Vienna: past 
and present

Sarah Ebner makes a moving family visit to the Austrian capital, exploring the darker history among the city’s beautiful streets


Watching my son as he was blessed by the Rabbi at the Vienna City Temple was extremely moving. It was Friday evening and this was his first visit to the city where his grandfather was born — and had been forced to leave, aged just two, in 1939.

And now, here we were, in a thriving synagogue, with a congregation singing the songs that we recognised from home, and reclaiming their heritage.

Vienna is, of course, suffused with Jewish memories. Before the Second World War, it was home to the third largest Jewish congregation in Europe, among them, several members of my family. Before 1939 there were 185,000 Jews in the city. Today there are around 10,000.

Around 65,000 Viennese Jews died in the Holocaust; many others — including my father and his parents — were fortunate enough to leave. It is a beautiful city with a dark past. But in recent years at least, it seems to be coming to terms with that.

This shul was the only one that survived the pogrom of Kristallnacht in 1938, mainly because it is attached to a number of other buildings, so could not be destroyed without damaging them too.

The elegant building fits perfectly into this beautiful city. This was once the capital of a huge empire and that’s shown in the architecture. It is an utter treat to walk around.

My trip was a particularly special one. Before each of their bar or batmitzvahs, my parents took my daughter, nieces and nephews to find out more about the Austrian side of their family. My mother died last year, so this trip consisted of me, my father Henry, and my son.

We began with a walking tour which took in some general history, excellent views and also the Whiteread Memorial to the Holocaust, and the Monument Against War and Fascism, which is located just behind the opera house. The Whiteread Memorial stands by the Jewish Museum on Judenplatz and is remarkable. It is 10 by seven metres and almost four metres high. The names of the camps where thousands of Austrian Jews were killed are inscribed on the ground around the memorial.

We walked to the synagogue late in the afternoon and were given an El Al style grilling at the entrance — all quite understandable, even though we had told them in advance that we were coming.

It was quite surreal listening to a service in Hebrew and German, not to mention reading a siddur with no English in it. But it was rather special too, especially as the synagogue was full for a batmitzvah celebration.

Alef Alef, a kosher restaurant, is only a few minutes away by foot, and we sat down to a feast — complete with gefilte fish, chicken soup and chicken schnitzel.

Our time in Vienna was a mixture of past and present. We loved our trip to the wonderful Haus der Musik, where you can conduct the Vienna Philharmonic (at least virtually) and create your own tunes, and we also indulged in the delightful hot chocolate and cakes at Demel coffee shop and the fluffy Kaiserschmarrn chopped pancakes at Café Mozart.

My son particularly enjoyed visiting the (very touristy!) Time Travel with its waxworks of the Austrian royal family and two rides, as well as our trip to the famous Ferris wheel at the Prater (a theme park which also offers a variety of other rides). He also loved our trip around the city in a horse and carriage and the kids’ audio tour at the very grand Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the imperial family.

We stayed in the most fantastic location. The Hotel Royal is a four-star hotel situated literally two minutes from the famous Stefansdom. It’s around 10 to 15 minutes walk to the shul, and also right by a taxi rank, next to a delicious coffee house (the Aida) and opposite a supermarket. Plus it has its own Italian restaurant and is extraordinarily quiet.

You have to go to the opera if you’re in Vienna, and we thoroughly enjoyed watching The Circus Princess, the light operetta we saw at the Volksoper. Luckily there were English surtitles which meant we could understand all that was happening on stage.

So much for the present. Our trip also included many nods to the past. We visited the DOW, the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, which is definitely worth a look around. It has a permanent exhibition documenting the crimes of National Socialism and includes important material about right-wing extremism and racism in Austria. It also has a database of the Austrian Jews murdered by the Nazis.

The small permanent exhibition is fascinating – not least the voting slip which took place after the Anschluss (when German troops entered the country in March 1938). Jews weren’t allowed to vote in the subsequent plebiscite, but the voting card on display clearly shows that a “Ja”, rather than “nein” was expected, thanks to its much larger and prominent circle on the ballot.

We were also glad to see the Jewish Museum on Judenplatz which has the remains of the medieval synagogue (built underneath the Whiteread memorial). There we found out about Jewish life in Vienna in medieval times, at least before the Jews were expelled and murdered in 1421.

I found the other Jewish museum, in Dorotheegasse, even more interesting but also terribly sad. It started its new permanent exhibition “Our City! Jewish Vienna Then to Now” in 2013 and if you haven’t been to the city since then, it really is a must-see. This is an honest look at the story of Viennese Jews, starting with the post-war period, and the unhelpfulness of Austria’s people and politicians when it came to dealing with those Jews who returned.

It’s the second floor which had a huge impact on me. It looks back on the community from the Middle Ages to the Holocaust and, in a strange way, seems to foretell the disasters of the Nazi era, by showing how difficult it always was for Jews in Vienna, throughout history — even when figures such as Herzl and Freud were making an impact in their own fields.

It was incredibly poignant to search for the names of my father’s uncle, aunt, cousin and grandmother on a database, and to be given the dates of their deportation to concentration camps — plus the extra information “did not survive” for all of them.

The Jewish Museum was very moving. But the most touching thing of our entire trip was our visit to the Admiral Kino on the Burgasse. This was the cinema which my grandparents owned and ran in the ‘30s. They lived above the cinema in a flat, along with my baby father, while my grandfather, Berthold (for whom my son, Robert, is named) was sent to Dachau and then onto Buchenwald, for refusing to show Nazi propaganda films.

The cinema still exists, showing mainly arthouse films, and is strangely beautiful, looking much like it must have done many decades ago. My son (and I) loved seeing the screen and the projection room, thanks to the current owner, Michaela Englert, being very generous with her time.

There is so much to do in Vienna, and I am conscious that there was much we didn’t fit in, particularly when it comes to art — no Klimt, no Schiele — as we simply ran out of time. And the priority, at least for my son’s first Viennese visit, was his heritage and family story.


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