Turks in Vienna: The History of a Jewish Community

Jewish Museum Vienna (www.jmw.at)

The year 1492 was a fateful one for Spain. It was the year in which the Reconquista finally ended eight hundred years of Arab Muslim rule, the Jews were expelled from the country and Christopher Columbus set off on a journey that was to lead to the discovery of the New World.

The exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna," looks at the impact of one of these significant historical events that marked the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, namely the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, who found refuge in North Africa, some Italian cities and, above all, in the Ottoman Empire.

They fled initially to Portugal before leaving the Iberian Peninsula for Holland and northern Germany. Following the Ottoman conquests, Jews of Spanish descent - called "Sephardim"- were able to form culturally and economically significant communities in the Balkans.

There were contacts between the Jews in Vienna and the Sephardim, or Turkish Jews, even during the era of the ghetto in Unterer Werd, but it was not until the peace treaties between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the eighteenth century that Turkish Jews were able to move freely within the Habsburg Empire.

Following the establishment of the Turkish Jewish community in Vienna, an imperial patent gave it permission to hold religious services. The community had its prayer house from the outset in the 2nd district. In 1887, the impressive Moorish-style Sephardic-Turkish temple was inaugurated in Zirkusgasse, with portraits of the Habsburg and Ottoman regents in the foyer, indicating the community's loyalty to both rulers and countries. In November 1938, this jewel of Jewish sacral architecture was destroyed along with practically all other synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in Vienna, and most of the community was subsequently deported and exterminated.

The Sephardic Jews in Vienna were in many ways communicators between East and West, Orient and Occident, Asia and Europe, a role that was performed in the first place as merchants and dealers importing wool and cotton, silk and tobacco, sugar and spices to the West. Their function as active exponents of the Austrian post office in Constantinople and the Levant, Austrian Lloyd, and the Orient Express is also highlighted in the exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna."

The Sephardic Turks played this communicating role at the cultural level as well. They set up the first printing works in Constantinople and the Sephardic press in Vienna. There rabbinical tradition also received significant stimulus from the Sephardic Jews. The treasures of medieval Spanish-Turkish poetry were passed on and translated, and the Sephardim were also responsible for developing Jewish mysticism. Moreover, they were the first to make Arab philosophy and medicine available to the Western world.

Sephardic scholars became famous as scientists and rabbis, as translators, philosophers, and Hebrew studies specialists. Sephardic publishers distributed their writings throughout the Ladino-speaking world and produced writers of the caliber of Elias Canetti, to mention but one example.
All of these facets of the Sephardic Diaspora and its contribution to the cultural history of the Eastern and Western world can be seen in the exhibition, "The Turks in Vienna" from May 12 to October 31, 2010, at the Jewish Museum Vienna.