The history of Jewish Vienna goes all the way back to 1190 with the founding of the first synagogue in the city. Yet if you walk around Vienna today, it is easy to pass by the evidence of the once vibrant Jewish community without noticing. Since the movie Woman in Gold heightened our interest in visiting Vienna, we knew we wanted to take a Jewish Vienna walking tour during our stay.
In Barcelona, we tried a do-it-yourself Jewish walking tour, but the Spanish Inquisition did a good job converting, driving out, or exterminating the Jews, so it was hard to find anything on our own. In Rome, we enjoyed lunch in the Jewish quarter and a lovely tour of the Synagogue but knew we were missing the full story. Therefore, when we were heading to Vienna I reached out to the company that I trust to provide thoughtful and educational tours for the “intellectually curious,” Context Travel.
With Context Travel, I know that I will get a well-educated scholar as a guide who is passionate about the subject matter and won’t steer me wrong with “alternative facts.” Their small group tours are capped at six people, although families with children under 13 need to book a private tour. If you have young children, I would definitely recommend requesting a guide that knows how to keep younger children engaged, as that is a special skill set that many Context guides have, but maybe not all.
Jewish Vienna Walking Tour with Context Travel
Note: Our tour was complimentary for purposes of this review. All opinions are my own.
Context’s Jewish Vienna tour is three hours long and covers a lot of ground, both literally and historically. We met our guide Stephan in front of the City Temple, which unfortunately was closed so we couldn’t go inside, but we spent a good amount of time just talking about the Viennese Jewish history.
As in the history of Jewish groups throughout the world, the history of Jews in Vienna is quite turbulent, with a series of pogroms and expulsions. After a couple of centuries of relative peace, the Jews were first expelled from Vienna in 1420, when they were suspected of opposing the Habsburgs. Then, in the 17th century when the Protestants and Catholics were at war and they needed money, Vienna brought back the Jews.
In 1825 the City Temple was built and later, in 1867, a move was made to allow for equal rights for all religions in Vienna, ushering in nearly 70 years of prosperity until the Nazi rise to power. By 1938, there were 170,000 Jews in Vienna, representing about one-tenth of the population. Tragically, after World War II, only 5,512 Jews were left in Vienna, and of these, only 3,000 were originally Viennese.
On November 9, 1938, the night of Kristallnacht (or night of crystal or broken glass), 24 synagogues were completely destroyed. Today, there are somewhere between 12,000-20,000 Jews in Vienna and many synagogues have been rebuilt. But you wouldn’t know by walking past them. You may notice a guard booth or concrete barriers in front of a nondescript building that could tip you off to the presence of a Jewish Day School or synagogue. Without our guide, we would not have even known they were there.
On our Jewish Vienna tour, we moved on from the City Temple to Judenplatz (Jewish Square), where you will find one of the city’s Holocaust memorials. The memorial isn’t grand or elaborate, but if you learn the intent and meaning behind it, it is very powerful. The memorial represents a library, where all the book spines are turned in so that we can’t read the titles. They represent all the stories that were left untold, all the lives not fully lived. The only way we could read the titles would be to go inside the library, but the doors symbolically don’t have any handles.
Across the square, is the statue of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a playwright in the time of enlightenment and helped formulate the idea of tolerance.
The next stop on our Jewish tour of Vienna was a quick stop into St. Stephen’s Cathedral…surprisingly enough. But in it, we saw some very early evidence of antisemitism. This led to a very interesting discussion about the current climate towards Jews and Austrians’ acknowledgment (or lack thereof) of their role in the Holocaust. Unlike in Germany where the government acknowledges the past and ensures that everyone learns from those atrocities, Austria has a tendency to not talk about the past.
From Stephansplatz, we took the underground across the canal to the second district, which is where there is a strong Jewish community today. We saw the Nestroy Hof Jewish Theater, and the ruins of one of the temples destroyed during Kristallnacht, where only the four columns remain.
We learned about a recent program to place memory stones on houses and embedded in sidewalks in front of homes where Jews once resided. It was very encouraging to me to see that even seventy years after the Holocaust, current generations are passionate about making sure those that were lost will not be forgotten.
Later, we also strolled past the houses of Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl, psychoanalysts who were important figures in the second and third waves of psychoanalysis after Freud. On some days, the tour would stop in at a kosher bakery, but it was closed on Sunday.
We ended our Jewish Vienna tour back across the river in the First District, in front of a building where Jews were questioned and tortured during World War II.
If you aren’t seriously interested in Jewish history, the tour may be a little much for you. And I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for young children — both because of the subject matter and that there isn’t a lot to see that has that wow factor. But for those looking for a deeper understanding of the history of Vienna’s Jewish community, you will learn more than you can even process.
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