Vienna's reinvention

The Austrian capital’s belated bid to remember its Jewish citizens makes it worth a fresh look.


By Andy Mossack, December 23, 2008
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Modern Vienna: more than cake and kitsch as it gets to grips with commemoration:

Modern Vienna: more than cake and kitsch as it gets to grips with commemoration:

There’s a square in Vienna’s old city. It’s not a particularly impressive square, nor for that matter especially large, but it is nevertheless a square of great Jewish significance. Judenplatz, as it is called, has come to represent a turning point in the political thinking of Austria, a country which is finally holding up its hands and accepting responsibility for the past crimes of National Socialism.

Like its neighbouring capital Berlin, Vienna is witnessing a revolution of revelation, where its less than illustrious history is no longer swept under the carpet but exposed for all to see.

Vienna is bending over backwards to embrace and rebuild its former Jewish heritage, and visitors going there today, will certainly feel they have taken huge strides in achieving this.

All over this beautiful city are museums and landmarks documenting the people and buildings of its Jewish past. And Judenplatz has become the symbolic centre of this effort. It was the site of the first Jewish settlements of the Middle Ages and the excavations of the huge medieval synagogue can be seen in the basement of the impressive museum there.

You can still see the foundations of the bimah, the Torah shrine and the walls and floor of the women’s section. In fact, centuries before the Nazis wiped out 68,000 Austrian Jews in the last century, the medieval community was annihilated in 1420.

Traditional Vienna: the city’s Parliament building

Traditional Vienna: the city’s Parliament building

Around the Platz are various significant plaques; one from the Austria’s Cardinal acknowledging the anti-Jewish role of the Catholic Church, and another from the Jewish community devoted to Austrian non-Jews who helped Jews during the Nazi era. The centrepiece however, is the Shoah memorial by British artist Rachel Whiteread.

A concrete cube more than four metres high, the street surrounding it is inscribed with the names of the towns and villages from where Austria’s Jews were taken.

Not far from here, in Seitenstettengasse, is Vienna’s only surviving pre-War synagogue, spared from Nazi destruction because its exterior so neatly fitted between the houses on either side — as it does today.

There are regular tours around this extraordinary, circular structure, with, at its centre, a huge dome, its interior back-lit, and sky-blue recreating a starry heaven. Interestingly, the builders and architects of this 1825 structure, were not Jewish.

The only way to see the interior of the shul is on one of the twice-daily tours — and you will need to bring your passport to be allowed in.

It is easy to get lost in the area of the Old City that runs from the synagogue to the Danube but worth the risk for the atmospheric maze of cobbled streets lined with bars, restaurants, and clubs.

Although the old synagogue area is the traditional religious centre of Jewish life, today’s Jewish community is mainly based in the second district, or Leopoldstadt. Once called Mazzesinsel, or Matzoh Island, it was, for more than 300 years, the home of immigrant Jewish families.

Today it has the biggest concentration of Jewish shops, kosher supermarkets, kosher butchers, bakers and restaurants and the soon-to-be-completed Hakoah sports facility, funded by the City as compensation for land taken by the Nazis.

Anyone interested in exploring all of Vienna’s Jewish heritage should
begin at the Jewish Welcome Centre located opposite Vienna’s most famous landmark, St Stephen’s Cathedral in Stephenplatz.

Its sole purpose seems to be to make Jewish visitors less apprehensive about visiting a city that has much to offer but also much unpleasant baggage.

The list of Jews who once walked these streets is long and impressive: Gustav Mahler, Johann Strauss (part Jewish), Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Herzl, Billy Wilder, Fred Zimmermann and Otto Preminger to name but a few. There is one more interesting stop on a tour of Jewish Vienna, and that is Vienna’s Rossau cemetery, one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe. It has gravestones with Hebrew inscriptions from the 16th century, and in 1984, 400 hundred years after its founding, it was re-inaugurated.

Bang in the centre of it is a gravestone in the shape of a fish. According to legend, local resident Jude Simeon had been planning to eat the fish, but while it was on the kitchen counter, the fish raised its head and said Shema Yisrael. Simeon called on a rabbi who told him it was a dybbuk, a soul that has not been able to rest in peace and is given another opportunity to do so in another form. It would leave once it had been helped, the rabbi told him, so Simeon buried the fish with its own carved gravestone!

Of course these were also the streets where Beethoven and Mozart plied their trade and whilst a visit to both of their houses is recommended, among the city’s less edifying sights, is that of the tacky hawkers dressed as Mozart who try to sell you tickets to concerts.

However, you can conduct the Vienna Philharmonic yourself using a virtual baton at the city’s House of Music.

Vienna has always been a must see city: its glorious architecture and classical music heritage are superlative, but as well as its Jewish heritage, it is also fast becoming a place where young and old can happily co exist and enjoy their own particular brand of activity without overlapping.

Trendy bars are located alongside traditional restaurants and cafés that really know how to tempt visitors with their fabulously calorific treats.

Apple strudel and Sacher Torte, the incredibly rich chocolate confection invented in the city, are sold everywhere, accompanied by great tasting coffee, always served with a glass of water on the side. Very Viennese.

While far from cheap, the city also abounds in serious restaurants, though — unfortunately for the kosher-observant visitor — with lots of emphasis on meat. However, there are a number of kosher restaurants, and fish and vegetarian dishes can be found if you persevere.

It is worth taking the circular, hop-on and hop-off bus tour early in your visit, as this will give you a real feel for the geography and key sights of the city. When you decide to explore, it is easy to do so on foot as Vienna is a great walking city.

The place where I rested my weary feet after a day exploring was the Radisson SAS Style Hotel, a stunning example of a modern boutique hotel located right in the heart of the old town next to the famous Café Central and within easy reach of the city’s best shopping.

A totally contemporary hotel — in contrast to its surroundings — it has been designed to stun from the moment you enter its glass-floored lobby. It has just 78 rooms, each with marble and Italian glass bathroom with walk in showers.

Amenities include Sapori, its hip, Italian gourmet restaurant, and H12, its very cool bar — both worth a visit even if you don’t stay at the hotel.

If you have a day to spare, take the 45-minute train journey to Slovakia’s capital Bratislava, just along the Danube. The city has, of course its own fascinating Jewish heritage, and is well worth a visit if time permits.

Whether you nip over the border, or just confine your travels to Vienna, you will find this a rewarding visit, full of culture, cake and the heartbreaking reminders of a generation only now being properly commemorated.

Travel facts

Radisson SAS Style Boutique Hotel, Herrengasse 112 1010 Vienna (0043 1 22 780; www.radissonsas.com) offers double rooms from ¤145 per night. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) has return flights to Vienna in January from £21.99 return; Airflights (www.airflights.co.uk; 0845 345 7377) offer return flights from Luton to Vienna from £66 return. The CAT train service from airport to city centre takes 15 minutes and costs £6.

Jewish Vienna

Jewish Welcome Service, Stephansplatz 10, 1010 Vienna (0043-1- 533 27 30: www.jewish-welcome.at)
Guided Tour Stadt-tempel Synagogue:
Mon–Thu, 11:30 am and 2 pm. Passport required.
Jewish Cemetery, Seeg 9, 1090 Vienna (0043 1 796 36 13 Mon-Fri 7 am-3 pm)
Judenplatz Museum Judenplatz 8 (open Sunday to Thursday 10 am-6pm; Friday 10am-2 pm).
Jewish Museum of Vienna, Dorotheer-gasse 11 (0043 1 535 04 31; www.jmw.at)
Kosher restaurants include Alef Alef, Seitenstettengasse 2; Simchas, Taborstrasse 47; Bachur Tov, Taborstrasse 19

    Last updated: 3:29pm, March 11 2009