Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Chief Rabbi of Vienna, is a small, rotund man, about 50 years old with a wispy, rather untended short beard — gray but shaded with streaks of reddish blonde, and china blue eyes that are a perfect match to the open-collared shirt he wears. His overall demeanor is lively, even jolly, punctuated with a handy repertoire of Jewish-related jokes of the kind that would stand a Catskill comic in good stead. (Example: A couple are on a cruise. The steward says, “Mr. & Mrs. Rubinstein, the captain wants to invite you to eat at his table tonight.” The wife turns to her husband and says, “Ach, I knew they were anti-Semites. Because we’re Jewish, we have to eat with the crew.”)

Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, Chief Rabbi of Vienna, Austria
Although laughter comes easily to Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg, the eyes seem perpetually sad.


Laughter comes easily to this rabbi. His eyes, however, are sad. Perhaps that is because the subtext of our conversation is as dark as the deserted street outside his office this rainy November night. Vienna’s Jewish Center is close by Kartnerstrasse, the city’s major pedestrian thoroughfare. But we walked up and down the streets in the cold drizzle, unable to find it until two uniformed police officers actually escorted us to the front door of a narrow, inconspicuous building in a row of others of identical size and style.

Irony abounds. Given its modest edifice, the building is larger than one would expect, with an interior passage that connects to an adjacent structure where an oval-shaped, soaring sanctuary stands beneath a ceiling of stars. Lacking a street entrance, Vienna’s City Temple escaped Nazi destruction. Not so for the multitude of Vienna’s Jews, whose names are inscribed on gray marble panels along a wall adjacent to the abimah. Mute memorials, they run horizontally in alphabetical order: surname, first name; line after line after line. A central panel has no names, only a long narrow vial seemingly suspended in space. Some drops of red liquid rest in its pointed bottom, which touches a ring of what appears to be frosted glass surrounding a golden circle. An abstract configuration, its meaning left to the observer.

Mute memorials to victims of the Nazis in Vienna's City Temple, Vienna, Austria
Mute memorials to victims of the Nazis in Vienna’s City Temple


“Before the Second World War, Austria had a Jewish population of approximately 200,000,” Rabbi Eisenberg tells us from behind a huge desk cluttered with books and papers.” We know more than 65,000 were murdered; we surmise possibly 100,000 survived. However, the post-war Jewish population was only 1,000. What happened to the others?

“There were a large number who managed to leave before deportations began. Some ran away to America, South America, Palestine, Australia. Some never returned because they didn’t want to. But some never returned because the state was not very happy to have them back. Even if people were not Nazis, they knew if 30-40,000 Jews would come back, they would ask for their property, their homes. It would be big trouble. So they were not so friendly to the idea. And that may explain why very few Jews came back.”

He smiles. “But what did happen is that Jews from Eastern Europe came to Vienna. This was not a new phenomenon. It happened before, and now it was happening again. And it was in waves. During the Hungarian Revolution, later from Poland and Czechoslovakia, and then unbelievable numbers from the Soviet Union. Most came to Vienna transit-wise, en-route to Israel or America. The Soviet Union would not allow them to go straight to Israel, and Austria provided them with a place to travel through. If they then decided to go back to the Soviet Union, they couldn’t, because once they left, they were stripped of Soviet citizenship. So that’s how some of these people ended up here. I’m not saying the cleverer ones or the less intelligent. It doesn’t make a difference. Except by the 1950s, you had a new Viennese Jewish community.”

The rabbi pauses for a moment, looks down at some paper on his desk, then resumes: “What exists here is not comparable to the Jewish community that existed before. Those Jews are gone. We have a doctor who returned from America and is head of cardiology in a major hospital. We have lawyers, businesspeople. The brains still work. But this is not the Vienna that was basically run by the Jews before the war.”

The Jews before the war — a subject that hovers above the domes and steeples, along the promenades, in the cafés and gardens, the shops and concert halls. More than seventy years after the Anschluss, with the generation of Viennese who participated in Hitler’s orgiastic welcome along with the victims of National Socialism largely gone, the ghost of a presence lingers.

People learn you are Jewish, and they begin to speak of the Jews before the war. “If not for the Jews, Vienna wouldn’t have been Vienna,” says Diane Naar, a native of Yorkshire, England who came to study art at the University of Vienna in the 1970s and stayed on to become one of the city’s licensed guides. “This is a city that has always had a rich cultural, intellectual life, and a great part of it came from Vienna’s Jewish community,” notes Oscar del Campo, general manager of the Hotels Bristol and Imperial. “The renown of Vienna’s Medical School is in large part due to the achievements of Jewish physicians,” claims Alfred Stalzer of the Jewish Museum of Vienna, adding that two of them: Alfred Bárány and Otto Loewie, were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, the latter in 1936. One tries to imagine the context surrounding that event.

People learn you are Jewish, and they begin to speak of an artistic and intellectual ambiance in the decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that was largely defined by Vienna’s Jews. The names pour out: Theodore Herzl, Karl Popper, Martin Buber, Otto Preminger, Billy Wilder, Stefan Zweig, Franz Kafka, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schöenberg, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Gutav Klimt — scientists, philosophers, composers, writers, artists, architects.

Tourist maps document a vanished culture. The house at Berggasse 19 where Freud lived and practiced for 47 years is now a museum devoted to the founder of psychoanalysis. The Arnold Schöenberg Center where the composer lived and worked is the repository for his papers and a site for concerts and conferences. The beautiful baroque Belvedere Museum – where the Americans and Russians hammered out the treaty for Austria’s freedom ten years after VE Day – is the setting for the world’s largest collection of Klimts (minus, of course, the five paintings “recovered” in 2006 after a national arbitration board ordered the Austrian National Gallery to turn them over to the heir of a Jewish family whose art was stolen by the Nazis. Their subsequent sale netted over $327 million – including the $135 million paid by the Neue Galerie in New York for “Adele Bloch-Bauer I”). In his book Cultural Amnesia, the critic and poet Clive James evokes a café society of pre-war Vienna that – unlike New York’s swanky nightclub scene the term conjures up – was a gathering ground for the intelligentsia.

“For generations of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and mind-workers of every type, the Vienna café was a way of life,” he writes. “Most, although not all, of the café population was Jewish which explains why the great age of the café as an informal campus abruptly terminated after March 1938, when the Anschluss wrote the finish. . . finis Austriae, as Freud put it – to an era.” The cafés remain; there are 113 of them in Vienna today. But by the end of 1938, their Jewish patrons had vanished. Hitler’s arrival spurred what historian Richard J. Evans calls “a single outburst of rabid hatred and violence.” Jews were chased through the streets, forced to scrub the sidewalks, saw their shops and apartments pillaged. In May of that year, the application of the Nuremberg Racial Laws deprived Austria’s Jews of civil liberties and forced them to wear the infamous yellow star. At the same time, the Viennese Jewish community was allowed to organize mass emigrations that between July and September averaged 8,600 a month. By then, 30,000 Jewish businesses had been closed down. The chairman of the board of Austria’s most important bank, the Kreditanstalt, was pushed out of a car at top speed by a gang of stormtroopers and instantly killed.

In the wake of Kristallnacht that November, when all Jewish stores, factories, buildings, and synagogues (in Vienna that meant 42 of them, the one exception being City Temple) were destroyed and 6,000 Jews sent off to Dachau, any Jew who could get out of Austria, did. It seemed a mere footnote to history when on November 1, 1942, the Viennese Jewish community was officially dissolved. Of the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were deported, 2,000 survived along with 800 who had found places to hide for the duration of the National Socialist nightmare.

Once it was over and Vienna was divided into four occupied zones, “the city of dreams” (from an old but still remembered song) was reduced to a place alternately described as “dull” or “empty,” according to people we spoke to. “Humanism had a better chance of recovery in cities where its roots had never been deep enough to be thought part of the foundation,” said Clive James — an implicit comparison of Vienna to other European capitals whose Jewish population had been less integral to their identity. Without its Jews, Vienna’s “fresh impulse of humanism” could be found “only in the form of the zither playing on the soundtrack of The Third Man,” he noted.

But on July 9, 1967, nearly thirty years after the Anschluss and one month after Israel’s triumphant victory in the Seven Day War, a “fresh impulse of humanism” blew through the city, when Leonard Bernstein led the Vienna Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony.

Although Mahler had converted to Catholicism as a young man in order to become conductor of the Vienna Court Opera, performance of his music was banned during the Nazi era and largely ignored in its aftermath. “Mahler was not very popular in Vienna until Leonard Bernstein came here in the 1960s,” said Michael Moser, who as long-time chief concierge at the Imperial Hotel continues to be an intimate of the city’s musical scene. “At first, when Bernstein started leading the Vienna Philharmonic in a Mahler work, they were playing it indifferently. Abruptly, he stopped conducting. ‘Gentlemen, this is your music. Mahler was Viennese; he was born here in Vienna,’ he told them. From then on, Vienna started playing and appreciating Mahler. And of course, today Mahler is so well regarded, one of the greats.”

Significantly, it took an American Jew to release this “fresh impulse of humanism.” Bernstein’s conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in a symphony composed by an Austrian Jew not only spurred the reclamation of Mahler, but opened the gates of introspection, beginning the process – accelerated the following year when student rebellions broke out throughout Europe – of Vienna’s recognition of the void in its midst and the belated acknowledgment of the singular connection between the city and its vanished Jewish population.

By then, Austria had been independent for more than a decade, and Vienna had become the meeting place for East and West, the seat of the UN and other international organizations. Opera and concert houses were being renovated; companies were opening their Eastern European headquarters in Vienna. Tellingly, Simon Wiesenthal had set up shop for Nazi hunting in the city, and a new Jewish community, the one described to us by Rabbi Eisenberg, had taken root.

He shows us pictures. “These are Jews from the former Soviet Union. Look at them. They’re not Russian. They come from Uzbekistan, they come from Georgia.”

His father had been chief rabbi of Vienna before him. “When my father was asked about Jews who lived in Vienna before the war, he used to say, ‘Look, I’m not from here. I came from Hungary in 1948,’” Rabbi Eisenberg tells us. “When Jewish people asked him, ‘How could you come to a place where the people were so terrible to us?’ my father would say, ‘This was a place where you were safe from Communism.’

“People like my parents who came from Eastern Europe, they didn’t know what happened here,” he adds. “To them, it was like a new land. The story the Austrians told was that they were the first victims of the Nazis. Politically that might be true because the Nazis marched in. But the way they were welcomed. . .”

The rabbi pauses again. An extended silence ensues as once more he consults the papers on his desk. Then looking up, he continues: “Many people think the turbulent period of 1968 led to young Austrians attempting to learn and understand what happened. I think it was more like 1986 when Kurt Waldheim was elected president of Austria. As his Nazi past emerged, it was very unpleasant. But the result was positive: people started to think.”

View of the City Temple's, Vienna, Austria
View of the City Temple’s


It was at this point in our conversation that Rabbi Eisenberg suggested we see the synagogue, the only one in Vienna to survive the Holocaust structurally, although the entire interior was trashed.

“Kaiser Franz Joseph had said, ‘The Jews have to have a synagogue. But don’t make it too showy from the outside,’” he told us. “So they found an architect who drew up plans for four buildings with a huge interior courtyard where City Temple was built. It was never hidden. Everyone knew it was a synagogue, but its access was not visible.

“When the Nazis went around to burn the synagogues or line them with explosives, they told the firemen that if they saw flames entering the buildings from the synagogue, they should put out the fire. But that was impossible since one was attached to another. So the synagogue was never burned.”

City Temple's Ceiling of Stars, Vienna, Austria
City Temple’s Ceiling of Stars


Today the resplendent sanctuary, gleaming with gold-hued marble pillars, elaborately embroidered curtains and torah coverings of blue velvet, ornate candelabras and podiums of gleaming burnished wood, is but one of fifteen synagogues in a Vienna that has Jewish kindergartens, a primary school and yeshiva, separate schools for a growing Orthodox community, and a growing sense of its centuries-long Jewish history where periods of acceptance alternated with pogroms and expulsions.

In the 1990s, construction workers digging for a new parking garage uncovered the walls of a 13th-century synagogue, one of the largest in Europe at that time. The excavations of the Mittelalterliche Synagogue have since been assembled into an archaeological exhibit in Judenplatz, the heart of Vienna’s former ghetto. Beside it is Vienna’s Holocaust memorial – a free-standing concrete block representing bookshelves whose books are all turned inwards.

Undeniably, there is the attempt to acknowledge, to commemorate. “We didn’t get back what was taken,” Rabbi Eisenberg says, “but the government has given us a big campus where we have a school, an old age home, a sports club and stadium for the new Hakoah (the famed Jewish soccer team of the pre-war period). We even have a Hakoah team today, although it is on a different level.”

The campus complex also includes the largest Jewish care center for seniors in Europe and the completely refurbished Zwi Peretz Gymnasium. But in the way that a painful past has a way of intruding on a happier present, one learns this place of sporting and gymnastic events once served as a Nazi deportation center.

Oscar del Campo had spoken to us of the Tauck Tours, “very high class tours,” he calls them, that regularly stop at the Hotel Bristol. “Jewish people with Viennese roots, whose parents or grandparents, or they, themselves, came from Vienna make up a good portion of the tours,” he said. They are likely responding to the “Jewish Welcome Service” – an initiative begun in 1989 by Leon Zelman, a Holocaust survivor, and some city officials where Viennese Jews who had been forced into exile were invited to visit their former home town. At first the invitation was greeted with skepticism. But over the years, thousands have participated; exchange programs for students from the United States, Israel and Austria have emerged, and today the Jewish Welcome Service connects Vienna’s Jewish community of today with an impressively documented past in the Jewish Museum on Judenplatz.

A chance encounter in a children’s boutique connected us with a Viennese Jew of today. With the dollar at 1.5 Euros and Montcler snowsuits listing for 250 Euros, it took a while before we could find a few affordable gifts. Waiting for them to be wrapped, a young man beside us said, simply, “Shalom.” And so we met Ishak Zahor, owner of the shop. Of medium height, portly, friendly, with fair skin and jet black hair, he invited us to have a beer with him.

Ishak is from Georgia where the only way to make a living, he said, was through buying and selling on the black market. He was still young in 1968, when the family immigrated to Israel. After school, he became a businessman, met and married a girl also from Georgia whose parents had moved on to Vienna. She wanted to join them.

There are about 70 Georgian-Jewish families in the city. Ishak makes a good living here, belongs to several synagogues, goes to one on Friday nights, another on Saturday. At first he was reluctant to stray from his Orthodox roots. But just last week, he ventured into a Conservative synagogue. “And you know what?” he exclaimed, “I liked sitting next to my wife.”

After our seeing Vienna’s City Temple, we returned with Rabbi Eisenberg to his office where a group of teenagers, three boys and three girls, were seated on folding chairs, waiting for him. They were, each of them, perfectly beautiful. You think a short distance from here, the populace deluged Hitler with flowers as he stood, arm outstretched, in an open car that drove through the streets of Vienna. And this rainy evening, this little group waits for their rabbi to teach a class in Jewish history.

© 2010, and -- Posted December 22, 2010 at 2:43 pm

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