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Theodore Herzl's bicycle in the Jewish Museum in Vienna
all photos by Rhonda Spivak

Photo of Herzl with his bike

Painting of Theodore Herzl in the Jewish Museum of Vienna

A Visionary on A Bike who Took a Hike: Theodore Herzl in Vienna –What would he tell European Jews to do today?

November 13, 2016



The image I remember most from my visit to the Jewish Museum in Vienna is that of the bicycle that belonged to Theodore Herzl, which is suspended from a rafter in the Museum’s lofty atrium.  The bicycle is one of the few traces which exist in Vienna of Herzl , the man who founded modern Zionism which led to the creation of Israel. 


Although Herzl was born in Budapest, in 1878, but studied law at the University of Vienna, , and then later worked as a journalist in Vienna. When I visited Vienna's Jewish Museum, I had no idea where in Vienna Herzl lived and  marvelled at the fact that  Museum actually had his bicycle, wondering how it had been found and preserved.


Without knowing it  I in fact probably walked by the building on  6 Bergasse St where Herzl lived  from around 1896 to 1898. During this time Herzl was a literary editor and Paris correspondent of the Neue  Freie Presse, Europe's main liberal newspaper at the time, and published his tract ''The Jewish State'' in 1896.  While I walked by this building I had no idea that Herzl had ever lived there since one would look in vain for any  marking  on the street mentioning this. In fact, the whole reason that I walked down Berggasse Street, which was once a Jewish middle class neighborhood, is that Sigmund Freud, the great psychoanalyst was Herzl’s neighbor and 19 Bergasse, where Freud lived and worked is today a Freud Museum, which I visited.


According to the New York Times, although Herzl and Freud were neighbors they never actually met:

“The two never met, although Freud dreamed of Herzl; and although Herzl ignored the copy of ''The Interpretation of Dreams'' Freud sent him, hoping for a review, Freud did psychoanalyze Herzl's son, Hans, years later, diagnosing the suicidal youth as suffering, not surprisingly, from a profound Oedipal conflict.”



Turning back to Herzl’s bike, I never learned at the Jewish Museum itself how Herzl’s bike was located but made a mental note to research this.  I subsequently read on the internet that the curator of the Museum had said that the bike was found at in the attic of a hotel in Altaussee some 300 kilometers west of Vienna where  Herzl was on summer holiday until 1902, which was only two years before he died.


As the Museum’s exhibit explains ,Herzl had been introduced to cycling by a well known Jewish author and playwright Arthur Schnitzler, whose novel “The Road into the Open" described not only the cycling boom in Vienna at the time  but also the insufferable anti-Semitism of the turn of the century.


Apparently Herzl loved riding around the Austrian countryside and

was once quoted as saying “A bicycle gives a person a new life.”


But the “hike’ that Herzl was thinking about taking while riding his bike was  not one in Vienna or Europe but rather a hike to the promised land. It would be one which would give the Jewish people a new life altogether. As the Museum’s exhibit states:


“In 1896 he [Herzl] formulated two visions, which could not have been more dissimilar. In a feature article he enthused about cycling in Vienna, which for him was a symbol of progress and freedom. His optimism gives no indication that at the same time he was also questioning the idea of Vienna as a place to call home. His world-famous visionary book "The Jewish State" had appeared a few months earlier. Zionism was his answer to the oppressive anti- Semitism of the turn of the century in Vienna and Europe. “


In Vienna Herzl felt that   buses cars and trucks ought to be used on a restricted basis since  the fuel to operate them could harm the atmosphere. Accordingly, he decided to use a picture of himself on a bicycle (see photo)to promote this cause of creating a Jewish state.


Although Herzl did not live to see the founding of the State of Israel, the bike did in fact become the mode of transportation amongst Israelis living on kibbutz, who were founders of the state.


Herzl’s bike in the Museum serves as “ a clever visual shorthand for  the transition from intellectual Jewish Vienna to the muscular, kibbutznik Zionism that Herzl birthed there,” as Edie Jarolim has written  in the Forward.


I have been thinking about Herzl as I read in Ha’aretz that

a poll conducted last week by the European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Center of Europe claims that despite increased security measures taken by their respective governments, 70% of European Jews said they wouldn’t go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur this year due to security concerns.( ). With antisemitism in Europe soaring and with the looming threat of jihadist terror attacks, I have been wondering what Herzl, if he were alive today, would be telling European Jews to do? I think he would say that it is time to make plans get out.


On a final note, it is very sad that Herzl has no direct descendants left today, as they found neither inner or outer freedom. As outlined in an article in  Ha’aretz, Herzl’s wife Julie died in 1907, after being hospitalized on several occasions for mental illness and drug addiction. Their son Hans, who converted to a number of denominations of Christianity  and who was treated by Freud, shot himself in 1930 on the day of his sister Pauline’s funeral. Pauline, Herzl’s daughter had   suffered from mental illness and drug abuse, and died of a heroin overdose at age 40. Her mother, Julie (Herzl’s wife) Julie  died in 1907, after being hospitalized on several occasions for mental illness and drug addiction.


As Ha’aretz continues, “Herzl’s youngest daughter, Margarethe (Trude), also suffered from mental illness, died in the Thereseinstadt concentration camp in 1943. Her son, Stephan Theodor Neumann (who later Anglicized his name during World War II to Stephen Norman) – Herzl’s only grandchild – committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in Washington D.C. in 1946, after he learned of his parents’ death during the Holocaust. He was the only Zionist of Herzl’s descendants, and even made a quick visit to Palestine in 1945, a year before he killed himself.



Although Herzl has no direct descendants,  he did birth the State of Israel and is its founding father.   And if you are ever in Vienna, you will want to check out the Jewish Museum to see his bicycle.


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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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