Where in Vienna to best absorb its 900 years of Jewish history? To track the Jewish community in Vienna over the past centuries, tour the Jewish Museum Vienna. Since its restructuring, it brims with stories on every information board, object, video and quote. As I wanted to learn more about the Jewish part of my family I visited the museum. Read my review.
Museum’s Main Building
Jewish Museum Vienna. Squeezed into narrow Dorotheergasse, a white-washed and stucco decorated town palace houses the main building. Over several floors, Palais Eskeles guards the memories of Jewish life from the 1940ies onwards.
In a vitrine, an old suitcase from a concentration camp shows. Next to it, the toy box of Lilli Bial, one of the last children to join the ‘Kindertransporte’ to the United States, displays its treasures (see photo). So, where is the happy end after the war?
What shocked me most was the hostility of Austrian government officials and parts of the population against Jewish Viennese returning after 1945. And then there was the bitter reminder of Kurt Waldheim’s ‘Trojan Horse’ back in the 80ies, confronted by a wall of quotes from contemporary Viennese Jews.
‘Most visitors from overseas expect to see and hear about the Holocaust. While we are not covering up there are sadly more suitable places in the surroundings for this’, explained tour guide Gerti, who comes from a local Jewish family.
‘With a vibrant Jewish community today, we need to share collective memories, good and bad’, Gerti said.
At the showcase depot we stepped carefully between the kids of a local school class, busily drawing their favourite objects, and playing with a blue plush tora.
When Gerti stopped in front of a red velvet cloth her face lit up: Pointing at the embroidered with golden Hebrew letters, a crown and a laurel wreath she explained: ‘This Tora coat is from the Montefiore prayer house, one of many civil praying institutions in Vienna before the War. It is my absolute favourite. Imagine, this prayer house was founded by the Association of Baggage Porters of North West Train Station!’
Most appalling was a collection of walking sticks topped with anti-Semitic Jewish heads. Three dozen anti-Jewish porcelain figures turned their backs on me. Their faces – together with my own, which is no coincidence – appear in the mirror behind.
Local Jewish entrepreneur Martin Schlaff collected those to prevent them from being circulated further.
Jewish Community In The Middle Ages
Jewish Museum Vienna. The museum’s second location on Judenplatz beams you back to 15th century Vienna. The Jewish Community was flourishing at that time but brutally extinguished by the shoah of 1420/1421. Vienna’s first ghetto was established on Judenplatz. Underneath the square you find the remains of the destroyed synagogue where so many Jewish inhabitants died.
Few locals know the extent of suffering the Jewish Community had to endure in Vienna and surroundings long before the Nazi Regime. The climate at that time was extremely hostile and hypocritical: While Jews were denied owning land or pursuing a trade and pushed into lending money, they were despised by Christian debtors exactly for that.
The shoah monument on Judenplatz (see photo) is hard to miss. Thanks to Simon Wiesenthal, the large white cube, designed by British artist Rachel Whitehead, remembers the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed during the Nazi Regime. She covered the monument’s facade with 65,000 stone books, each remembering the unique story of each Jewish individual.
My tip: If you want to know more about the Jewish Community in Vienna while seeing other key landmarks in town, consider joining a tour about Modern History and Judaism in Vienna. For a closer focus on Jewish Vienna, do the Jewish Vienna walking tour (group tour). There is also a fabulous private Vienna Jewish tour – great if you want a peaceful walk.
Jewish Museum Vienna: Practical Information
Location: Main building – Dorotheergasse 11, 1010 Vienna (off Graben boulevard); museum at Judenplatz – Judenplatz 8, 1010 Vienna;
Opening Times: Main building – Sunday to Friday 10.00 am to 6.00 pm; closed on Saturdays; museum at Judenplatz – Sunday to Thursday 10.00 am to 6.00 pm, Friday 10.00 am to 2.00 pm; closed on Saturdays; for further information on current exhibitions, visit website.
Tickets: book tickets