A bar mitzva in Vienna

The Anschluss was the beginning of the end of one of the most vibrant and forward thinking Jewish communities in the world.

Daniel Schneider bar mitzvah 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Schneider bar mitzvah 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This year is the 75th anniversary of the unification of Germany and Austria – the well known Anschluss, even though the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of St. Germain had explicitly forbidden such an act.
Kurt Schuschnigg, the Austrian prime minister, had tried to ban pro-Hitler activities, but in the end he was forced to resign on March 11, 1938, and the next day German troops occupied Austria without firing a shot. It was the beginning of the end of one of the most vibrant and forward thinking Jewish communities in the world.
The only synagogue that survived the Nazis is the Stadttempel, built in 1825/26. From the outside the doorway looks like most of the buildings in that part of town. Inside is the opposite: very ornate.
The synagogue was built inside a block of apartment houses and almost completely hidden from the street. Emperor Joseph II (d. 1790) ordered that only Roman Catholic Churches could be allowed to face a public street.
Thus, Emperor Joseph’s prejudices ironically saved the Stadttempel on Kristallnacht in November 1938, since if the synagogue had been set afire all the attached buildings, housing non-Jews, would also have gone up in flames.
It was in this synagogue that I was honored to serve as rabbi for the bar mitzva of a very special young man, Daniel Schneider, whose family is part of the history of the Stadttempel.
Actually, I had been to Vienna twice before to serve as the High Holy Days rabbi for the Or Hadash Synagogue, the only liberal synagogue in all of Austria. It was during these visits that I learned about the history of the Jews in Vienna and what happened to them during the Nazi regime. This was a powerful lesson told by those who lived through it.
Rose, a member of the synagogue, took us on what she explained would be an unusual tour, as there was nothing left to see. Rose had done extensive research and had photographs to show us. As we walked around the old Jewish neighborhood, she pointed out places where once stood a synagogue, a butcher, a restaurant, a home, etc.
Once in a while there was a plaque indicating what was once there, often placed so high one would have to know of its existence to spot it.
We ended our tour on a little train going through a large park near what was once the old Jewish neighborhood.
“I’m sure you are wondering what we are doing here,” said Rose. “This is the park where all of the Jews gathered on the day of the Anschluss.”
What a powerful moment, and there are no words to express our feelings.
Soon after these visits to Vienna, I met a wonderful family from Los Angles.
Their oldest son chose to celebrate his bar mitzva at Masada in Israel, a place with its own story to tell. I talked about Jewish survival, and afterwards, the boy’s grandfather said he had a story of Jewish survival to tell as well. He became a bar mitzva in the Stadttempel in Vienna a few days after Kristallnacht, and then fortunately escaped Austria.
His younger grandson, Daniel, was very much inspired by this story and wanted to know if he could return with his grandmother and grandfather to Vienna to become a bar mitzva in that very synagogue.
I was so honored to be asked once again to serve as rabbi for this family.
AND SO, on a Thursday this past August, we all assembled in Vienna.
The family came from all over the world, along with several diplomats from the Austrian Foreign Service.
Before the service began I showed a photograph the coffins of Theodor Herzl and his parents as they laid in state before they were reburied in Israel.
And I told those gathered that the music for the “Shema,” written by Solomon Sulzer, that is sung all over the world, was written and sung here first.
The Torah portion was the Ten Commandments and so our bar mitzva gave a sermon about the meaning of numbers in Jewish life and in his life.
He listed many well know numbers in Judaism; 613 commandments, five books of the Torah, 12 tribes, seven days of the week, and so on. Then he went on to say the number 93 – the number of synagogues in Vienna in October, 1938, and 180,000 – the number of Jews living in Vienna before the war, when his grandfather became bar mitzva. Finally, 27,293, a number not be found in any history textbook, on Google, not even in the Torah. This number, he said, was deep in his heart and in the hearts of all the Schneiders. “This is the number of days since my grandfather last stood on this bima to celebrate his bar mitzva.”
“Today, the circle is completed. A Schneider stands in front of the ark at the Stadttempel, worshiping in a place where 75 years ago I would have been persecuted. Being back, worshiping here with all of you, is just plain incredible. 74 years and 82 days.”
He went on to tell the following story: “Five months after my grandfather became bar mitzva here, his father, my great-grandfather, was arrested by the Nazis. Ten days after the Nazis invaded Vienna, my great-grandfather was placed on the same transport as other prominent Viennese Jews (including Sigmund Freud) and taken away to prison.
“One week after being placed in, ‘protective custody’ by the Nazis, he was released and went home. He never told anyone what happened to him while he was in prison.
Immediately after arriving home my great-grandfather told my grandfather, my great-grandmother and my great-aunt simply that they had to leave Vienna, their home. So, like the ancient Israelites leaving Egypt with Moses, the generations before me packed their bags and left for Antwerp, Belgium.”
At the Kiddush the shamas came forward with a very large Kiddush cup, which, he told us, every bar mitzva boy had held for the past 80 years. Fred Schneider, the grandfather, nodded yes, he remembered.
Daniel proudly held this beautiful Kiddush cup, as his grandfather had so many years before, and began to chant the Kiddush.
Sometimes I am asked, “How did you Jews survive 2,000 years of exile?” There are probably many answers, but I always tell them because we put so much emphasis on teaching our children. Part of our story is telling our story.
The writer is a Reform rabbi who made aliya 12 years ago.