There are innumerable anecdotes and stories surrounding Vienna's
Jewish community. Just one example, why does a "talking
fish" decorate the entrance to Döbling cemetery? Legend has
it that an observant Jew once brought a live fish home for Passover.
Just as his wife wanted to cut the fish's head off it began to speak.
A rabbi was consulted who declared that the fish must once have been
a very pious Jew, and so it was not permissible to eat the fish under
any circumstances. Instead of landing on the holiday table, a
monument was built to the "talking fish".
There are many reminders of Jewish life in Austria, and especially in
Vienna. The contribution of the city's Jews to music, literature,
visual arts, and theater at the end of the nineteenth century and in
the early decades of the twentieth was immense. The idea of
establishing the Secession art association, and constructing its
magnificent art nouveau gallery, was born in Berta Zuckerkandl's
salon. Composers such as Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg, and
Alexander Zelimsky were leading figures in Vienna's musical life. The
list of Viennese writers and journalists of Jewish origin is long and
distinguished, and accounts for a major part of twentieth-century
Austrian literature. Arthur Schnitzler, Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus,
Franz Werfel, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Friedrich Torberg, Hans
Weigel, Elias Canetti, Jura Soyfer, Hilde Spiel - each name stands
for a specific chapter in Austrian literary history. The reputation
of the Vienna school of medicine is due in large measure to the work
of Jewish doctors: Emil Zuckerkandl, Viktor E. Frankl, Otto Loewi and
Robert Bárány are just a few of the leading names in
the field of science.
A look back into history: the existence of a Jewish settlement in
Vienna around what is today the Judenplatz can be documented as early
as the thirteenth century. At that time Jews were still permitted to
settle unhindered in Vienna. This was not to last for long however,
and the first expulsion of Vienna's Jews took place around 1420. A
sad reminder of the event is a bas-relief on the house "Zum
grossen Jordan" at Judenplatz 2, which recalls Jörg Jordan,
the first Christian owner of the building following the pogrom.
This age of irrational hatred was followed by a more tolerant period
under Emperor Rudolph II, which was ended in turn by an escalation of
anti-Semitism at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In 1624
Emperor Ferdinand II proclaimed that Jews had to live outside the
city walls on an island in the Danube just opposite the town. This
Jewish town in the "Unterer Werd" (today Vienna's second
district) was bordered by what is today the Taborstrasse, the
Augarten park, the Grosse Schiffahrtsgasse, the Krummbaumgasse, and
the Carmelite monastery. About fifty years later all Jews were
expelled from Vienna by imperial decree, and the great synagogue was
turned into the Church of St. Leopold.
In spite of anti-Semitism, Vienna's Jewish community grew to number
183,000, and was Europe's wealthiest in 1938 when Austria was annexed
by Nazi Germany. The city's second district was also traditionally a
Jewish neighborhood until that fateful year. Only about 2,000 Jews
survived the deportations and concentration camps of the Holocaust.
Waves of emigration from eastern Europe, and particularly from the
former Soviet Union, brought an influx of new arrivals. The Jewish
population of Vienna today can only be estimated: Of the 12,000 Jews
who are thought to live in the city just about two-thirds are
officially members of the community.
Today there is not much visible evidence of Jewish life, though on
Friday evenings orthodox Jewish families can be seen making their way
on foot to the main synagogue in the Seitenstettengasse in the first
district. The exterior of the building, constructed between 1824 and
1826 by the Biedermeier architect Josef Kornhäusl, is
unremarkable. To comply with the regulations of the time concerning
Jewish houses of worship, the synagogue was built as part of an
apartment house, which saved it from destruction during Kristallnacht
in November 1938. Today the synagogue is guarded by policemen around
the clock, but is open to visitors upon presentation of ID.