The History of the Jewish Community in Vienna

The History of the Jewish Community in Vienna

The Judenplatz holocaust memorialAlthough Vienna is predominantly known for its cultural heritage, as well for as being the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, there is also another, darker side to Vienna.

After the end of the Second World War Vienna became the capital of Austria. Later, it also served as the German Reich's provincial capital between 1938 and 1945. Like many cities occupied by Nazi forces, perhaps the darkest moment of Viennese history was the deportation and murder of the city's Jewish population.

Early History of Vienna and the Jewish Community
The first mention of Jews living in Vienna occurred in the late 1100s. Shortly thereafter, local Christian residents killed sixteen Jews, a murder that received the Pope's blessing.

During the plague that took hold of Europe between 1348 and 1349, Vienna was one of the few European cities that did not blame Jews for the disease, and thus became a safe haven for many Jewish refugees. As a result of the influx of Jews, one of Europe's largest medieval synagogues, the Judenplatz, was established in Vienna. Around five percent of Vienna's population was Jewish.

Nevertheless, the Jews were exiled from Vienna by Duke Albrecht V in 1420. He forcibly expelled the city's Jewish population, destroyed the Judenplatz and confiscated all Jewish property. The stones from the synagogue were used to build the University of Vienna.

Offering special protection, the Hapsburg rulers permitted Jews to return to Vienna in 1451. A second wave of Jewish migration arrived shortly afterwards from Ukraine fleeing persecution. In 1624, the Jewish community was granted their own district in Vienna. This ghetto later became known as the Leopoldstadt.

The Jewish community erected two synagogues in Leopoldstadt, but after yet another exile in 1670 ordered by Leopold I, these synagogues were destroyed. The Leopold Church was subsequently erected where one of these synagogues had stood.

In 1669, more Jews were exiled from Vienna. This time the expulsion backfired economically, and because of this, wealthy Jews were invited by the emperor to return to the city almost immediately.

Financial aid was given to the Austrian army by two Jewish imperial court agents named Samson Wertheimer and Samuel Oppenheimer in 1683 in order to help defeat the invading Ottoman armies, a contribution that helped strengthen the Jewish community's ties to Vienna.

After the death of Maria Teresa in 1782, an extreme anti-Semite ruler, the restrictions and discriminatory laws were lifted by her son, Joseph II. As a consequence, a Jewish printing press was founded, cementing Vienna as the center of Jewish publishing in Europe.    

In 1848, the Jewish renaissance came to Vienna. In gratitude for their participation in that year's Civil War, Jews were allowed to form a self-governing religious community and were granted civil rights. In 1867, there was once again a large influx of Jewish migrants from the eastern borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. All these immigrants were granted full citizenship rights.

By the turn of the century, Jews were adding to the prosperity of Vienna in all areas of cultural and economic life. Such prominent names as Oscar Straus and Sigmund Freud were recognized as making large contributions in the fields of music and science. In fact, three out of four Austrian citizens awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine were Jewish. More than half of Austria's physicians and dentists were Jewish, as well as more than sixty percent of lawyers and the majority of university professors. Many were also leaders within the Social Democratic Party.

Because of an atmosphere of religious, economic, and cultural freedoms, the Jewish population of Vienna grew exponentially. While there were only 6,200 Jews residing in Vienna in 1860, in 1870 there were 40,200. By 1900, this had increased to 147,000, and in 1938 the population peaked at 185,000.

While anti-Semitism had been steadily increasing as the Jewish population had continued to prosper in the first three decades of the 20th century, violent displays were always policed. Nonetheless, Vienna's prominent mayor, Karl Leuger, was elected five times. Together with Georg Schonerer, another prominent anti-Semite, Leuger was was noted by Hitler as being one of his biggest mentors.

Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938. Jewish apartments and businesses were pillaged, prominent Jews were forced to scrub the city's sidewalks and were chased through the streets. Any residents who tried to aid their Jewish neighbors were likewise arrested and deported to concentration camps. In May 1938, Nazi Germany put the Nuremberg Racial Laws into practice. Jews were subsequently stripped of most of their civil liberties, excluded from most professions as well as the city's universities, and were obliged to wear a yellow Star of David badges at all times. Jews fled Austria, with over 30,000 settling in the United States.

On the night of Novermber 9th 1938, the Kristallnacht took place. That night over 6,000 Jews were arrested and sent toDachau, all Jewish businesses, factories and other buildings were destroyed, and all synagogues but the central one were destroyed, the latter surviving only by virtue of being hidden amongst other residential buildings. Public displays of hatred ravaged the city throughout the night.

In January 1942, as a result of the Wannssee Conference, over 65,000 Jews were shipped to concentration camps. Only 2,000 survived past the end of the war, and only 800 Viennese Jews survived the war, mostly by hiding or being hidden by their neighbours.

Long after the end of World War II anti-Semitism continued to pervade civil society. Only in the late 1980s did the Austrian government begin to investigate its role in the Holocaust. Finally in July 1991, the Austrian government issued a statement that acknowledged its role in the persecution and murder of thousands of Austrian Jews during the Third Reich.

Present Day
Today, Viennese Jews are trying to educate Austrian society and the world on Austria's role in the Holocaust.