A Jewish History of Austria

As long as I had lived in Salzburg, I had essentially no direct contact with Jewish Austrians. My interested in Jewish culture and history developed later, and is based on personal encounters with Jews and my fascination for the intellectual and cultural achievements of Austria between approximately 1870 and 1934, to which Jews contributed significantly. 

The following summary of Austrian Jewish History is very concise and based on several books and essays. I have added references and further reading for a more detailed record. Early records of Jewish people in today′s Austria are somewhat fragmentary, but date back to the time of the Roman Empire, when the population of the province Noricum was predominantly Medieval History & Reformation

The “Raffelstettener Zollordnung” (a catalogue of customs and tax rules) documents the presence of Jewish merchants in Austria in the 10th century. The Judengasse (“Jew′s Alley”) in Salzburg is documented in the 12th century (note that Salzburg was not part of Austria until 1816). In 1244 Jews were granted certain rights by the Duke of Austria, Emperor Friedrich II later granted formal rights to Jews in 1338. In the same year, there were riots aimed at Jews in Pulkau; as a response, the Viennese Jews lowered interests for loans in order to prevent similar actions against their own community. 

The old synagogue of Salzburg in the Judengasse was first documented in 1370 as a house of prayer. With the increasing power of reformist movements and the related loss of power for the Catholic Church, hostility against Jews increased; being non-Catholic, they were often seen as collaborators of anti-imperial, protestant forces. In the course of the Hussite Wars (named after the Bohemian reformist Jan Hus), many Jews were expelled from Austria in 1420 and 1421

In Salzburg, which was non-secular and ruled by a Catholic Prince-Archbishop not overly pleased about non-Catholic residents of any kind, Jews were expelled in 1492 and prevented from permanent settlement until the 19th century. Emperor Maximilian I banned Jews from Styria and Carinthia on request of local guilds in 1496 and relocated to the Eastern edge of the Empire in Zistersdorf near Eisenstadt. 

From 1551, Jews had to wear a yellow spot on their clothing every time they entered market towns or cities. Over the course of the 16th century, the number of Jews in Vienna consistently increased and a new cemetery was built in today′s 9th district. In 1624, they were allowed to settle in the area of today′s Leopoldstadt under the rule of Emperor Ferdinand II. They were expelled again in 1669/70, but only ten years later individuals were granted permission to settle again: Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer acted as Court Jew (“Hofjuden“) and gained influential positions and significant privileges. 

“Toleranzpatente” of the Enlightenment

With the end of the counter-revolution and the gradual settling of religious wars between Catholic-Imperial and Protestant-Federalist forces, the situation for non-Catholic people in Austria gradually improved. The spreading ideas of enlightenment helped to secure basic rights for Jews. The “Toleranzpatente” of Emperor Joseph II in the 1780ies mark the first formal basis for basic religious freedom. 

By then, the segregated Jewish districts of the Habsburg Empire (called “ghettos”) hosted 1,5 million Jews. The “Toleranzpatente” were mostly issued for the sake of Protestants and Greek-Orthodox Christians (about one third of the Empire’s population), but Jews were also admitted topublic schools (compulsory education was introduced by Empress Maria Theresia, Joseph′s mother), universities, the military and all crafts and agriculture

The declared aim of this was to increase the contribution of Jews to the public. However, they faced strong opposition from the traditional guilds that fought this new competition. Jews remained active primarily in trade, the slow acquisition of capital led later to significant success of Jewish investors in the cloth- and cotton industries of Bohemia and Moravia. Established Jewish bankers (such as the originally Viennese Rothschild family) used the new freedom to expand their business into other sectors. Immigration and ownership of land or realities remained prohibited for Jews. This and other constraints prevented Jews from having full citizen rights

Nevertheless, based on their new rights and assimilation (which was later accelerated through the spreading ideas of the French Revolution and the following Napoleonic Wars), several Jewish families in Vienna acquired significant wealth and politically influential positions. Not surprisingly, many of them promoted progressive ideas of equality and enlightenment. That didn′t really help to foster appreciation for Jews: Since the Catholic Habsburgs ruled as absolute monarchs over a multiethnic empire, they were not very fond of anynationalist, republican, libertarian or anti-clerical ideas of the French Revolution.

Many Jews were progressive freemasons, which fostered hostilities from military, nobility and clerics even more. The Jew Johann Emanuel Veithconverted to Catholicism and became court preacher in Vienna′s Stephansdom cathedral. He maintained close ties with the Jewish community and actively fought anti-Semitic actions. 

Increase of Jewish culture in public life: 1800-1867

Especially in cities of the Habsburg Empire, the Jewish population steadily increased. Prague′s community consisted of 8,500 in 1800, which was more then 10 percent of the total population and 11,700 in 1848. Vienna had a much smaller community (immigration of poor Jews from Galicia and other eastern parts of the Empire was prohibited): About 500 to 600 (about 0.25 percent) in 1800, mostly relatively well assimilated, wealthy families. By 1848, their number had risen to 4,000 (about 0.8 percent of the total population). In this year, the revolution broke out and many Jewish intellectuals joined the revolutionary forces (consisting mostly of liberal students and nationalists). 

The “Pillersdorf constitution” of 1848 granted full civil rights and religious freedom to all religious groups of the Empire. After the revolution was crushed and Franz Joseph I installed as a new Emperor, many of these rights were taken back. This included some rights for Jews: Jewish civil servants were inaugurated to prove their loyalty to Austria (1851); they were excluded from the possession of land (1853); and they were excluded from certain profession such as soliciting or teaching (1855). 

Many intellectual Jews went into publishing, which they were allowed to. This led to a division of the press into a “old order” branch (pro Habsburg, Catholicism, monarchy) and a “progressive” branch (anti-Habsburg, secular, republican); the first one anti-Semitic, the latter one influenced by the many Jewish journalists

It seems that at this time the Jewish culture in Vienna started to bloom and develop its own identity. The traditional Ashkenazi rite to celebrate a service was adapted in Vienna to a “Wiener Ritus” (Viennese rite), which spread over the Empire to Bohemia and Galicia.

Yiddish lost importance in Vienna, partly also in Bohemia and Moravia, and was increasingly replaced by German. Did the Austrian Jews turn into Jewish Austrians? I always find it interesting to see how many Jews especially in the second half of the 19th century chose to give their children typically Austrian names rather than traditional, Hebrew ones.


One thing that looks extremely odd today in the light of history was the alliancebetween German nationalists and many Jews: Liberals of 19th-century Austria were often driven by the ideas of freedom, equality and nationhoodderived from the enlightenment and romanticism. Nationalists were often anti-cleric, anti-Habsburg and in favour of a big, German republic (including the German speaking parts of Austria-Hungary). 

Their liberal ideals appealed to many Jewish intellectuals. Over the course of the 19th century, progressive nationalists increasingly endorsed anti-Semitic thoughts. They were concentrated in organisations like nationalist “Burschenschaften” (fraternities) and the “Turnerbund” (a sport association). At a time when more and more Jews intermarried with non-Jewish Austrians, didn′t speak Hebrew or Yiddish and stopped practicing any faith, a counter-movement based on anti-assimilation thoughts developed, in strong correlation with German nationalism. 

Spearheaded by people like Theodor Herzl, a Jewish-National Party was formed and a Jewish Fraternity (“Kadimah“) was founded in 1882. As Zionists they worked towards the foundation of a Jewish nation. Herzl himself had been a member of a German-nationalist fraternity, which later, after Herzl had already quit his membership, formally excluded Jews and endorsed an openly anti-Semitic policy. 

Note also that the National Socialists relied partly on the ideological basis of the 19th century nationalists, but were primarily a street-movement of soldiers and unemployed in their early days. Many members of Turnerbund groups and Burschenschaften became leading Nazis, but the organisations were dissolved in Nazi-Germany (like all societies). Within the Jewish community of Austria, a conflict between right-wing Zionists and pro-assimilation groups developed. Many socialists of that time were Jewish, too, for example Victor Adler and Otto Bauer (or Karl Marx in Germany). 

During the First World War, 36,000 Jews from Galicia moved to Vienna. A total of 200,000 Jews lived in the new, tiny Austria. Eastern-European Jews were generally much more conservative (and Yiddish speaking) than the assimilated, wealthy Jews of Vienna, and tensions increased. So did anti-Semitism, and the fact that ten thousands of unemployed former soldiers now populated Vienna and looked for scapegoats did not help to improve the situation (Adolf Hilter worked as a “artist” in Vienna at this time). 

Contributions to Cultural & Intellectual Life


For example the Wittgenstein family: Only the father of the philosopher Ludwig was of Jewish origin, the family was in fact of liberal Protestant descent (Ludwig’s grandparents had converted and changed their name into the Germanic “Wittgenstein”) and organised religion does not appear to me as a crucial factor in Ludwig Wittgenstein′s life or work. Nevertheless, he was later claimed Jewish by a variety of people. I guess it depends largely on one′s definition of “Jewish” to decide. 

Among the many outstanding figures of the cultural and intellectual life of Austria between the Ausgleich 1867 and the onset of the Holocaust that were at least partly Jewish were Wolfgang Pauli (physicist), Anna and Siegmund Freud, Viktor Frankl and Alfred Adler (psychologists / psychiatrists), Hans Kelsen (lawyer, responsible for Austria′s first republican constitution, most of it was re-introduced in 1955 and is still valid), Ludwig von Mises (economist, converted Catholic), Karl Popper and the mentioned Ludwig Wittgenstein(philosophers), his brother Paul Wittgenstein (pianist), Otto Weininger (anti-Semitic, but nonetheless Jewish philosopher), Robert Barany (physiologist, worked in Sweden), Fritz Grünbaum (comedian), Hugo von Hoffmannsthaland Max Reinhardt (dramatists), the von Rothschild family (entrepreneurs; note also the high number of 19th century Austrians among Jewish nobility in Europe), Stefan Zweig (writer, called himself a “Jew by chance”), Arthur Schnitzler (writers), Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (composers, both converted – Mahler to Catholic, Schoenberg Protestant, later back to Judaism), Franz Kafka (writer – rooted in Prague) and Felix Salten (writer; created “Bambi” and – little known fact – child pornography). 

A whole generation of people of Jewish-Austrian descent achieved much in the decades after the Holocaust, many in the US, Great Britain or Israel. Naming them becomes even more dubious (how Jewish were they, how Austrian were they?), so I′ll refrain from it. 

Anschluss of Austria 1938, WWII & Holocaust

When Austria turned increasingly fascist in 1934, religious civil rightsremained largely unaffected. The Austro-Fascist government was pro-Catholic, which probably resulted indirectly in discrimination against non-Catholics, but I do not know of direct action against Jews through the government. By the time of the Anschluss, there were 200,000 people living in Austria (180,000 in Vienna) that got classified as being Jewish according to the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi-Germany (full, half, quarter, or eight-Jewish). 


In 1938, there were 91,000 Jews left that were classified as “fully Jewish”, 22,000 of the other categories. From 1940 onwards, almost all of them were deported to the concentration camp Theresienstadt or other camps, mostly in Poland. A large concentration camp was in Mauthausen, Upper Austria. 65,000 Austrian Jews were killed in the Holocaust, 120,000 emigrated, many of them to Great Britain, North America or South America. Numbers that I could obtain from the Simon-Wiesenthal-Center in New York diverge slightly (70,000 killed, 100,000 emigrants). Vienna University lost 40 percent of its faculty (mostly in Wehrmacht soldiers, though).

Post-war History & Present

After the war, some thousand Jews returned to Austria. Others have never left and survived the camps or managed to hide. Austria′s legendary chancellor Bruno Kreisky was atheist with a Jewish background, the artists Arik Brauerand Ernst Fuchs are Jewish and many people of Austrian-Jewish origin have ties to both the countries in which they live now and Austria. 

I know people who commute between Israel and Austria (guess where they spend the winters). The architect Simon Wiesenthal, based in Vienna, became famous for his private investigations of Nazi criminals. In 2004, Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel prize in literature (her father was Jewish). The numbers of Jews in Austria have steadily declined until around 1990. Jewish culture is publicly funded and new synagogues were recently opened in Graz, Baden and Hohenems. There are communities in Salzburg, Vienna and some other cities.

Since around 1990, Jewish immigrants from countries of the former Soviet Union helped to re-build communities. Many of them are from the former Galicia and descendants of German-speaking Jews. I would not consider this a recovery of Jewish life in Austria, but rather a new chapter.