by Karen Rubin
The Danube Bike Trail from Passau, Germany to Vienna takes us through many charming and historic towns – the scenery is really quite breathtaking. But after leaving Mauthausen Concentration Camp (referred to as Mauthausen Memorial Center, see story and slideshow), I become sensitized to an awareness that Jews had lived in this part of Europe for 1000 years before the Holocaust, and it is as if they had not existed at all.
All through our travels in Austria, especially in Linz, where Hitler grew up and where the Mauthausen complex of concentration camps extended, there is no mention, no obvious acknowledgement at all of the Jewish heritage (at least, that we could find, you probably would have had to really search) – no names of plazas or streets that reflected Jewish settlement or famous individuals.
But in Vienna, it is different: as we emerge from the gate of the Imperial Palace, I notice a sign, Judenplatz, and I realize that it is referring to a Jewish site (actually “square”). It was already late afternoon – and I realize that if there were a museum it would be closing soon. So we set out on our bikes to find this place.
We ask directions of people who were kind and tried to be helpful, but they have no idea where the square is. A woman spends a lot of time perusing our map and trying to set us in the right direction. We ask the horse-drawn carriage drivers, expecting they would know every tourist site, but none knew of this place which actually is just a short distance from the Imperial Palace.
Finally, as we find ourselves riding in circles, a young man emerges from what seems an alley, and says, “Judenplatz? It’s right through here.”
Sure enough, we come upon an upscale-looking courtyard with swank office buildings, shops and cafes around this large center space.
In the center of this courtyard is a blockish looking structure, and at the far corner is the Museum Judenplatz.
I expected this is the Jewish Museum, which would commemorate the Holocaust. Actually, this museum, called Misrachi-Haus,pays tribute to a previous holocaust – in 1420-21.
In the Middle Ages, Vienna was home to a thriving Jewish community, one of the largest and most important in Europe. Famous rabbis taught here and made Vienna a center of Jewish knowledge.
That all came to an end in 1420-21, with the expulsion and murder of the Viennese Jews.
We race through the museum with only a half-hour to visit, but I catch part of a video. Did I hear correctly? The 600 poorest Jews were rounded up and killed outright; the 900 richest were burned in the square, their homes sold or given away to friends of government officials. The synagogue was destroyed and the bricks used for construction of Vienna’s university. On this point, I consider the irony and then the fact that the rabbis would have thought this the best possible use.
Museum Judenplatz is actually an archeological site, excavated in 1995, where the synagogue had stood. In fact, you go into an area that has been resurrected, and that blockish shape in the middle of the plaza above is actually where this excavation is. There are also displays of some of the artifacts that were uncovered at the site – coins, a fragment of an Esther scroll.
The Museum Judenplatz was opened in 2000 as a second location of the Jewish Museum of Vienna (which we did not have time to visit). At the same time, Rachel Whiteread’s memorial for the victims of the Shoah – that blockish structure in the center of the plaza – was unveiled. They are still uncovering findings that shed new and detailed light on the life of the Jews in medieval Vienna.
The museum offers a virtual tour offers a walk through Jewish Vienna of the 14th century, incorporating the Jewish festivals and customs of the time.
Although the Misrachi-Haus presents the story of Medieval Jewish life, the names and data of 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews are documented and accessible at computer terminals.
I am told that there are presently 8,000 in Vienna’s Jewish community now and 12,000-15,000 Jews throughout Austria. (You can pick up a guide, Jewish Vienna-Heritage and Mission, which lists synagogues and Jewish organizations and sites throughout Austria and describes the Jewish Welcome Service Vienna.)
Most revealingly, the City of Vienna is an underwriter for the museum.
A memorial plaque on the outside of Misrachi-Haus reads: Thanks and acknowledgment to the just among the people, who in the years of the Shoah risked their lives to help Jews, persecuted by the Nazi henchmen, to escape and survive.—The Austrian Jewish Community, Vienna, in the month of April 2001.
(Museum Judenplatz, Misrachi-Haus, Judenplatz 8, A-1010 Vienna; admission is 4 Euro, www.jmw.at).
At the museum, I pick up a guide, “Jewish Vienna-Heritage and Mission, published by the Vienna City Administration, which notes “The first Jew mentioned in Viennese documents was called Shlom; he was installed as mint master by Duke Leopold V in 1194. Shlom, his family and other Jews – a total of 16 persons – were murdered by marauding crusaders.
“However, the Jewish community persisted, and the first Viennese ghetto developed around today’s Judenplatz square.”
The Square itself is interesting:
In the center is a blockish looking structure which is the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial for the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah, made by the English artist Rachel Whiteread. Considering the early synagogue’s importance as a center for learning, the memorial fittingly is fashioned as a library with books with the spines of the books facing inward and doors that do not open. The memorial lists names of the 41 places at which Austrian Jews came to death during the Nazi rule.
An imposing statue in the center is the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781). The original statue was created by Siegfriend Charoux and unveiled in 1935, but removed in 1939 by the National Socialists and melted down for weapons. Charoux created a second Lessing monument out of bronze, unveiled in 1968 and moved to Judenplatz in 1981 where it stands today.
Why would Lessing be here in Judenplatz, next to the Holocaust Memorial, I wonder?
Lessing, I subsequently learn, was the son of a clergyman who instead of following in his father’s footsteps, embraced a more ecumenical view of theology. He had made the acquaintance of Moses Mendelssohn, and championed religious tolerance.
Between 1747-9, Lessing wrote a series of comedies. “The Scholar” a satire on an arrogant, superficial, vain, and easily offended scholar, and Damon, Die alte Jungfer [“The Old Maid”], Der Misogyn [“The Misogynist”], Die Juden [“The Jews”], Der Freigeist [“The Free Thinker”]) which are witty commentaries on bigotry, prejudice, nagging, fortune hunting, matchmaking, intrigue, hypocrisy, corruption, and frivolity. In Die Juden Lessing praised unappreciated nobility of mind, striking a blow against bigotry toward the Jews at a time when they were still confined to a ghetto, according to the online Encyclopedia Brittanica.
Lessing was in Vienna in 1775/6, and had an audience with Joseph II “and was therefore in a position to influence and shape the Viennese cultural climate.”
“The closing years of Lessing’s life were embittered by a violent theological controversy, bringing upon him the displeasure of the Brunswick government, which confiscated some of his writings,” says the Moonstruck Drama Bookstore online biography. “Thereupon, as he wrote to a friend, he resolved to ‘try whether they would not let him preach undisturbed from his old pulpit, the stage.’
“In 1779 he completed his Nathan der Weise, begun three years before, and now gave poetic form to the theological ideas already developed in prose.”
Lessing’s “Ringparabel” in the drama “Nathan der Weise” (Nathan the Wise) is considered a key text of the Enlightenment which helped formulate the idea of tolerance. The three principal characters–Nathan, Saladin and the Knight Templar–represent Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and the moral of the story is simply that the test of the true religion lies in deeds and works, and not in the mere profession.
Other Jewish heritage sites in Vienna include:
Stadttempel Synagogue, Seitenstettengasse 4,A-1010 Wien (you can only visit with a guided tour, Mon-Thurs, aa:30 am and 2 pm; ID required, admission 3 Euro).
Bibliothek des Judischen Museums(Library of the Jewish Museum), Seitensterrengasse 4, A-1010 Wien, tel +43 1 535 04 31-410, email bibliothek@jmwat (prior appointment and ID required).
A combination ticket is available at 10 Euro.
Vienna has any number of statues, squares and parks named for important figures – Mozart Gutenberg, Schubert, Beethoven. But afterward, as I bike around the city, I also notice places named for Jewish figures: Sigmund Freud park, Theodor Herzl place.
You can visit the Sigmund Freud Museum (1090 Vienna, Berggasse 19, email@example.com, wwwfreud-museum.at).
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