The Oxford historians' discovery of Vienna

The “Used-to-be” Jews of Vienna in 1938

In one of Henry James’s novels, two elderly American ladies, who had spent most of their lives in Italy, describe themselves as “used-to-be Americans.” The expression is quite apt for a sense of identity that is complex, multilayered, and strongly founded on cultural belonging. While they were born in America, Henry James’s characters had lived for so long in Italy, had identified so completely with Italian culture, that, without denying their American origins, they somehow almost managed to forget them.

The always impeccably dressed Sigmund Freud - German, Jewish, Austro-Hungarian?

Many of Vienna’s Jews at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century had a similar complex identity – while often keeping their Jewish names, some had converted to Christianity, but most importantly, they completely identified themselves with German culture. Freud was no exception – a non-practising Jew and an atheist on top of that, who, while speaking several languages, saw no use of the little Hebrew he had learned as a child. His children later remembered that they hadn’t been taken once to a synagogue, while the holidays they celebrated at home had been Christmas and Easter.

When Jews like Freud described themselves as “German,” this is exactly what they meant, i.e. that they belonged to a German cultural tradition. As such, they found themselves at a loss when confronted with their brethren, the Eastern Jews (Ostjuden), who flocked to Vienna after a series of pogroms in Russia at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of the Jews from Eastern Europe were Orthodox Jews, who spoke Yiddish, Russian, or Polish and, because of their traditional clothing, were quite conspicuous in the streets of Vienna. The old Jewish community in Vienna was typically generous with these refugees, but there was no way of bridging the wide cultural gap that separated the Western from the Eastern Jews.

The Viennese Jews found with some consternation that the newcomers actually felt superior to their hosts. It was the Eastern, Orthodox Jews who had held firm to their ancient religion and customs, so they were proud of their caftans and looked down on the assimilated Jews of Vienna as shameless traitors. The Jewish writer and theatre critic Jakob Wasserman, who was living in Vienna, related: “In everything he [the Eastern Jew] said and breathed, he was a total stranger to me.” Matters weren’t made easier by Zionist ideas that propagated the wholesale move of all Jews to Palestine. Now, how was someone like Elias Canetti, the future Nobel Prize winner for literature or Karl Kraus, the most influential journalist of the time, a translator of Shakespeare’s sonnets into German, who gave public readings of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Bertold Brecht to some of the most highly cultured audiences in Europe – how were they supposed to feel at the prospect of becoming farmers in Palestine?! No wonder that Kraus was furious and famously said that he wouldn’t pay “one krone for Zion.”

In some ways, Nazi anti-Semitism was a far greater shock to the “used-to-be” Jews of Vienna than to the less assimilated Jews from the Eastern parts of Europe. To some of them it seemed to have come out of the blue. Paul Wittgenstein, the famous one-armed pianist and the brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, was stunned to realize that Nazi laws on Jews could in any way apply to his family. The Wittgensteins were third-generation Jews, who had converted to Christianity, all three brothers had patriotically fought in the First World War, all had been decorated for bravery multiple times, Paul himself had lost his arm in the war. How much more Austrian than that could one get? So, when Paul exclaimed to his sister in horror and disbelief: “We count as Jews!” (Wir gelten als Juden!), his reaction betrayed the same sense of cultural identity that many of the “used-to-be” Jews of Vienna shared.

Holocaust memorial in Judenplatz, Vienna by Rachel Whiteread.

Once Austria was annexed to Germany in 1938, the Nazis started their persecution of the Austrian Jews with the joyful participation of the local population. The monument in Judenplatz commemorates the 65 000 Jews of Vienna, who were exterminated during the Holocaust. It gives much food for thought, including the uncomfortable idea that the much-lauded integration or even assimilation is helpless in the ugly face of racism and anti-Semitism. The Jews of Vienna could serve as a good example of successful assimilation, which did little to help them in their hour of need.

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