Jews

   There is reason to think that Jews may have been living in and around the future city of Vienna when the Romans arrived there around 15 BCE. However, the history of the Jews in the Austrian lands replicates the history of the diaspora in many other areas of the world—acceptance in varying degrees, followed by rejection, often violent, followed by acceptance once more. In dealing with the earlier phases of this history, one must be especially careful not to generalize about Jews in “Austria,” because the chronology of their experiences differed considerably. Jews were driven out of Lower Austria in 1420–1421, but out of Carinthia and Styria in 1496. It is the Jews of Vienna, however, who were most tightly linked to the generality of Austrian history. Their original quarter was in the First District of the city. One of its streets is still called the Judengasse (Street of the Jews). In 1622, the community was formally assigned a place to live, the Leopoldstadt, today Vienna’s Second District, still a place with a significant Jewish population. The Habsburg emperors used Jewish taxes and credit lines to help finance both the dynasty’s wars and its construction projects. Such policies, however, did not exempt the community from serious discrimination. Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705) expelled them from the city altogether in 1669–1670, blaming them for the wars and plague then afflicting both Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire.
   The fortunes of the Habsburg Empire’s Jews took a sharp turn for the better under the reign of Emperor Joseph II. Interested in exploiting the full productive potential of all his people, Joseph allowed Jews to engage in almost any trade. Restrictions on dress and access to public places were abolished, though the special tax on Jews, to be paid every two weeks, was retained. Jews had new obligations as well; they were now liable for military service and had to purchase hereditary last names. No synagogue was allowed in the city until 1832. Jews were also forbidden from entering the legal profession or civil service. They also could not buy land. However, allowed to engage in finance, handicrafts, medicine, and private tutoring, Jews came to Vienna in larger numbers, many as household servants, artisans, and laborers. They mingled with the dominant non-Jewish majority, and often converted. For women this step was a way of legitimizing children whose fathers were Christian. By the end of the 19th century, when almost all professions were open to them, including the lower rungs of the civil service, Jews made up about 12 percent of the Viennese population. Although that percentage had dropped by the beginning of World War I because of immigration of largely Christian populations from other parts of the Habsburg Empire, the numbers rose, from around 99,450 in 1890 to approximately 175,300 by 1910.
   Jews or people of Jewish extraction played a major role in the cultural explosion associated with fin de siècle Vienna. Sigmund Freud achieved world stature. Composers such as Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg; writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler, and Karl Kraus; and theatrical luminaries such as Max Reinhardt made central contributions to these developments. Jews were also prominent in the construction of the Austrian Social Democratic Party; Viktor Adler was only one among many. The stunning success of Jews such as the Rothschilds and the Wittgensteins in business and finance, and the presence of more recent immigrants to the city from other areas of the empire, who competed with the poorer classes of the city for work, fostered the rise of political anti-Semitism in Vienna at the end of the 19th century. An important spokesman for these sentiments was the city’s famous mayor, Karl Lueger, who became the leader of the Christian Social Party. These views became even more virulent in the 1920s and 1930s, as Austria was in a state of near permanent financial crisis and serious unemployment.
   With the Anschluss of 1938, the Jewish community of Vienna, which numbered around 170,000, and of the entire First Republic became the target of Nazi ethnic cleansing. Anti-Semitic rioting by Austrians was, if anything, more vicious than corresponding activities in Germany. Offices of the Gestapo (Geheimestaatspolizei, State Secret Police) were set up throughout Austria shortly after the German occupation began. Emigration was encouraged. Many Jews quickly left Austria. Among them were some who had fled Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, in the hope that Austria would be a more hospitable German-speaking environment. Of those who remained in the city, around 65,000 were killed. Of the approximately 33,000 Jewish firms and other businesses in Vienna, 7,000 were broken up, 21,236 were shut down, and 4,36l were “Arayanized,” including the famous Ferris wheel of the Prater and the tradition-laden Gerngross department store. Austria has relaxed its once carefully circumscribed measures setting the conditions for the restitution of property confiscated or otherwise seized by its Nazi government after 1938.
   Today there are between 7,000 and 8,000 Jews in Vienna, in part the result of emigration during the 1970s and 1980s from the Soviet bloc. The original first synagogue of the 19th century has been restored and reopened. There is a new Jewish museum in another part of the district that enables visitors to trace the long history of the community in the Austrian capital. Jews have again risen to considerable prominence in several areas of Austrian life, perhaps the most notable being the former federal chancellor, Bruno Kreisky. Although the question of how much anti-Semitism exists in Austria remains a lively one, it is also worth noting that significant numbers of the population are vocal critics of such ideas.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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