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The Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (Mahnmal für die österreichischen jüdischen Opfer der Schoah) is located on Judenplatz, a square that used to be the center of Jewish life in Vienna, was opened on 25 October 2000 and was designed by Rachel Whiteread. The text in front of the door reads "In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945." Also engraved on the monument are the names of the camps were Austrian Jews were killed.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

The synagogue, which is thought to have been built in the 13th century (it is first mentioned in 1294), appears to have had a double-nave plan with a hexagonal bimah. A thick layer of ash, found by excavators near the synagogue windows, suggests that the building was burnt down
photo by Rhonda Spivak

A building that is part of the Vienna University. The bricks from the homes of the destroyed Jewish ghetto of Vienna in 1421 were used to build the Vienna university. Some 500 + years later, following the Nazi takeover of Austria in the year 1938, more than 2,700 mostly Jewish affiliates of the University of Vienna were dismissed and subsequently driven away and/or murdered - lecturers, students and administration employees. Furthermore, over 200 people were stripped of their academic titles.
photo by Rhonda Spivak

The Stephansdom in Vienna named after St. Stephen
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Editor's Report from Jew Square in Vienna: A Tale of Anti-Semitism Long Before The Nazis

by Rhonda Spivak, May 15, 2014

In Vienna I went to see the Museum Judenplatz where I learned the terrible truth of how Jews "contributed" to the building of the Vienna University.


Judenplatz is the baroque town square that was the center of Jewish life in the Middle Ages in Vienna, which was the seat of the Holy Roman Christian Empire.  Because Jews were blamed for the killing of Christ, anti-Semitism flourished in those times. 


As of 1297 the Vienna city council forced Jews to wear a cone-shaped Jew hat  (Pileum cornutum ) in addition to  a Yellow badge Jews were already forced to wear.  Jews were not allowed to own property or farm the land and were barred from most trades and crafts. This left commerce - in particular money-lending against the payment of interest - the only option, which often entailed hostility on the part of Christian debtors.


However, during the Black Death epidemic in 1348-9, Vienna was one of the few cities that did not blame the Jews for causing the scourge and it became a haven for many Jews refugees, such that Jews came to make up about 5% of the city's population.


The Judenplatz square where I walked around was the site of one of the largest synagogues in Europe, but in 1420, the synagogue was destroyed in a pogrom, during which the Jews of Vienna were murdered, committed suicide, expelled, or forcibly baptized (during the reign of Duke Albrecht V) .


The video I watched at the Judenplatz Museum relates how the poorest Jews were rounded up and killed; the richest were burned in the square, with their homes sold or given away to friends of government officials.


My jaw dropped as I heard in the video that after the synagogue was destroyed, its bricks were used for construction of Vienna’s University. (This is how the Jewish community "contributed" to higher education in Vienna). I couldn't help but think of this terrible story when I later happened to pass by Vienna's University and paused to look up at the bricks.


Remarkably in 1995, archaeologists uncovered the remains of the medieval synagogue destroyed in 1421 and I viewed those remains housed in the Judenplatz Museum. A campaign of violent persecution by the Catholic Church in 1421 led dozens of Jews to commit suicide inside the synagogue, rather than renounce their faith.It was chilling to learn that the synoague was torched on March 12, the very same day that Nazi troops would enter Vienna 517 years later.


Apparently, archaeologists believe that remnants of other Jewish community structures, including a mikveh, hospital and slaughterhouse may lie under the square or nearby. But there is a problem in unearthing them. That's because prior to archeologists discovering the ruins of the medieval synagogue, Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, had initiated the project of erecting a Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz (the Square of the Jews) since Austria had no Holocaust memorial of its own.  Since many members of  Vienna's Jewish community objected to the monument being erected over the site  of the medieval synagogue, the concrete  Holocaust monument was shifted slightly away from its original planned site, and wasn't unveiled until 2000. (



Ironically, unearthing more remains of Jewish communal structures from the Middle Ages now would involve potentially disturbing the Holocaust monument.



Nearby Judenplatz I found Judengasse (Jew Alley) and walked inside an antique store--sure enough I found they were selling a Magen David necklace and a Chai. As I looked at the items,I began to wonder if these two items were property that had been taken during the Nazi period.  


As I left the Judenplatz, I passed by the landmark that dominates the skyline,  the Stephansdom, a beautiful 12th century church that is named after St. Stephen who is referred to in Acts (the fifth book of the New Testament.)
On coming across the Stephansdom, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna, I made a mental note to look up who St. Stephen was exactly and whether he had been a Jew. 

He in fact was a Jew (although his name is Greek from Stephanos, meaning crown), probably among those who had been born or who had lived beyond the borders of Israel, and therefore had come under the influence of the prevailing Hellenistic culture.


The story surrounding is Stephen described in Acts (the fifth book of the New Testament is one in which the Jews don't come out looking too good). According to Christian theology the Jewish Sanhedrin is responsible for stoning Stephen for what they perceived to be his blasphemy against the word of Moses and God. Although the New Testament doesn't give us the circumstances of Stephen's conversion to Christianity, Stephen rebuked the Jews for killing the innocent Christ.
By the time Stephen was on the scene a number of Jewish priests had been converted to the new Christian faith, but they still held to the old traditions and rules that were part of Judaism. Stephen was prepared to engage in controversy with them, pointing out that according to Christ, the old law had been superseded and for this he received the wrath of the Jewish priestly class.
According to Christianity, St. Stephen thus became the first martyr to shed his blood for the new Gospel.


It is easy to understand how the story of St. Stephen would have heightened anti-Semitic attitudes in the Viennese population in the medieval age, attitudes which no doubt lasted for many centuries later, and are undercurrents that are still felt today.  

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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.