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

How the main synagogue
in Vienna survived the
Nazis and Kristallnact

The main building of the Jewish community in Vienna, housing the Stadttempel or City Synagogue at Seitenstettengasse 4 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Stadttempel or City Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in the Innere Stadt 1 district is the main synagogue in Vienna. It is the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to have survive World War II, when the Nazis destroyed all the other 93 synagogues and Jewish prayer-houses in Vienna.

Despite two major expulsions in the Middle Ages, Jews continued to settle in the city. In 1624, Jews were granted a new neighbourhood in Vienna. The Unter Werd was located along Taborstrasse in present-day Leopoldstadt, on the other side of the Danube.

A new synagogue was built there on the site where the Leopoldskirche church stands today. The Unter Werd ghetto, which included 132 houses, offered the Jews a certain amount of protection until it was destroyed and its residents were exiled in 1670.

With Joseph II issued an edict of tolerance in 1782, Jews settled in Vienna once again.

A new synagogue designed by the Viennese architect Josef Kornhäusel (1782-1860) was built on Seitenstettengasse in 1824-1826, marking the Jewish community’s effective return to the historical centre of Jewish life in Vienna in the Middle Ages.

The synagogue was designed by Josef Kornhäusl and built in 1824-1826 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The synagogue was designed in the elegant Biedermeier style by Kornhäusel, who had built palaces, theatres and other buildings for Prince Johann I Joseph of Liechtenstein. The construction was supervised by the official municipal architect, Jacob Heinz.
When the synagogue was built, it was fitted into a block of houses and hidden from plain view of the street. An edict from Emperor Joseph II decreed that only Roman Catholic places of worship were allowed to be built with façades that faced directly onto the city streets.

Two five-storey apartment blocks were built at No 2 and No 4 Seitenstettengasse at the same time, designed by the architect to screen the synagogue from the street in compliance with the Patent of Toleration.

The synagogue is in the form of an oval. A ring of 12 Ionic columns support a two-tiered women’s gallery. Originally, the galleries ended one column away from the Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark holding the Torah scroll. They were later extended to the columns beside the ark to provide more seating. The building is domed and lit by a lantern in the centre of the dome, in classic Biedermeyer style.

At the consecration of the synagogue on 9 April 1826, the cantor, Solomon Sulzer, sang an arrangement of Psalm 92 written by the composer Franz Schubert.

At the time, the synagogue was considered one of the city’s most innovative buildings and it became a model for other synagogue buildings in western Europe. It became the first official Ashkenazi communal synagogue, and the prayers were conducted according to the Reform liturgy.

The Hebrew inscription from Psalm 100 at the entrance to the Stadttempel on Seitenstettengasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Hebrew inscription at the entrance reads: ‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise’ (Psalm 100: 4).

Around the oval main prayer hall were 12 Ionic columns support a two-tiered women’s gallery with partitions. The ceiling was painted sky-blue with golden stars. The Bimah was at the east side of the hall and opposite it, stood the double-level Aron ha-Kodesh or Holy Ark, a splendid architectural essay in the Baroque style. On top are the Tablets of the Law within a golden sunburst.

A commemorative glass made at the time of the synagogue’s dedication and etched with a detailed image of the interior is now in the collection of the Jewish Museum in New York.

The synagogue was renovated in 1895 and again in 1904 by the Jewish architect Wilhelm Stiassny, adding considerable ornamentation. But the architectural historian Rachel Wischnitzer believes ‘the serene harmony of the design was spoiled.’

Before World War II, Vienna had more than 100 prayer houses, 60 synagogues and a Jewish population of about 200,000, making it one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe.

The design and construction that saved the Stadttempel that saved it on Kriistallnacht is explained in an exhibition in the Jewish Museum in the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This edict of Joseph II saved the synagogue from total destruction on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938, because the synagogue could not be destroyed without setting on fire the buildings to which it was attached. The Hotel Metropol, 150 meters away, was the Nazi headquarters in Vienna, and they did not want a fire to spread there.

In 1938, the Nazis also closed the Jewish Museum in Vienna, which opened in 1895 and was the first Jewish museum in Europe and sent the collection of 6,000 items to different museums.

After World War II, the Stadttempel was the only synagogue in Vienna that had not been destroyed during Kristallnacht, and a small but active Jewish community re-established itself in Vienna in 1945.

The first post-war service was held in the Stadttempel in Autumn 1946, before any restoration began on the looted and defaced building. This service, commemorating the 120th anniversary of the synagogue and marking its re-dedication, was attended by cabinet ministers.

The damage inflicted on Kristallnacht and by the Nazis was repaired in 1949. That year, the coffins of Theodor Herzl and his parents were displayed at the synagogue, before they were taken to Israel for burial.

The Stadttempel was renovated again in 1963 by Professor Otto Niedermoser, with the City of Vienna providing funds for the restoration.

A mezuzah at a door in the Stadttempel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Today, the synagogue is an historic monument. The interior has a sky blue, star-speckled dome overhead. The gilded beams, white and ivory curtain in the women’s section and the ovoid shape have led one visitor to say it made ‘me feel as though I were inside a priceless Faberge egg.’

Two people at a bar mitzvah ceremony were murdered in 1981 and 30 more when injured when terrorists attacked the synagogue with machine guns and hand grenades.

Another synagogue, the Leopoldstädter Temple, was built in 1858, across the Danube not far from where the Unter Werd ghetto once stood. This attracted Jewish settlers to the district, later called Mazzesinsel, or ‘Matzoh Island.’

But very few Viennese Jews returned to Vienna after World War II. Many Jews who left the Soviet Union in the 1970s and could not adapt to life in Israel made Vienna their home. Today the Jewish population of Vienna is comprised mostly of Russians and immigrants.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, the Jewish community has once again concentrated its activity in the two historical neighbourhoods. The Jewish community in Vienna has 7,000 members and is slowly growing, but the number of Jews living in the city is far higher, with estimates ranging from 10,000 to 12,000 and even up to 15,000.

The complex at Seitenstettengasse houses the Stadttempel, the only surviving synagogue from World War II and also the offices of the Vienna Jewish Community, the Chief Rabbi of Vienna, the editorial offices of the community newspaper Die Gemeinde (The Community), the Jewish community centre, the Library of the Jewish Museum and a kosher restaurant.

The other synagogues and prayer halls include: Agudas Israel, Grünangergasse; Agudas Yeshurun, Rabensteig; Misrachi, Judenplatz; Agudas Israel, Tempelgasse; Beth Aharon, Rabbiner-Schneerson-Platz; Beth Hamidrash Tora Etz Chayim, Grosse Schiffgasse; Machsike Hadass, Grosse Mohrengasse; Or Chadash, Robertgasse; Ohel Moshe, Lilienbrunngasse; Sephardic Centre, Tempelgasse; and Blumauergasse Synagogue. They serve a variety of traditions, including Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Reform and Chassidic Jews.

A plaque recalls the attack on the synagogue in 1981 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Yesterday: The mediaeval Or-Sarua Synagogue in Vienna

This evening: The lost Sephardic synagogues of Vienna.