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A police car at the entrance to Seitenstettengasse the street where Vienna's oldest synagogue is
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Armed Austrian policeman in front of the synagogue door
photo by Rhonda Spivak


The street on which synagogue is located
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Location of former Gestapo Headquarters
photo by Rhonda Spivak

 

Police block entrance to Seitenstetten Street

Editor's Report from Vienna: Getting Through The Police Barricade To Shul and Finding Gestapo Headquarters

by Rhonda Spivak, Sept 3, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday morning, August 2, 2014 in Vienna I walked from the Hotel Stefanie (where I was staying) across the Danube River to the narrow pedestrian alleyway Known as Seitenstettengasse where Vienna’s oldest synagogue built in 1825, was located. It was the only synagogue that the Nazis didn’t destroy in Austria during the Holocaust and as such is a treasure from a lost world.

 

 

 

 

 

The entrance to the street where the synagogue was located was tricky to find, and I had to remember to veer left the moment I came across a red and white sign for a Chinese food restaurant. The alleyway would turn into Judengasse, “Jew Street” the street where Vienna’s Jews were forced to live in the Middle Ages. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I came across the sign and veered left, I had expected that there would be some security just like there had been at the synagogue in Munich I had visited earlier in the year. But I was taken aback to see that the entire street where this main synagogue was located was closed off. As it was, the street wasn’t designed for vehicular traffic, but now it was closed off from all pedestrian traffic. Two armed Austrian policemen stood near their car blocking off the alleyway from one direction, and two to three others stood at the other end of the alley blocking off pedestrian traffic from the other side.

 

 

 

 

 

I was allowed through by the policemen because I said I was going to the synagogue. Arriving to the synagogue door, I was asked questions by two plain clothed security guards (who spoke Hebrew), more questions than I have ever had to answer at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. The security search included being asked to open a small zipped pouch in my purse that I had long forgotten even existed.

 

 

 

 

I had assumed that all of this security was because of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and a large pro-Palestinian rally that had taken place in the city a week or two earlier, but once inside the synagogue I learned that wasn’t the case.

 

 

 

“There is this much security every Shabbat. This has nothing to do with the war,” a Jewish Viennese man in the chapel told me. “It’s been that way ever since 1981 when two Palestinian terrorists [from Abu Nidal] with machine guns and grenades ran in here and killed two people, wounding 30 others attending a Bar-Mitzvah. We wish we didn’t have to have this security but we do.”

 

 

 

 

Afterwards, I walked to the square behind the synagogue and noticed it was named Friedman after one of the deceased victims. Inside the synagogue, I middle aged woman tells me that she has heard there will be another pro-Palestinian flash demonstration. “They move around from street to street. You may run into them.”

 

 

 

 

My timing for arriving at the synagogue, some would say, was perfect. I had slept in longer than I had intended to and by the time I arrived the service was over and they were setting up for kiddush!  The Kiddush was intended not only for the congregants of this main synagogue but for another congregation of a nearby synagogue.  

 

 

 

 

On the alley, outside the synagogue, orthodox and traditional Jews, many with strollers and small children were congregating and because of the police barricade, Jews were the only ones allowed on the street. The scene- to an outsider like myself- was jarring:  It was as if the medieval Jewish ghetto of Vienna was being recreated for the afternoon.  For a moment, it also felt like I was in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem on a Shabbat afternoon.

 

 

 

 

Outside I came across a Jewish youth group tour which was touring Vienna and then going to Israel. “Our tour to Israel was almost cancelled, but in the end it was allowed. Is it safe in Israel?” one of the teenagers from the group asked me. “Yes but you’ll probably be in and out of a few bomb shelters,” I replied.  

 

 

 

 

I went over to ask a blonde haired blue eyed Austrian police man with a large gun standing not far across from the synagogue door with a large gun and asked him whether it would be safe for the Jews if he and his colleagues weren’t there. “Yes it would be,” he said.  Of course, he likely is correct, but on the other hand after the 1981 incident it was clear no one would take a chance.

 

 

 

 

 

About two hundred filled the hall adjoining the synagogue for what was a very elaborate Kiddush.  I have been to a kiddush in the main synagogue in Munich, which was plentiful but the Viennese kiddush easily out did Munich’s. (In fact, I lingered at the pastry table trying to decide what to sample, convincing myself that it was my journalistic  duty to try one of everything in order to be  equipped properly to write a “ a Vienna kiddush review.” )

 

 

 

 

I asked a group of young Viennese Jews in their thirties whether they felt anti-Semitism in Vienna. One businessman who said he was in real estate replied, “Anti-Semitism is here. But it’s not bad here like it is in France where you can be trapped by a mob in your synagogue. Not yet, anyway.” He added that while he wore his kippha in synagogue, he wouldn’t wear it outside.

 

 

 

Another man, who was a teacher at Vienna’s Jewish day school said, “Which anti-Semitism? Traditional Viennese anti-Semitism. Yes, there is that here just as there always was and always will be. Or do you mean Muslim anti-Semitism? That we’re feeling more of, these days.”

 

 

 

 

 

Another younger orthodox woman I had met near my hotel had said  “We feel it [anti-Semitism] here mostly because of the Turks who live in Vienna . They are more open about their hostility.  I let my son wear his kippa around this neighborhood, but aside from that when I am not around I tell him to wear a baseball cap,” she said. Sometimes even though there is nothing verbalized, I feel the stares.”

 

 

 

 

 

Another Jewish Viennese woman Ju

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.