20 November 2019

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
6, Sir Moses Montefiore and
a decorative Torah Mantle

A Torah Mantle from the Bethaus Montefiore or Montefiore Prayer House 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.

A Torah Mantle and Torah finials in the Jewish Museum on Dorotheergasse come from the Bethaus Montefiore or Montefiore Prayer House. The Torah Mantle was dates from the 70th birthday of the Emperor Franz Joseph in 1900.

As well as impressive synagogues, 19th century Vienna had a number of smaller prayer houses and prayer rooms in apartment buildings. One of these was the Montefiore Prayer House at Taborstrasse 38. It was founded by the Association of Nordwest-bahnhof Baggage Porters and was endowed by the philanthropist and financier Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and his family.

The Montefiore family is descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers throughout Europe and who originated in Morocco and Italy.

After the Alhambra Decree against the Jews in Spain in 1492, some members of the Montefiore family stayed in Spain, although they remained secretly Jewish. During the reign of Philip II of Spain, one of them became governor of a province of Mexico, where he and his family were denounced by a political rival and tortured by the Inquisition. Two teenaged girls were burned alive, in Mexico City while a son escaped to Italy and changed his name to Montefiore.

The 19th century international financier and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore was born on 24 October 1784 in Livorno, Italy, while his parents were visiting their Italian family. The Montefiore family returned to London where Moses grew up, was educated, and began his career in business.

He became one of the 12 ‘Jew Brokers’ – Jewish merchants who had the right to trade on the London exchange. In 1812, he married Judith Cohen, whose sister married Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777-1836), a banker and financier and Austrian baron. The two brothers-in-law became successful business partners, until Moses Montefiore retired from business in 1824 and began a civic career.

After retiring, he devoted his life to philanthropy and assisting Jews around the world. He invested much money and effort to helping Jews around the world, travelling to Syria, Italy, Russia, Morocco, and Romania to protect Jews from blood libels, pogroms, and other troubles.

He was a member of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews in 1835-1874.

He also donated large sums to help industry, education and health among the Jewish community in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. He built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Yemin Moshe neighbourhood was named after him.

Montefiore was in the Damascus affair of 1840, when 13 Jews from Damascus were accused of murdering a monk for ritual purposes. Following these charges, the accused were tortured and riots broke out against the Jewish community.

The affair drew international attention, and Western leaders and personalities, including Sir Moses Montefiore, petitioned the Sultan in Constantinople to free the imprisoned Jews and to stop the blood libel accusations.

Montefiore visited St Petersburg in 1846 to meet the Tsar following an imperial decree to exile Jews to the Russian interior. The decree was later cancelled, and Montefiore went on to visit Eastern Russia to examine the situation of the Jews there.

Montefiore became involved in a case in Rome in 1858, when Edgardo Mortara, a young Jewish boy, was seized from his Jewish family in Bologna by the Pope’s soldiers after a servant, Anna Morisi, said she had baptised the boy when he was dangerously ill.

Papal law forbade Christian children being raised in non-Christian homes, and Edgardo was taken by the Church to be brought up a Christian. The affair caused international outrage, and many world leaders, including Montefiore, petitioned the Pope to return the child to his family. However, the Pope refused to meet Montefiore, and despite many attempts he returned to London unsuccessful.

Mortara remained a Christian and was ordained in France at the age of 21. He spent the rest of his life outside Italy – in Austria, France and Belgium – and died in Belgium on 11 March 1940, at the age of 88.

Montefiore was also involved in a case in Morocco in 1863, when a Jewish boy was tortured and confessed to the killing of a Spaniard. The Jewish community appealed to Montefiore for help. Following his intervention, the Moroccan sultan granted a proclamation protecting the Moroccan Jewish minority, and the prisoners were released along with a Moroccan who was unjustly accused of killing two Jews.

Montefiore was renowned for his quick and sharp wit. An apocryphal anecdote tells how Montefiore was seated at a dinner party beside an aristocrat who was a known anti-Semite. The aristocrat told Montefiore he had just visited Japan, where ‘they have neither pigs nor Jews.’ Montefiore responded immediately, ‘In that case, you and I should go there, so it will have a sample of each.’

A photograph of Sir Moses Montefiore published in Vienna in 1884 celebrated his 100th birthday. A wreath around his portrait bears the names of places where he helped Jews: Jerusalem, Damascus, Constantinople, Morocco, Rome and St Petersburg.

Underneath his portrait, Montefiore’s coat of arms shows him as both a patriotic Englishman and a proud Jew. This coat of arms features a lion, a deer, two Stars of David, a cedar tree, and some small hills. The lion and deer are holding flags bearing the word ‘Jerusalem’ written in Hebrew. At the bottom is his motto, ‘Think and Thank.’

His signature appears underneath the image, and the caption in German reads: ‘To celebrate the 100th birthday of Moses Montefiore, 1884.’ He died on 28 July 1885 at the age of 100.

The Jewish cemetery in Dolphin’s Barn, Dublin, is dedicated to Montefiore. But there is another, interesting Irish connection. Sir Moses Montefiore is a great-great-uncle of Simon Jonathan Sebag Montefiore, the Cambridge historian, television presenter and author of popular history books and novels. His father was Stephen Eric Sebag Montefiore (1926-2014) and his mother was (Phyllis) April Sebag-Montefiore, nee Jaffé (1927-2019).

April Jaffé comes from a Lithuanian Jewish family of scholars. Her parents fled the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. They bought tickets for New York, but were cheated and were dropped off at Cork. Following the Limerick boycott in 1904, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s grandfather, Henry Jaffé, left Limerick and moved to Newcastle upon Tyne.

But Henry Jaffé’s parents, Benjamin and Rachel Jaffé stayed in Limerick and were living in Catherine Street in 1911. Marcus and Leah Jaffé also lived at the same address, and Marcus Jaffé was still practising was a dentist in Limerick in 1925.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s non-fiction include: Catherine the Great and Potemkin (2001); Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (2003); Young Stalin (2007); Monsters: History’s Most Evil Men and Women (2008); Jerusalem: The Biography (2011); Titans of History (2012); and The Romanovs 1613-1918 (2016).

His television documentary series include: Jerusalem: The Making of a Holy City (2011); Rome: A History of the Eternal City (2012); Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities (2013); Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain (2015); and Vienna: Empire, Dynasty And Dream (2016).

A photograph of Sir Moses Montefiore published in Vienna in 1884 (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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