Jews lived in Vienna either temporarily or permanently only when granted a privilege permitting them to reside in the city. In about 1580, the increasing numbers of Jews living in Vienna again made it necessary to establish their own cemetery. At the beginning of the 17th century, most Jews lived around today’s Ruprechtsplatz. In 1624 they were ordered to move their homes to a part of the “Unterer Werd” (a district of Vienna – today Leopoldstadt). From there they had to cross over a bridge to reach their shops in the inner city. The Thirty Year War (1618-1648) forced the Emperor grant them new privileges to permit their free movement and guarantee their ability to provide credits for the war.
Jewish communal life was self-organized with their own judges, a rabbi and communal institutions such as a synagogue. Yomtov Lipman Heller and Dr. Leo Lucerna were rabbis in the first years of the newly established community.
The Christian citizens of Vienna opposed the Jewish settlement and tried to have them expelled again. Strongly supported by the Bishop of Wiener Neustadt, the Jews (who numbered about 1,300) were expelled in 1670. Most of them moved to Moravia and Hungary, those moving to Brandenburg and Berlin founded the influential community there.
Court Jews, who held a quite privileged position since they provided money for the court, were present in Vienna already before the 1670 expulsion ands some continued to be active even after the expulsion. Samuel Oppenheimer worked for the Viennese Court from the 1670s. With his death in 1703, the economic system collapsed and Austria was on the verge of bankruptcy. His nephew, Samson Wertheimer held similar privileges, but was more cautious in his endeavours.
Reforms introduced by Empress Maria Theresia tightened the control of Jews, but Jews kept providing money for business investments. The official number of Jews living by the middle years of the 18th century in Vienna was around 500, with many more living there without permission. A ‘Chevra Kadisha” (burial society), founded in 1763 by young Jews and which cared for the cemetery (which was active until 1784), was one of the first communal institutions to be organized.
Emperor Joseph II published his “Tolerance Decree” (“Toleranzpatent”) for the Jews of Vienna and Niederösterreich on January 2, 1782. Although it did not grant equal legal status for Jews and permitted migration to Vienna only for wealthy Jews, it was an important basis in the struggle for emancipation. The Jews living in Vienna were at this time mostly individuals who were “useful” to the state. Israel Hönig (ennobled as Hönigsberg) organised the tobacco monopoly. The banking house Arnstein & Eskeles was founded by the end of the 18th century and during the Napoleonic Wars they provided huge sums of money for the coffers of the state, thus gaining a social reputation. The salon of Fanny von Arnstein attracted many artists and politicians.
The Jews of Vienna expressed their newly acquired social status as well as their Jewish identity by choosing the most renowned architect of their time, Josef Kornhäusel, for the building of the Wiener “Stadttempel”, the central synagogue of Vienna. The building of the synagogue was unnaugurated in 1826, twenty years before an official Jewish community was recognized.
The address given by the young Jewish physician Adolf Fischhof to the waiting crowd in the court of the Landhaus (Parliament) is said to have been the spark that lit the revolution of 1848. One of the – temporary – results of the Revolution was the granting of equal rights to the Jews. The conservative powers eventually won, but the Jewish community formed itself as a religious community with the official approval of its “provisional statutes” in 1852. Based on this foundation and experiencing an increasing amount of immigration to the city, community life thrived. But only with the adoption of a new Constitution in 1867 did the Jews become citizens enjoying equal rights in the newly established Austria-Hungary Empire.
Until the 1870s immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia (both regions now in the Czech Republic), and Hungary, dominated, and later mainly Galician Jews (today Galicia is a region split between Poland and Ukraine) found their way to Vienna. Rapid immigration from the eastern provinces of the Monarchy in the late 19th century set the stage for what would be the so-called “Golden Age” of Viennese Jewry in business and financial affairs, science and scholarship.
Jews living in Vienna also played a major role in the intensifying conflict surrounding Jewish identity in the context of modernism – Zionism and the assimilation debate. Although the Jews eventually gained legal equality in 1867, this did not mean the end of anti-Jewish sentiments. While the official organ of the Viennese Church, the Wiener Kirchenzeitung (“Church Newspaper”), under Sebastian Brunner, kept traditional accusations based on religious antagonism alive, political parties gained votes with anti-Semitic propaganda. The notorious and very popular Christian-Social politician Karl Lueger, mayor of Vienna, won elections with outspoken anti-Semitism.
With the end of the Monarchy and the establishemnt of the Republic of Austria, Viennese Jews lost important support and the circumstances after World War I increased anti-Jewish sentiments. Rabbi Zvi Peres Chajes and the political leader Robert Stricker were important figures in the first half of the 20th century.
The annexation of Austria by Nazi-Germany (1938) was a catastrophe for Viennese Jews. Anti-Semitism turned violent overnight and the Viennese population showed a shocking willingness to humiliate their fellow Jewish citizens in public. Hundreds of Viennese Jews committed suicide in the weeks after the annexation. With the arrival of Adolf Eichmann and his SS-aides, the systematic registration and expulsion of Jews began. About 120,000 Jews managed to escape, but 65,000 Viennese Jews did not survive the terror of the Third Reich, in which Austrians such as Adolf Eichmann, Kaltenbrunner and Alois Brunner took an active part.