Vienna has almost 900 years of Jewish history. To get a thorough idea of the Jewish community in Vienna in the past and present, tour the Jewish Museum Vienna. It brims with stories in every information board, object, video and quote. I have been at the museum to learn more about the Jewish part of my family.
Museum’s Main Building
Jewish Museum Vienna. The main building is located at the white-washed and stucco decorated Eskeles town palace in the centre. It houses memories of Jewish life from the 1940ies onwards. An old suitcase from a concentration camp, contents of the toy box of Lilli Bial, one of the last children to join the ‘Kindertransporte’ to the United States (see photo). Kurt Waldheim’s ‘Trojan Horse’, a wall crowded with quotes from contemporary Viennese Jews.
‘Most visitors from overseas expect to see and hear about the Holocaust. We are not covering up here. However, there are sadly more suitable places in the surroundings for this. Few people are aware that Jewish history in Vienna spans 900 years, and that the Jewish community today is vibrant. There are lots of collective memories, good and bad’, explained tour guide Gerti, who comes from a local Jewish family.
What shocked me most was the hostility of Austrian government officials and parts of the population against Jewish Viennese returning after 1945. 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.
Gerti stopped in front of a red velvet cloth embroidered with golden Hebrew letters, a crown and a laurel wreath: ‘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 5.00 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