03 November 2020
How the main synagogue
in Vienna was saved from
the Nazis and Kristallnacht
The attack on the Stadttempel or City Synagogue on Seitenstettengasse in Vienna last night (2 November 2020) was yet another chilling reminder of the rise of antisemitism, racism and violence across Europe.
I was in Vienna this time last year (November 2019), and for a second time visited the Stadttempel in the Innere Stadt 1 district. This is the main synagogue in Vienna, and is the only synagogue in the Austrian capital to have survived World War II, when the Nazis destroyed all 93 other synagogues and Jewish prayer-houses in Vienna.
Because of its unusual architectural design and its location, this synagogue uniquely survived destruction 82 years ago, on Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938.
Despite two major expulsions in the Middle Ages, Jews continued to settle in the city, and in 1624 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 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 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.
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.
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 activities 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 in Vienna 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.