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Walking the (Jewish) Walk in Austria

Michael Zweig
March 17, 2017

by Michael Zweig

Discussed in this essay: Salzburg and the Jews: A Historical Walking Guide by Stan Nadel, edited by Will Deming (Wipf and Stock, 2009, 146 pages with illustrations, map, and index).

WHEN MY PARENTS left Vienna after the Anschluss in 1938, carrying their one-year old son (my older brother) in their arms, they had to sign a document swearing that neither they nor any of their progeny would ever return to Austria. This was a source of later disagreement between my parents: My father, raised in Vienna, renounced it as a forced signature that carried no weight whatsoever; my mother, raised in Galicia except for a stay in the imperial capital, Vienna, as a refugee during World War I, bitterly insisted that she would never return. They did go back, though, and I also went to Vienna, reluctantly, for the first time in 1969. But I never felt comfortable during that or several subsequent visits.

Reading Stan Nadel’s Salzburg and the Jews during a recent first visit to that city put these experiences into a longer historical context. Nadel, an American historian who has written about leftwing German labor organizing in the United States in the early 20th century, has lived in Salzburg since 2002. He soon discovered that his first apartment was in a building that held another apartment that had been “Aryanized” in 1938 and turned over to Hermann Höfle, who, as a high-level assistant to Adolph Eichmann, was central to the mass killing of Jews. Nadel’s second apartment was in a building that had been entirely “Aryanized.” Nadel, himself Jewish, decided to look into this immediate Nazi history but also into the long history of Jews in the city stretching back to the 1200s.

NADEL PRESENTS this history in stories of 133 points of interest arranged into two walking tours, which he offers as supplements to standard tour guides. The first walking tour leads us through the old city; the other mixes spots in the old and the newer parts of town. Some entries are only a couple of lines (e.g. #56, at Platzl 2: “The Blum-Haas linoleum shop was here until it was ‘Aryanized’ in 1938;” or #59, at Steingasse 4: “This was ‘Fivel the Jew’s house’ in 1452.”). Most entries are more fully developed with the story of the persons associated with the location.

At Getreidegasse 24, for example (#20 in the Guide), pre-war site of Ornstein’s Clothing Store, we learn Ludwig Ornstein’s family history in Salzburg from 1897, including their actions in the 1920s opposing antisemitism, their role in founding the Salzburg Zionist Association, how some of the family fled to England, the United States, and Palestine, how Ludwig’s son Rudolph was arrested in Salzburg in 1938 and sent to Dachau, how the property was then “Aryanized” and given to Nazi party activist Kurt Thalhammer, how Thalhammer was jailed after the war, and how the American occupation forces finally returned the store to “master tailor and concentration camp survivor Walter Fuchs” after the Ornsteins had decided to remain in the United States. Walter Fuchs ran the store until his retirement in 1962.

In these entries we learn only the most basic information, if that, about Ludwig Ornstein and his sons; or about Ernst and Irene Löwy at Linzergasse 5 (#67), murdered at Auschwitz in 1942; about Irma Herz, murdered at Theresienstadt in 1942; or the many others connected with the locations cited in the book. But we learn their names. We know that Fivel the Jew was at Steingasse 4 in the middle of the 15th century, that it was Maria Kurtz, widow of Theodor, whose clothing store at Linzergasse 28 (#82) had SS men stationed in front to discourage customers. For a people repeatedly driven from Salzburg over the centuries, having the names present and associated with their places is in and of itself something of a balm.

Nadel uses several longer entries to convey historical processes and patterns. At Judengasse 15 (#6), for example, site of Salzburg’s first synagogue, probably built in 1346, he sketches an overview of early Jewish history in Salzburg. This history saw periods of official acceptance interrupted by the burning of almost all the Jews in 1349, in superstitious retribution for the Black Death epidemic, and burnings again in 1404, after their return thirty years earlier, in response to the claim that Jews had stolen holy wafers to use the blood of Jesus for Jewish ritual. Twenty years later, Jews were allowed to return for a second time as merchants, but were expelled in 1498, with a forced promise never to return.

Nadel picks up the story with an extended entry (#69) for Albert Pollak, who came to Salzburg in 1862 and bought property there in 1867, the first Jew in over 350 years to live in Salzburg. We learn the subsequent family history, ending with acknowledgement of his granddaughter Mimi Herz, who, having survived Theresienstadt and Bergen-Belsen, was the last living member of the family in Europe in 1945.

THE WALKING TOURS take us to places of general interest that have some relation to Jewish history, like Mozart’s birthplace (Mozart’s interesting connections with Jews explained), Stefan Zweig’s residence, traces of August Bebel and Theodore Herzl, and a 12th century Franciscan cloister. They take us to significant sites in Salzburg’s rich cultural history, explaining the Salzburg Festival and the Café Bazar where Stefan Zweig and Hugo von Hofmannsthal hung out. They draw our attention to non-Jews murdered by the Nazis, including Gypsies and the disabled. Nadel explains the sites of post-war Displaced Persons camps, as Salzburg was an important transit point for surviving Eastern European Jews heading for Palestine.

The Salzburg Jewish community was never large -- in 1911 there were only eighty families with 285 individuals, down to 239 by 1938. Now there are about a hundred individuals. The burning of the Jews in 1404 had killed about seventy. But somehow it was a relief to me to learn that my parents’ forced promise upon their expulsion never to return -- a promise that included me as their progeny -- was not unique to the Nazi era. It might seem odd, but knowing that Jews had been compelled to sign such pledges before in Salzburg makes my family’s particular experience less personal. This is what happens sometimes, sad and painful and infuriating as the history is; and then Jews come back and make lives again, struggling as always to comprehend what “Never Again” can mean as a practical and moral matter.

Michael Zweig is emeritus professor of economics and founding director of the Center for Study of Working-Class Life at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His latest book is The Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, 2nd edition (Cornell University Press, 2012).