Viennese Jewish culture lives on

The postwar community in Vienna has undergone a steady process of flux and evolution, with many of the current Jewish population coming from the former Soviet Union.

ROMAN GRINBERG conducts the Vienna Jewish Choir at the Stadttempel (State Synagogue) in Vienna.   (photo credit: OURIEL MORGENSZTERN)
ROMAN GRINBERG conducts the Vienna Jewish Choir at the Stadttempel (State Synagogue) in Vienna.
Austrian Jewry, like all communities across Europe, has had its ups and downs. Over the centuries there have been rulers who actively encouraged Jews to take a full role in local financial and even political affairs.
And, of course, there have been downright antisemitic monsters who caused the community no end of trouble – including expulsion, execution and even permitting only the firstborn of each Jewish family to marry to keep the Jewish birthrate in check.
The Viennese community enjoyed a relatively lengthy period of prosperity between 1848 and 1938, particularly while Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) was emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He sustained a long reign, which ended with his death, but by and large the Jews of Vienna continued to live untroubled by political intervention or discrimination until the Anschluss, when Austria became annexed to Nazi Germany, in March 1938.
Throughout this time, Jews rose to prominence in a range of fields. Leading Austrian Jewish cultural figures included composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg; writers Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler; psychologist-psychiatrists Sigmund Freud, Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler; and philosophers Martin Buber and Karl Popper, to mention but a few.
The postwar community in Vienna has undergone a steady process of flux and evolution, with many of the current Jewish population coming from the former Soviet Union, which has significantly affected the demographic. Today the Viennese Jewish community numbers around 8,000, although some estimate it to be significantly larger. But how healthy is the community’s current cultural life? How much do non-Jews partake of Jewish entertainment in the Austrian capital, and how do they relate to it? A Jewish culture festival that took place recently in Vienna seemed a good place to start checking out where the scene is currently at. I caught a cabaret show by Sandra Kreisler at Vienna’s prestigious Porgy & Bess venue, which normally serves as a jazz club. As my German is not up to scratch – Austrian genes notwithstanding – I understood little of Kreisler’s ditties and patter, but I did get the vibe there. The audience, the vast majority of which appeared to be non-Jewish, seemed to be having a very good time.
Interestingly, Kreisler is a good point of reference for how Jewish culture is related to across the German- speaking world, not just in Vienna. She was born in Munich, although her family relocated to the Austrian capital when she was only three weeks old. As her parents were both in show business, she spent her formative years leapfrogging around Europe and gaining a good handle on the cosmopolitan scene, including differences between how Jewish culture is appreciated in Vienna vis-à-vis Germany. That came across more clearly when she got on the stage herself.
“I have found that Jewish culture in Vienna is quite different from Jewish culture in Germany. The Viennese are closer to that kind of [Jewish] humor,” she observes.
“They are closer to that way of speaking, and of seeing things. The Jews in Germany, for my feeling, are less Jewish, in their expression and the way they talk.
Austrian humor is much closer to the Jewish humor.”
Kreisler believes there is another highly sensitive Holocaust-related aspect to the German-Austrian appreciation divide.
“I make a program with Jewish songs and funny things, and in Austria people laugh. In Germany they don’t laugh because they are afraid that, if they laugh at Jewish jokes, that would mean they are laughing about Jews.”
Non-Jews account for a large proportion of audiences at Jewish cultural events in Vienna. I put it to Dr.
Danielle Spera, the director of the Jewish Museum in the Austrian capital, that this may reflect a hankering for years gone by, or possibly be attributable to a sense of wanting to atone for the heinous deeds committed by a previous generation.
Spera is upbeat about the reception the Austrian Jewish artists get from their gentile compatriots.
“We experience enormous interest in Jewish culture, Jewish tradition and Jewish art,” Spera states.
“A sort of ‘nostalgia,’ or as you put it ‘guilt’ element, could eventually apply to the older generation (80 and above), but definitely not with young people who are gathering at Tel Aviv Beach or other Jewish/Israeli restaurants, clubs and bars of Vienna, for example.”
The aforementioned waterside spot is on the banks of the Danube Canal, a branch of the Danube River, near the second district of Vienna, where much of the local Jewish community resided before the Holocaust.
Unlike Germany, it took Austria many years to recognize the scope of its contribution to the Holocaust and to renounce its long-held official position that it had been “the first victim of Nazism.” That heinous falsehood was only finally put to bed in 1994, when Austrian president Thomas Klestil made a public apology for Austria’s role in the Holocaust. That was in the wake of revelations about Kurt Waldheim, who was president of Austria 1986 to 1992, after serving as secretary- general of the UN, that he had not been entirely truthful about certain episodes of his military service during World War II.
Spera believes the “victim” mind-set is a thing of the past in Austria and that it does not impact on the way non-Jewish Austrians view Jewish culture.
“Since the so-called Waldheim affair, Austria has come a long way in trying to deal with its past. In my opinion, it was successful because today Austria is well aware of its history and is admitting its responsibility during the Nazi period.”
If there is any negative anti-Jewish residue in contemporary Austria, Roman Grinberg feels the arts can help bridge divides and, possibly, bring non-Jews closer to Jewish culture. One of the busiest artists on the Jewish music scene in Vienna and elsewhere across Europe, Grinberg’s many roles include directing the Vienna Jewish Choir, playing klezmer music, fronting his own band and performing solo gigs at Jewish weddings and other forums.
Grinberg, who was born in Belz, now in Moldova, but brought up in Vienna, believes music and, specifically, Jewish music can do the cohesion trick.
“Concerning music, it doesn’t matter in which religion you believe or where you come from. That’s what convinces the audience for many years,” he declares.
“Jews and non-Jews are making music and singing together.”
They also attend shows given by Grinberg and his fellow Viennese coreligionists.
“It is a very important issue to me to show that we, the Jews, are people who have the same main needs as all others have: to eat, to drink, to celebrate, to laugh and cry, to work and to raise our children in peace. If you understand and accept that, the only logical consequence is the wish to live in peace together. I admit, our religion differs from others. But our God is the same.”
Ruth Brauer-Kvam also dips into various areas of the entertainment industry. Brauer-Kvam comes from a Jewish family with a strong connection to Israel and spent much of her formative years here. The actress- vocalist, now mostly based in Vienna, is keenly aware of the cultural vacuum left by the destruction of the pre-WWII Viennese Jewish community.
“You feel that, on the cabaret scene, there is something missing here,” she says. “There was a very strong Yiddish theater scene, and that also went with the Holocaust.”
Brauer-Kvam does her bit to keep the Jewish cultural flag flying high and proud in Austria. Her repertoire includes a tribute show to Jewish-born actress and singer Fritzi Massary, who originated from Vienna in the late 19th century. Despite converting to Protestantism at the age of 21, she fled Europe shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power, settling in Los Angeles.
“She was so funny and a wonderful entertainer,” says Brauer-Kvam.
She feels a need to resurrect the work of some of the forgotten Jewish artists of yesteryear and to remind Austrians – Jews and non-Jews alike – of the halcyon pre-Anschluss times. Like Grinberg, she uses her creative tools of trade to forge a sense of unity.
“There is something in the humor. As soon as you laugh together there is no room for any other emotion – sadness or fear. That’s why there are so many Jewish jokes, especially in Yiddish.”
Appreciation of Jewish culture is also, apparently, something of a generational thing.
“I think people who are 50 to 60 years old take a great interest in Judaism,” Brauer-Kvam notes. “Then there are the youngsters, in their 20s, who are not really interested in Jewish culture.”
Claudia Prutscher was the artistic director of the Jewish culture festival in Vienna earlier this year, and is one of the principal movers and shakers on the Viennese Jewish entertainment scene. She is always gratified to see non-Jews coming to the events she arranges for the festival.
“I would say about 60% [of the audiences] are non-Jewish,” she says.
“They are very interested in Jewish culture. They know it was high culture and they are sorry it was lost [during the Holocaust]. Every year we have an open day at our synagogues and so many people come. They stand out in the street, to get into the synagogues.
There is a kind of melancholy – but that doesn’t mean there is not antisemitism.”
Prutscher says she equates criticism of Israeli politics with antisemitism, but that any bad feelings towards us here in the Middle East do not obviate enjoying, for example, an evening of Jewish cabaret numbers.
“Interest in Jewish culture here is really enormous,” Prutscher notes, adding that there is no guilt element in that.
“It would be going too far to say that non-Jews take an interest in Jewish culture because they may feel guilty. They just love Jewish music. Next year the theme of the festival will be Israel. It will be interesting to see what happens then.”