17 November 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
3, portraits of two
imperial court financiers

A portrait of the financier Samuel Oppenheimer (1630-1703) in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I have decided over the next few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Two portraits in an exhibition the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse tell the story of bankers and financiers and how they were mistreated by the Habsburg imperial court.

Samuel Oppenheimer (1630-1703) was a business genius who financed the Emperor’s war against the Ottoman Turks, amongst other things. Without his aid, the defence of Vienna in 1683 would not have been successful.

Although the Jews had been recently expelled from Vienna in 1670, the emperor permitted Oppenheimer to settle in city, together with his Gesinde, his followers, who included a number of Jewish families. He even received the privilege of building a mansion in the heart of Vienna.

Oats were one of his most important trading commodities. As the ‘fuel’ for horses, oats were of great importance to the army.

Oppenheimer was also a man of scholarship. Prince Eugene of Savoy secured for him a large number of valuable Hebrew manuscripts from Turkey, which became the nucleus of the David Oppenheim Library, now part of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

The portrait in the exhibition shows Oppenheimer at the peak of his career, as an elegantly dressed Austrian nobleman.

When Oppenheimer died in 1703, the imperial court refused to pay its debt of 5 million guilders and simply declared Oppenheimer bankrupt. His entire assets were lost as a consequence. Later, his family were expelled from Vienna.

One of Oppenheimer's sons, Simon Wolf Oppenheimer, established a banking house in Hanover. Simon Wolff’s son, Jakob Wolf Oppenheimer continued the family banking house. It was there, from 1757 to 1763, that Mayer Amschel Rothschild apprenticed and learned the banking business that would become synonymous with that family name.

Oppenheimer’s descendants include the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

After Oppenheimer’s death, Samson Wertheimer (1658-1724) became the most important lender to the Habsburg court. Like Oppenheimer, he supported the poor, helped to build synagogues, and financed the printing of Hebrew scripts.

The portrait shows Wertheimer not only as a man of the world but as a pious scholar, with a parchment and a quill in his hands. He was the Chief Rabbi of Hungary and Moravia, and rabbi of Eisenstadt.

Jewish women of the time also carried out charitable activities in Vienna. For example, Miriam Sinzheim, a granddaughter of Samuel Oppenheimer, supported building a Jewish house of learning in Worms and donated the Torah scroll and ritual objects to it.

A portrait of the financier and rabbi Samson Wertheimer (1658-1724) in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Other postings in this series:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

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