Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Sivan 5764 - June 16, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Jewish Bratislava, Vienna and Eisenstadt

by M. Samsonowitz

Part II

In the first part of this article, Mrs. Samsonowitz told us about her visit to Bratislava (Pressburg). After that she visited Vienna. She is discussing the Rossau Fridhof (cemetery) on Seegasse (Sea Road), Vienna's oldest Jewish cemetery, going back to 1540.

The Precursor of the New Square Carp

Near the stairs leading to the Senior Citizen Home is a strange-looking monument with a fish on top (at first look, it appears as a dragon, but it is a fish with the tail upwards). There are a few legends about this grave, but one popular one sounds like the reports of the "talking carp" in New Square last year.

A Jew one day went fishing in the Danube (which runs through Vienna) and caught a big fish. He happily brought the unexpected meal to his wife. When she was about to cut off the fish's head, it suddenly jumped up, declaimed Shema Yisroel, and died. They went to their rav to ask his advice about what to do, and were advised to bury the fish. The fish monument was presumably placed over the fish's grave to commemorate the burial place of a Jewish gilgul who had expiated his sins by returning in the body of a fish.

Vienna's Central Jewish Cemetery

Next we went to the Vienna cemetery on Hollandstrasse. In contrast to most cities which have cemeteries scattered about the periphery, most of Austria's cemeteries are located together in one section which is many kilometers long. There are two main Jewish cemeteries among the many non-Jewish ones.

In one section is buried the Kapishnitzer Rebbe and the Czortkover Rov, HaRav Yisroel Friedman zt"l. The latter was a famous rebbe in pre-World War II Europe who had one of the largest Chassidic communities and who was one of the main forces in the newly-formed Agudath Israel.

In the newer section lie HaRav Yosef Engel, the esteemed rov of Cracow, and the Boyaner Rebbe, HaRav Menachem Nochum of Czernowitz, son of HaRav Yitzchok of Boyan.

Traveling past the non-Jewish cemeteries, we noticed that many of the names of the deceased in the non-Jewish cemeteries sounded just like typically Jewish names -- Bauer, Goldblum, Pollack, etc. Then again, some of these people may really have been Jewish, since Vienna was one of the most assimilated Jewish communities in Europe.

Eisenstadt's Jewish History

It was a January afternoon when we headed for Eisenstadt. The cold weather turned freezing, and snow began to fall. Eisenstadt, which literally means "the city of iron," is called in rabbinic literature "ir habarzel" or "Asch" (an acronym of Eisen Stadt). The most famous son associated with this town was HaRav Meir of Eisenstadt, called Maharam Asch for short, who became rov in 1717 (5477).

Jews settled here in the 1300s (around 5100) and lived here constantly, despite occasional short expulsions. In 1626 (5386) Eisenstadt and six surrounding towns (including Mattersdorf) came under the beneficial protection of the Hungarian Esterhazy aristocratic family, and these communities became famous as vibrant Jewish towns popularly called the "Seven Kehillos." The Jewish community in Eisenstadt in particular was autonomous from other kehillos, a situation which lasted right up to 1938.

Maharam Asch

The town was destroyed during a revolt in 1707, but was restored with the help of Rav Wertheimer, who brought the distinguished Maharam Asch to serve as its rov from 1717 until his death in 1744. The Jewish community reached the pinnacle of its fame during this time, due to the famous yeshiva which Maharam Asch led which attracted students from near and far. During this time, Eisenstadt was often called, "Little Jerusalem."

Maharam Asch first served in Shidlowitz, Poland, Worms, Germany, and Prossnitz, Moravia before coming to Eisenstadt. He raised in his home an orphaned pupil called Yonoson Eibeschitz. He authored the classic Ponim Meiros Responsa, Kosnos Or on Chumash and Megillos, and Or Hagonuz on Kesuvos.

Another famous son of Eisenstadt was Rav Akiva Eiger, the rov of Posen, who was born in this town but was raised by his uncle elsewhere.

Recent Eisenstadt History

Eisenstadt was affected by the modernizing forces in nearby Vienna and Hungary. By 1851 (5611), it took as rov of its community HaRav Ezriel Hildesheimer, who was erudite in Torah and also conversant with secular learning. He established a yeshiva with secular studies in Eisenstadt which attracted students from as far away as Holland and Denmark. He left Eisenstadt in 1869 to found his Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin.

When Jews were permitted freedom of movement in 1848, many moved out of the provincial town for the metropolis of Vienna. By World War II, the Eisenstadt community had only 450 members. The entire Jewish community was expelled from the city and many died in the Holocaust. Only individuals returned after the war and today, there are no Jews left in Eisenstadt.

What remains in Eisenstadt from the illustrious Jewish community is the beis midrash which Rav Wertheimer built (located on Wertheimergasse) which has become the Austrian Jewish Museum, and also the Jewish cemetery, which contains graves going back to the 18th century, including the grave of Maharam Asch.

The Eisenstadt shul was one of the few throughout Europe to remain intact during Kristallnacht. The reason for this was that the Jews had already been deported from the city by the time Kristallnacht occurred, and the city's mayor was a history aficionado who wanted to maintain Eisenstadt's historical sites.

The Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt

It was late and usually at this time of the year there are few museum visitors, but the museum was open due to our advance notice (and hearing that a journalist wanted to tour around). The shul on the bottom floor has been reconstituted, together with the ancient chandelier, the paroches, and the yahrtzeit "badges" hanging on a curtain on the wall. It is not a large synagogue, since during the days it was built it rarely had to serve more than 100 worshipers.

The rest of the building features displays on Judaism that may be interesting to non-Jews who know nothing but is of minor interest to an observant Jew. The exhibitions feature displays of shul accessories, Shabbos, Succos, Chanukah, Pesach, Rosh Hashonoh, the Jewish life cycle and Jewish education.

There is a beautiful oil painting of Rav Wertheimer hanging in one of the rooms, with elegant clothes and a long beard.

Although the shul was rebuilt and modernized in the nineteenth centuries, the museum has tried to reconstruct the original shul of the eighteenth century.

The shul passed into the hands of various Jews during the nineteenth century, most of whom allowed the shul to be active while the rest of the rooms in the house were rented out to Jewish residents. In 1875 it was acquired by the wealthy Wolf family who used it as the family estate and the headquarters of their wine shop.

A descendant of the family travelled to Austria after World War II to sell the family's estate and belongings. The Burgenland State Association bought the home in 1945 and the Austrian Jewish Museum was finally opened in 1982.

The Jewish Cemetery in Eisenstadt

A few meters from the museum is the old Jewish cemetery. The museum curator gave me the key to open the rusty gate. The snow was swirling and the winds were howling, so I wasn't tempted to linger long in prayer.

The grave of the Maharam Asch is covered by a low, simple stone, but it is marked out by stakes and a rope. I could see leftover yahrtzeit candle containers, notes and stones over his grave which indicated that someone had recently visited this out-of-the-way place. The graves of the parents and grandmother of Rav Akiva Eiger are also here.

The Judenplatz Museum in the First District

We sped back to Vienna to visit one more place -- the Judenplatz Museum. At the suggestion of the Simon Weisenthal Center, archaeological digs were carried out in the ancient Judenplatz in District One, which is today a plaza containing stores and offices. The site of the ancient Vienna synagogue was known, and archaeological digs revealed the ancient lower walls, parts of the tiled floor, the original construction and even the place where the Aron Hakodesh had once stood.

Vienna's Medieval Jewish Community

Jewish settlement in Vienna is first recorded in 1194 (4954), when a Jew called Shlom was appointed by Duke Leopold V to serve as his mint master. The fledgling Jewish community in Vienna at this time was wiped out during the Third Crusades in 1196, only two years later. Another Jewish community was noted at the end of the thirteenth century.

A small Jewish community developed which received protection charters from the various rulers. (Some of the charters can be seen in the Judenplatz Museum.) Throughout the early centuries of its existence, Jewish settlement was tenuous, with numerous antisemitic decrees issued and withdrawn. Often the Jews had to procure a separate right for each additional house to live in, and had to face decrees such as wearing a distinguishing sign on their clothes. For many years they could not hire non-Jewish help, and they had to leave their homes on non- Jewish holidays.

Vienna was a leading Jewish community of German Jewry during the 13th and 14th centuries. In the second half of the 13th century, 1,000 Jews were living there in 70 houses.

The rabbinical literature mentions the "sages of Vienna" who were influential throughout Europe. Among them is HaRav Yitzchok ben Moshe, the Or Zoru'a, one of the early poskim.

The "Wiener Gezeiroh"

Incited by their clergy, antisemitism and attacks by the local townspeople frequently plagued the community. In 1420 (5120), a Jew called Israel was libeled that he bought the "host" to mock it. Laws were passed to expel the Jews. The poor were driven out of the city. Some 200 were put on boats in the Danube without oars, where the current carried them down the river, capsized the boats, and caused many to drown. Only a few survived the hazardous trip to Budapest where they were pulled out of the water and saved. The rich were kept in jail to decide their fate. Finally, on March 12, 1421, all were burned, aside from those who converted.

The 800-member Jewish community of Vienna came to an end in what became known as the Wiener Gezeiroh, and the shul was demolished, its stones taken to build the University of Vienna. All Jewish property was seized by Albrecht V for himself.

A few protected Jews were allowed to return several decades later, and slowly the Jewish community grew over the following two centuries. During the Chmielnitzki massacres in Poland, many refugees fled to Vienna. Two of them became leading rabbis in Vienna -- HaRav Yom Tov Lipman Heller, and HaRav Shabsai Sheftel Horowitz, the son of the Shloh, who is buried in the Seegasse cemetery.

Features in the Museum

In addition to the remnants of the original shuls, there are audio-visual displays describing the everyday life, work and religion of the medieval Jewish community, a reconstruction of the ancient Vienna city and its Jewish Quarter, and a film where one can take a virtual tour of the medieval streets of the Jewish Quarter and the synagogue.

On the walls are several interesting quotes taken from the seforim of Rishonim about the ancient Jewish community in Vienna.

I was taken aback when a modern-looking tour guide called me over and pointed out a quote from a Rishon. It related that when a priest wanted to do business with the Jews, he had to hide his cross inside his cloak or else the Jews would refuse to negotiate with him. It was self-understood to him that the Jews' unswerving beliefs would not permit them to conduct business while staring a cross in the face.

Hearing that I lived in Israel, the lady hotly declared to me that this kind of Jewish pride is what is so sorely missing in Israel among its leaders and decision-makers. Instead of standing up for Jewish rights and Jewish blood, she told me crisply, the leaders grovel and toady to every whim from a Palestinian or European potentate.

I was surprised to get a lecture on Jewish pride in such an assimilated Jewish city.

Coming out of the Judenplatz Museum, I had to walk through the plaza to reach the street. Someone pointed out to me the relief placed over the facade of the oldest house in the plaza, located at Judenplatz 2. The relief shows the baptism of J, dipping in the waters of the Jordan, with a Latin inscription saying that he has purified himself from the evil of the Jews. This inscription, which was attached to the house around 1500, refers to the locals' joy at liquidating the Jewish community eighty years earlier.

The city also has a Jewish Museum at Dorotheergasse with information about Judaism and the complex history of Jews in Vienna. Unfortunately, it was already too late to visit the site. It was close to 6:00 p.m., the hour when the stores shut and Vienna's night life begins.

Yo, That Great Viennese Hospitality

This was my signal to head for my host's home, where I was treated to superb Viennese hachnosas orchim and a discussion about what life in Vienna is like for a chareidi family. After a comfortable night, I awoke to take the morning flight back to Israel.

The Austrians also possess some of the alacrity and precision of the Germans. I had left my luggage behind in the airport, but I could have taken it with me since Austrian Airlines had just opened a terminal in the Stepanstrasse subway station in town. One can check one's luggage in there, and then leisurely take the train to the airport.

Another one of my speedy one-day tours in Europe had come to a pleasant end, and I awaited the gleaming stone of Jerusalem buildings to signal my return home.

Leket Yosher

Leket Yosher is a biography and collection of minhagim and responsa of Rabbi Isserlein from Wiener Neustadt (around 1390-1460), which were collected by his disciple Yosef bar Moshe between 1463 and 1488. The following two sections give a taste of what life was like for Jews in Austria during the Middle Ages. HaRav Isserlein's better- known work is the Terumas Hadeshen.

Leket Yosher I, 62

Once, on a Sabbath, a large army advanced on his town (Wiener Neustadt) and almost completely burned down the suburb. Rabbi Isserlein gave permission for all the work to be carried out on a Sabbath that was necessary to save what could be saved from the enemy, as the citizens and the ruler [presumably Emperor Friedrich III -- author's note] ordered it. But he criticized those who carried out tasks that were not indispensable, such as repairs on their bows or their biks (rifle). He did not want to allow money to be brought to safety outside of the Eruv.

. . . And our teacher Rabbi Schalom decided that desecration of the Sabbath was now allowed when non-Jews came, even for money matters, because it was known that they would kill us if we did not let them take the money, and therefore there was danger to life. Likewise, if there is a fire on a Sabbath -- even if it is in the house of a non-Jew -- a Jew is allowed to go there and put it out. For nowadays we must make haste to help, even if the fire breaks out at the non- Jews, for they would, G-d forbid, kill the Jews if we did not take part in extinguishing a fire.

And it was in this spirit that Rabbi Aaron, may the Lord revenge his blood, spoke before the entire community and announced that a Jew was allowed to put out a fire even on the Sabbath . . .

Leket Yosher II, 37

And I recall when, during the Vienna Gezeiroh, may the Lord revenge their blood, Rabbi Isserlein said that on erev Shabbos, because of our many sins, they had tortured his teacher, our teacher and rabbi, Rabbi Aaron, may the memory of the martyr and righteous be blessed. When he came from the torture, he asked several times for a drink of water, until it was finally given to him. Immediately after drinking he passed away, may the Lord avenge his blood.


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