Jews came to Austria probably during the exodus of Jews from Judea under the Romans, and there was a Jewish community in Vienna for over eight hundred years, ever since Jews started settling in the area today known as Judenplatz around 1150. Over the centuries, the community grew, and Judenplatz got a Jewish hospital, a Synagogue, a bath house, a house of the Rabbi, and a Jewish school.
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Vienna was one of Europe’s most important centers of Jewish culture. However, Vienna's Jewish population was almost eradicated in the Holocaust. Luckily, the city is now seeing a revival of Jewish culture. Here are some of the historically most important places to visit on a Jewish heritage tour in this lovely city.
Leopoldstadt (Leopold-Town) is a popular place in Vienna, situated in the heart of the city, and together with Brigittenau, they form a large island surrounded by the Danube Canal. Leopoldstadt is nicknamed ‘Mazzesinsel’ (‘Island of Matzo’) due to its many Jewish residents. Actually, in 1625, Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller obtained the right for the Jews to form a central Jewish community here. Several yeshivas and synagogues were located here, such as the Schiff Shul, the Leopoldstädter Tempel, the Türkischer Tempel, the Polnische Schul, and the Pazmanitentempel.
Leopoldstadt is still a center of Vienna’s Jewish life, and it is home to eight Ashkenazi and three Sephardic synagogues, in addition to numerous amazing kosher shops and restaurants.
Judenplatz (Jewish Square) is a town square in Vienna's Innere Stadt, and it was the center of Vienna’s Jewish Community in the Middle Ages. You will find here two sculptural works, a carved relief, and several engraved texts, all of which speak of Jewish history and life. One of the sculptures is a statue of German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.
The other is the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial also known as the Nameless Library, unveiled in 2000. It is a steel and concrete construction that looks like library shelves turned inside out, with the spines of the books facing inwards. The titles and the content of the books remain unknown, while it appears that they are all copies of the same edition, which represents the great number of victims and the concept of Jews as ‘People of the Book’. Also, the names of the places where Austrian Jews were murdered in WWII are engraved on the memorial.
While a new Jewish museum was founded in 1988, the first Jewish Museum in Vienna was established in 1896 as the first Jewish museum in the world of its kind, focusing on the culture and history of the Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1913, it moved into the Talmud-Thora-School in Leopoldstadt with 3,400 objects but was closed in 1938 and its items given to the Museum of Ethnology, the Natural History Museum, and other institutions.
However, the majority of the items was returned to the Jewish community in the 1950s. Jüdisches Museum Wien is actually situated in two locations: the Palais Eskeles in the Dorotheergasse and in the Judenplatz. The one in the Dorotheergasse is home to past and present Jewish history, culture, life, and religion, displayed through various brilliant events, collections, and exhibitions, such as “Three with a Pen”, “Arik Brauer. All of My Arts”, and “Café As. The Survival of Simon Wiesenthal”.
The other section of the Jewish Museum Vienna, opened in 2000, is located in the Misrachi House on the Judenplatz. The fascinating museum takes its visitors through the underground corridors, 4.5 meters below street level, all the way to the original foundations of a medieval synagogue. Furthermore, the Judenplatz Museum offers an animated virtual tour that shows its visitors the life of Jews in the 14th century, including their everyday routines, customs, festivals, the way in which they developed their community, and much more. The museum also hosts photography exhibitions, as well as contemporary art exhibitions with a Jewish theme or a spiritual theme, such as the works of art by the renowned Austrian artist Zenita Komad.
The beautiful Stadttempel (City Prayer House), located in the Innere Stadt, is the main synagogue for the Viennese Jewish Community of about 7,000 people, opened in 1826. It was designed by the Viennese architect Joseph Kornhäusel in sophisticated Biedermeier style, in the form of an oval, with restorations done and ornamentation added throughout the years. The synagogue was actually fitted into a block of houses so it couldn’t be seen from the street, due to an edict that allowed only Roman Catholic houses of worship to be built with their facades facing public streets directly.
This unintentionally ended up being a good thing during the Kristallnacht in 1938, because the synagogue couldn’t be destroyed without destroying the buildings attached to it. As a matter of fact, the Nazis destroyed 93 synagogues and Jewish prayer-houses in Vienna, but the Stadttempel was the only synagogue to survive WWII, even if damaged, and it has been declared a historic monument.