21 November 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
7, Theodor Herzl and
the cycle of contradictions

Theodor Herzl’s bicycle in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse 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 these few days or weeks to re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

Wherever you go in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse, it is impossible to ignore Theodor Herzl’s bicycle, which hangs suspended high in the atrium.

Although anti-Semitism was rampant throughout Vienna at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, prominent Jews in the city included the founder of modern political Zionism Theodor Herzl, the father of modern psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the composer Gustav Mahler, and the author, dramatist and medical doctor Arthur Schnitzler.

A portrait of Theodor Herzl in the Jewish Museum in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) was born in Pest in east Budapest and claimed to be a direct descendant of the Greek Kabbalist Joseph Taitazak, who was expelled from Spain with his family by the Inquisition in 1492, and moved to Thessaloniki where he was a rabbi in the 16th century. The family moved to Vienna in 1878, and Theodor Herzl lived there for the rest of his life.

An exhibition in the Jewish Museum illustrates how Theodor Herzl ‘is a good illustration of the contradictions of the time.’ In 1896, he formulated two visions that 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 about progress and freedom gives no indication that at the same time he was questioning the idea of Vienna as a place that he could call home.

His book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) had appeared a few months earlier. Zionism was his answer to the pervasive anti-Semitism in Vienna and throughout Europe in those decades.

One of Herzl’s closest friends and advisers was the Anglican priest in Vienna, the Revd William Henry Hechler (1845-1931), who had spent time in a parish in Co Cork, where he married Henrietta Huggins, before becoming chaplain to the British embassy in Vienna (1885-1910).

Herzl’s bicycle in the exhibition was modern for the time, and he used it during his summer holidays in Altaussee around 1900-1902.

Herzl was introduced to cycling by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), whose novel Der Weg ins Freie (The Road Into The Open) describes not only the cycling boom in Vienna, but also the unbearable anti-Semitism of the time.

The principal character in Der Weg ins Freie is an aristocratic young composer Georg von Wergenthin-Recco who has talent but lacks the drive to get down to work, and spends most of his time socialising with members of the assimilationist, artistically sensitive Jewish bourgeoisie of Vienna and other non-Jews like himself who enjoy their company.

The plot centres on his ultimately unhappy affair with a Catholic lower middle class girl, Anna Rosner. The novel’s reputation rests not on the story of this affair, however, but Schnitzler’s brilliant description – based on first-hand acquaintance – of the milieu he describes and the topics that interest it. These include the arts, the psychology of love, and the anti-Semitism that was coming to dominate so much of life and politics in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Theodor Herzl’s bicycle hangs above the atrium 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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