In an effort that will lay bare the depth of Jewish roots in Austria, as well as recall a brutal episode of antisemitism, scholars plan to excavate the remains of Central Europe’s largest medieval synagogue, believed to lie buried beneath a square in downtown Vienna.
The synagogue was razed in 1421 during a state-sanctioned pogrom that culminated when more than 200 Jews were burned at the stake along the banks of the Danube on March 12, 1421. The pogrom began at Easter 1420 with unfounded rumors that Jews had desecrated Eucharist wafers.
City archaeologist Ortolf Harl and Klaus Lohrmann, director of the Institute for the History of Austrian Jews, are seeking authorization to begin work next year to find the foundations of the synagogue, which was one of many destroyed in periodic rampages against Jews during the Middle Ages.
A centuries-old plaque extolling the executions is affixed to a house on the square, still called Judenplatz or Jews’ Square. The Latin text serves as a reminder that the Nazi Holocaustwas not the sole attempt to destroy Viennese Jewry, and bears witness to the popular hatred and religious traditions leading to these persecutions. “As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” it proclaims, adding that the “crimes of the Jews” were thereby expiated.
Harl and Lohrmann believe that the synagogue’s foundations are located under the square’s asphalt surface, along with the Jewish community’s ritual bath, hospital and slaughterhouse. They view the project as a natural extension of other recent excavations carried out in the city center uncovering Roman and Renaissance remains. A Jewish settlement in Vienna can be traced as far back as the 12th century.
“The role of the Jews in Austrian and Viennese history is still something which is shoved off to the margins, regarded as something specialized that has little to do with general history,” Lohrmann said in an interview. “Jews are as essential to an understanding of 14th and 15th century Austrian history as they are to the history of the 19th and 20th century. … Demonstrating this integration is a decisive element of this project.”
Austrian government support and private sponsors are being sought for the excavation, which the investigators hope to complete in time for the 1996 thousand-year jubilee celebrations of Austria’s founding. If valuable remains are located, as anticipated, they could be exhibited at the city’s planned Jewish Museum.
Both the historical institute director and the municipal archaeologist agree that the project also would illuminate the ingrained tradition of Viennese antisemitism and its cruel ramifications, as well as the long, tenacious history of Jewish presence in the Austrian capital.
After learning of his father’s service in the Nazi Waffen SS, Lohrmann devoted himself to the study of Judaism, having vowed that “in this family, things must be changed.” He said that the focal point of archaeological research should be daily life in the Jewish ghetto rather than the medieval expulsion. “We must move away from the expulsion and the old traumas,” said Harl, adding he wanted to illustrate clearly that “the Jews are a part of our history, of our past and our present.”
For years after the medieval pogrom, those Jews who managed to escape and resettle in other areas of Central Europe sang a lamentation recounting the obliteration of a once proud Jewish center. This elegy referred to Vienna as the “city of blood.” It wasn’t until the early 1600s that Jews were allowed to return there in significant numbers, only to face another expulsion in 1669.
Kurt Scholz, an aide to Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk, said city authorities planned extensive consultations with Jewish leaders before giving a final go-ahead to unearthing the former ghetto area. “We would be quite in favor of doing it,” Paul Grosz, president of the Jewish community, said of the project. Some 6,000 Jews now live in the city, the remnant of a 200,000-strong community that existed before the Anschluss, Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In the ensuing seven years, 60,000 Austrian Jews died in or en route to death camps, and 42 of Vienna’s synagogues were destroyed.
The monumental medieval stone synagogue, probably built for a community of nearly 1,000 Jews, was a double-naved structure with Gothic architecture similar to nearby churches of the same period, according to Lohrmann. When it was destroyed, the stones were dragged across town for use in building the University of Vienna. “In a miraculous manner the synagogue of the old laws was transformed into a virtuous place of learning devoted to the new laws,” states a university document from that period.
The Easter 1420 pogrom, during which Jews from throughout Austria were rounded up and imprisoned, was sanctioned by Duke Albrecht V, a member of the Hapsburg dynasty and then-leader of Austria, who was heavily indebted to Jewish money lenders. Many Jews committed suicide while in captivity and their children were forcibly converted to Catholicism. The remainder were burned alongside the river outside Vienna.