German original: „Inder Judenstadt“: Wiens vergessene jüdische Geschichte. DerStandard.at, February 4, 2016
Claudia Erdheim researched not only Lena Gerstl’s life story, but also sketched Vienna’s Jewish community in the 17th century.
They pack their belongings into boxes, bundles, everything on the carriage and the donkeys and leave under the cheers of the Christians (...) their apartments and rooms at Kienmarkt, at Judengässl, at Bauernmarkt or at the Kochgässl.“
In 1964, Jews were asked via an imperial decree to leave areas located within the city walls and to settle in Untere Werd, today’s Leopoldstadt. The narrative of In der Judenstadt begins with a description of the crossing of the bridge over the Danube on a cold December day: families with their belongings, with the elderly, the weak, and their children are on their way. On the following 140 pages Claudia Erdheim portrays life and daily routine of Viennese Jews between 1624 and 1670.
Out of the masses that cross the Danube on this December day, Erdheim highlights Lena Gerstl, who is married to Jocham, a draper: „She is a petite person, dressed fashionably in the way of Christian married couples, with golden chains and rings so valuable that she cannot be distinguished from Christian women.“
The author skillfully connects the protagonist Lena and her landmarks of married life and motherhood with the greater historic developments that influence the lives of Viennese Jews: she gives birth to eight children, mostly while her husband is travelling, she takes care of relatives and the sick and earns her own money. On her own, she has to make decisions for her and her family again and again.
In the life scripts of those connected to Lena, her children and relatives, the author outlines the diversity of the Viennese Jewish community in the 17th century. At the same time, the fault lines between traditional societal norms and individual ways of life become apparent. Love relationships between Jews and Christians are being punished harshly, on both sides of the beacon. The breaking of halakhic laws is punished by rabbinic courts, the result is often banishment from the community with all its consequences.
Concrete Life Stories
Almost in passing Erdheim succeeds in conveying medical practices, homespun remediesand popular belief at the time through the figure of the physician Elia Chalfan. In 17th century – Vienna, sickness and death are in close proximity and affect the Jewish and non-Jewish population alike. Christians, too, pin their hopes on the Jewish medicus. They come to Judenstadt to get his help after Christian doctors have run out of ideas: „They told her that there is a doctor in Judenstadt, who can perform miracles and has a medicine for everything. There exist herbage and roots in the Hebrew books that are unknown to Christian physicians. They say he has a few recipes from King Salomon.“
The dialogues in particular stand out from the narrative; they bring the events into the reader’s present and lend a voice to historic figures. Next to conversations, excerpts from legal texts and decrees are woven into the individual episodes and make clear how life and well-being of the Viennese Jews was dependent on changing power structures and developments in the Imperial court itself.
Everyday Life in Untere Werd
In this context , the book talks about those moments representing existential challenges for the Jews: floods, epidemics, but also riots by the non-Jewish population against Jews are part of everyday life in Untere Werd. On the other hand, Erdheim paints a picture of a fast-growing and prosperous community that develops into a new center for trade and scholarship. Important trade routes went through Vienna, while the Jews from the East, fleeing Chmelnyzkyi, bring important scholars to Judenstadt.
With her well-researched narration In der JudenstadtClaudia Erdheim succeeds in bringing to the present not only Lena Gerstl’s tragic life story but also individuals and stories that connect Austrian history. It is a book worth reading for those who want to discover a long-forgotten piece of Austrian history through well-known places.
Claudia Erdheim. „In der Judenstadt“, 144 Pages. Czernin-Verlag, Vienna, 2015.