With the history of Central Europe in the context of recent sentiments of xenophobia and white supremacy spewing from the daily news, during last month’s visit to Vienna we wanted to devote some quality time to honoring the local Jewish population who survived a genocide less than two generations ago. On a Monday morning M, G, D, and I boarded the streetcar for downtown from our apartment in the Döbling district. After a delightful breakfast at the historic Café Central we made our way to Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Wien, the Jewish Museum Vienna.
I had picked up a cup of coffee to go during the few blocks walk between the Café Central and the museum, so we all waited outside while I finished my drink. Two uniformed, armed police officers stood on patrol outside the clear glass museum doors. These were not rent-a-cops. They were not a smiley pair, though they seemed pleasant enough. They stood at ease, talking with one another, and positioning themselves in relaxed conversation adjacent to the door. I sensed they were quite serious about their job and could take down a feisty visitor in a split second with no hassle.
Just inside the front door, a third uniformed and armed police officer waited behind a small table to check bags. Like his colleagues outside on the street, he was not especially smiley, but he was friendly enough. I did not have a bag, so I stepped to the side to look for a place to deposit my empty coffee cup while our imposing greeter looked through M’s and D’s bags. The officer conducted an actual search of their bags, asking D and M to remove items, moving things around, feeling inside, and actually looking. This was not an auditorium bag check in the U.S, where a couple of contracted temporary event workers stand at a doorway watching a crowd filter past with open bags. Even after the physical inspection M and D were required to check their bags in a locker in the stainless steel cloak room. Apparently no bags at all are allowed inside the Jüdisches Museum.
I kissed the mezuzah as the four of us strolled into the opening exhibit introducing the post-war circumstances of Vienna’s Jewish community. More than 100,000 fled Austria during the first year of World War II, leaving Vienna with a Jewish community of just over 8,000 by 1942. 65,000 Austrian Jews met their death at the hands of Hitler; fewer than 6,000 Austrian Jews survived the war.
The tragedy of the Holocaust was only a visible highlight of a much longer history of ghetto, removal, and extermination that started about 600 or 800 years ago. A small Jewish community thrived in what is now Vienna starting sometime in about 1204. They built a stone shul and participated in market activities until 1420 when a Albrecht V ascended to power. To consolidate his power and limit the influence of minority populations he ordered all people of Jewish background and faith to be rounded up and forced to choose between pledging allegiance and giving up their practices or death. Some 400 Jews were murdered and the shul destroyed during this first documented pogrom of Vienna.
The progression of history of Vienna’s Jewish community portrayed a continual cycle of rebuilding, never quite achieving equality, and then active destruction by the ruling elite. The community was strong amidst brutal assault and was never quite destroyed entirely, even after the Holocaust. Many returned to regenerate the community. Today the Jewish community, in a city about the size of Portland, numbers about 8,000 within a nation among whom about 75 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.
The top floor of the museum held many archival objects on display. A small room was filled with cases upon cases of ornate, mostly silver ritual artifacts organized by regions or city: scroll crowns, scroll handles, breastplates, Torah pointers, seder plates, kiddish cups, and much more. By the dozens. Some whole shelves were filled with nothing but slender yads saved from a community. Most of the cases included a note indicating the region or community, and some politically motivated assault that left so many families separated from their ritual possessions and a number of whole shuls razed.
While I tried to see the hope and resilience in the repeated stories of near annihilation and rebirth, political and social heroism among clergy, teachers, scholars, and community leaders, the continual battery and attempts to divide the community held my attention. The story is too present to be a part of the history of any community of religious, racial, or ethnic minorities. The story is horrifically reflected in the racist assaults in Charleston at the Emanuel AME Church, in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, and in Portland after the two men on the transit system gave their lives to interrupted the racial and religious harassment of two young women.
After a much-needed luncheon break to refresh ourselves with Austrian sauerkraut and beer we continued our visit to the Jewish Museum Vienna at its second, small building up the street in Judenplatz, the historic Jewish community of Vienna. Outside stands a Holocaust memorial to commemorate the 65,000 community members who perished in Nazi gas chambers. The monument is an inverted library, containing 65,000 books. The spines are turned inward to the room within. The library has no doors or windows and cannot be accessed internally. To our little group of travelers from the outside, all we could see were the edges of the pages, tightly shelved in row after row. We can never know the knowledge and stories that are locked away forever.
Inside, M and D had to undergo bag check again, and again were required to deposit them in a locker in a steal cloak room. The second time the isolated, stainless steel, thick walled cloak room looked more like a bomb shelter, located behind the ground floor replica of an Israeli safety shelter.
Downstairs we found more well-protected antiquities and a diorama of the community as researchers believe it existed in 1420 before the first mass execution. We passed a nondescript corridor that looked more like a staff entry or emergency exit, but upon closer inspection found an invitation to one final exhibit: the original Vienna shul. At the end of the corridor, up a short staircase, still underground we found an open archeological excavation of the shul foundation, including the mechitza to separate the women from the men, the bimah at the center where services were conducted, and the aron kodesh to the east that housed the Torah. I had never realized these features were structurally embedded into the foundation of a house of worship. The inverted library monument commemorating the Holocaust rested directly above the foundation in its exact dimensions.
My horror at the persistent brutalization of a community melted away into hope. The foundation of the community was still intact after 600 years of persecution and resurrection. The structure seemed tiny, especially if all 400 community members ever turned out at once to the same service or celebration. Encasing the black tile floor, the two-foot thick walls of the brick and mud foundation protruded three or four feet high in some places.
I observed to M how odd it seemed that this fragile archeological site was just open to visitors, with no attempt to protect it from the wandering and curious hands of visitors Everything else in both buildings had been well shielded in climate controlled glass cases.
“Maybe they want people to touch it,” she remarked. Hmm. I reflected on her comment and realized that human hands cannot extinguish a living community. Ethnic cleansing often is not complete, regardless of the tactics and weapons used by the perpetrators. The Tutsis still thrive in Rwanda. The Armenian community remains strong. The indigenous Native American and First Nation communities of North America are re-growing with peace and love.
I knelt down next to the bimah and reached out my hand to touch the 800-year old mud-and-straw bricks, and dried mortar. The earthen building materials left fine, powdery dirt on my fingers. I needed to take some of the strength and hope home with me.