The Beginnings of the Sephardi Community
Spanish Jews, in limited numbers, were to be found in Vienna as early as the middle of the 17th century, when .Nehemya Chayoh, a kabbalist, was received in audience by the Emperor Charles VI.
Most of the Sephardim, however, came to Vienna for commercial reasons. Like the native Jews, the Sephardim encountered difficulties in freedom of movement and they appealed to the Ottoman Sultan to help remove the restrictions.
An opportunity was afforded in 1718, on the occasion of the peace treaty concluded at Passarowitz between the Austrian Emperor Charles VI and the Ottoman Empire. The treaty granted free sojourn to the respective subjects of the two countries, therefore Ottoman Jews now enjoyed unrestricted movement in Austria. They were able to trade freely and to pursue their various occupations. This regulation was again confirmed in the peace treaty of Belgrade in 1739. While sojourn in Vienna was forbidden to Austrian Jews, Ottoman Jews were allowed to reside and trade there freely. It was, therefore, quite common for Austrian Jews to migrate to the Ottoman Empire, after having obtained, legally or illegally, Ottoman documents, to return to Vienna as Ottoman subjects. Ottoman Jews, practically all of them Sephardim, often came for longer periods to Vienna. Eventually there arose the necessity of meeting their religious needs. They organized religious services according to the Sephardic rite in a number of private houses. The founder of the Sephardi religious association was Moses Lopez Pereira d' Aguilar. Pereira had been a crypto-Jew in Madrid. He then left Lisbon for London and from there moved to Vienna in about the year 1722. In Vienna he was a central figure in the commercial and financial community of his time. D' Aguilar, as well as the Spanish Jews employed by him, and the Sephardic Turkish Jews visiting Vienna, laid the foundations for the establishment of a Spanish-Jewish community. The community was called the Turkish Community, owing to the overwhelming majority of the Ottoman Jews who were its members. They founded a synagogue; d' Aguilar donated the required ritual objects. Until the Nazi annexation of Austria these were in the possession of the Jewish
Sephardi Community of Vienna
D' Aguilar was the leading personality of the small Sephardi community.
After the peace treaty of Belgrade the number of Sephardim in Vienna increased, due to the expansion of Austro-Turkish commercial relations. No Imperial "patent" or privilege allowing the Sephardi Jews to organize a community is known to have been edicted before 1778.
In 1778, a special Imperial Commissary was appointed to supervise the local Turko-Jewish Synagogue. In the same year, the government drew up the so-called "Statutes" of the Turko-Jewish community. According to these "Statutes" an elder, who was to be elected annually in the presence of the royal commissary, was to be head of the community. The so-called Punkten ("Points") of 1778 document was the first legal document recognizing Ottoman Jews as an organized community in Vienna. These Punkten formed the constitutional basis of the Sephardic community, were confirmed by decree of the Imperial Lower-Austrian Legal Deputation. Spanish and Hebrew translations were added. The first elders to be elected after publication of this "patent" were Solomon Capon and Israel Haim.
In the ensuing years, the number of the community's members increased considerably. In 1790 the Emperor Leopold decided that Ottoman Jews, living under the protection of the Austrian state were liable to taxation like all other inhabitants.
The Ottoman subjects were permitted to stay in Austria only for a period deemed sufficient to wind up their business in Turkish merchandise. They could not set up permanent business establishments in Vienna or in other Austrian localities.
The regulation of 1768 emphatically stated that the temporary stay of Ottoman subjects should not exceed one year. The Sephardim, therefore, had to apply for a renewal of their visa at the end of every year. The importance of the Turko-Jewish merchants grew through their wide-spread commercial connections. The Sephardim organized a trade association of their own. They established a trading center at Trieste. The financial profits induced the authorities to permit the naturalization of the Ottoman Jews. In 1796, an Imperial decree was issued enabling them to obtain Austrian citizenship.
A considerable number of Sephardim settled permanently in Vienna towards the beginning of the 19th century. They came from Turkey, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Palestine, and spoke Ladino. They were mainly exporters and had wide-spread trade-connections with the East, the Balkan states and Egypt. Their economic position secured, they were chiefly interested in organizing a community of their own. The community center was created in the synagogue situated in the upper Donaustrasse in Leopoldstadt. A school was founded, a charity system for destitute and sick was organized and a slaughter-house installed. When the synagogue, including the community archives, was destroyed by fire in 1824, a new synagogue was established. In spite of difficulties in obtaining permission to be granted unrestricted stay in Vienna, the Sephardi community increased in number and strength.
The internal organization of the community underwent a number of changes after 1840. The community was headed by seven elected elders. These elected one or two managing committees, for the duration of three years. This body managed the affairs of the community and supervised the charity services. Other functions of this body were the representation of the Sephardim before the authorities and the settling of disputes among members of the community. Owing to the fact that the expenditures could hardly be covered by the contributions of the community members, the elders, mostly rich, personally made up the deficits. Consequently, the influence of the elders on the community affairs was comparatively great. They represented the members before the authorities. Thus, the commissary first appointed in 1778 to supervise the community affairs was not needed anymore and the elders took over his functions. Two supervisors, to watch over the affairs of the two synagogues, were elected for an indefinite period. The teacher of religion also acted as precentor. He preached in Ladino, acted as mohel and officiated at weddings and burials. He also acted as community secretary. The sick were treated at the hospital of the Ashkenazic community and the dead were buried in the cemetery shared by both communities. The officials received a salary and, in addition, special emoluments. The increase in the number of members necessitated the erection of a building to house the school, the lodgings of the elder and the sexton, and accommodation for Sephardim passing through Vienna.
In political matters, the Ottoman Jews usually applied to the Turkish embassy for intervention with the Austrian authorities. Thus, for example, the Vienna Sephardim asked the Turkish ambassador to intervene on their behalf to secure permission to erect a synagogue. In the meantime, the Sephardic community, due to the fact that it did not have enough funds to erect a new building, decided to adapt, for the time being, an existing building. In 1860, a house and adjacent plot were purchased for 42,000 florins. The erection of a new synagogue was finally started in 1867 and completed in 1868.
On October 4, 1868, the Sephardi community, now numbering 85 families, applied for formal approval of the draft of a new statute. It planned to create a legal basis for the community. The draft contained twenty-six paragraphs dealing with the basis and purposes of the community. The Ottoman Jewish community was described as a religious association with the purpose of granting its members the facilities of all existing religious, educational and charity institutions of the community. Members of the community were liable to a tax of 10, 20, 30 or 50 florins, collected according to the assessment by the community council. The community was represented by a council which managed all its affairs. The council consisted of two elders and five councillors. In addition, there were special councillors heading the various institutions or having certain specified duties. The latter stood under the supervision of the council. The elections took place every second year.
Thus, the question of the legal basis of the Ottoman Jewish community was raised. First of all the question whether the Sephardim of Vienna had a right to the title "community" was to be settled.
On April 11, 1877, the Sephardic community was requested to submit its statutes to the authorities for sanction, failing to do that would result in their organization being declared illegal.
In a new draft, certain regulations were omitted, but the new draft too was declared illegal. A third draft was submitted to the authorities with an explanatory letter. It was pointed out that the Ottoman Jewish community consisted of adherents of a legally authorized faith, and differed from the Ashkenazic community of Vienna especially with respect to the pronunciation of Hebrew. As a result of this they were unable to hold common divine services. Furthermore, the ritual of the Sephardim was entirely different from that of the Ashkenazim. The Sephardim maintained that an official recognition of the community by the authorities had taken place in 1778 in connection with the so-called Punkten, regulating the synagogue affairs of the Ottoman community. The various decrees, such as the permission granted in connection with the acquisition of real estate and the regulation of the registries was, in their opinion, to be considered as official recognition. The statutes of 1868 were also known to the authorities as they were always notified of the results of the elections to the community council based on these very statutes.
In connection with this application, the authorities turned to the Jewish community of Vienna for consultation.
As a result of the instruction issued by the government, the council of the Jewish community of Vienna started negotiations with the representative of the Ottoman Jewish community concerning an eventual fusion of the two communities. The Ashkenazim were of the opinion that Jews living together in one place should form a united community, and that based on the statutes, all Jews living in Vienna were members of the Jewish community. The community informed the authorities of this opinion, stating that in accordance with the legislation affecting the Jews, a separate community was inadmissible. The report of the Jewish community further maintained that the differences of ritual and Hebrew pronunciation stressed by the Sephardim did not justify a separate existence. Against all this, the representative of the Sephardim argued that their community had been established one hundred years before and that the differences were not only of a religious but also of a national nature, owing to the fact that most of them were Ottoman subjects and, as such enjoyed special privileges. The Sepharadim continued that their community had been recognized by the Austrian authorities as an autonomous body, by the fact that they had their own registries, school, institutions, etc. In order to settle these differences of opinion, the authorities came to the conclusion that, owing to the recognition of the Sephardim community for the past hundred years, it would be difficult to achieve a fusion of the two communities.
In the meantime, administrative changes within the Sephardi community had taken place. In 1868, the new synagogue was inaugurated with great ceremony and welcomed by all members of the community. It was thanks to the efforts of M. M. Russo, elected elder in 1881, that certain reforms conforming with modern times were undertaken, for example a synagogue choir. The synagogue building was in a ruinous state. These conditions induced the elder M.M. Russo, who has been elected again in 1885 and was keen on reorganization of the community affairs, to propose demolition of the existing building and the erection of a new one in conformity with modern demands.
The Sephardi Synagogue
On August 10, 1885, the demolition began and on November 16, the laying of the foundation stone for the new synagogue took place in the presence of all members of the community. On this occasion the foundation stone scroll was read and signed in German and in Spanish. After two years the building was completed. The synagogue was built in Moorish style with motifs from the Alhambra, a magnificent building executed according to the plans of the architect Hugo Ritter von Wiedenfeld. An arcade yard decorated with marble columns led into the interior of the synagogue. On the left side of the vestibule there was a room especially adapted for weddings and on the right side there was a meeting room. A passage, at the end of which stairs led to the women's gallery, led to the second floor. Three doors opened into the splendid hall. The walls were covered with marble, the marble columns and the magnificently decorated ceiling making an imposing impression. The interior was dome-shaped and had an octagonal cupola, while passages opened in semi-circles into many niches. Opposite the entrance rose the altar. The Holy Ark was made of marble and ornamented richly with gold. Over the doors leading to the chamber itself rose a plate on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. On the first floor there was a hall for winter services and on the second story there were the offices. On September 17, 1887 the inauguration took place in the presence of representatives of the highest authorities.
The synagogue of the Sephardi community existed only 50 years until it was destroyed during the Kristallnacht pogrom on 9/10 November 1938, like other synagogues in Vienna.
The final settlement of the legal status of the Sephardi Jews
According to the law of March 21, 1890 only one Jewish community was to exist at one place, irrespective of the ritual differences between its members. This meant that a fusion of the Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities of Vienna had to take place. The Sephardic community refused to agree to a fusion of the two communities. After long negotiations, an agreement between the Sephardim and the Ashkenazi community was at last concluded. The agreement concluded on March 28, 1893, according to which a special managing board of the Sephardim was to be set up, could not be regarded as settling the question in hand owing to the fact that many points agreed upon were in contradiction to the law of 1890. Consequently, new negotiations for the adjustment of the agreement to the law of 1890 were ordered. By 1906, no settlement had been reached. On March 7, 1909, the Ottoman embassy requested the Ministry for Foreign Affairs that the law of 1890 should not be applied to the case of the Sephardi community. In this connection the Ministry of Cults and Education announced that the negotiations between the Sephardim and the Jewish community had at last come to a successful end and that the representatives of the two communities had come to an agreement on July 11th and 12th, 1909. The protocol signed on this occasion included the provision that the hitherto prevailing autonomy had been guaranteed to the greatest extent. In connection with this agreement, a regulation had been formulated by the council of the Jewish community in its session of June 13, 1909. This regulation, with respect to the settlement of the legal affairs of the Ottoman Jews (Sephardim) of Vienna, was incorporated in the statutes of the Jewish community after authorization by the Ministry.
Sephardi Population of Vienna
The Vienna population registration records of the year 1767 present us with the information that at that period of time, 135 Turks resided in Vienna, among them, some Christian Armenians and 19 Jews. During the following six years, their number increased and reached 3.1 % of the Jewish population of Vienna. Until 1822, there is no documentation to be found concerning the number of Sephardi Jews residing in Vienna.
According to records dating back to the years 1822 to 1841, between 80 and 110 Jewish families lived in Vienna. From additional data it is known that 569 Sephardi Jews lived in Vienna between the years 1865 and 1870.
It seems that over the duration of 110 years, from approx. 1760 until 1870, the number of Ashkenazi Jews in Vienna multiplied by 67 while the number of the Sephardi Jews multiplied only by 33, and thus accounted for 4.1 % of the Jewish population.
During the period between the two World Wars there were less than 600 members in the Sephardi community.
Rabbis of the Sephardi Community
The first rabbi of the congregation known by his name was Aaron Abner; together with him served Israel Moses and the cantor Abraham Russo, and the head of the congregation was Jakov Nachmias.
There are no records as to rabbis serving at the beginning of the 19th century. Only from the beginning of 1846 when the Jewish congregation initiated the registration of births, marriages and deaths, is it mentioned that Rabbi Reuven Baruch served between the years 1846 and 1874. Rabbi Michael Papo served as the Rabbi of the Turkish congregation from May 1875 until September 1917; later on, his son Manfred Papo is recorded as serving, starting from 1930 until 1938. Solomon Funk was the rabbi at the beginning of 20th century and Dr. Marcel Halfon was the head of community. When WWI broke out Rabbi Nissim Ovadia was Rabbi of the Ottoman Jewish congregation. At that time the cantor of the congregation was Yakov Baur while his assistant was Isaac Alters. Following his studies at the Vienna conservatory Alters became one of the most renowned Sephardi Cantors.
As there was no other option, the Sephardi Jewish children were sent to the Ashkenazi school. However, since their parents aspired for a traditional education for their children, emphasizing their native Ladino language alongside the German and Hebrew languages, a school was founded in one of the prayer houses in the Donaustrasse in the Leopoldstadt quarter of Vienna with only one teacher. When in 1824 the place was burnt down, and no appropriate location was found to resume the studies, the Sephardi children were once again forced to attend Ashkenazi schools. Towards the end of the 19th century Marcus M. Russo together with Abraham M Elias founded a primary school for the Sephardi community in which the first principal was Emanuel Groag. Alongside, a Talmud Torah was founded. The schools and other institutions serving the Sephardi congregation were located at Novaragasse 27 and continued to function at that same location until WW2 during which time the building was completely destroyed. During the first half of the 20th century, the number of students at those institutions reduced considerably, and religious studies took place only in the afternoons and on Sundays.
Only a few Jewish Sephardi students studied at Vienna University. At the end of the 19th century the majority of the students came from the Balkan regions of the empire (later incorporated into Yugoslavia). There were several Sephardi lecturers at Vienna University, such as Adolph Mussafia who specialized in languages and a Dr. Coen Rafaello del fu Vitale who was a descendant of an Italian Sephardi family.
While the Ashkenazi Jews played an active and important role in Vienna cultural life, from the 19th century, the Sephardi Jews less involved in cultural affairs. There are several reasons for this, the main one being the higher degree of assimilation of many Ashkenazi Jews.
The Sephardi congregation founded two organizations rendering cultural services, the Esperanza and the club Union Espanola.
In 1900 the Esperanza organization was founded and designated for Ladino speaking academic Jews. When he founded this organization, Dr. Solomon was a medical student originally from Sarajevo. He later on became a prominent physician and acted as the representative of the Sephardi congregation.
As an academic organization for Sephardi students, this club’s main objective was to highlight their Sephardi origin. To serve this purpose, a library was founded containing books and magazines all in Ladino, and dealing with subjects concerning the Sephardi Jews. Their main object was to bring to the public’s attention the Jewish Sephardi issue. They took the opportunity to enhance their goal during the 11th Zionist Congress held in 1913 in Vienna by seeking public recognition for the Ladino language. However, their efforts were not successful at the Congress.
At the time when WWI broke out, most of the Sephardi Jewish students were forced to leave Vienna and return to their native countries. As a result, in 1915 the organization was disbanded and the library was handed over to the Sephardi congregation. When at the end of WWI many fled from the Balkan countries, Sephardi Jews again came to Vienna and so the club was reestablished in 1925.
While the Esperanza organization was an academic institution, the other members of the Sephardi congregation were also interested in a cultural center of their own, a meeting place for Vienna’s Jews of Sephardi origin. Therefore, they established the Union Espanola club. In a meeting held in May 1919, and after a fundraiser, the Union Espanola club was founded, and operated until the 1930s. When the club started to function about 200 members took part in its activities and enjoyed the Mitteilungen der Union Espanola, a magazine published by the club.
An additional club next to the synagogue, by the name of Casa Sefardi was opened for all Sephardim staying in Vienna. The World Sephardi Federation was founded in 1925 at the international convention of Sephardi Jews held in Vienna, prior to the 14th Zionist Congress. The initiative behind its establishment came from the heads of the Sephardi and Oriental communities in Palestine, who, together with the heads of the Sephardic communities in the Balkan countries and central Europe, set up the World Union of Sephardi Jews.
Despite the fact that hundreds of years had already elapsed since the Spanish expulsion, it has to be stated that Jews of Spanish origin did not abandon their native Ladino language. In the second half of the 19th century, several newspapers were published in Ladino, such as: El Dragoman, El Nacional, La Politica, El Correo di Vienna and Guerta de Estoria, but shortly afterwards those publications ceased to appear. As a result of the increase in the number of Sephardi Jews residing in Vienna, mostly originally from the Balkans, several Spanish books, newspapers and magazines were published from the end of the 19th century until the beginning of the 20th century.
The increase of assimilation also influenced the Sephardi congregation, and as a result, the use of Ladino gradually decreased. Names of Sephardi Jews were among those listed as abandoning the Jewish religion.
The Jewish Sephardi congregation offered various welfare and cultural institutions, such as Bikur Holim which cared for the sick in the community. Bikur Holim was headed by Licco M. Russo and Joseph J. Eskenasy. Several other welfare organizations for destitute members of the community were: Armen Unterstutzungsanstalt ("Care for the Poor"), the Halbasha organization which was in charge of providing clothing to needy children, and an additional organization by the name of Hachnassat Orchim (Care for the poor Ottoman Jews in Vienna).
In 1763 the community established an undertaker’s service – the Chevra Kaddisha which still operates under the same name. The Sephardi and Ashkenazi congregations jointly managed the hospital as well as the cemetery.
In World War II, Sephardim in Vienna suffered the same fate as other Jews, and most perished during the Holocaust.
Vienna’s Sephardiccommunity reestablished itself in May 1992 and built two synagogues and a room used for festivities. The community’s activities are run by the Sephardi Federation, which is separate from the primary Jewish communal organization.
Members of the Sephardi community include Jews from the formar Soviet Republics of Central Asia - Uzbekistan - and the Caucasus region: Georgia and Daghestan.