As I walked along the streets of Vienna, I marveled at its beautiful buildings, magnificent opera houses, theaters and mouth-watering Viennese desserts. Even the Austrian National Library in the city is a magnificent structure with marble statues and gleaming tiled floors. It houses thousands of books in mahogany bookcases.
During the Holocaust, two-thirds of Vienna’s Jews were expelled and more than 65,000 perished in concentration camps, but the community is currently confronting its past and welcoming Jews.
Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, chief rabbi of Vienna and spiritual leader of the City Temple, the only synagogue to survive the November 9, 1938 pogrom, said the Viennese government has helped to rebuild Jewish facilities.
Eisenberg was born in 1950 in Vienna, and his father was the chief rabbi of the Jewish community before him. Eisenberg has been the chief rabbi for 25 years.
“The non-Jewish population and the government is more open today to what happened to its Jewish community during the Holocaust, and most people realize they have a responsibility to help us rebuild the community,” Eisenberg said.
“The government helped us to build our two day schools and our old age homes. The government is not anti-Semitic and is committed to helping Jews,” Eisenberg said.
The registered Jewish population of Vienna is 7,500.
“Thirty percent of our population is from the former Soviet Union, another third is from Eastern Europe and another third are young people who were born here after the Holocaust,” Eisenberg said. “Our population remains constant.”
The rabbi said the community also has an additional number of non-affiliated Jews, ranging from 3,000 to 8,000.
“We can’t be sure of the exact number of unaffiliated Jews,” Eisenberg said.
The City Temple is located at Seitenstettengasse 4. My husband and I arranged for a guided walking tour and we were glad we did because the synagogue is on a side street and not easy to locate. From the outside the synagogue looks like a house.
Our guide, Daniel Karasz of Milk and Honey Tours, led the way, and made introductions for us so we could enter the synagogue. A guard was just inside the entrance and we had to go through a metal detector to enter. Make arrangements ahead of time if you wish to visit the synagogue.
“This was the first modern synagogue in Vienna,” Karasz explained. “It was built in 1825 and had to be built to look like a house so non-Jews would not know it was there. Emperor Joseph II gave Jews the right to build the synagogue with the restriction that no one could see what it was from the outside.
Architect Josef Kornhausel designed the City Temple like a magnificent theater. “The architect mainly built theaters, and the acoustics are excellent and it sounds like a theater during services,” Karasz said.
The City Temple also has a memorial for Vienna’s Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Just a short walk from the synagogue is the Judenplatz Museum, which displays artifacts from Jewish Vienna in the Middle Ages. In 1995, archaeologists discovered the walls of a large medieval synagogue underneath Judenplatz. Inside the museum are excavations from the ancient Jewish house of worship, a model of the medieval city and many historical objects.
In the square outside the Museum is the Shoah Memorial which was inaugurated in 2000. The Memorial by Rachel Whiteread resembles a library turned inside out. The books represent the unfinished lives of the victims of the Holocaust. The base of the memorial is inscribed with the concentration camps and other places where 65,000 Austrians perished during the Holocaust.
Another brief walk will take those interested in Jewish culture in Vienna to the Jewish Museum. The Museum has a large collection of Judaica, representing Jewish life and religion. Torah crowns, menorahs and other ritual objects from private houses and synagogues that were used prior to 1938 are on display, along with photographs and historic documents.
There are two Jewish sections in the city and there are kosher restaurants, bakeries and butchers. “One of our grocery stores also has a kosher section,” Eisenberg said.
The Jewish Welcome Service sponsored by the City of Vienna invites former inhabitants to return to the city. “The community brings about 100 survivors here during the year to visit the city and to welcome them back to Vienna,” Eisenberg said. “The Holocaust survivors are getting older and there aren’t that many anymore, but during their visit here the mayor of Vienna often meets with them and welcomes them back.”