Absence and Presence

Jewish Vienna is a constant balance of absence and presence. The history of Jews here is sitting in the open, and it is hidden everywhere. This may be why I resonate with it so strongly. I am entirely Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side; my grandmother’s mother was born in Lithuania, my grandfather’s parents in Poland. All of them were in the US long before the second world war—they arrived closer to the Civil War. I know literally nothing about them beyond this. They are specters, along with all the family they left behind in Europe.

Pre-Sabbath shopping, facilitated by a scooter.
Pre-Sabbath shopping in the 2nd district, facilitated by a scooter.

And yet, the Holocaust is a kind of proxy for knowledge; it gives a false sense that one can understand something of the ancestral experience vicariously via the six million. People who would be my distant cousins — who would be “me,” had my ancestors not struck out for foreign lands — went through a sequence of experiences that it’s possible via historical narrative to imagine (again, falsely) that one could know. And at the same time, the past is past, and shall remain as such. These things are irreconcilable. Yet they coexist. I am deeply drawn to that conflict; and since it can’t be resolved, I try to live within it.

Vienna is constantly, uncomfortably exposing the seams between various pasts and the present. In Vienna, the story of Europe’s Jews, and their near eradication, is laid out spatially across the city’s geography.  The messages these sites send are complicated, troubling. They refuse to nurture that desire that the past be contained and narratable, owned by the present—and rightly so. Here, for example, is a sculpture along the Ringstrasse (the main road encircling the city center, built on the eradicated foundations of the medieval city walls):

Not exactly a humble monument, either.
Karl Lueger, orating. Not exactly a humble monument, either.

That is Karl Lueger, surveying the Platz that bears his name. In fact, there used to be an entire section of the Ring named for him; it’s now called the Universitätsring in an effort to address increasingly loud complaints about Lueger’s name all over Vienna’s most important street. Karl Lueger is bit by bit losing his eponymous locations. Lueger was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, though he’d been elected earlier — his opponents, including the emperor, temporarily kept him from office. He was the founder of the Christian Social Party, which succeeded largely by channeling the religious, social and economic frustrations of German-speaking Austrians and petit-bourgeois business people. He was populist, but anti-capitalist and anti-socialist, both systems he attributed to Jews. He was vocally anti-semitic, blaming Jews for the financial struggles of Austrian workers and shopkeepers.

Typical apologies for Lueger’s attitudes involve a sense that his anti-semitism was merely political (as if that makes it better); that he had friends who were Jews (leading to his famous statement, “I decide who is a Jew”); that he didn’t actually try to murder any Jews (though he did limit their participation in government and education); and that he modernized Vienna by regularizing the water and gas systems and integrating the outlying districts (the old “Mussolini made the trains run on time” line).

Thin gruel—though all of these excuses, such as they are, are true. Including that he was vocally anti-semitic, aware of the benefit this attitude was to his political ambitions, and that he abetted a thread of Austrian anti-semitism so virulent it even surprised the Germans upon their, um, arrival. Despite constant complaints about Karl Lueger Platz and the sculpture upon it, it remains in place. Most tourists have no idea who he was; most Viennese give the whole thing a shrug. I am conflicted, having gone from being scandalized, to thinking that whitewashing history by erasing its shameful elements doesn’t do anyone any favors. I don’t like Lueger; I also don’t like whitewash. I would prefer that Karl Lueger Platz provided some context not only for who Lueger was and the moment in which he lived, but also for why a previous generation had such an unconflicted attitude to him. Of course, that is not what monuments like this do.

From Karl Lueger Platz, head north and west and cross the Canal into the second district, and you will find a rather different sort of landmark. Here, you are in the historical Jewish district of Vienna, the Leopoldstadt (ironically, it is named for the emperor who expelled the Jews from Vienna in 1670). This was never a ghetto. But the Nazis did force Jews to relocate to this district, and eventually deported them from it. 130,000 or so Jews emigrated from Vienna as a result of Nazi efforts; some 65,000 were deported from Austria and murdered. The 2nd district was besieged over a seven-year period beginning with the Kristallnacht, and the traces are present—if you know where to look for them. Here in the Grosse Schiffgasse, for instance, is what looks at first glance like any other empty lot:

Between the corrugated metal and billboards was once a synagogue.
Between the corrugated metal and billboards was once a synagogue.

I’m going to give you a piece of advice:  In this part of Europe, always suspect the empty lot near the urban center. In this case, the lot in question was the site of a 19th century synagogue. There were a couple dozen of these in Vienna in the 1930s; only one survived the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. It wasn’t this one.

There may be a plaque in the area to commemorate the loss, as there are on other former synagogue sites (I’ll show you some another time); if so, I couldn’t find it. The building next door was a part of the original complex, and now hosts a couple of Jewish institutions, invisible from the street. But the original site of the Schiffschul (named for the street) still stands empty, with no decision as to what it will be, and therefore what it will mean.

The entire second district near the canal needs to be looked at in terms of these kinds of losses, and the way that the city has, like thickly poured oil, both filled and exposed them. Only a few obsessives like me know what this empty lot was, or means. But would it be more “true” to the history of the place if there were a monument there, something modern, apologetic, and inspiring?

What do you say to this ground floor room, in a building near the Karmelitermarkt, which a history of the Jewish establishments in the 2nd district tells me was once a prayer room, now an architecture office:

Once a prayerhouse, now an architecture office.
Once a prayerhouse, now an architecture office.

Should it be emptied out? Returned to someone (to whom? How?)? Is it sufficient, or excessive, or unnecessary, or fortuitous, or essential, or intrusive, that I, an American half-Jew, showed up here and looked up its address and told its current occupants that, before 1938, it was a place for Jewish prayer (not a synagogue — something much less formal)? The occupants were surprised and pleased to know of its long history. I was happy to discover and share that history.

None of which resolved anything at all.

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