There have been Jews in the capital of Austria for nine centuries. The communities have formed and grown here, built their synagogues, houses, buildings, schools, and hospitals, and taught their children about Jewish culture and tradition for generations. The area in Vienna that was inhabited by this community is known today as Judenplatz (Jewish Square), and it has a great historical significance that you can learn about by visiting it. At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna became one of the greatest centers of Jewish culture on the continent, but during the Holocaust, the community was almost annihilated. However, their resilient nature helped them to slowly recuperate after the war and reestablish their homes in this metropolis. Let’s see four of many old and new sites you ought to visit if you wish to learn about Vienna’s Jews.
One of the best first stops of knowledge is a museum. There is actually a new Jewish museum, opened in 1988, but the first Jewish museum in the world to speak of the history, culture and tradition of the Jews who lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was opened right here, in Vienna, in 1896. It had a tough history, as it was closed in 1938, with more than 3,000 items it had once housed given to a number of institutions, including the Museum of Ethnology and the Natural History Museum. Luckily, in the 1950s, these institutions returned most of the items to the Viennese Jewish community. Today, you will find the Jewish Museum on two locations – in the above-mentioned Judenplatz and in the Palais Eskeles in the Dorotheergasse. It’s a brilliant first stop, as it will give us a wonderful insight into the community’s past, but also their present.
Next up is the famous, breathtaking and luxurious City Prayer House, also known as Stadttempel. We absolutely can’t miss seeing this main synagogue, which was opened in 1826. It’s important to note that this Viennese historical monument survived WWII as the only synagogue, when 93 other synagogues and houses of prayer were completely destroyed. Stadttempel was damaged, but Nazis couldn’t destroy it without destroying the buildings around it due to an interesting feature: the synagogue was fitted into a block of other houses. What ironically ended up saving it was a discriminatory edict according to which only Roman Catholic houses of worship were allowed to be seen from the public streets. The synagogue was designed in the oval shape, in the Biedermeier style, and it had to be restored several times over the years, with some ornamentation added as well, which will certainly mesmerize you.
Now we will make our way to Albertinaplatz, home to a number of famous sites, including the Albertina Vienna Museum and the Vienna State Opera. However, we'll also find here a memorial, set up in 1988, which was dedicated to the victims of wars, fascism, and anti-Semitism, built to show to all who visit it the humiliation, degradation, cruelty, and suffering faced by people daily under the foot of fascism in Austria in the WWII era. It was created by Austrian artist Alfred Hrdlicka, and we’ll see several sculptures here, such as a bronze sculpture depicting a hunched-over figure representing a Jewish person, who is humiliated by the Nazi and forced to wash anti-Nazi graffiti. There is also 'Orpheus Enters Hades', dedicated to the victims of bombings and to those who were killed for their resistance to National Socialism, as well as two white marble blocks called the 'The Gates of Violence Monument', honoring all victims of the Nazi regime.
However, there are people who think that the Memorial against War and Fascism doesn’t do justice to Vienna’s Jewish community. They found that the bronze figure of a Jewish person is offensive, and a new Holocaust memorial, also known as the Nameless Library, has been built in Judenplatz in 2000. This is our final stop, where we’ll find a concrete and steel construction, resembling shelves in a library, but with the spines of the books facing inwards, rather than outwards. However, the titles and the contents of the books are hidden from our eyes. These volumes represent the victims of the Holocaust, with the names of the places where they were killed engraved in the memorial. Additionally, we’ll also see here a statue of German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a carved relief, and several engraved texts, all dedicated to the Jewish community in Vienna and those who’ve tragically lost their lives in the war.
Regardless if you are on a Jewish heritage tour, if you are a Jew yourself or of Jewish descent, or you just want to learn about Vienna’s Jewish community, these are the places that will certainly give you insight into its long and painful past, but also its revived present.