A Jewish History of Austria - Part I

As long as I had lived in Salzburg, I had essentially no direct contact with Jewish Austrians. My interested in Jewish culture and history developed later, and is based on personal encounters with Jews and my fascination for the intellectual and cultural achievements of Austria between approximately 1870 and 1934, to which Jews contributed significantly.

The old Jewish Cemetery of Eisenstadt in the Burgenland seems somewhat lost and forgotten, with few people left to look after it today.

The following summary of Austrian Jewish History is very concise and based on several books and essays. I have added references and further reading for a more detailed record. Early records of Jewish people in today′s Austria are somewhat fragmentary, but date back to the time of the Roman Empire, when the population of the province Noricum was predominantly Romano-Celtic.

In 2008, a Jewish grave was found in Halbturn in the Burgenland: A young girl had been buried here in the 3rd century.  After the decay of the Roman Empire, the region and its cities fell into disrepair in large scale. Bavarian and Slavonic tribes populated "Austria" from the late 6th century onwards and gradually converted to Christianity. Bishop Arno of Salzburg (785-871 AD) was treated by a Jewish doctor ("medicum iudaicum").

Medieval History & Reformation

The "Raffelstettener Zollordnung" (a catalogue of customs and tax rules) documents the presence of Jewish merchants in Austria in the 10th century. The Judengasse ("Jew′s Alley") in Salzburg is documented in the 12th century (note that Salzburg was not part of Austria until 1816). In 1244 Jews were granted certain rights by the Duke of Austria, Emperor Friedrich II later granted formal rights to Jews in 1338. In the same year, there were riots aimed at Jews in Pulkau; as a response, the Viennese Jews lowered interests for loans in order to prevent similar actions against their own community.

During the reign of Emperor Friedrich III, many pogroms disrupted or extinguished Jewish life in the Holy Roman Empire

The old synagogue of Salzburg in the Judengasse was first documented in 1370 as a house of prayer. With the increasing power of reformist movements and the related loss of power for the Catholic Church, hostility against Jews increased; being non-Catholic, they were often seen as collaborators of anti-imperial, protestant forces. In the course of the Hussite Wars (named after the Bohemian reformist Jan Hus), many Jews were expelled from Austria in 1420 and 1421.

In Salzburg, which was non-secular and ruled by a Catholic Prince-Archbishop not overly pleased about non-Catholic residents of any kind, Jews were expelled in 1492 and prevented from permanent settlement until the 19th century. Emperor Maximilian I banned Jews from Styria and Carinthia on request of local guilds in 1496 and relocated to the Eastern edge of the Empire in Zistersdorf near Eisenstadt.

From 1551, Jews had to wear a yellow spot on their clothing every time they entered market towns or cities. Over the course of the 16th century, the number of Jews in Vienna consistently increased and a new cemetery was built in today′s 9th district. In 1624, they were allowed to settle in the area of today′s Leopoldstadt under the rule of Emperor Ferdinand II. They were expelled again in 1669/70, but only ten years later individuals were granted permission to settle again: Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer acted as Court Jew ("Hofjuden") and gained influential positions and significant privileges.

"Toleranzpatente" of the Enlightenment

With the end of the counter-revolution and the gradual settling of religious wars between Catholic-Imperial and Protestant-Federalist forces, the situation for non-Catholic people in Austria gradually improved. The spreading ideas of enlightenment helped to secure basic rights for Jews. The "Toleranzpatente" of Emperor Joseph II in the 1780ies mark the first formal basis for basic religious freedom.

Emperor Joseph II granted civil rights to Protestants, Orthodox Christians and Jews in order to integrate them into the Austrian society as 'useful' citizens

By then, the segregated Jewish districts of the Habsburg Empire (called "ghettos") hosted 1,5 million Jews. The "Toleranzpatente" were mostly issued for the sake of Protestants and Greek-Orthodox Christians (about one third of the Empire's population), but Jews were also admitted to public schools (compulsory education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresia, Joseph′s mother), universities, the military and all crafts and agriculture.

The declared aim of this was to increase the contribution of Jews to the public. However, they faced strong opposition from the traditional guilds that fought this new competition. Jews remained active primarily in trade, the slow acquisition of capital led later to significant success of Jewish investors in the cloth- and cotton industries of Bohemia and Moravia. Established Jewish bankers (such as the originally Viennese Rothschild family) used the new freedom to expand their business into other sectors. Immigration and ownership of land or realities remained prohibited for Jews. This and other constraints prevented Jews from having full citizen rights.

The district of Unterberg in Eisenstadt was home to a vibrant Jewish community - there is still a Jewish Museum in the former ghetto

Nevertheless, based on their new rights and assimilation (which was later accelerated through the spreading ideas of the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic Wars), several Jewish families in Vienna acquired significant wealth and politically influential positions. Not surprisingly, many of them promoted progressive ideas of equality and enlightenment. That didn′t really help to foster appreciation for Jews: Since the Catholic Habsburgs ruled as absolute monarchs over a multiethnic empire, they were not very fond of any nationalist, republican, libertarian or anti-clerical ideas of the French Revolution.

Many Jews were progressive freemasons, which fostered hostilities from military, nobility and clerics even more. The Jew Johann Emanuel Veith converted to Catholicism and became court preacher in Vienna′s Stephansdom cathedral. He maintained close ties with the Jewish community and actively fought anti-Semitic actions.

Increase of Jewish culture in public life: 1800-1867

Especially in cities of the Habsburg Empire, the Jewish population steadily increased. Prague′s community consisted of 8,500 in 1800, which was more then 10 percent of the total population and 11,700 in 1848. Vienna had a much smaller community (immigration of poor Jews from Galicia and other eastern parts of the Empire was prohibited): About 500 to 600 (about 0.25 percent) in 1800, mostly relatively well assimilated, wealthy families. By 1848, their number had risen to 4,000 (about 0.8 percent of the total population). In this year, the revolution broke out and many Jewish intellectuals joined the revolutionary forces (consisting mostly of liberal students and nationalists).

Not terribly fond of potentially revolutionary non-Catholics: Emperor Franz Joseph I

The "Pillersdorf constitution" of 1848 granted full civil rights and religious freedom to all religious groups of the Empire. After the revolution was crushed and Franz Joseph I installed as a new Emperor, many of these rights were taken back. This included some rights for Jews: Jewish civil servants were inaugurated to prove their loyalty to Austria (1851); they were excluded from the possession of land (1853); and they were excluded from certain profession such as soliciting or teaching (1855).

Many intellectual Jews went into publishing, which they were allowed to. This led to a division of the press into a "old order" branch (pro Habsburg, Catholicism, monarchy) and a "progressive" branch (anti-Habsburg, secular, republican); the first one anti-Semitic, the latter one influenced by the many Jewish journalists.

It seems that at this time the Jewish culture in Vienna started to bloom and develop its own identity. The traditional Ashkenazi rite to celebrate a service was adapted in Vienna to a "Wiener Ritus" (Viennese rite), which spread over the Empire to Bohemia and Galicia.

As a supporter of the 19th century's increasing nationalism, Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Vienna

Yiddish lost importance in Vienna, partly also in Bohemia and Moravia, and was increasingly replaced by German. Did the Austrian Jews turn into Jewish Austrians? I always find it interesting to see how many Jews especially in the second half of the 19th century chose to give their children typically Austrian names rather than traditional, Hebrew ones.

In 1858, the Stadttempel synagogue of Vienna was built, one of the most elaborate in Europe. With the "Ausgleich" between Austria and Hungary in 1867, Jews finally gained full citizen rights. Vienna was now the city in the Habsburg Empire with the biggest Jewish community (40,000 or 6,6 percent). Most of the Viennese Jews were of Bohemian, Moravian and Hungarian origin. Fewer were from the poor area of Galicia. Jewish communities in other parts of the Empire now developed, even in cities that have not had any for a long time, such as Salzburg (part of Austria since 1816).

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Further Reading

Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien

Jewish Sightseeing: Vienna & Austria

The Institute for the History of Jews in Austria

Austrian Jewish History on aeiou (German)

Mauthausen, former Concentration Camp