Jewish Vienna

Feature by Willard Manus

Vienna is considered by its residents to be der Nabel der Welt--the bellybutton of the world. Once the center of the Hapsburg empire, it is one of the most luxurious and beautiful cities in Europe, with its imperial palaces, 12th-century cathedrals, smoke-stained coffeehouses, famed theatres and opera houses. Before the war, Vienna was home to a wealthy and powerful Jewish community which numbered well over 200,000 and could boast of some sixty synagogues.

Only one of these synagogues survived World War Two--the Tempel in the Seitenstetengasse in central Vienna, known colloquially as Vienna City Temple. It contains a community center, football fields and a sports center.

Designed by Josef Kornhausel, architect to the Crown and to Prince Liechenstein, the synagogue was opened in 1826 to the accompaniment of music by the Christian composer, Jacob Drechsler, who was kappelmeister at St Stephen's Cathedral. The cantor, Salomen Sulzer, and the Reform rabbi, Isak Noah Mannheimer, had asked other eminent composers, including Beethoven, to compose music for the occasion. Later Sulzer obtained from Schubert a setting for Psalm 92. Sulzer was as eager to reform synagogue music as the rabbi was to alter the service.

One architectural critic believes that "Kornhausel seems to have had the Pantheon in mind--a temple to all the in which ideals of universal tolerance and fraternity with other faiths could be implied." The secular idea of the Pantheon as a hall of fame for eminent men was later altered by Wilhelm Stiassny, a Jewish architect who added more conventional touches. After wartime vandalism and near-destruction, Otto Niedermoser restored the synagogue, adding a few distinctive features of his own.

Today the synagogue is thriving. Though the Nazis killed all but 2,000 of the Jews in Vienna, waves of immigrants from former communist countries have arrived to grow the ranks again. The first wave came from Poland after the anti-Semitic outbreaks of 1948; the second from Hungary after the failed uprising of 1956; and the third from the former Soviet Union (late 60s through the l980s).

Prominent in the latter group are immigrants from Bukhara, in the Asian hinterlands of the former Soviet Union. Thanks largely to their high birthrate and to the arrival of groups of fellow Sephardic Jews from the Caucasus region," We have had more births than deaths during the last two years," said Paul Grosz, president of Vienna's Jewish community. He predicted that within a few years the Sephardim will take over the leadership of the community.

Because the European Union has mandated free movement and immigration among its member states, Austria has also attracted large numbers of Jewish immigrants from the Czech Republic, Bosnia, Slovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Slovenia. Coupled with natural increases, Austria's Jewish community has in the last ten years nearly doubled in size, going from 8,000 to 15,000 affiliated members.

Grosz added that many of the properties and businesses confiscated by the Nazis have been returned to the Jewish community. Rents on these sites now provide the community with 90 per cent of its income; the remainder is derived through assessments, according to income, of its members.

The money pays for a first-rate Jewish school system, spanning from kindergarten to the equivalent of high school. At least two-thirds of the Jewish children in Vienna attend these schools.

At present, all Jewish organizations and institutions, across the political and religious spectrum, are part of a unified communal structure. This may soon change, Grosz said, if the schism between the Orthodox and more liberal streams of Judaism continues to widen.

A major point of pride is the Jewish Museum, which was founded in 1869 as the first of its kind in the world. It was closed by the Nazis after the 1938 Anchsluss, re-established in 1989, and moved into its new quarters in the Palais Eskeles in 1993.

The museum is financed almost entirely by the municipality and attracts some 100,000 visitors a year, mainly non-Jewish, including regular tours by school children.

Worth noting are a series of 21 dramatic holograms that chronicle the history of Jews in Vienna. Also recommended is the collection of ritual objects and artifacts from all over Europe that were confiscated by the Nazis for their planned "Museum of an Extinct Race" in Prague.

The Jewish Museum is at Dorotheergasse 11. The Community Headquarters is at Seitenstettngasse 3. Tel. 531-040. The Stadttempel is next door, the Alef-Alef kosher restaurant as well. The Jewish Welcome Service, a branch of the Austrian Tourist Office, is located at one of the busiest subway stops, Stephansplatz 10. Tel. 533-8891.