13 November 2019

Or-Sarua Synagogue in
Vienna, once the largest
mediaeval synagogue

The excavations of Vienna’s mediaeval Or-Sarua Synagogue at the Jewish Museum in the Misrachi-Haus on Judenplatz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

When Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial was being planned in Vienna, archaeological excavations in the Judenplatz in 1995-1998 uncovered the site and remains of one of the largest-known mediaeval synagogues, dating back to the mid-13th century.

The archaeological investigation in the Judenplatz, in the heart of the early Jewish ghetto, uncovered the Or-Sarua synagogue, where 300 Jews died by suicide during a pogrom in 1421. Another 200 people were murdered.

Jews have been living in Austria since at least the third century. In 2008, archaeologists found a third-century CE amulet in the form of a gold scroll inscribed with the words of the Shema in the grave of a Jewish infant in Halbturn. This is the earliest surviving evidence of a Jewish presence in what is now Austria.

Jews first began settling in Vienna around 1150 in the area that later became Judenplatz, coinciding with the rise of the Babenberg dynasty, who ruled Vienna until they were succeeded by the Habsburgs.

The first written record of a Jew living in Vienna is of Shlom, who was the mint master of the Babenberg ruler, Duke Leopold V, in 1190. However, there may not have been an independent Jewish community in Vienna, with its own synagogue and cemetery, until the early 13th century.

This part of Vienna was first known as Schulhof, a name that appears in 1294 and continues until the pogrom of 1421.

The most celebrated rabbi in Vienna was Izchak bar Moishe, who made the Viennese community a centre of scholarship. The community flourished culturally and economically, and became one of the most important in the German-speaking world.

By 1400, 800 people were living in the Jewish Ghetto in Vienna, including merchants, bankers and scholars. The ghetto extended north up to the Gothic Church of Maria am Gestade, the west side became Tiefer Graben street, the east side was bounded by Tuchlauben street, and the south side formed the Am Hof square.

The 70 or so houses in the Ghetto were arranged so that their back walls formed a closed boundary wall. The Ghetto could be entered by four gates, with the two main entrances on the Wipplinger street.

The Judenplatz included the Jewish hospital, the synagogue, the mikvah or ritual bath house, the rabbi’s house and the Jewish school. All of these were among the most important in German-speaking countries.

The synagogue lay between the later Jordangasse and Kurrentgasse streets. Because of the school, the square was known as Schulhof and served as a schoolyard. This name was transferred later to a neighbouring, smaller square and the original schoolyard was known as Neuer Platz from 1423, and as Judenplatz from 1437.

Judengasse or Jewish Street … a reminder of the ghetto in Vienna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The persecution of the Jews in Vienna began during the reign of Albrecht V in autumn 1420 and reached its bloody climax in 1421. At first, there were many imprisonments, with starvations and tortures leading to executions. Children were deprived and deceived into eating unclean foods, those that were defiant were sold into slavery or baptised against their will.

The poor Jews were driven out, while the wealthy were imprisoned. The few Jews still living in freedom took refuge in the Or-Sarua Synagogue at Judenplatz, in what would become a three-day siege, marked by hunger and thirst and leading to a collective suicide.

A contemporary account, the Wiener Geserah or Viennese Decree, reports that the Rabbi Jonah set the synagogue on fire so the Jews inside Or-Sarua died as martyrs. This was a form of Kiddush Hashem, or sanctification of God’s name through suffering, to escape religious persecution and compulsory baptism.

At the command of Duke Albrecht V, the remaining 200 or so members of the Jewish community were accused of crimes, including selling arms to the Hussites and the desecration of the Communion host. They were led to the pyre at Gänseweide (the Goose Pasture) in Erdberg and were burned alive on 12 March 1421.

Albrecht V decreed that no more Jews would be allowed in Austria. Their properties were confiscated, the houses were sold or given away, and the stones of the synagogue were taken to building of a university.

Nine floor tiles from the mediaeval synagogue on display in the Jewish Museum in the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

However, Jewish settlement in Vienna did not come to an end, and a second major ghetto grew up in the Leopoldstadt district in the 17th century.

While the Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz was being planned, excavations were carred out from July 1995 to November 1998. The quarry-stone walls, a well and cellars of a whole block from the time of a mediaeval synagogue were uncovered on the east side of the square. These are regarded as the most important urban archaeological finds in Vienna. However, the findings caused further controversy, and the site of the Holocaust Memorial was moved one metre.

The archaeological finds include the foundation walls of one of the biggest mediaeval synagogues in Europe. The remains of the synagogue are in three parts: the men’s teaching and praying area, called the ‘men’s shul’; a smaller area that was used by women; and the foundation of the hexagonal bimah, the elevated platform for Torah reading.

The remains of Aron ha-Kodesh or the Holy Ark for the Torah scrolls at the east wall of the mediaeval synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogue began as a free-standing, one-room building, with the stairs of the Aron ha-Kodesh or the Holy Ark holding the Torah scrolls at the east wall. This was the men’s schul or synagogue and the central room for prayer and study. A second room was added along the north wall of the building and another outside the south wall, turning the building into a three-room synagogue that covered an area of 210 sq metres.

A coin minted in 1236-1239 or in 1246-1251 was found in the oldest floor in the men’s schul and helps to date the first building, which is helped too by comparing its architecture and pottery finds with other sites. Very little is left of this early synagogue.

The hexagonal base of the ‘bimah’ or raised platform for reading the Torah scrolls (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

It appears the synagogue was expanded shortly before 1294. The men’s schul was enlarged and turned into a double-aisled hall with three bays. In the centre of this space, between two columns, was the hexagonal base of the bimah or platform for reading the Torah scrolls. Most of the fragments of glass lamps were found at the remains of the bimah.

A third, thorough, rebuilding of the synagogue took place from the mid-14th century on. It was extended as far as possible to the east and the north room was extended to the east and fitted with colourful tile flooring. This north room may have housed the Yeshiva of Vienna.

The most significant extension of the synagogue was to the west, where most of the free space of the site was now built over.

After this extensive rebuilding, the synagogue underwent some minor changes to its interior furnishings before its destruction in 1421.

The remains of the ‘women’s shul’ in the excavations of the Or-Sarua Synagogue beneath the Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A document at Vienna University reveals plans in late 1420 to use the stones of the synagogue for a new university building. The demolition work appears to have been well organised and aimed at reusing as much building material as possible, leaving largely only the foundations and floor levels.

The synagogue has been rebuilt by comparing it to other mediaeval synagogue buildings and drawing on the mediaeval traditions of synagogue architecture. As the same Christian artisans who built synagogues worked on other buildings in an area, comparisons were drawn too with churches and monasteries.

The archaeological excavations of the mediaeval synagogue beneath the Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz can be accessed through the Jewish Museum in the Misrachi-Haus at Judenplatz 8.

The square was transformed into a pedestrianised plaza and the Holocaust Memorial was inaugurated in 2000.The other sites on Judenplatz include the statue of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and the Bohemian Court Chancery, now the Austrian Supreme Administrative Court.

Nearby are Judengasse or Jewish Street, the Jerusalem Stiege or Jerusalem Steps, and Seitenstettengasse, with the Stadttempel or City Synagogue, reminders not only of Vienna’s Jewish past, but that Vienna has living Jewish community today.

The inscription on the Jerusalem Steps reads:

Jerusalem Stiege

Zur 3000-Jahr-Feier der Stadt Jerusalem hat die Stadt Wien
diese Stiege als Zeichen der Verbundenheit benannt.

Gewidmet 1996 vom Kulturverein Wien Innere Stadt

Jerusalem Steps

For the 3000th anniversary of the city of Jerusalem, the City of Vienna named these stairs as a sign of their connections. Dedicated in 1996 by the Cultural Association of Vienna Inner City

The Jerusalem Steps or Jerusalem Stiege (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Tomorrow: The Stadttempel or City Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse 4, Vienna

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