Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Austro-Hungarian Jewels and Their Jews

Traveling through Prague, Vienna, and Budapest earlier this year, I admired the three jewels of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for their rich history and striking architecture. I was also impressed how inevitably intertwined were the local traditions and the Jewish culture. I thought I knew enough from literature and cinema, but it took the locals to have the history really unwrap for me.
Named after the Emperor Josef II who granted the Prague Jews the freedom to engage in commerce and attend state schools, Josefov, the Prague Jewish Quarter, is wedged between the Old Town Square and the Vltava river. The Jewish presence in Prague dates back to the 10th century; so does the first pogrom, shortly after which Židés gathered within the walled ghetto and eventually gained a self-administration status. Old and new, truths and legends are tightly interwoven here: 20th century buildings elbow historical temples reconstructed after the Communist regime while tales of Golem, the mystical character created by Rabbi Loew to guard the ghetto’s populace, coexist with WWII survival stories.

An Old Synagogue
As one can expect, Josefov is full of old temples, each of which has a tale to tell. Built in the 13th century, the Old-New Synagogue is not only the oldest working shul in Europe, but also one of Prague’s original Gothic structures. The Klausen Synagogue is executed in the Baroque style and displays drawings of children from the Terezín concentration camp. The Spanish Synagogue owes its name to its striking Alhambra-like Moorish interior. The High Synagogue’s holds a Jewish Museum shop. The walls of the Pinkas temple display the names of the 77,000 Jewish Czechoslovak victims of the German occupation. But perhaps the most fascinating is the Maisel, named after Mordechai Maisel, a rich Jewish banker and once mayor of Josefov. It hosts an extensive collection of Jewish silver, prints, and books, scrupulously gathered and brought to Prague by the very people determined to erase the “chosen nation” off the face of the earth. There was a method to their madness: The Nazis were planning to establish a Museum of Vanished People in what they called Josefstadt. The entire ghetto was to represent an extermination memorial, but instead it became one of the greatest symbols of Holocaust survival.  

The present Viennese Jewish community is small, but on the brink of the 20th century, Vienna was one of the most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Europe. In the 13th century, Emperor Frederick II allowed the wandering nation to have synagogues and hospitals and later designated a special Judenrichter – a judge to arbitrate disputes between Christians and Jews. With the fall of the Hapsburgs, the Jewish population grew – until the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. Within the next two years, more than 130,000 Jews fled Vienna leaving behind everything they owned while also paying the émigré tax – the price of survival. The remaining 65,000 were deported to concentration camps; barely 2,000 lived. Since 1945, the Jewish culture and society have been gradually recovering – nowadays there are eight Ashkenazi and three Sephardic synagogues.

It is the city of Budapest that has the largest Jewish population in Eastern Europe today, but its Jewish chronicle is a complicated saga of history. In the 14th century, the wealthy Zsidók participated in the royal ceremonies of King Mattahias, but eventually fell out of favor. They did better under the Ottoman rule and even sided with the Turks during the Austrian conquest, after which barely 500 of them survived. The Hapsburgs had mercurial tolerance for the Jews, alternating between accepting and expelling – until they finally relented on the brink of the 19th century. From that point on until 1930, the Jews enjoyed peace and prosperity, partaking in the development of the capital and the country’s industrial boom. By WWII, the community grew to more than 200,000 people and boasted 125 temples.
Night view from Intercontinental Budapest. During WWII, its present spot was occupied by a Portuguese embassy that helped Hungarian Jews escape the country.
As Hungary initially sided with the Germans, it wasn’t occupied. About 30,000 Jews were sent to labor camps while others were made to wear yellow badges and eventually forced into a ghetto in 1944. They were supposed to be deported to Germany but were freed by the Red Army. The slot of land where Budapest Intercontinental Hotel overlooks the Danube River today has its own page in the Jewish-Hungarian history. During WWII, it hosted a Portuguese Embassy although in a different, older edifice. The Portuguese “smuggled” the Jews out to the United States, providing them with exit visas and sometimes hiding them in the building.

What a great idea for a book, don’t you think?

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