My Viennese guide Friederike Krammer-Hirsch wasn't Jewish, but she certainly had an interest in and affinity for the Jewish past and present of her city. First she rattled off a list of some of the Jewish luminaries associated with Vienna (Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, Theodor Herzl, Franz Kafka, Martin Buber), then she spoke liltingly about the waltz, and next she broached a subject that was nothing to dance about: what happened to the Jews of Vienna during the shudderingly-horrible days of World War II.

The Jewish population hovered around 200,000. More than 65,000 Jews perishedBefore the war, there were more than 100 prayer houses and 60 synagogues and the Jewish population hovered around 200,000. More than 65,000 Jews perished, and today the Main or Central synagogue is the only historical synagogue remaining. When it was first constructed in 1782, it was indistinguishable from the houses around it because Jews had permission to build a house of worship, but it couldn't be visible from the outside. And when the Nazis burned all of the other synagogues in Vienna, they destroyed the inside of this synagogue but did not burn it.

Very few of the Viennese Jews returned to their city after the war. According to Friedericke, in the 1970's the Soviets allowed Jews to leave, and there was a transit camp in Vienna for those who were enroute to Israel. A number of the Soviet Jews who went to Israel couldn't adapt and couldn't get back to Russia, so they made Vienna their home. Other Jews immigrated to the city, and today the population of between seven and nine thousand is mostly comprised of Russians and immigrants. Many young Jews leave to find spouses elsewhere, and the right wing parties have made immigration exceedingly difficult, so the number of Jews remains low.

"Why did so many Jews come to Vienna in the past?" I asked Friederike, and she proceeded to give me a mini history lesson. At the end of the l8th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was ruler of the Habsburg lands, which included Austria. He was a man of the Enlightenment Age, and was called "The Peoples' Emperor" because he granted rights like the freedom of movement and the ability practice any profession to all citizens. Jews from elsewhere in the empire could move to Vienna, the capital city, and the population exploded.

Although the Jews who arrived were poor, education was a top priority to them. By the second generation, there were many businessmen and buildings were constructed around The Ring (a thoroughfare encircling the city center) by Jewish industrialists. Their children became writers, philosophers, musicians. In l895, the first Jewish museum in Europe opened in Vienna. Jewish geniuses like Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Johann Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alban Berg, Sigmund Freud and Max Reinhardt contributed greatly to the cultural life of the city.

Jewish geniuses contributed greatly to the cultural life of the city. Historically, highly influential and world-famous Rabbis were linked to Vienna as wellHistorically, highly influential and world-famous Rabbis were linked to Vienna. Rabbi Yitzchak of Vienna, who lived from 1189-1250, studied with the Tosafists and Rabbi Avraham ben Azriel in Ashkenaz. He was considered one of the luminaries of his generation, and he brought the light of Torah to (what is today) Bohemia and, later on, to Vienna. The Or Zarua, which he wrote, is considered to be one of the most important books of Jewish law written by an early Ashkenazi scholar.

Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin, who lived from 1370 to l440, was born in Slovenia and came from a distinguished line of scholars. He is considered as the last great rabbi of medieval Austria, and he started yeshivot and ordained other rabbis. He authored the Terumat ha-Deshen, which is written as 354 responsa, and there is speculation that he wrote the questions and answers himself. Another of his famous works, the Esakim u-Kethahim, contains 267 decisions, mostly about marriage law. Rabbi Iserlin also wrote an important commentary on Rashi.

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, known as the Tosfos Yom Tov (1579-1654), served for a time as Rabbi of Vienna. After Vienna, he became the Chief Rabbi in Prague, where he was libeled and accused of slandering Christianity. He was sentenced to death and imprisoned in Vienna. It was nothing short of a miracle that his son Shmuel saved the wife and son of a French general who had a prominent position in the court of Louis XIV. The general petitioned on behalf of the Tosfos Yom Tov, and his sentence was overturned. He still had to sell of all of his possessions to pay a large fine, and he was removed as Chief rabbi.

Alas, as Jews became more prominent and visible, anti-Semitism grew. In 1938, the Nazis closed the Jewish museum and distributed the 6,000 objects to different museums; Hitler's goal was to eventually open a museum of Judaism, an extinct religion and race.

Today, 3,000 of the objects have been returned, other artifacts were obtained from private collections and a Jewish museum was created in the house of a Jewish banker. Among the unique objects on display are a silver spice box in the shape of a locomotive, a menorah made from bottle caps in a Russian transit camp, anti-Semitic figures of Jews conspiring to make money, and charred Torah crowns from synagogues that were burned down by the Nazis. In a nod to the power of technology, there is a hologram of Jewish history in Vienna, and it transports the viewer to the first community, the golden years of Enlightenment, the contributions to social welfare and the arts, Displaced Persons camps, architecture commissioned by wealthy Jews, and Jewish inventions, like the matchbox.

In the Fall of l946, the first post-war Jewish service was held in the synagogue, without any restoration done to the looted and defaced building. Jews filled the synagogue as the service was a symbol of and testament to their survivalInside the museum is a restaurant and, to my surprise, when I casually asked the owner if he was Jewish, so I could learn his family history, he became quite defensive. "I'm more Jewish than many Jews!" he snapped at me. "Well, maybe you're a reincarnated Jew," I joked, but he was not jocular. He said, flatly, "I am here for professional reasons." "Okay, okay," I said, backing off and away. I tried not to judge, and assumed there was a reason for his defensiveness.

We walked along the Judengasse; before l938, there were a lot of little Jewish shops along the street. We passed Friedmann Square, named after thee last president of the Jewish community, who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Then we arrived at the Main or Central synagogue in Vienna—where tours are offered at 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. –and passed through tight security to enter the magnificent sanctuary with a sky blue, star-speckled dome overhead. The gilded beams, white/ivory curtain in the women's section and ovoid shape of the sanctuary made me feel as though I were inside a priceless Faberge egg.

The guide to the Orthodox synagogue –a non-Orthodox, Russian-born woman named Franciska who was casually dressed in jeans and black tennis shoes—tried to explain to the visitors why the synagogue was spared by the Nazis when all the others were burned. The Hotel Metropol, which is 150 meters away, was the headquarters for the Nazi party, and they didn't want a fire to spread to that. Also, the administration of the Jewish community was housed in the synagogue, and all the records, which the Nazis used to write deportation orders, would be destroyed if the synagogue were burned.

In the Fall of l946, the first post-war Jewish service was held in the synagogue, without any restoration done to the looted and defaced building. Jews filled the synagogue as the service was a symbol of and testament to their survival. In 1963, the city of Vienna provided funds for the restoration.

There are kosher restaurants, four Jewish schools, and you can get any products needed to live a Jewish life"Today there are twelve synagogues in Vienna, but the Main or Central one is the only one that was actually built as a temple. It is the largest and most impressive. The others are rooms or halls turned into prayer halls," the Russian guide informed us, adding, "one third of the 700 synagogue members do not live in Vienna. They support the community because their ancestors were members of the synagogue and they have strong emotional ties."

Franziska took a deep breath, smiled, and answered questions about Jewish life in Vienna today. "It's very colorful and lively," she said. "We have Reform and Sephardic and Chassidic Jews. There are kosher restaurants, four Jewish schools, and you can get any products needed to live a Jewish life."

As we passed through the lobby on our way out of the synagogue, we paused to look at a memorial to the 65,000 massacred Viennese Jews who have no tombs, and a plaque to the Jewish soldiers with names like Schreiber, Rosenberg, Nussbaum, Pollack, Herzl and Wolf who faithfully served the emperor and died in World War I.

Next to the synagogue is a glatt kosher restaurant named Alef-Alef, where a man, who I believe is the owner, threw up his hands in annoyance when I asked questions about the establishment. "You want to know the ganze geschichte!" he exclaimed. ("You want to know the whole story!"). "Yes, I do. I am writing about it," I replied, wondering what his problem was.

The reception was much friendlier at Books + Bagels, a one-and-a-half year old shop right down the block ( at Judengasse 11) that offers…books and bagels and Jewish ritual objects. It's a small kosher chain that originated in Zurich, and the charming Chabadnik named Tamar who manages the shop made me feel right at home, and insisted with a smile that they offer the best coffee in Vienna.

Friederike led me down a staircase named after Theodor Herzl, and we walked to the Judenplatz, where Jews lived in the Middle Ages. They were situated near the residence of the Duke, because he wanted his Jewish financiers close by. We headed toward the Mizrahi association house, which contains a synagogue, youth club and administration building and passed by a striking monument to the 65,000 Jewish victims of World War II. "It's an inside-out library," Friederike explained. "The books face outward and there are no handles or doors. It symbolizes that the Jews are gone." Then she pointed to a nearby plaque which commemorates Jews who chose voluntary death in 1420-1421, rather than accepting forced baptism. About 200 brave souls were burned at the stake. The text says that Christianity regrets it share of the responsibility for the persecution of Jews and asks for forgiveness.

Rabbi Jacob Biderman, a Chabad rabbi, helped ensure the survival of Judaism in modern-day Europe with the establishment of the first Jewish universityA plaque outside the Museum Judenplatz is dedicated to the righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great risk to themselves. And the Museum itself is the most moving Jewish site I experienced in Vienna. I began by viewing a highly-informative l0-minute film about the Jewish area in the Middle Ages (it ended abruptly with a pogrom in 1421), including how Jews were not allowed to join guilds, and the Duke wanted them to be money lenders so he could levy exorbitant taxes on them. Others were wine growers and wine merchants, and the population ranged from very poor to extremely wealthy. I particularly loved the detail that the young boys in the Jewish boys' school sang verses because it was believed that singing helped to move wisdom to all parts of the body.

The synagogue itself looked unassuming from the outside, and walls separated it from the outside world of commerce. Much learning and studying took place inside, so it was a called a schul…the German word for school. The floor of the synagogue was twenty centimeters below the street level because of the verse, "Out of the depths I call to you, O Lord." When the building was destroyed in 1421, it lay hidden for 500 years.

The film prepared me for what came next—finds from the original synagogue, including small pots, the base of a column, a carved stone, a tombstone, a ketubah, a compendium of laws, a money lender's ledger, coins, lead tokens, gaming pieces, a fragment from a comb. And then… the actual foundation stones from the women's synagogue, the ruins of a bimah with an aron ha kodesh or holy ark. As I walked among the ruins, a young couple walked in, and the man, wearing a baseball cap, stopped in front of a section of wall, which faced east, and began to daven. It was easy to imagine the thriving Jewish community that once prayed, played, studied, loved and grieved inside the synagogue.

"Now we have almost 500 kids in school. We've got a high school, a teachers' seminary and a community center. The community has 240 members, and there are two other Chabad shuls besides ours in Vienna"My final stop on the tour of Jewish Vienna was an upbeat, warm, funny, informative meeting with Rabbi Jacob Biderman, a Chabad rabbi. Within minutes it became clear that he is a visionary. With the generosity of Ronald Lauder (son of Estee Lauder, former American Ambassador to Austria and president of the World Jewish Congress) and the support of the government of Austria and the city of Vienna, he helped to ensure the survival of Judaism in modern-day Europe with the establishment of the first Jewish university.

"Until now, Jews went to regular universities in Europe," Biderman explained, "but now, in the l9th district of Vienna… in an ancient building that was constructed for Maria Theresa and purchased by Nathaniel Rothschild, who expanded it and donated it for a mental hospital…we have a Jewish university with kosher food, where Jewish holidays can be celebrated, where men and women can study together and meet and establish nice Jewish families. Next week we will have our ninth Jewish wedding!"

The university—which opened in 2005 with the Lauder Business School, but will be expanding with music and law schools —is for secular Jews, to help them integrate into the fabric of European life without assimilating. The first year, there were 44 students and today there are 300. The curriculum includes four hours a week of Jewish studies. Almost all of the students (90 per cent) are Jewish and, Biderman said with a smile, it is his great pleasure to sometimes teach philosophy there (he has a doctorate in philosophy).

"Why did you feel it was important to have a Jewish university?" I asked him.

"Jews in Europe generally get lost to Judaism in public universities. The Jewish university was Ronald Lauder's idea, and we dreamed it together."

The modest Biderman, who was born in Jerusalem and is descended from the famous 18th century Rabbi Moshe Biderman (known as the Lelove Rebbe), was sent to Vienna in 1980. He encountered mostly poor, Asian Russian Jewish families. "The overwhelmed parents were looking for work, and the kids were left alone at home and on the streets. Many of them skipped school to help their parents out. We started with a kindergarten. We went and got kids from the homes and the streets. Luckily, the parents trusted us. They had lost their own culture and were lost here in Vienna. Now we have almost 500 kids in school. We've got a high school, a teachers' seminary and a community center. The community has 240 members, and there are two other Chabad schuls besides ours in Vienna. Our location is called Rabbi Shneerson Platz. The idea of naming the street after the Lubbavitcher Rebbe passed unanimously—even the right wing party accepted it. It's all a miracle."

Jews contributed so much to Vienna. The Nazis harmed themselves. Now Vienna is just a provincial townWhen I asked Rabbi Biderman about the acceptance of Jews in Vienna, he replied that there is not aggressive anti-Semitism today. "There is more a feeling of prejudice. But the authorities are friendly to Jews. About two years ago, someone broke into our school and smashed l82 glass windows. It happened at 2 a.m. and was done by an anti-Semite. Sometimes the kids get taunted or even beaten. We don't have enough police security, and we're trying to get more. When things go badly in Israel, we feel it here. You know, my family and I would be glad to live in Israel, but we are happy to be here as long as there are Jews in Vienna."

According to Biderman, there are probably between 20 and 30 thousand Jews in Vienna, but the majority are not registered. "Jews are still hiding their Judaism. They are afraid of being on lists because the Nazis used lists. Some don't want to belong to the official Jewish community because they don't want to pay the annual fee. Others don't feel affiliated. We do public events, and sometimes half of the audience is non-affiliated Jews. You know, the wife of the current president of Austria is Jewish and his grandfather was Jewish. The ex-wife of the mayor of Vienna was Jewish," Biderman said proudly. "At the beginning, Chabad in Vienna catered to poor immigrants. Now they are middle class and much more prosperous. They have big families. They are the future."

"Vienna demolished itself," he went on to explain. This was a metropolis of music, culture and art. There were famous rabbis here. Jews contributed so much to Vienna. The Nazis harmed themselves. Now Vienna is just a provincial town. By killing the Jews, they harmed themselves. In a quiet way, we are trying to rebuild Judaism here, even if it is politically unpopular. The younger generation of Viennese is much less prejudiced. The older Catholics are sometimes imprisoned in old dogma. But the authorities are doing their best to counteract that."

After leaving rabbi Biderman, I stopped at the Zentralfriedhof cemetery, which was established in 1874, and has an old Jewish section. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) is buried there, and stones are heaped on his tomb. On top of his sepulcher is a memorial to his parents, who perished in Nazi camps. Nearby is a monument to Jews who died in World War I, whose bodies are buried where they fell.

Jews are so intricately interwoven with the history of Vienna, I thought. They made art, music and philosophy. They fought in Austria's wars and advised its leaders. Rabbi Biderman's words echoed in my ears: "Vienna demolished itself" when it decimated the Jewish population. But, in spite of it, there is a return of Jewish life to Vienna.

If you travel to Vienna:

The Main Synagogue
1., Seitenstettengasse 2-4
Tel. +43 1 535 04 31

The Jewish Museum
1, Dorotheergasse 11 , Tel. +43 1 535 04 31 ,

Museum Judenplatz
1., Judenplatz 8
Tel. +43 1 535 04 31

CHABAD: Lauder Chabad campus, Rabbiner Schneerson Platz 1, 1020 Vienna, www. lauder

Zentralfriedhof Cemetery
11., Simmeringer Hauptstrasse 234
Telefon +43 1 760 41 - 0
[email protected].

Friederike Krammer-Hirsch 664 486 5787