Lively Jewish Culture in Vienna

Die Presse (03/19/2007)

Judith Lecher

Conference from March 19 – 22: International scholars present the most recent research results on Jewish life in Vienna from 1900 to 1938.

“What I am trying to do is to comprise the history of Vienna’s Jews in relationship to the life of this entire city; that is, to recognize what Vienna meant and means for them, thereby clarifying the peculiarity of this piece of West European Jewry,” wrote Hans Titze in 1933, author of a standard work on the topic. The quotation is at the same time the motto of the international conference, “Vienna and the Jewish Experience – Acculturation, anti-Semitism and Zionism.”

“When looking at Jewish history, one should not allow persecution of the Jews and the Shoa to overshadow the rich, cultural experiences and tradition,” emphasizes Frank Stern from the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Vienna. He organized the conference, the timing of which was intentional. “Before we recall 1938, the year of persecution, expulsion and murder of the Viennese Jews, it is important to understand the 1920s and 30s.”

“We want to show to what extent the Viennese Jews were an integral part of society before WW II, with emphasis on the period between the two wars, thus shedding light on their life during this time,” said Stern. The picture of Arthur Schnitzler, taken in 1931 with him riding in a convertible rather than a taxi, illustrates this point much like the classic film, City without Jews.

The conference will not only discuss distinct personalities and works, but also include Austrian-Jewish daily life – how the Jews influenced scientific, cultural and societal life and how they themselves were influenced by life in Vienna. That is reflected in the title of the opening lecture being offered by Steven Beller entitled, “What isn’t Stated in Baedeker: Jews and other Austrians in Vienna between the Two World Wars.” Emphasis of the conference will be contemporary history as well as cultural history; lecture topics range from the education of rabbis to the education of Jewish youth- and women’s movements.

Eleven Percent of the Viennese were Jews
According to a census taken in the year 1923, over 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna. They comprised eleven percent of the city’s inhabitants. After Warsaw, Vienna had the largest Jewish community, which was as heterogeneous as the rest of the population. Jews were represented by all strata of society. “And not all stood out because of their scientific or cultural contributions.” The participants, among which are many young scholars, hope to overcome stereotypes. Stern: “This conference is considered a kind of intellectual event which one accidentally stumbles upon; it is definitely not meant to be ‘ivory-tower.’ Reservations are not required and entrance is free.

“In those days, the situation was marked by extreme ambivalence. There was a reciprocal effect and real exchange,” says Stern and then cites an example in Viennese dialect: The word, Beisl, which really is the hebraic word for house, comes from “Beit.” On the other hand, there was also a sense of distance and averseness towards the Jews.” Among the many possible reactions to anti-Semitism was one directed toward Zionism. But between the two wars, the concept hardly took on the meaning among Viennese Jews that Theodor Herzl would have wished. It was more frequently the case that the Jews reacted by exhibiting a kind of biting humor, laughing about the stupidity of anti-Semitism in theater or cabaret performances.

Lively Cultural Scene in the 1920s
The 1920s and 30s were the most active years for the intimate, Jewish theater scene, which was an important mouth piece for the Jewish community. At that time many Jewish artists experienced their most productive phase, says Stern, not during the fin de siècle (1890-1914), clearly more marked by science. During the conference, many diverse personalities stemming from the areas of culture and science will be touched upon: Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg, Felix Salten and Joseph Roth, as well as Sigmund Freud.  The very first to be quoted will be Arthur Schnitzler: At the opening of the conference, Elisabeth Orth will read from Schnitzler’s novel, “Der Weg ins Freie” (English: “The Road to the Open”).