Although it would not be correct to depict Jewish life in the Medieval Ages as an endless series of harassments and persecutions, Jews were time and again victims of violence.
Vienna suffered much less from the marching through of the Crusaders who, on their way to Jerusalem, attacked other “enemies of the Christian faith”, especially the Jewish communities in the Rhineland, Germany, in 1096. However, in 1196 the Crusaders attacked the Jews in Vienna. The mint master Shalom, the first Austrian Jew known by this name, was murdered with 15 members of his household after the wife of a former servant who had stolen money from him left to join the Crusades, but was seized and imprisoned, inciting the Crusader crowd against him.
Although Papal bulls and Christian authorities tried to protect their Jewish subjects from the accusation that Jews needed Christian blood for their religious rites, Austrian Jews were also accused of it.
This happened in 1292 or 1293 in Krems. The more wealthy Jews could protect themselves by paying a large sum to the Duke, but two poor Jews were tortured and broken on the wheel.
In 1443 the Jews of Lienz (Tyrol) were accused of the murder of the little girl Ursula Poeck. Two male Jews of Lienz were hanged together with a dog, thus indicating their despised status, and two Jewish women burned at the stake. Five children were spared death and were baptized. How influential this dreadful accusation was is shown by the popularity of the cult of “Anderle of Rinn”, allegedly ritually murdered by Jews, which was popular in the Tyrol and was abolished by the Bishop of Tyrol only in the 1980s. The stories about the murder in the two places were actually a “legend” that influenced the fabrication story of the death of Simon from Trent (1475).
Accusation of Desecration of Host
Another threat to the Jewish community was the accusation, originating in France and spread by sermons and popular literature, that Jews had to perform at least once a year the crucifixion of Jesus by torturing a consecrated host. This blasphemy would cause a blood miracle and the body of Christ, symbolized by the host, would cry for revenge and atonement.
This accusation was widely popular in the Germanic Lands. The first such accusation was raised in 1294 in Laa an der Thaya, where some Jews were killed, others luckily managed to leave the town in time. Other cases in Lower Austria are Klosterneuburg in 1305. The Jews were accused of having desecrated the host for three years which was showing signs of miracles. The accused Jews, Zecherlein, the servant of the synagogue and ten other Jews were taken captive and burnt at the stake. The Bishop of Passau ordered an investigation about the miracles, lead by the Monk of the Zistersienser Ambrosius of Heiligenkreuz. Eventually it was found out that the local priest prepared the bleeding host, perhaps in order to do harm to the Jews, perhaps in order to attract pilgrims to Klosterneuburg, St. Poelten in 1306 and Pulkau in 1338. The latter accusation led to a wave of persecutions of Jews in Lower Austria and Moravia, afflicting nearly 30 places, reaching also Upper Austria and Carinthia (in Wolfsberg where some 70 Jews were killed).
The Black Death
The Austrian provinces and Bohemia were badly affected by the most severe persecutions from 1348 to 1351 when Jews were accused of spreading the plague by poisoning wells. Duke Albrecht II of Austria took drastic measures following a tumultuous pogrom in Krems and saved the Jews of the Austrian countries from other persecutions.
(The medieval Jewish writer Josef HaKohen reports in his “Emek haBacha”: “Only those who lived in Vienna and in the towns belonging to the Dukes did not hear the voice of the persecutor thanks to God’s mercy. God prompted them not to do any harm to the Jews. Many Jews fled to them and stayed there, until the worst was over and God saved them” Emek HaBacha 82). Quite a few Jews died from the plague though and in Vienna they even had to enlarge the cemetery for all the victims of the disease.
Jews living in Salzburg, Wolfsberg, Villach, Innsbruck and Feldkirch were persecuted and killed.
The "Vienna Gesera"
The biggest catastrophe Austrian Jews had to face in the Middle Ages was the so-called "Vienna Gesera" (persecutions) from 1420-21. The Vienna Gesera is a Jewish chronicle of the events that took place in 1420 and 1421. The contents, though based on historical facts, are narrated in a traditional manner that was familiar to Jewish readers of the time. Through associations with known symbolism, the tragic events were given a topical relevance. The chronicle’s portrayal of the Viennese Jews’ profound religious faith was meant to serve as a model for contemporaries whose religious convictions were less strong. It was also hoped that future generations would pray together to recall their predecessors’ heroic martyrdom.
From the Gesera:
“Long ago, the Holy One, praised be He, wanted to test the faith of the Jewish people and find out whether they were willing to sacrifice their lives for Him. There was a powerful duke in the land of Austria, a great sinner who was continuously leveling accusations against the Jews. Faces with the prospect of war, he persuaded himself that the Jews were supplying his enemy with weapons, whereupon he ordered the Jews in all the communities should be arrested.
The duke went to war swearing that if he lost he would take revenge on the Jews. He ordered the expulsion of the less prosperous members of the community and the arrest of the most prominent. After his departure his vassals seized all the money from the Jews, announcing that debtors could redeem their pledges by paying back their loans to the duke. They tortured the Jews until they revealed where they had hidden their valuables.
On the ninth day of Tammuz they decided to expel all the less prominent members of the community. Because it was Shabbat, however, they were given one day’s grace - albeit against payment of a levy. On the next Sunday they had first to swear that they would never return to Austria. Then their possessions, except for the clothing on their back, was taken from them and they were placed in rudderless boats in the middle of the Danube. The small children cried for bread but their mothers, who had nothing to offer, could only cover their ears to block out the wailing. One of the sinners took pity and threw bread into one of the boats. The occupants fought so desperately over it that some were injured. The sinners pushed the boats from the shore. The Jews prayed and sang the refrain that the Israelites had sung at sea when they were escaping from Egypt. The boat carried them to the land of Hungary.
Shortly afterwards the duke returned in disgrace after his defeat in battle. He was angry that the Jews had been banished and not killed and that those who remained had not been tortured.
One of those remaining was Rabbi Aron. He was tortured day and night in an effort to force him to accept baptism. But his love of God was so great that he willingly bore the pain until he suffered Kiddush Hashem. He was buried according to Jewish rite.
When all his efforts had failed, the duke summoned a baptised Jew and asked his advice. He suggested to the duke that the remaining Jews be locked up for three days without food and then offered tempting morsels to eat. But the Jews, among them a young boy named Aron, refused to eat the forbidden food and wine. The duke summoned the baptised Jew a second time. This time he suggested that all Jews under the age of 15 should be forcibly baptised. The duke ordered his officials to do this. But one of them, a magistrate from Moedling, revealed the plan to a Jewish woman. The Jews lamented that the pious children would become impure and decided instead to kill themselves. Lots were drawn to decide who should carry out the task. The lot fell to a pious rabbi by the name of Jona. It was during Sukkot (Jewish holiday 23 September 1420) and the rabbi set himself in front of the ark. The entire community prayed, asked one another for forgiveness and confessed their sins.
Then they were slaughtered in the men’s shul (synagogue), in front of the ark. The women were also slaughtered in their part of the shul in the name of the Lord. The last remaining woman begged Rabbi Jona to reach through the window to the women's room and slaughter her.
Afterwards the rabbi barely had the strength left to kill himself; so he took all the prayer desks, placed them in a pile and poured oil over them. He prayed to God, saying that he had done everything for His sake. Then he placed himself on the altar and lit it from below. As the pile caught fire he slaughtered himself.
The duke ordered that the Jews be buried in an open field. Miracles occurred, giving substance to the heroic acts of the martyrs.
The surviving 210 men and women asked the baptised Jew to compel the duke to decide whether they were to be killed or banished. They said that if the duke would not decide, they would kill themselves. [...] The next day the duke went to the field with his court and had the imprisoned Jews brought to him. They thought that they would be allowed to leave the country. The duke had the women brought to the field in 86 carts. From afar they could see that a great fire had been lit and that pitch and wax were lying ready. When they reached the fire, they were forced to dismount from the carts. The duke announced that he would avenge Jesus and that henceforth Christians would not be allowed to shelter Jews, on pain of death.
When the women saw what was to befall them, they started to dance as if they were being led to the marriage chuppah. They glorified and sanctified His name, much to the astonishment of the onlookers. Once again the duke announced that he would reward those who became baptised with riches and honors. He had a cross brought so that they could pay homage to it. But they spat at the cross and the duke, taking courage from the fact that they would be soon in the Garden of Eden. As the fire burned, they cursed the duke and his god and gave praise to Heaven. From the fire they recited "Shema Yisroel" and "May His great Name be blessed forever and ever."
(Quoted from: Klaus Lohrmann, The Vienna Gesera, Museum Judenplatz for Medieval Jewish Life in Vienna, Wienna)
On 23 May 1420, Duke Albrecht V of Austria ordered that all Jews living in the duchy of Austria to be rounded up and converted to Christianity, if necessary by force. Although baptism by force was strictly forbidden by the Church, theologians at the University of Vienna theorized that once Jews were baptised they would come to recognize Christianity as the one true faith. Espousing this doctrine, Duke Albrecht exploited the heated theological climate for his own financial gain.
The first step was the banishment of the less prosperous Jews who refused to be baptised. They were placed in rudderless boats and left to drift down stream on the Danube towards Hungary. Anti-Jewish feelings were intensified by the rumor that the Jews were providing the rebellious Hussites in Bohemia with money and weapons. On this pretext the remaining Jews were imprisoned and their assets confiscated. The alleged collaboration of the Jews with the Hussites might have justified their expulsion, since also Viennese burghers suspected of collaborating were banished from their city and their assets were confiscated. But nothing can justify the terrible repression of the Jews and the annihilation of the survivors. They were tortured to force them into accepting baptism and to compel them to reveal where their fortunes were hidden.
Some 200 to 300 Jews survived this torture, but still refused to be baptised. Thereupon they were accused of having desecrated the host, a crime that carried the death penalty under ecclesiastical law. On 12 March 1421 the surviving Jewish men and women were burnt at the stake on the Gaenseweide in Erdberg (today part of Vienna’s third district), which meant the end of the medieval Jewish community in Vienna. After 1420, only in Styria including Wiener Neustadt and Neunkirchen did there exist larger Jewish communities till 1492.
To this very day an anti-Jewish relief at a medieval house in the Judenplatz in Vienna recalls the fate of Viennese Jewry. Only recently the church attached a plaque condemning Christian anti-Judaism expressed in this depiction.
“Through the waters of the Jordan, the bodies have been purified from filth and evil. Everything that is hidden and sinful has gone away. So rose in 1492 the flame of hatred, raged throughout the whole town and atoned the awful crimes of the Hebrew dogs. Such as the world was purified through the Flood, so are now through the rage of fire all punishments atoned”.
(Text of the relief on the “Jordan house” in Museum Judenplatz for Medieval Jewish Life in Vienna).
Expulsions from Styria, Carinthia and Salzburg
The expulsions of Jews from different areas in the regions of the Austria of today have to be seen in the larger context of expulsion in Europe. Jews were expelled from many cities in the Germanic Lands and from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497). A social group which had been for a long time a moving force of economic progress was not needed any longer and was conceived as a nuisance and economic rival.
Expulsions were ordered for Styria in 1494-95, for Carinthia in 1496 and for Salzburg in 1498. It is unclear when the last Jews left these places, but these persecutions meant the end of more substantial Jewish settlements in these countries. Since Emperor Maximilian was not interested in losing subjects paying taxes, he decided against the will of the estates, the major forces for these expulsions, to allow some of the banished Jews to settle in border places like Marchegg, Zistersdorf and Eisenstadt. They were also granted some privileges, for example, they did not have to wear distinguishing clothes. Others settled in the northern parts of Italy in Habsburg territory. Only a minority seems to have left Habsburg territory for good.