Wandering Jew: View from Vienna

Austria's capital is filled with rich Jewish history, including Holocaust memorial, museum dedicated to Sigmund Freud.

Vienna (photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
There are few European cities whose history is as closely connected with Jewish history as Vienna. Therefore the traveler seeking an abundance of Jewish life and sites will not be disappointed.
Before a day of sightseeing it’s important to understand a little about the Jewish history of the city and events that shaped Jewish life.
There has been a Jewish presence in Vienna since the 12th century. Since this time Jews have had a mixed history with city, ranging from prosperity to persecution.
The late 19th century saw a Jewish renaissance in the city that lasted until the start of World War II. Jews were granted civil rights, and Vienna soon became a center of the Haskalah, a movement that sought secular enlightenment.
The rise of the Nazis saw Austria annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, and during this early period Jews were encouraged to emigrate. Sadly, the majority of those that remained were deported to concentration camps.
The Jewish population of Vienna peaked at 185,000 before World War II, and now numbers around 15,000. This population mainly consists of Eastern European refugees from the Holocaust era and their children.
To start the day seeing where Jewish religious life centered in Vienna, head to The Vienna Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse 4, which was built during the early 19th century. This synagogue was one of the symbols of the new tolerance in Vienna. The building was designed by Josef Kornhausel and constructed in a similar way to a residential building, because only churches could be freestanding at that time. This saved the building from destruction in 1938 because the Nazis did not realize it was a synagogue.
Next to visit is the The Rossauer Cemetery; the oldest cemetery in Vienna, dating back to the 16th century. Many of the tombs were devastated in World War II, but walking around you’ll see that many have been renovated.
Heading back to central Vienna, and although not strictly a Jewish site, the Stephansdom, in the heart of city, is a beautiful 12th century church that contains stained glass windows depicting the Viennese Jews during that period. Nearby are the Stadtempel and the Judenplatz, the main square of the Jewish community for nearly 500 years. Today the Judenplatz is home to the offices of a number of Sephardic organizations and a small Beit Midrash. Inside one of these study halls is a subterranean mikveh dating back to the 15th century.
Vienna is not brimming with kosher dining options but there are a few to keep the kosher traveler happy. A popular meat option is Alef Alef on Seitenstettengasse 4. In Hebrew slang Alef Alef means first class, and the average cost for lunch is 20 EUR per person. A second, vegetarian option is Café Eskeles at the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse 11. A lunch menu with Mediterranean and Israeli specialties is offered from around 12 noon, including kosher wine and Israeli beer. The average cost per person is 25 EUR.
The Jewish Museum is split into two locations that are ten-minutes away from each other by foot. The Judenplatz Museum at Judenplatz 8 is particularly interesting for its medieval discovery. In 1995, archaeologists found the walls of one of the largest medieval synagogues in Europe underneath the Judenplatz. The excavations are open to the public, including a model of the medieval city. Also in the Judenplatz is a memorial to the Austrian victims of the Holocaust. Created by British artist Rachel Witeread in 2000, there is a room where all the doors are all locked and the books face inwards. The base of the memorial has the names of the places where the Nazis murdered 65,000 Austrian Jews.
The other site of the museum is at Dorotheergasse 11. This part of the museum houses special exhibitions, and looks at the city’s Jewish past with a focus on social history and migration.
Leaving the Judenplatz you’re only a twenty-minute walk away from the Sigmund Freud museum, which has been preserved as it was during Freud’s life. Located on Berggasse 19, the museum documents the life and work of the father of psychoanalysis. Freud lived in this house from 1891 to 1938; it is from here he left with his family to England, in exile, to escape persecution by the Nazis. The museum houses a plethora of memorabilia, including his pipe, books, and the famous psychoanalytic couch.
To wrap up the day with a traditional Jewish-Israeli dinner try the Bahur Tov restaurant on Taborstrasse 19. The small, intimate spot serves up a wide range of traditional Jewish food, and some kosher Chinese wok food for the more adventurous. The average cost per person is 35 EUR. A second kosher dinner option, located just down the road at Taborstrasse 47, is Simchas. Once again this is more traditional Jewish food for a fairly reasonable 25 EUR per person.
While most of the Jewish life in Austria is centered in Vienna, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other sites of Jewish interest in the country. Firstly, the Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt, located in the one-time residence of Samson Wetheimer, a Hapsburg court Jew, and secondly, the historic site of Mauthausen, a concentration camp, located on the Danube River, near the city of Linz.
The Jewish Virtual Library contributed to this report.
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