The Jewish Chronicle
Vienna’s first community – brought to life
ON 12 March, 1421, by decree of Albrecht V, Duke of Austria, 200 Viennese Jews were led to Erdberg — then a meadow, now a neighbourhood of Vienna — and burnt to death at the stake.
The city’s remaining Jews were expelled — sent out in boats without oars into the Danube.
The community’s synagogue, which once stood on what is today Judenplatz in the centre of Vienna, was torn to the ground and its stonework was subsequently used in the construction of the city’s university.
These were the culminating events of the Wiener Gesera: a year of systematic destruction that resulted in the expulsion of Vienna’s medieval Jewish community at the behest of Albrecht V.
Now, 600 years after the event, Vienna’s Jewish museum has reopened its revamped exhibition chronicling the story of that first community.
The exhibition includes access to the foundational remains of the destroyed synagogue, uncovered in the mid1990s during the groundwork for the construction of the city’s main Holocaust memorial.
Opened in 2000, the monument was designed by the renowned British artist Rachel Whiteread.
As part of the redevelopment of the exhibit, next to the Holocaust memorial, there is now an installation marking the spot where the synagogue’s bimah once stood.
The history of Vienna’s first Jewish community can be traced back to the end of the 12th century.
The city’s first recorded Jewish resident, Schlom, was brought there by the Babenberg duke Leopold V and made his Münzmeister, master of the mint.
It was Schlom who was tasked with turning the silver Leopold V received in 1193 for the ransom of Richard the Lionheart into coins. Only in the 13th century did Jews begin to arrive in Vienna in greater numbers, settling in the area surrounding contemporary Judenplatz and along Wipplingerstrasse.
As a diorama in the Jewish museum’s exhibit demonstrates, this area of medieval Vienna was never a closed ghetto.
Jews and Christians lived alongside one another, and considering the period, did so largely without conflict.
The Jewish quarter had its own butchers, bakers, school, hospital, and public baths. The community had a mikva and cemetery outside the city walls.
The synagogue, at the time one of the largest in Europe, bore resemblance to Prague’s gothic, vaulted-ceilinged Old New Synagogue.
This period of relative peace and stability for Jews in Vienna came to a crashing end in 1420, when the Wiener Gesera began.
Albrecht V falsely charged Vienna’s Jews with blood libel, host desecration, and collaborating with the Hussites, enemy of Catholic Austria during the Hussite Wars of the early-to-mid 15th century.
The destruction and deportation of Jews from Austrian lands began in May 1420, culminating in the bonfire of 12 March, 1421.
Physical traces of the period are few and far between, though some of the objects that were unearthed during the excavations around the former synagogue in the 1990s are on display in the Jewish museum.
These include a key, discovered at the entranceway to the synagogue, and the skeleton of a small, whippet-like dog, found in the well of what was once a Jewish-owned house.
A period of relative peace and stability came to a crashing end’