14 November 2019

The lost synagogues of
the Sephardic Jewish
community in Vienna

A 19th century silk Torah mantle and a Megillat Esther or Esther Scroll from the lost Sephardic synagogue in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

One of the many synagogues lost during the horrors of Kristallnacht and the Holocaust following the Nazi annexation of Austria was the Sephardic synagogue in Vienna. With it, the story of the Sephardic community in Vienna and their unique traditions were destroyed.

However, some of this community story has been recovered and is retold in the exhibitions in the Jewish Museum in the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse in Vienna. This story illustrates the diversity of the Jewish community in the Habsburg empire and also shows how changing circumstances, both political and social, offer opportunities and challenges.

The Ottoman Empire twice laid siege to Vienna, in 1528 and again in 1683. The defeat of the Turks in 1683 was an enormous, strategic setback for the Ottoman Empire, and its most disastrous defeat since its foundation four centuries earlier in 1299.

The Turkish defeat at Vienna became a turning point in history, and the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a threat to western Europe. In the war that continued until 1699, the Ottomans lost almost all of Hungary and Transylvania to the Habsburg Empire.

The Treaty of Passarowitz, signed at the end of Austro-Turkish war of 1716-1718 and the end of the Venetian-Turkish war of 1716-1718, marked the end of Ottoman westward expansion. The treaty gave Austria commercial privileges in the Ottoman Empire, and allowed some Ottoman subjects to settle and conduct business from then on in the lands of the Habsburg monarchs.

Although there was another war between Habsburg Austria and Ottoman Turkey that came to an end with the Treaty of Belgrade in 1739, the provisions of the Treaty of Passarowitz allowed a group of Sephardic Jews from the Ottoman Turkish lands to settle in Vienna.

As subjects of the Sultan, these Sephardic Jews were allowed to establish a legally recognised community in Vienna in the mid-18th century and they were permitted to build their own synagogue.

Paradoxically, the same right was denied to the Ashkenazi Jews from Central and East Europe who were living in Vienna. It was the misfortune of these Ashkenazi Jews in Vienna to be subjects of the Habsburg Empire. Until Joseph II issued an edict of toleration in 1782, they were not allowed to build their own synagogues, and many of them must have found it attractive to seek ‘Turkish papers.’

The Sephardic community in Vienna was established in the early 18th century by a group of Ottoman families led by Diego d’Aguillar. Many were the descendants of Sephardic families expelled from Spain and Portugal under the Inquisition in the 15th century; others were descended from families that had once lived in Italy; and in many cases they had fled cities and islands in Greece that the Venetians were forced to cede to the Ottomans under the terms of the treaty in 1718, such as Crete and the Peleponnese.

Two Ottoman-style finials for Torah scrolls survive from that time. They came from Jerusalem, which was part of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. Although it is not known when the Torah scrolls came to Vienna, the inscriptions on the finials say, ‘Jerusalem 1741.’

A silk Torah mantle from the 19th century and a Megillat Esther or Esther Scroll made in Vienna in 1844 also survive from the Sephardic community and are on display in the Jewish Museum.

Inside the ‘Turkish Temple,’ after a watercolour by Franz Reinhold (1890)

The first reference to a prayer house of the Turkish-Jewish or Sephardic community in Vienna is in 1778, although its location is unknown. The Sephardic prayer house on Upper Danube Street was destroyed by fire in 1824, and the community moved to the Great Mohrengasse.

As membership increased sharply, the community bought a plot of land at Fuhrmanngasse (today Zirkusgasse) 22 and began building a new prayer house that opened in 1868. However, major building defects soon appeared, and the building was demolished.

An elegant new Sephardic synagogue was built in the Moorish Revival style, inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. It was known as the ‘Turkish Temple’ and was built by the architect Hugo von Wiedenfeld (1852-1925) at Zirkusgasse in the Leopoldstadt district, between 1885 and 1887.

The synagogue was built between several neighbouring houses so that the entrance could only be reached through an atrium or vestibule. The main, square prayer room had an octagonal dome that was 12 metres high. This was supported by 17-metre high walls and was illuminated by skylights and lanterns.

The Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark for the Torah scrolls, like most of the interior, was covered with marble or stucco, decorated and in gold or other colours. At the opposite end was the organ loft.

The prayer room had 314 seats on the ground floor, and galleries on three sides could accommodated another 360 people, with 250 standing spaces and 110 seats. In addition, a winter room on the first floor had 105 seats.

With new laws regulating the Jewish community in 1890, the Turkish Jewish community lost its independence and was to be incorporated into the larger Jewish community. After long negotiations, however, the Sephardic community was granted a degree of autonomy.

Rabbi Michael Papo from Sarajevo served the synagogue as a rabbi until 1918. After him, this position remained virtually vacant, and his son Manfred Papo served as a rabbi in the ‘Turkish Temple’ only sporadically. On the other hand, after World War I, Cantor Isidor Lewit, who created his own singing style based on Turkish-Sephardic melodies, made a significant contribution to the synagogue and community life.

It is said there were 94 synagogues and prayer houses in Vienna before the Nazis moved into Austria in 1938. The Sephardic synagogue at Zirkusgasse, like all other synagogues in Vienna – with the sole exception of the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse, built in 1824-1826 – was destroyed during the Holocaust.

Fifty years after the ‘Turkish Temple’ was destroyed in November 1938, the City of Vienna erected a commemorative plaque in 1988 to remember the Sephardic synagogue.

Two Ottoman-style Torah finials Jerusalem … once in the Sephardic synagogue in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This morning: The Stadttempel or City Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse 4, Vienna

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