Vienna is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited, in Europe and the world. Once the capital of a thriving empire, it is now the most important city for a country of just 8.5 million but it still has the grandeur of the place it once was. And the history.
The city certainly has a chequered past–and not only when it comes to the 20th century. That was when my father, aged two, had to escape from the city of his birth as a toddler, arriving in London just two weeks before the start of World War II. There were some very dark times indeed.
That’s why – when I recently visited this remarkable city with my father and son – I knew we had to make a trip to its two Jewish museums. I would recommend them both whole heartedly.
The first Jewish Museum is in Judenplatz (“Jewish place”) and contains the excavations of the old medieval synagogue, one of the largest in the middle ages. It is a small museum, giving the history of the Jews in these times, when it was a thriving community – and showing what life was like then. We took audio guides round (these include one for children, which my son enjoyed using) and would definitely recommend it – although it is a small museum, which will take only an hour or so to go around.
The Jewish community in Vienna was completely destroyed in a pogrom in 1420-1, with over 200 Jews burnt on Erdberger Lände, so it is perhaps fitting that Rachel Whitread’s memorial to the victims of the Holocaust is built over the top of where the old synagogue was discovered. It is intended to remember the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
The second museum is in Dorotheergasse and you need to leave yourself more time here. We were here for a few hours, but it could have been longer.
The museum was designed with the intention of not being solely a “Holocaust Museum”, but to show the history of the Jews in Vienna as a whole. That means the good and the bad, including the war years and the post-war years when Austria was not willing to face up to its actions, and wanted only to see itself as another victim of Nazi aggression (Hitler marched in to the country in 1938, but to widespread acclaim). That was really about life after survival, and the in face of no assistance from the Austrian authorities, at least for many years
Before 1938, the Viennese Jewish community was huge, around 185,000 people, smaller only than those in Warsaw and Budapest. It’s now around 8,000, and its story means there is so much to see in this museum.
If it’s possible, I’d recommend a tour (book in advance). We did a short one, and even in that time we found out some fascinating bits of history – not least when we were shown a small box, full of treats, books and photographs, that had been packed for a young girl, Lilly Bial, who had left on the kindertransport and sent to England. She never saw her parents again and the box wasn’t found until 2004, long after they died. It was extremely moving.
Jews were expelled from Vienna in 1421 and returned in the 17th century, where they lived mainly in a ghetto before being expelled again in 1670. They did return, but were not officially recognised as a community (despite helping to finance wars and industry), being officially outlawed until 1852. They were at the forefront of the 1848 revolution and its failure was a great disappointment after the emperor then revoked some of their entitlements, such as the right to own property. However, the community was recognised in 1852 and in 1867, every person in the monarchy was deemed equal before the law.
However, even despite this, and a flowering of Jews in Vienna (including famous names such as Sigmund Freud), it is clear from the exhibition that anti-Semitism never went away and grew, virulently, in the 20th century.
The museum has a permanent exhibition, Our City! Jewish Vienna – from then to now, which covers two floors, and starts by looking at the city in 1945.
The second floor covers Jewish Vienna from the Middle Ages to 1938-45 and it is the one where we spent the longest time, reading about the history and looking at the items of interest. These were wide ranging and moving.
For example, there is a photo of 13-year-old Maximilian Reich in a 1941 Viennese photo studio with St. Stephan’s Cathedral as a backdrop. On the back he wrote a note to his friend Martin Vogel, urging him not to forget him. He was deported three days later.
The top floor is based around the collection of a man called Max Berger who specialised in Judaica. There are really beautiful Jewish items on show, including ritual objects such Torah shields, pointers and crowns (used when the Torah – or books of the law – are read in synagogue), Chanukah menorahs, Sabbath candlesticks and more, from all round Europe, including many communities which no longer have any Jewish presence at all.
There are also some more problematic items, such as anti-Semitic walking sticks (yes really) or other models or postcards which contain people who are supposed to “look” Jewish.
All in all, I felt that these two museums were both important places to visit, to show a side of our history, as European Jews, which no one should forget.
Both Jewish Museums are closed on Saturdays. The bigger museum in Dorotheergasse is open from Sunday to friday from 10 to 6pm, while the other is open from 10 to 6 on Sunday to Thursday and 10 till 2 on Fridays.
You can buy a ticket for both museums, as long as you use it within four days of issue. It costs €12 for aduts and is free for children under 18, as well as being free if you have a Vienna Pass. You can also book a guided tour if you like.
The Museum in Dorotheergasse also has a lovely cafe and there are also a number of temporary exhibitions, which change throughout the year.