by wealthy businessmen, a number of whom were Jewish. It was the first time Jews were allowed to own property in Austria.
These wealthy banker and industrialist dynasties built opulent palaces and resided in them, while sponsoring all manner of arts and culture in Viennese society.
In fact, the Jewish community has left its mark on everything from music, to science, to art, psychology to literature and more.
Less than a century later, these properties were confiscated, one turned into Nazi headquarters. A continuous black and white film showed Hitler’s motorcade parading along the Ringstrasse, while hundreds of thousands of bystanders cheer hysterically.
In the section of the museum on the Judenplatz, artifacts from the Middle Ages tell the story of Vienna’s Jewish community in medieval times.
A model and map show the ghetto- like Jewish section of old Vienna.
A fragment of the Scroll of Esther from 1460, engravings of a Jewish wedding and a young boy studying Hebrew texts, and a wooden replica of the synagogue built in the 13th century, the largest in Europe at the time, show striking similarities to our modern Jewish culture.
Maps on the wall depict “important Jewish settlements of the 4th century in the Roman Empire” – including Wien, Vienna, and “Jewish circles of tradition in Medieval Europe in the 13th century” demonstrate just how ancient a community this is.
I was astounded to learn that the recently discovered archeological remains of the synagogue, which was destroyed in 1420, sit below the museum.
Here was the bimah, here the women’s section, here, on the eastern wall, the ark that contained the Torah scrolls, not much different in layout from the synagogue I had visited the day before.
Playing in the background was a plaintive dirge, a Jewish Chronical (the Vienna Gesera) written in 1420 in Judendeutsch, which I imagine to be a medieval version of Yiddish. It describes the terrible events of that year: Duke Albrecht imprisoned all the Jews of Austria, confiscated their property and forced them to be baptized.
Those who resisted were burned alive.
The synagogue – burnt to the ground.
On the site of the medieval synagogue, a stark memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust was erected in the year 2000.
How history had repeated itself 500 years later! In the earlier genocide, the Jewish religion was to be abandoned on pain of death. In the latter, no matter how assimilated a Jew one was, his fate was sealed.
How and why did this seat of culture and beauty, city of palaces, cathedrals, concert halls and coffee houses descend into a fiery place of death and destruction, not once but multiple times throughout history? And what is the solution to this horrifying recurrence? Vienna resident Theodor Herzl, visionary of the Jewish state, proposed a solution to this cycle of anti-Semitism in his book Der Judenstaat – the restoration of Israel as a national home for the Jews.
And now, over a century later, what a vibrant, thriving metropolis has been built on dunes of sand.
“Tel Aviv,” which comes from Ezekiel 3:15, means tell – an ancient mound formed when a town is built on its own debris for thousands of years – of spring.
It is also the title given to the Hebrew translation of Herzl’s last literary work, Altneuland, a novel devoted to Zionism and his vision of an open society, which he saw as “founded on the ideas which are a common product of all civilized nations.”
And so in a brief visit to this city I have traced the cycle of my heritage – exile from its origins in ancient Israel, through many years in the Diaspora of struggle, prosperity, trials, accomplishment, persecution, Holocaust and finally, the miraculous return to the land of its beginnings, the modern State of Israel.
The streets of Tel Aviv may show off sleek Bauhaus architecture in place of the ornate palaces of the Ringstrasse, but are no less alive with the latest of international music, dance, fashion, restaurants, cafes, art galleries and bookstores than Herzl’s Vienna.
But the crowning glory, as Herzl proposed, must always remain a perpetual striving for excellence, most of all, in humanitarianism and tolerance, freedom and equal rights for every citizen, even as the tiny state is surrounded by enemies that hope endlessly for its destruction.
That is the paradox and miracle of our Jewish heritage, and for that I am humbly grateful.The author is a freelance writer in Toronto and a lay leader in Israel education and advocacy in Canada.