Vienna’s Jewish Boulevard
By Danielle Spera
The Ringstrasse is Vienna’s most magnificent boulevard, but it is different from the elegant streets of London or Paris. It is neither a shopping street nor a street full of vibrant activity. It is a noble street with a fascinating history and present-day significance. What does a bicycle have to do with the founding of the Ringstrasse?
A Victoria Blitz bike is a prominent exhibit in the new permanent exhibition of the Jewish Museum Vienna. It belonged to Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Herzl was also a keen cyclist. In a feature article for the Neue Freie Presse he wrote in 1895: “Look, the future is already here. I recently saw a butcher with a straw bag tearing down the Ringstrasse on a bike.” The new era had indeed begun. Since the mid-nineteenth century, Vienna, imperial and royal residence and capital of the extensive Habsburg monarchy, had become a magnet for immigrants from all parts of the Austro-Hungarian empire, particularly for Jews escaping from the narrow confines of their small villages, or shtetls, and from persecution and the lack of prospects in the backward territories in which they lived.
Vienna was the city of their dreams, a city of culture, a city in which anything was possible. Visionaries like Salomon Meyer Rothschild settled in Vienna and were instrumental in helping to develop the Austro-Hungarian infrastructure through the railways that were lacing their way across Europe. The revolution of 1848 and the attempts to write a new constitution marked the start of a new era. Ludwig August Frankl was just one of many Jewish intellectuals who played an important role in the revolution and the struggle for freedom and civil rights. A few years later he was to become one of the central figures in Jewish society of the Ringstrasse era. As a consequence of the 1848 revolution, the Emperor granted permission for the founding of a Jewish community in Vienna (IKG).
The liberal constitution of December 1867 enshrined the equality of the Jews in law, what smoothed the way for the progress of the Jewish population towards the grande bourgeoisie and nobility—even if a small number of “tolerated” Jews had already arrived there long before 1848. Jewish families played an outstanding role in the economic and cultural development of Vienna in the second half of the nineteenth century. They identified with Emperor Franz Joseph and at every opportunity showed their gratitude to him for allowing them to practice their religion and create a community and for granting them equality and citizens’ rights. In 1857 the emperor, just twentyseven years old at the time, ordered a major expansion of the capital to turn Vienna into an international metropolis.
To construct his “Via triumphalis,” Franz Joseph required funds and the support of industry. The project initially was not a great success, although Jewish entrepreneurs were quick to come to the emperor’s aid. In the hope of gaining equality not only in theory but also in practice, they were among the first to purchase lots on the site of the former fortifications as a way of manifesting their gratitude to the imperial household. An address on Vienna’s most prestigious boulevard was also a sign of the long-sought social acceptance. Jewish clients engaged major architects of the day, including Jewish ones, often coming from dispersed regions of the monarchy and in some cases students of prominent Viennese architects, who together completed the main building projects on the Ringstrasse.
The unmistakable Ringstrasse style was created by four generations of architects, who constructed other important and famous buildings in the city as well. Some of these architects, like Max Fleischer or Wilhelm Stiassny, also designed synagogues. Beyond the magnificent new façades, however, social problems were beginning to loom large. Politics became increasingly radicalized as a result of the economic and social changes in Vienna in the late nineteenth century. The Jews were the targets of politically motivated antiSemitism that availed itself of the typical stereotypes of the “poor, ragged Eastern European Jew,” the “Jewish parvenu” and the “rich capitalist Jew.” While in the late nineteenth century many Jews in Vienna were dependent on welfare, Jewish businessmen and industrialists obeyed the Jewish law of tzedaka, the obligation to do good deeds and foster social justice.
Numerous associations and foundations were formed offering a variety of welfare services, including soup kitchens, orphanages, and hospitals. These private initiatives formed the foundations of the modern welfare state and offered succor to the needy, regardless in most cases of whether they were Jewish or not—which did nothing, however, to defuse anti-Semitic sentiments. Two sacral buildings near but not directly on the Ringstrasse symbolize this era: the Votivkirche and Leopoldstadt Temple. Hardly anyone knows that the foundation stones of both buildings came from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
The Votivkirche was erected in grateful memory of the failed assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853. Leopoldstadt Temple was the largest Jewish prayer house of the time with seats for over 4,000 congregants. The church and the synagogue are symbols of the assimilation of the Jews, whose forefathers just one or two generations ago had lived as pious Jews in the shtetls. In the intervening time, many had turned their back on the Jewish religion and traditions and in some cases had even converted to Catholicism. The boom in the Gründerzeit era was fostered by a small Jewish elite, whose descendants only a few decades later were to be driven out of their beloved homeland or deported to concentration camps.
The magnificent palaces still bear their names, but their families have no more links with Austria, as they were not invited to return to Vienna after World War II. There is a story behind all of the names - the families Todesco, Schey, Königswarter, Goldschmidt, Ephrussi, Lieben, and Auspitz - not only in the Jewish Museum Vienna but also throughout Austria and beyond, as so well illustrated by biographical recollections like The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, who relates the story of his family, the Ephrussis.
Tribute is also paid in this way to the services of the Ringstrasse families to art and society. Most of them were welleducated and opened up their houses to intellectuals, scientists, and artists. Their salons were platforms for networking and the exchange of information—places where anybody who was anybody had to see and be seen. Charity is an obligation in the Jewish religion, and the Jewish elite felt responsible for helping the needy and alleviating their misery. But they also played an important role as collectors, patrons of the arts, and promoters of culture and science. Public institutions on the Ring, such as the major museums, the Musikverein, or Künstlerhaus, were partly financed by them.
Many important artworks from these families can still be found today in Viennese museums. One example is the collection of Maori objects, purchased by Carl von Auspitz for the Anthropology and Photo: Palais Todesco Ethnography Department of the Natural History Museum. The Nazis stole other important artworks. Their restitution has been a drawn-out affair and is by no means over today. Provenance research and restitution began very belatedly in Austria, but the works of art are gradually being returned to the families of the former owners.
One recent instance is Hans Makart’s painting Entry of Charles V in Antwerp, which was returned by the Belvedere to the Karplus family in 2013. The Ringstrasse also has close links with the history of the first Jewish Museum, which was situated close to the Ring in a building at Rathausstrasse. The founders of the museum included many important protagonists of the time, such as Ludwig August Frankl, already mentioned, and the architect Max Fleischer. Many Ringstrasse families made donations to the Jewish Museum, which was closed in 1938 and its collection confiscated and used for an anti-Semitic exhibition in the Natural History Museum.
The history of the present-day Jewish Museum Vienna is also linked to the Ringstrasse. Max Berger, the only survivor of the Shoah in his family, arrived in Vienna in 1945 from Poland. He was the first and greatest collector of Judaica. His apartment at Schottenring 35, a town palace built in 1879 for the Moravian textile industrialist David Schwarzmann, functioned as a private museum. The collection was purchased by the City of Vienna and formed the basis of the Jewish Museum Vienna founded in 1988 by Vienna mayor Helmut Zilk. The Ringstrasse has always played an important role in the life of the city and is also a fund of memories.
The American writer Fred Morton, born Fritz Mandelbaum in Vienna in 1924 and expelled from his hometown in 1938, has offered his intimate thoughts about the significance of the Ringstrasse for his family. The Mandelbaums were business people living outside the city center, but the Ringstrasse was special for them as the scene of some of the highpoints in the family history. Fritz Mandelbaum’s parents got engaged there and married at Café Landtmann, where their son also celebrated his bar mitzvah. “When we place our feet on the pavement, a marble pageant takes our gaze up to the rooftops and the lofty heights.
Crowned eagles, winged gods, ascending angels, haloed saints, and laurel-wreathed heroes exude a magic dignity. Like the stamp of a public notary, in the most wondrous fashion they seal every special event in our lives” (Morton 2014). But the Mandelbaum family could not forget the sight of the Nazis marching triumphantly along the Ringstrasse either— until the early 1950s, when the American Fred Morton took possession again of “his” Ringstrasse. The Ringstrasse has lost nothing of its elegance.
Like Sigmund Freud, whose daily constitutional consisted of a walk around the Ring, it is not a street to pass by in a hurry. Or, as one of his contemporaries said in the early twentieth century: “The Ring is the most beautiful street in the world. You walk along it and keep going round and round” (Hennings 1977, 308).
Dr. Danielle Spera has served as the director of the Jewish Museum Vienna since July 2010. This year’s special exhibition “RINGSTRASSE. A Jewish Boulevard” commemorated the Jewish heritage of the Ringstrasse.