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Cinnamon patrol

Mr and Mrs Lili Wedding


Too Many Angels - part 1

I had very mixed feelings about traveling to Austria. Of course I was excited to see two new countries (we flew into Slovakia) and discover, rediscover, and otherwise explore the traces of my family. On the other hand I had in my mind the image of central Europe as the ‘dark continent’ — for centuries the unwilling host of the Jews — and in large part, eventually their murderer and undertaker.

Austria, as I discovered, had as complex a relationship with the Jews as any European country. We visited the Jüdenplatz Museum in Vienna which told the early history in Jews in the area: Jews began settling there from around 1150CE and by 1400CE some 800 inhabitants lived there including merchants, bankers and scholars. Things took a turn when, under Duke Albrecht V, the persecution of the Jews which had begun in the autumn of 1420 grew to a climax in 1421:

In the beginning were many imprisonments, with starvations and tortures leading to executions. Children were deprived and deceived into eating unclean foods, those that were defiant were "sold into slavery" or baptized against their will. The poor Jews were driven out, while the wealthy were imprisoned. The few Jews still living in freedom took refuge in the Or-Sarua Synagogue at Judenplatz, in what would become a three-day siege, through hunger and thirst, leading to a collective suicide. A contemporary chronicle exists, entitled the "Wiener Geserah", translated from German and Hebrew as the "Viennese Decree". It reported that the Rabbi Jonah set the Synagogue on fire for the Jews at Or-Sarua to die as martyrs. This was a form of Kiddush Hashem in order to escape religious persecution and compulsory baptism.

At the command of Duke Albrecht V. the last approximately two hundred survivors of the Jewish community were accused of crimes such as dealing arms to the Hussites and host desecration and on 12 March 1421 were led to the pyre at the so called goose pasture (Gänseweide) in Erdberg and burned alive. The Duke decided at that time that no more Jews would be allowed in Austria henceforth. The properties that were left behind were confiscated, the houses were sold or given away, and the stones of the synagogue were taken for the building of the old Viennese university. However, Jewish settlement in Vienna would not cease as the Duke intended, and a second major ghetto would emerge in Leopoldstadt in the seventeenth century.1

The museum had a video featuring a computer model of the synagogue, and you could walk through to actual archeological site (significantly below street level) and see what features remained.

Again in 1670, Leopold I banished Vienna’s Jewish community “partly at the behest of Viennese merchants, but partly to satisfy the Catholic zealotry of his Spanish wife”2.

And yet, in 1703 a Bavarian attack left this same Leopold unable to pay to defend Austria (the Habsburgs’ were pretty much broke due to unending war). Who should step in but Samuel Oppenheimer, Leopold’s ‘court banker’ who acted both as financier and military contractor — “Hence it was a Jew, resident in a city from which Jews had been expelled, who largely financed and provisioned the war that saved Christendom from the infidel Turk.”3 A delicious little footnote to that story: When Oppenheimer died, the Habsburg regime cancelled the huge debt owed to him and declared his bank bankrupt but this backfired bankrupting the regime as well.

And, in the possibly the only piece of European history that I have read about in two different books (this being an indication of the paucity of my knowledge rather than anything else) in 1744, Maria Theresa, then the reigning Archduchess of Austria ordered the “total and immediate expulsion of the distinguished and long-setting Jewish community of Prague. It was to be carried out immediately. It was to be followed in short order by the expulsion of all Jews from all of Bohemia and Moravia”. Fortunately when leading figures in he Habsburg area were alerted, and the news spread, the response “was electric”4:

Every ruler, minister, parliamentary assembly, or prelate thought likely to be willing to intercede with the empress in Vienna and plead for mercy for her Jewish subjects was approached: the Dutch States-General, the king of England, the king of Denmark, the Senate of the Venetian Republic and the rules of other Italian states, numerous bishops and archbishops, those of Bamburg-Würzburg and Mainz among them, the Pope himself, the Sultan of Turkey— some directly, some indirectly, as each case was thought to warrant.5

Remarkably, “the response was gratifying”6. Eventually the empress was persuaded to change her mind:

Three Jewish nobles were allowed at long last to kneel in the dust before the empress’s carriage and submit a petition for mercy to her. The full expulsion from all Bohemia and Moravia was first postponed, then, in effect rescinded. After a decent interval, those Jews of Prague whose exodus had already begun were allowed to return to their city and to their homes7.

But “Maria Theresa herself remained unrepentant about her hatred of Jews: ‘I know of no greater plague than this race, which on account of its deceit, usury, and hoarding of money is driving my subjects to beggary’”8.

And that is just the “ancient” history.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judenplatz
2 A Concise History of Austria (ACHOA), Steven Beller, p70
3 ACHOA, p78
4 A People Apart (APA) — The Jews in Europe 1789-1939, David Vital, p2
5 APA, p3
6 APA, p3
7 APA, p3
8 ACHOA, p88



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