History of the Austrian Jewish Community


The Austrian Jewish Before the Anschluss

The Jewish Community (Kultusgemeinde) was established as a result of a Habsburg statute of 1890, which granted Austrian Jews religious autonomy. In January 1938, there were approximately 190,000 Jews living in Austria, most of whom were members of the Kultusgemeinde. One-third of these were no longer alive in May 1945.

The pre-1938 Austrian Jewish community was strong not only in numbers, but also in breadth and spirit. Before 1938, there were actually 34 Jewish communities in Austria. For example, in Vienna alone, besides the 22 synagogues (ornate, spacious, and constructed with private Jewish funds, covering the range of Jewish – Ashkenazic and Sephardic – communities) and over 50 prayer houses, there was a Jewish museum, there were Jewish libraries, schools (Hebraisches Pedagagium, Theologisches Lehranstalt, and Chajes Realgymnasium), hospitals and medical clinics, orphanages, sports clubs (especially Hakoah and Makkabi), Yiddish theaters, kosher kitchens, Zionist organizations, political associations, newspapers and journals and many charitable foundations. Altogether, there were an estimated 440 synagogues, prayer houses, organizations, clubs, and associations. One of the largest groups was the Jewish World War I Veterans’ Association.

As a minority, Jews made up 3 percent of the Austrian population, but 10 percent of the Viennese population. In Vienna, they were disproportionately highly represented in the professions, especially in textiles (according to a June 1944 report by the “Survey of Foreign Experts” in New York, 80 percent of the 1st Republic’s knitted-wear manufacturers and 60 percent of the rayon knitted-wear manufacturers were Jewish-owned [see 0SS RG226, box 611, entry 16, document 1349] and pharmacy), the arts and in academia (Sigmund Freud, Karl Kraus, Victor and Alfred Adler, Arthur Schnitzler, to name just a few).

Significant contributions to the health and welfare of the Austrian Jewish community in the years between 1933 and 1937 also came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in the area of aid for rehabilitation, reconstruction and refugees.

Whereas Prime Minister Kurt Schussnigg’s 1934 to 1938 Austrofacist and clerical government was by no means particularly disposed towards the Austrian Jewish minority, the real terror for most of the Jewish population only began on March 12, 1938, when Germany’s 8th Army marched into and annexed the 1st Republic of Austria – the Anschluss (Annexation). On March 11, Schussnigg called on Austrian citizens not to take up arms against the German Wehrmacht and “spill German blood.” Some 800,000 Austrians were drafted into the Wehrmacht and another 150,000 served in the Waffen-SS.

Persecution and Deportation: 1938-1945

In mid-March 1938, the Nazis and their followers (Austrian and German) began a wild and rapid expropriation of Austrian Jewish property, hand-in-hand with the extreme intimidation of and violence towards all Jewish persons.

A plebiscite in Austria on April 10, 1938 resulted in over 99 percent of the eligible population – Jews and other “unwanted” citizens were not allowed to vote – voting in favor of the Nazi German annexation. Of an eligible 4.3 million voters, 4.287 million voted in favor. A mere 12,000 voted against.

On April 27, 1938 all Jews with total assets (in real estate, personal possessions, bank or savings accounts, securities, insurance policies, pension payments, etc.) worth more than ATS 7,500 ($2,000) were ordered to declare them by the end of June 1938 (Vermögenserklärungen). These assets of 47,768 valid declarations totaled over $800 million at that time. The Nazi authorities wanted to loot these assets, which would contribute to their war preparations. Private Nazis looted these assets as contributions to their own pockets.

The night of November 8-9, 1938 there were violent riots, wild arrests, and the burning of synagogues and Jewish prayer houses (known as Kristallnacht – or “the night of broken glass”). Some Jews were sent to the Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen. Others were sent to firms, construction sites, etc. as forced laborers.

By December 3, 1938, there was an “order regarding the use of Jewish assets.” By February 1939, the head of a major Nazi-controlled Austrian bank consortium, Hans Rafelsberger, noted that 77.6 percent of the aryanization of Jewish shops and businesses (of a total of more than 36,000) that were to be kept functioning (about 4,000) had been achieved. The majority had gone to Nazi Party members.

Within months of the Anschluss, all Jews were ordered to move to Vienna, and then eventually to the 2nd district (Leopoldsstadt, where the slight majority of Jews in Vienna lived before the Anschluss and where once there was a Jewish ghetto).

Soon, SS 2nd Lieutenant Adolf Eichmann (like Adolf Hitler, a native of Austria), established a system, a “model” in Austria for solving “the Jewish problem”: evict the Jews and keep as much of their assets as possible. He set up a Central Office of Jewish Emigration (in the “Aryanized” Rothschild palace, 20-22 Prinz-Eugen-Strasse, Vienna’s 3rd district, across from the Belvedere).

Letter from SS Untersturmführer Eichmann to Herbert Hagen, May 8, 1938:

    “…All Jewish organizations in Austria have been ordered to make out weekly reports…The first issue of the Zionist Rundschau is to appear next Friday…I am now on the boring job of censorship… In any case, I have got these gentlemen on the go, you may believe me. They are already working very busily. I demanded an emigration figure of 20,000 Jews without means for the period from April 1, 1938 to May 1, 1939, from the Jewish community and the Zionist organization for Austria, and they promised to me that they would keep to this.” (cited in Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews. The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, 1999, 244)

Between 1938 and 1941, expenditures of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for swift Austrian Jewish emigration amounted to close to $2 million. The funds, administrated via the official Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG) – the only Jewish organization allowed to function following the Anschluss (under the leadership of Dr. Joseph Loewenberg) – benefited more than 130,000 persons. Other organizations, such as the Council for German Jewry, London, and HIAS also contributed funds – up until the Americans’ entry into the war (Pearl Harbor, Dec 7, 1941). At this point, U.S. relations with Austria were completely severed.

For those lucky enough to escape, the price was heavy: special taxes of all sorts (for visas, passports, health certificates, etc.). Some had to renounce from ever returning to the “land of the German Reich” (see Walter Grab, “Jessas, der Herr Grab is zruckkumma!” in Wiener Journal, Dez/Jän 2000/2001). Most left everything behind.

The first deportations of Austrian Jews began in October 1939, when about 1,500 Jews were deported to Nisko. Few returned. Between February and March 1941, another 5,000 altogether were deported to Poland (Opole, Kielce, Modliborzyce, Lagow).

By December 1940, there were still about 50,000 to 60,000 Jews living in Vienna. They were mostly unemployed, evicted from their homes and living with other families, crammed into “collective” apartments, their bank accounts blocked or frozen; in short, they were barely surviving.

October 15, 1941 marked the beginning of the first systematic deportations of Jews from Vienna to the Lodz Ghetto (Litzmannstadt). Soon thereafter, deportations to Minsk, Riga and Terezin (Theresienstadt) followed. July 17, 1942 was the first deportation of 995 persons directly to Auschwitz. Many more followed, including of Jews who happened to be in Austria at this time (i.e., non-Austrians); in 1944 this included Hungarian Jews. The deportations continued into 1945. By the end of the war there were approximately 5,000 Jews left in Austria.

The main countries where the persecuted, surviving Austrian Jews were living in 1945:

Austrian Jewish Emigration, 1938-1945 Number of Austrian Jews
United Kingdom (31,050)
Switzerland (5,800)
France (4,800)
Czechoslovakia (4,100)
North America
USA (29,860)
Palestine 15,200
Shanghai (6,220)
South America
Argentina (1,690)
Bolivia (940)
South Africa (332)
Australia 1,050

Source: Jonny Moser, Demographie der jüdischen Bevölkerung Österreichs 1938-1945, DÖW, Vienna, 1999.

The Postwar Austrian Jewish Community

Austria (or the Ostmark as it was called between 1938 and 1945) was liberated by the Soviet Army in May 1945. For 10 years, the State was occupied by the four Allied powers. Taking as its first priority the rebuilding of its own infrastructure, Austrian politicians were slow to respond to responsibilities regarding the crimes of the Nazi regime and the country’s former Jewish population, roughly 60 percent of whom, or 120,000, had survived the Holocaust one way or another. Naturally, it was mostly only the elderly – those who had a more difficult time settling abroad – who returned.

After the Holocaust, the only Jewish community remaining in Austria was the Kultusgemeinde, now freed from Nazi control. In December 1945, the Kultusgemeinde consisted of just under 4,000 members, 29 percent of whom were over 60 years old. Another 31 percent were between 46 and 60. By 1948 the number had doubled. Jewish institutions and organizations also began to return: Hakoah Sports Club (June 1945); Zionist Association (Feb 1946); the Makkabi Sports Association (Linz, 1946); Austrian Jewish Student’s Association (VJHÖ, June 1946); Misrachi (including a restaurant, 1947); Karen Hajessod (Sept 1947); and the Bikur Cholim Health Association (1948), among others.

Special Report on the Jewish Situation in Austria: Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), New York, May 15, 1948:

… It would be difficult for anyone who knew the Jewish community in Vienna in 1937 to understand the situation and problems the Kultusgemeinde now faces. Keep in mind the 180,000 Jews, who led, on the whole, a comfortable and pleasant life. Contrast it with: a maximum of 500 to 600 in business for themselves, either as small merchants, skilled workers, owners of small factories or businesses, and professional people: 1,200 to 1,500 employed by the Kultusgemeinde, JDC or Austrian government offices; and 300 on Austrian government pensions. Multiply these figures by two and a half to allow for dependents; add to them about 3,000 old and sick who are supported solely by outside relief, and you have a rough picture of the Vienna Jewish community today. The picture becomes a little more rounded – and darker – when you realize that a considerable part of the income of even the 6,000 people of “independent means” is furnished through JDC aid…

It is obvious, therefore, that the Jewish Kultusgemeinde today, nearly three years after the end of the war, would be helpless without outside assistance. Before the war, 50 percent of its budget was met through taxation; today the figure is 4 percent. The other 50 percent was formerly derived from investments and contributions which no longer exist…

For the most part, the ‘native’ Austrian Jews who survived or returned in 1945 are conservative and uninterested in political movements. They had envisioned picking up the threads of the comfortable old life. Men and women who had clung desperately to that hope during the years in exile came back to Vienna from all over the globe…They had a rude awakening. The peace and quiet and comfort they longed for was non-existent; “Wien, Wien nur du allein” was just so many hollow words. Living, they discovered, is impossibly difficult. Anti-Semitism is rampant. Efforts to recover homes, businesses, personal possessions are met with the familiar abuses of 1938 and after.

Difficulties in Enacting Restitution and Compensation

On May 10, 1945 the “Law on the Recording of Aryanized and Other Property Confiscated in Connection with the National Socialist Seizure of Power” was passed. This required people with known property confiscated after March 13, 1938 to register such property.

A year later, an “annulment law” was passed that at least – symbolically – declared null and void all Nazi laws in force (i.e., “legal transactions”) between 1938 and 1945. If this law had instead been applied to the letter, there would have been little need for the subsequent half century’s restitution and compensation negotiations.

More may have been achieved as well, if a serious effort on the part of the immediate postwar Austrian governments had been made to encourage those expelled from Austria to return “home.” But the dire living circumstances – especially the lack of available housing in Vienna – in the first postwar years created a situation wherein even the leadership of the Austrian Jewish community did not encourage former Vienna Jews to return.

The highest-ranking of Austrian politicians made anti-Semitic statements in the late 1940s, leading to a culture of unwillingness to negotiate for compensation to victims. President Karl Renner, in a private conversation with British Labour Minister Richard Crossman, said: “1945 is the final and full destruction of the old Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. And with it, the basis of the Jewish merchants. Most of the Jews were exterminated and their property all over Eastern Europe confiscated…And even if there was room from them, I do not believe that Austria of today would again allow Jews to build these family monopolies. For sure we would not permit new Jewish communities from Eastern Europe to come here and establish themselves while our own people need work.” (Source: Robert Knight, ed., “Ich bin dafür, die Sache in die Länge zu ziehen”, Böhlau, Wien, 2000)

Some restitution efforts however were made. Between 1946 and 1949 several property restitution laws were passed, mostly allowing owners of real estate to reclaim expropriated or “aryanized” property. The Kultusgemeinde also took an active part.

A JDC report from March 24, 1947 (JDC Archives, AR 45/64 file #194) states the following: “Restitution of property is the most urgent problem in Vienna. Some 2,600 Jewish homes and several hundred buildings belonging to the Kultusgemeinde have not yet been returned. The JDC has recently approached the Ministry of Economic Planning, with a proposal to obtain furniture which is confiscated from Nazis for the use of Jews. There had been some distribution of such furniture but the Jews had not received any and some 1,300 in Vienna are without any furniture at all. The JDC proposed that it buy this furniture at 1938 prices and distribute it free to needy Jews. The proposal was accepted and the JDC has obtained some 1200 pieces.”

A JDC report dated January 8, 1949 (Paris Letter No. 2194, JDC Archives, 45/64 file #194, p.5) states the following:

“An important activity of the Kultusgemeinde is concerned with claiming restitution of property from the Austrian government. Some small pieces of property have been reclaimed and are used as Headquarters of the Kultusgemeinde, but large-scale restitution is moving very slowly, so that the communities are obliged to have recourse to JDC to finance their welfare, religious and cultural program.”

A large obstacle preventing legal justice, from the point of view of Jewish and other persecuted victims, was that the State of Austria relied on the 1943 Moscow Declaration by the Allies, which claimed the State of Austria as the first victim of Nazi aggression – and thus without any legal obligation to make reparations for Nazi crimes. Expediently overlooked if not ignored at the time, however, was that the Declaration also stated that Austrians, as a people, were co-responsible. In other words, the Moscow Declaration also gave Austria the status of “enemy state” – and thus the need for the 10-year “Allied” occupation.