The history of the Jews in Austria probably begins with the exodus of Jews from Judea under Roman occupation. Over the course of many centuries, the political status of the community rose and fell many times: during certain periods, the Jewish community prospered and enjoyed political equality, and during other periods it suffered pogroms, deportations, and antisemitism. The Holocaust drastically reduced the Jewish community in Austria and only 8,140 Jews remained in Austria according to the 2001 census, but other estimates place the current figure at 9,000, 15,000 and 20,000 people.
Jews have been in Austria since at least the 3rd century AD. In 2008 a team of archeologists discovered a third-century CE amulet in the form of a gold scroll with the words of the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one) inscribed on it in the grave of a Jewish infant in Halbturn. It is considered to be the earliest surviving evidence of a Jewish presence in what is now Austria. It is hypothesized that the first Jews immigrated to Austria following the Roman legions after the Roman occupation of Israel. It is theorized that the Roman legions who participated in the occupation and came back after the First Jewish–Roman War brought back Jewish prisoners, though this presumption has no concrete evidence.
The Middle Ages
A document from the 10th century that determined rights of equality between the Jewish and Christian merchants in Danube implies a Jewish population in Vienna at this point, though again, there is no concrete proof. The existence of a Jewish community in the area is only known for sure after the start of the 12th century, when two synagogues were created. In the same century, the Jewish settlement in Vienna increased with the absorption of Jewish settlers from Bavaria and from the Rhineland.
At the start of the 13th century, the Jewish community began to flourish. One of the main reasons for the prosperity was the recognition by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor that the Jews were a separate ethnic and religious group, and were not bound to the laws that targeted the Christian population. Following this assumption, in July 1244, the emperor published a bill of rights for Jews, which encouraged them to work in the money lending business, encouraged the immigration of additional Jews to the area, and promised protection and autonomous rights, such as the right to judge themselves and the right to collect taxes. This bill of rights affected other kingdoms in Europe such as Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Silesia and Bohemia, which had a high concentrations of Jews.
During this period, the Jewish population mainly dealt with commerce and the collection of taxes and also gained key positions in many other aspects of life in Austria. In 1204, the first documented synagogue in Austria was constructed. In addition, Jews went through a period of religious prosperity and a group of notable rabbis settled in Vienna and were later referred to as "the wise men of Vienna". The group established a beth midrash and it was considered to be the largest Talmudic school in Europe during that period.
The prosperity of the Jewish community caused increased jealousy from the Christian population and hostility from the church. In 1282, when the area became controlled by the Catholic House of Habsburg, Austria stopped being a religious center for the Jews.
Jews were largely hated because they acted as tax collectors and moneylenders. The earliest evidence of Jews collecting taxes appears in a document from 1320. During the same time, riots occurred against the Jews in the area. The Jewish population continued to decline in middle of the 14th century and at the start of the 15th century during the regime of Albert the Third and Leopold III. This period was characterized in the cancellations of many debts that would have been collected by Jews, the confiscation of Jewish assets, and the creation of economic limitations against them.
Deportation from Austria
In middle of the 15th century, following the establishment of the anti-Catholic movement of Jan Hus in Bohemia, the condition of the Jewish population worsened as a result of accusations that the movement was associated with the Jewish community. In 1420, the status of the Jewish community hit a low point when a Jew from Upper Austria was charged with the desecration of the sacramental bread. This led Albert V to order the imprisonment of all of the Jews in Austria. Two hundred ten Jews were burnt alive in public and the rest were deported from Austria, leaving their belongings behind. In 1469, the deportation order was cancelled by Frederick the Third, who was known for his good relationship with the Jews and was even referred to at times as the "King of the Jews". He allowed Jews to return and settle in all the cities of Styria and Carinthia. Under his regime, the Jews gained a short period of peace (between 1440 and 1493).
The rise of religious fanaticism of the Society of Jesus
The relative period of peace did not last long, and with the start of the regime of Ferdinand the First in 1556, though he also opposed the persecution of the Jews, he levied excessive taxes and ordered them to wear a mark of disgrace. Between 1564 and 1619, in the period of the regimes of Maximilian the second, Rudolf the Second and Matthias, the fanaticism of the Society of Jesus prevailed and the condition of the Jews worsened even more. Later on, during the regime of Ferdinand the Second in Austria, which in spite of that like his grandfather he opposed the persecution of the Jews and even permitted constructing a synagogue, he demanded a huge amount of tax from the Jewish population.
The nadir of the Jewish community in Austria arrived during the period of the regime of Leopold the First, a period in which Jews were persecuted frequently and were deported from different areas, including a deportation from Vienna in 1670, but gradually returned after several years. Jews also had to bear different laws—one of which permitted only first-born children to marry, in order to stop the increase of the Jewish population. Although Leopold the First treated the Jewish population severely, he had Samson Wertheimer, a Jewish economic advisor, working for him.
A Sabbateans movement, which was established during the same period of time, also reached the Jewish community in Austria, especially due to the rough condition of the Jews there, and many of them immigrated to the land of Israel in the footsteps of Sabbatai Zevi.
Change in the attitude towards the Jews
After the period of the religious fanaticism towards the Jewish population of the region, a period of relative tolerance began towards the Jewish population which was less noticeable during the reign of Maria Theresa of Austria, and its peak was during the reign of Franz Joseph I of Austria, which was very liked by the Jewish population.
Upon the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1772, the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, or simply "Galicia", became the largest, most populous, and northernmost province of the Austrian Empire. As a result of this, many Jews were added to the Austrian Empire and the empress, Maria Theresa, quickly legislated different laws aimed at regulating their rights and canceled Jewish autonomy in order to put the authority over the Jews in her hands instead.
Although the empress was known for her hatred of Jews, several Jews did work for her at her court. The empress made it mandatory that the Jewish population would start going to the general elementary schools, and in addition permitted them to join universities. Jewish schools did not exist yet during that time.
After Maria Theresa's death in 1780, her son Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor succeeded her and started working on the integration of the Jewish population into Austrian society. The emperor determined that they would be obligated to enlist to the army, and established governmental schools for the Jewish population. The 1782 Edict of Tolerance canceled different limitations that had been placed upon the Jewish population previously, such as the restriction to live only in predetermined locations and the limitation to certain professions. They were now allowed to establish factories, hire Christian servants and study at higher education institutions, but all this only on the condition that Jews would be obligated to attend school, that they would use German only in the official documents instead of Hebrew and Yiddish, that dorsal tax would be forbidden, that the trials held within the community would be condensed, and that those who would not get an education would not be able to marry before the age of 25. The emperor also declared that the Jewish population would establish Jewish schools for their children, but they opposed that because he forbade them organizing within the community and establishing public institutions. In the aftermath of different resistances, also from the Jewish party, which opposed the many conditions held upon them, and also from the Christian party, which opposed many of the rights given to the Jewish population, the decree was not fully implemented.
Upon his death in 1790, Joseph II was succeeded by his brother, Leopold II. After only two years of his reign, he died and was succeeded by his son Francis II, who continued working on the integration of the Jewish population into the wider Austrian society, but he was more moderate than his uncle. In 1812, a Jewish Sunday school was opened in Vienna. During the same period of time a number of limitations were placed on the Jewish population, such as the obligation to study in Christian schools and to pray in German.
Between 1848 and 1938, the Jewish Austrian population enjoyed a period of prosperity beginning with the start of regime of Franz Joseph I of Austria as the Emperor of the Austria–Hungary Empire, and dissolved gradually after the death of the emperor up to the annexation of Austria to Germany by the Nazis, a process that led to the start of the Holocaust in Austria.
Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria bestowed on the Jewish population equal rights, saying "the civil rights and the country's policy is not contingent in the people's religion". The emperor was well liked by the Jewish population, which, as a token of appreciation, wrote prayers and songs about him that were printed in Jewish prayer books. In 1849 the emperor canceled the prohibition against the Jewish population organizing within the community, and in 1852 new regulations of the Jewish community were set. In 1867 the Jewish population formally received full equal rights.
In 1869 the emperor visited Jerusalem and was greeted in great admiration by the Jewish population there. The emperor established a fund aimed at financing the establishment of Jewish institutions and in addition established the Talmudic school for rabbis in Budapest. During the 1890s several Jews were elected to the Austrian parliament.
During the regime of Franz Joseph and after, Austria's Jewish population contributed greatly to Austrian culture despite their small percentage in the population. Contributions came from Jewish lawyers, journalists (among them Theodor Herzl), authors, playwrights, poets, doctors, bankers, businessmen and artists. Vienna became a cultural Jewish center, and became a center of education, culture and Zionism. Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, studied in the University of Vienna, and was the editor of the feuilleton of the Neue Freie Presse, a very influential newspaper at that time. Another Jew, Felix Salten, succeeded Herzl as the editor of the feuilleton.
Other notable influential Jews contributing greatly to Austrian culture included composers Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, and the authors Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, Elias Canetti, Joseph Roth, Vicki Baum and the doctors Sigmund Freud, Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler, the philosophers Martin Buber, Karl Popper, and many others.
The prosperity period also affected the sports field: the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna was established in 1909 and excelled in football, swimming and athletics.
With Jewish prosperity and equality, several Jewish scholars converted to Christianity in a desire to assimilate into Austrian society. Among them were Karl Kraus and Otto Weininger.
During this period, Vienna elected an antisemitic mayor, Karl Lueger. The emperor, Franz Joseph, was opposed to the appointment, but after Lueger was elected three consecutive times, the emperor was compelled to accept his election according to the regulations. During the period of his authority Lueger removed Jews from positions in the city administration and forbade them from working in the factories located in Vienna until his death in 1910.
The intertwining of the Jewish population and the attitude of the emperor towards them could also be seen in of the general state of the empire. From the middle of the 19th century there started to be a lot of pressures from the different nationals living in multinational House of Habsburg empire: the national minorities (such as the Hungarians, Czechs and Croatians) began demanding more and more collective rights; among German speakers, many started feeling more connected to Germany, which was strengthening. Under these circumstances, the Jewish population was especially notable for their loyalty to the empire and their admiration of the emperor.
Circa 1918, about 300,000 Jews in Austria were scattered in 33 different settlements. Most of them (about 200,000) lived in the capital city of Vienna.
The First Republic and Austrofascism (1918–1934 / 1934–1938)
The history of Austria during the First Republic was strongly influenced by Jews. Many of the leading heads of the Social Democratic Party of Austria and especially the leaders of the Austromarxism were assimilated Jews, for example Victor Adler, Otto Bauer, Gustav Eckstein, Julius Deutsch and also the reformer of the school system in Vienna, Hugo Breitner. Due to the Social Democratic Party being the only party in Austria that accepted Jews as members and also in leading positions, several Jewish parties that were founded after 1918 in Vienna, where about 10% of the population was Jewish, had no chance for gaining bigger parts of the Jewish population. Districts with high Jewish population rates, such as Leopoldstadt, the only districts where Jews formed about the half of the population, and the neighbouring districts Alsergrund and Brigittenau, where up to a third of the population was Jewish, had usually higher percentage rates of voters for the social democratic party than classical "worker"-districts.
Also the cultural contribution of Jews reached its peak. Many famous writers, film and theatre directors (for example Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang, Richard Oswald, Fred Zinnemann and Otto Preminger) actors (i.e. Peter Lorre, Paul Muni) and producers (i.e. Jacob Fleck, Oscar Pilzer, Arnold Pressburger), architects and set designers (i.e. Artur Berger, Harry Horner, Oskar Strnad, Ernst Deutsch-Dryden), comedians (Kabarett artists, for example: Heinrich Eisenbach, Fritz Grünbaum, Karl Farkas, Georg Kreisler, Hermann Leopoldi, Armin Berg), musicians and composers (i.e. Fritz Kreisler, Hans Julius Salten, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Max Steiner) were Jewish Austrians. In 1933, many Austrian Jews, who had worked and lived in Germany for years, returned to Austria, including many who fled Nazi restrictions on Jews working in the film industry.
In 1934, the Austrian Civil War broke out. The new regime was conservative-fascist and leaders of the Social Democratic Party got arrested or had to flee. But, except for Jews strongly engaged in the Social Democratic Party, the regime, which thought itself as pro-Austrian and anti-national socialism, brought no worsening for the Jewish population.
The census of 1934 counted 191,481 Jews in Austria—of them 176,034 living in Vienna and the most of the rest in Lower Austria (7,716) and Burgenland (3,632), where also notable Jewish communities existed. Of the other Bundesländer, only Styria (2,195) also counted more than 1,000 Jews. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 250,000 Jews in Austria in 1933.
In 1936, the previously strong Austrian film industry, which had developed its own "emigrant-film"-movement, had to accept the German restrictions forbidding Jews from working in the film industry. Emigration among film artists then rose sharply with Los Angeles becoming the major destination. The main emigration wave did not start until March 1938, when Austria was annexed by Germany, and November 1938, when nearly all synagogues of Austria were destroyed (more than 100, of them about 30 to 40 built as dedicated synagogues, 25 of them in Vienna).
The Holocaust in Austria
The prosperity period ended abruptly with the annexation Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938 (the "Anschluss"). At the time of the annexation, the Jewish population in Austria consisted of 181,882 people, of them 167,249 in Vienna—but thousands of Jews already emigrated the years before. Including people with one Jewish parent or at least one Jewish grandmother or grandfather, who were also persecuted by the Nazis, the number of Jews and Jewish ancestry accounted for 201,000 to 214,000 people.
The Nazis entered Austria without any major resistance, and were accepted approvingly by many Austrians. Immediately with their entrance into Austria the Nazis started instituting anti-Jewish policies throughout the country. They expelled the Jewish population from all cultural, economic and social life in Austria. Jewish citizens were humiliated as they were commanded to perform different humiliating tasks, without any consideration of differential of age, social position or sex.
In the same year as the annexation, "the Night of Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht) was carried out in Austria, in response to the Jewish refugee, Herschel Grynszpan, assassinating the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in France. As a result, Jewish Synagogues and buildings all over Austria were shattered and robbed throughout the country by the Hitler Youth and by the SA, as well as many homes of the Jewish population. During that night 27 Jews were killed.
After the Anschluss many Jews tried to emigrate out of Austria. The immigration center was in the capital of Austria, Vienna, and the people leaving were required to have visas and documents approving their departure in order to get out of the country. They were required to leave everything of value in Austria. To leave the country, high "taxes" had to be paid. Emigrants hurried to collect only their most important belongings and the departure fees and had to leave behind them everything else. Most Jews who remained ended up being killed in the Holocaust.
During the period of the Holocaust, the general Chinese consul Feng-Shan Ho was stationed in Vienna. While risking his own life and his career, Ho, with the aid of his Catholic Viennese staff, rapidly approved the visa applications of thousands of Jews seeking to escape the Nazis. Among them were possibly the Austrian filmmakers Jacob and Luise Fleck, who got one of the last visas for China in 1940 and who then produced films with Chinese filmmakers in Shanghai. Ho's actions were recognized posthumously when he was awarded the title Righteous among the Nations by the Israeli organization Yad Vashem in 2001.
In 1939 the Nazis initiated the annihilation process of the Jewish population. The most notable persons of the community, about 6,000, were sent to the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. The main concentration camp in Austria was the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, which was located next to the city Linz. Many other Jews were sent to the concentration camps in Theresienstadt and Łódź and from there to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In the summer of 1939 hundreds of factories and Jewish stores were shut down by the government. In October 1941 Jews were forbidden to exit the boundaries of Austria. The total number of Jews who managed to exit Austria is about 28,000. Part of the Vienna Jews was sent to the transit camp Nisko in Nazi occupied Poland. In the end of the winter of 1941, an additional 4,500 Jews were sent from Vienna to different concentration and extermination camps on the territories of Nazi occupied Poland (mainly to Izbica Kujawska and to other ghettos in the Lublin area). In June 1942, a direct delivery exited the city to the Sobibor extermination camp, which had around one thousand Jews. In the fall of 1942, the Nazis sent more Jews to the ghettos to the towns of the cities they occupied in the Soviet Union: Riga, Kaunas, Vilnius and Minsk. Those Jews were murdered by Nazi soldiers mainly by gunshots.
By October 1942 Austria had only about 2,000 to 5,000 Jews left. About 1,900 of them were sent out of the country during the next two years, and the rest remained in hiding. The total number of the Austrian Jewish population murdered during the Holocaust is about 65,500 people, 62,000 of them known by name. The rest of the Jewish population of Austria, excluding up to 5,000 who managed to survive in Austria, emigrated—about 135,000 people of Jewish religion or Jewish ancestry, compared to the number in 1938. But thousands of Austrian Jews emigrated before 1938.
Until 1955, about 250,000 to 300,000 "displaced persons" lived in Austria. About 3,000 of them stayed in Austria and formed the new Jewish community. After the Holocaust, the Jews throughout Europe who managed to survive were concentrated in the DP camps in Austria in order to get their identification. The survivors who had nowhere to return to remained in the camps, and were helped by groups of volunteers who came from Israel. Many of the Jews in the DP camps eventually immigrated to Israel, and many others returned to Germany and Austria. In October 2000 the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial was built in Vienna in memory of the Austrian Jews killed in the Holocaust.
One of the notable prisoners of the Mauthausen concentration camp was Simon Wiesenthal, who after his release worked together with the United States army in order to locate Nazi war criminals.
During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 about 200,000 Hungarians fled over Austria to the west, among them 17,000 Jews. Seventy-thousand Hungarians stayed in Austria, a number of Jews among them. One of the best known of them is the political scientist and publicist Paul Lendvai.
Details of the property seized under the Nazis in Vienna from Austrian Jews such as Samuel Schallinger who co-owned the Imperial and the Bristol hotels, and the names famous beneficiaries who took them and never gave them back, are outlined in the book Unser Wien (Our Vienna) by Stephan Templ and Tina Walzer.
Jewish community in Austria today
After the Holocaust the Jewish community in Austria was rebuilt, although it was much smaller. In the 1950s an immigration wave from the Soviet Union moved to Austria. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, there has been a renewed influx of Jewish people from the former Soviet Union. The current Austrian Jewish population is around 12,000–15,000—most of them living in Vienna, Graz, and Salzburg. About 800 of them are Holocaust survivors who lived in Austria before 1938 and about 1500 of them are immigrants from countries from the former Soviet Union.
In July 1991 the Austrian government recognized its role in the crimes of the Third Reich during World War II. In 1993, the Austrian government reconstructed the Jewish synagogue in Innsbruck, which was destroyed during Kristallnacht, and in 1994 they reconstructed the Jewish library in Vienna, which was then reopened.
Neo-Nazism and antisemitism did not vanish entirely from public life in Austria. In the 1990s many threatening letters were sent to politicians and reporters, and some Austrian public figures have occasionally shown sympathy to Nazism.
Kurt Waldheim was appointed as the Austrian president in 1986 despite serving as an officer in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. He remained the president of Austria until 1992. During his term he was considered a persona non grata in many countries.
The Austrian government was sued for Austria's involvement in the Holocaust and required to compensate its Jewish survivors. Initially, the government postponed the compensation matters, until the United States started putting pressure on the matter as well. In November 2005 the Austrian government sent out compensation letters to 19,300 Austrian Holocaust survivors. The total amount that Austria put into the compensations was over $2 million, which they paid the Holocaust survivors themselves, to the businesses that were damaged, and for the stolen bank accounts, etc. In addition, the Austrian government also transferred $40 million to the Austria Jewish fund.
The biggest Jewish presence in Austria today is in its capital Vienna, consisting of synagogues, a Jewish retirement home, the Jewish Museum (founded in 1993), and different community institutions. Austrian Jews are of many different sects, including Haredi and Reform Jews. The Jewish community also has many activities arranged by the Chabad movement, which is in charge of managing kindergartens, schools, a community center and even a university. There are also active branches of the Bnei Akiva and the Hashomer Hatzair youth movements. Today, the biggest minority among the Jewish community in Vienna originates from Georgia, and the second biggest Jewish minority originates from Bukhara, each with separate synagogues and a large community center called "The Spanish center".
There were very few Jews in Austria in the post-war years; however, some of them became very prominent in Austrian society. These include Bruno Kreisky, who was the Chancellor of Austria between 1970 and 1983, the artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Jewish politicians such as Elisabeth Pittermann, a member of the Parliament of Austria from the Social Democratic Party of Austria and Peter Sichrovsky, who was formerly a member of the Freedom Party of Austria and a representative in the European Parliament.
Latent antisemitism is an issue in several rural areas of the country. Some issues in the holiday resort Serfaus gained special attention in 2010, where possible Jews were denied from making hotel bookings, based on racial bias. Hostility by some inhabitants of the village towards those who accommodate Jews was reported. Several hotels and apartments in the town confirmed that Jews are banned from the premises. Those who book rooms are subjected to racial profiling, and rooms are denied to those who are identified as possible Orthodox Jews.