Before 1938, Vienna’s Jewish community was one of the largest in Europe. Only a few of the 180,000 Jews living in Vienna in 1938 survived the Holocaust by hiding underground. After 1945 a small but active Jewish community was reestablished chiefly by so-called “Displaced Persons” (the survivors of the Holocaust) from Eastern Europe. Only a few Viennese Jews returned to Vienna, Arnold Schönberg being one of the very few to receive an official invitation to return (which he declined). At the end of December 1945 the Jewish community had 3,955 members, 1,727 of them survivors of concentration and death camps, 252 re-immigrants and 1,927 “remaining Jews” (Jews who survived in hiding by being married to a non-Jew and “privileged Jews” who worked for the Council of the Oldest Elders?” the former Jewish Community and Social institutions during the war). Since the 1950’s, many Austrian Jews have immigrated to other countries. More than 5,400 Austrian Jews have immigrated to Israel.
Austria became a country of transit for Jewish migration from Eastern Europe to Israel and the West. In general, these people spent only a few days in Austria, in camps around Vienna, but some of them chose to remain in or returned to Austria from abroad. In 1956, 300 Hungarian Jews who fled after the failed Hungarian revolution remained in Austria. In the 1970s and 1980s Vienna served as a transit point for hundreds of thousands Jews leaving the Soviet republics en route to the United States or Israel. Between 1973 and 1989 over 250,000 Jewish immigrants came through Austria, 65,000 of whom continued to Israel. The majority preferred the United States or other Diaspora destinations, but a small number remained in Austria. In the 1990’s, approximately 5,000 Jews from the Soviet republics of Central Asia (Buchara, Georgia and Daghestan) and Iranian Jews moved to Vienna, some of them after spending several years in Israel. By the end of the 1990’s, Vienna had 7,000 Jews registered in the Jewish community. The total number of Jews living in Vienna is estimated to be twice that figure. Vienna is the home of the great majority of Jews in Austria. There are also several smaller communities, none with more than 100 Jews, including Baden, Bad Gastein, Graz, Innsbruck, Linz, and Salzburg. In 2001 approximately 5,000 Jews were registered in the Jewish community. Austrian Jewry is primarily composed of Holocaust survivors (and their children), returning Austrian expatriates, and refugees from Eastern Europe (large number Jews from Soviet republics of Central Asia (Buchara, Georgia and Daghestan) and Iranian Jews.
The ‘Israelitischen Kultusgemeinden’ (IKG – Jewish community organization) is the primary communal organization. There is also a separate Sephardi federation that operates independently. Vienna’s Sephardi community reestablished itself in May 1992 and built two synagogues and a room used for festivities. The ultra-Orthodox community also operates independently; they have a separate school system and other institutions.
The Jewish community operates a hospital and a home for the aged, the “Sanatorium Maimonides-Zentrum”, which was established in 1972. There are Jewish kindergartens, a primary school and the Zvi Perez Chajes high school. In 1986 the Ronald S. Lauder-Foundation established the “Bet-Chabad-Schule” and various other educational institutions were developed. The ultra-Orthodox community maintains a separate school system. The Jewish sports club S.C. Hakoah has a long tradition in Austria and is responsible for physical training and athletics.There are Austrian branches of many international Jewish organizations, such as B’nai B’rith and WIZO. The Zionist Federation is the principal outlet for Zionist activity. The Jewish community also helps fund youth organizations include B’nei Akiva, Hashomer Hatzair, and the Austrian Jewish Students Union, and maintains the Jewish cemeteries.
The Jews of Austria publish a number of journals and papers, which also have a wide readership among expatriate Austrian Jews. The two largest are the monthly Die Gemeinde, the official organ of the community, and Illustrietere Neue Welt. The Austrian Jewish Students Union has its own bulletin called Nudnik. The Chief Rabbi has a radio program. There is a Jewish bookshop in Vienna.
The traditional religious center of Jewish life in Vienna is the Vienna City Temple ‘Stadttempel’. The only synagogue that survived the Kristallnacht, the ‘Stadttempel’ was reopened in 1963 after extensive renovation. The building complex at Seitenstettengasse houses not only the synagogue, but also the offices of the Vienna Jewish Community, the Vienna Chief Rabbi, as well as the editorial offices of the official newspaper of the Jewish community, Die Gemeinde (The Community). In addition, a Jewish District Center organises numerous events, a kosher restaurant and a Library of the Jewish Museum.
There are a number of ‘shtiebelach’ (small synagogues) and prayer houses in Vienna, catering to various Chassidic groups and other congregations.
Jewish families live in all parts of the city. In addition to the focal point of the synagogue in Seitenstettengasse, the second district, Leopoldstadt, contains a concentrated Jewish settlement and many Jewish institutions and organizations. During the past 300 years, the Leopoldstadt district has been home to the most populous settlement of Jews in Vienna. This part of the city became the focus of Jewish settlers; it houses many Jewish organizations, kindergartens and schools. There are also Jewish shops, kosher supermarkets, and butchers. Here one finds the Zvi Perez Chajes High School, kindergartens, the Lauder Chabad Campus, the Jewish Vocational Education Center, and the athletic field of the “Hakoah” in the Augarten. A small part of the Leopoldstadt Temple (2nd district, Tempelgasse 5) has been preserved. In the late 1990’s, a Jewish center opened on the site of the former Leopoldster Temple, which houses the psychosocial center ESRA.
The Jewish Museum of the City of Vienna was re-opened in the 1990s, after being closed by the Nazis in 1938. The revived museum shows Jewish cultural and religious life, with emphasis obviously on Vienna. There are permanent displays, which include a number of religious and ceremonial items rescued from the destruction of the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938. The museum uses multimedia techniques to detail important figures and events in Jewish history. It also hosts numerous temporary exhibitions which give visitors an idea of Jewish life in modern day Vienna.
On October 2000, the Judenplatz Museum, which documents the history of Vienna’s Jews in the Middle Ages, was opened. The Museum in Judenplatz exhibits remains of the medieval Or-Zarua synagogue; it also contains documentation of the first Jewish settlements in the Middle Ages, which date back as far as the eleventh century. The exhibition shows the religious, cultural and social life of Viennese Jews of the Middle Ages until their expulsion and death in 1420/21 during the so-called “First Vienna Gezera”.
The architects Jabornegg & Pálffy have created a museum that not only offers archeological findings from the excavation in the Judenplatz, but also presents a multi-media presentation of Jewish life in the Middle Ages and documentation about the medieval synagogue that was one of the largest synagogues in the Middle Ages. After the pogrom in 1420/21, the synagogue was systematically demolished. Only the foundations and the floor remained and they have been integrated into the Museum.
The Judenplatz Museum is also connected to the memorial for the Victims of the Shoah. A multimedia presentation shows the names and personal data of 65,000 Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, as well as the circumstances that led to their persecution and death.
Outside the Museum stands a Holocaust memorial, which was unveiled at the same time as the Museum was opened (October 25, 2000). designed by Rachel Whitehead, and incorporates a concrete cube resembling library walls facing outwards. It measures 10 x 7 meters, and is almost 4 meters high. On the floor tiles around the memorial, the names of the places where 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed are inscribed. This memorial was erected, on the initiative of the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, by the City of Vienna; it was unveiled after a long series of controversies. The Jewish community in April 2001 placed a memorial tablet on the so-called Mizrachi House at Judenplatz 8. The memorial tablet was dedicated to those who helped Jews during the Nazi era. Judenplatz has become a singular place of remembrance, confronts visitors with Jewish life of the past and present: the Shoah Memorial and the Judenplatz Museum, a place of remembrance that is quite unique in Europe.