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Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna
photo by Rhonda Spivak

The street on which the synagogue is located which is part of residential apartment complexes
photo by Rhonda Spivak

St Rupert's Church just behind the street on which the synagogue is located
photo by Rhonda Spivak

The dome on the roof of the synagogue is covered
photo by Rhonda Spivak


Police guard the street the synagogue is on

Editor's Kristallnacht Report : Discovering why the Nazis Failed To Burn Down One Synagogue In Vienna

by Rhonda Spivak, November 9, 2014



On Kristallnacht ,( November 9) this year, I thought of my  journey to see the Stadttempel synagogue in Vienna this summer, the only synagogue in Vienna out of  more than 93 synagogues and prayer houses that escaped destruction during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass when the Nazis destroyed all the others.

As such, the Stadttempel synagogue, with its gorgeous light blue oval roof is a piece of history, a window into a lost Jewish world, a remnant from the time when Vienna's Jewish population hovered at around 200,000 (as opposed to the some eight to ten thousand Jews of today's Vienna.)

Why had this synagogue been spared on Kritallnacht, the day when over  6000 Jews in Vienna were apprehended and sent to Dachau concentration camp? Why was it the only synagogue that the Nazis didn't burn to the ground?

I decided to take a tour of the synagogue given by a knowledgeable Sephardic Viennese Jewish woman to learn the answer to this question.


It turned out that she gave three answers to this question and I had accidentally come upon one of those answers when I was meandering around  the next  cobblestone lane, one street over from the synagogue.  There I had come upon upon St. Rupert's church with stained glass windows depicting a crucified Christ.


As my tour guide explained, St Rupert's Church is considered to be the oldest church in the city of Vienna, located in one of the oldest parts of the city,  the section of the Roman Vindobona.( which was a Celtic settlement and later a Roman military camp on the site of the modern city of  Vienna). The oldest bells in Vienna are located in the church, dating from around 1280, and the glass windows I had noticed were the oldest glass window panes (dating from approximately 1370) .


The Nazis realized that if they had burned the Stadttempel, because it was so close to the Church, they likely would have ended up destroying the church as well, my guide explained. I kept on thinking it was too bad more synagogues hadn't been built right next to churches.


The other similar reason, according to my guide, that the synagogue was not burned is because of the fact that  at the time it as built in 1824  Emperor Joseph II had issued an edict that  only Roman Catholic places of worship were allowed to be built with facades fronting directly on to public streets. The synagogue had to be built in a way that it would not be seen from the street to be a synagogue (and accordingly there are no windows in the synagogue at all), and even the oval dome on the roof of the synagogue is covered. As a result of this edict, the synagogue was fit into an apartment complex since it was attached to residential buildings on a residential street  had the Nazis burned it, they would also have set fire to the residential buildings attached to it.

Lastly, my guide explained that the synagogue also housed all the records of the Jewish community of Vienna and the Nazis did not want to burn those, as they needed them for carrying out deportations.  Gestapo headquarters, which was used for torture and the organization of the deportation of Jewish to concentration camps, was located a few steps away from St. Rupert's church in the Morzinplatz square.

Although the synagogue was not burned to the ground it was damaged inside and it was provisionally re-opened in September 1945. In August 1950, the coffins of Theodor Herzl and his parents were displayed at the synagogue, prior to their transfer for reburial in Israel.

As I left the synagogue, I walked by St. Rupert's church, and found the apartment building which had been the location of Gestapo headquarters. There was a nice looking Greek restaurant with tables set up on the street. I considered stopping there in this quaint little spot but lost my appetite at the idea of eating looking out onto the former Gestapo headquarters.

I stopped in across the street at a bookstore, where I saw there were two Israeli men drinking coffee and speaking Hebrew.  There was something especially satisfying about hearing Hebrew spoken right outside the location of former Gestapo headquarters.

I left to return to my hotel, Hotel Stefanie, Vienna's oldest Hotel,  on Taborstrasse 12,  which was just across the Danube river in what is known as Leopoldstadt, the second  district of Vienna, which borders on what was originally a  Jewish ghetto.  In 1624 Emperor Ferdinand II proclaimed that Jews of Vienna had to live outside the city walls on an island in the Danube just opposite the town. This Jewish town in the "Unterer Werd" (today Vienna's second district) was bordered by what is today Taborstrasse, the Augarten park, the Grosse Schiffahrtsgasse, the Krummbaumgasse, and the Carmelite monastery. About fifty years later all Jews were expelled from Vienna by imperial decree, and the great synagogue there was turned into the Church of St. Leopold.

Later on, Leopoldstadt became heavily populated by Jews and was known as a Jewish district. It is where Vienna's Jews were gathered for deportation during the Nazi period.  I suppose anyone staying at my hotel during the Nazi period couldn't have helped but notice Jews being rounded up and deported.

In the area today, down the block form the Hotel Stefanie I saw kosher food stores where the clerks were speaking Hebrew, a kosher bakery that was filled with small orthodox Jewish school children and where I found some small orthodox and ultra-orthodox  synagogues. I managed to take a sneak peak at one of them, which literally looked like a hole in the wall.  There is also a very good kosher restaurant, Simcha's , owned by an Israeli that locals recommended and another one  called Boker Tov where I  snacked on a falafel. I noticed a few "for rent" signs that were written in Hebrew only in the area.  More towards the centre of town, I also found a store selling Israeli Ahava Products (where the Israeli woman working there told me to eat at Simcha's) and sure enough there was even a Michel Negrin store for Israeli jewellry.

The proportion of the population that is Jewish in Leopoldstadt district today is about 3.0%.

When I got back to my hotel, the desk clerk had suggested that I might want to take a train to see Mathausen concentration camp, about two hours from Vienna.  I nixed the idea. Had it been a different time I probably would have gone. But I had arrived in Vienna right after spending 25 days in Israel during the Hamas-Israel war in Gaza this past summer. That was depressing enough.  

Postscript: In October 2014, some two months after I visited the Stadttempel synagogue, the Times of Israel reported that a biker brandishing a knife and shouting anti-Semitic slogans was arrested.

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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.