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CULTURE & PATRIMOINE - EDJCH

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There are practically no Jews today in Burgenland, this eastern most province of Austria. This is in sharp contrast to the years before the Anschluss of March 1938 when Jews lived relatively happily, notably in the well known seven communities, the sheba kehillot. Eisenstadt, one of these seven Jewish communities, and today the capital of Burgenland, is recorded as having a fully developed Jewish community in the Middle Ages with a synagogue, a mikveh and a rabbinate. At a time when Jews were being driven out of cities like Vienna in the 17th Century, they were welcomed in Eisenstadt and in the other towns of the sheba kehillot by Prince Paul Esterhazy from whom they received a letter of safe conduct in 1690. They became the Esterhazy Schutzjuden, in his protection, for which, of course, they had to pay a tax. The Esterhazy protection of the Jews passed down from generation to generation and resulted in Jews being attracted to the area in increasing numbers.


By the middle of the 18th century, Eisenstadt was the leading community of the Seven Communities, an association under the protection of the Esterhazys that earned Burgenland Jewry a world reputation. The 7 towns were Kittsee, Frauenkirchen, Eisenstadt, Mattersburg, Deutschkreuz, Lackenbach and Kobersdorf.

The Anschluss of March 1938 changed everything. The Nazis’ objective, and that of their Austrian sympathisers and collaborators, was to rid Burgenland of every single Jew as quickly as possible, and indeed, by September 1938 my family, just like all other Jewish families, was compelled to quit Eisenstadt leaving behind the contents of our house. Burgenland has the unfortunate reputation of being rid of its entire Jewish population more quickly than any other area of Europe. We were lucky. We found a small flat in the Jewish area of Vienna and subsequently managed to obtain permits to move to England. Many Jewish residents of the seven communities perished in concentration camps. The number of Jews who returned to Burgenland after the war can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So how did it come about that Burgenland suddenly became involved with the European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage (EDJCH)?

As part of an ongoing project, Dr. Gert Tschögl of the Research Society Burgenland, interviewed my brother and me, both born in Eisenstadt, a couple of years ago. During a conversation with him early in 2014 I encouraged him to examine the possibility of linking the very rich culture and history of the Jews in the sheba kehillot with the annual European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage. Together with his colleagues in the Research Society and with Dr. Johannes Reiss, curator of the Austrian Jewish Museum in Eisenstadt, he set about planning this event so that it would also cover some of the other towns of the Seven Communities. The result has been quite extraordinary.

The programme for the weekend of 12th-14th September was built up on two main themes. The first was to be a series of guided tours of the former Jewish areas of Eisenstadt, Frauenkirchen, Mattersburg and Rechnitz. The second was to be a public discussion with two former residents of Burgenland, Zeitzeugen (witnesses of the period) – one being Gerda Frey, formerly of Mattersburg and now living in Vienna, the other being myself, formerly of Eisenstadt.

A press conference on Friday, 12th September attracted Austrian TV and radio as well as press journalists. Among the dignitaries were Madame Claude Bloch and François Moyse, Honorary President and President respectively of AEPJ, the driving force behind EDJCH, as well as Civic leaders and the curators of the Museum of Burgenland and of the Jewish Museum. Press and TV coverage of the weekend’s activities was very good.

The central events of the weekend were planned for Sunday, 14th September and began with an extremely well-attended guided tour of Eisenstadt’s former Jewish area and the two cemeteries.

 

The former Judengasse, the main street of the ghetto, is the home today of the Jewish Museum, the building on the right in the photo. In the early part of the 18th century this was the home of Samson Wertheimer, a wealthy financier, close to the Austrian throne but also extremely well versed in rabbinical matters, so much so that he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Hungary and honorary rabbi of Eisenstadt. The central feature of the Jewish Museum is the Wertheimer Synagogue which was later owned by the Wolf family. Happily this synagogue was not destroyed during Kristallnacht, and was in fact regularly used between 1945 and 1955 by Russian Jewish soldiers.

Dr. Reiss drew the attention of his audience to a stone pillar at the start of the Judengasse. Before the Nazi Anschluss the chain attached to this pillar would have been drawn across the street on a Friday evening, before the onset of the Shabbat, to prevent vehicles moving through the ghetto during the holy Sabbath. It was removed after the Sabbath on Saturday evening. This was a privilege granted to the Eisenstadt Jewish community by the Esterhazys.

The majority of the gravestones in the two Jewish cemeteries, the old and the new, are still standing, despite the fact that Jews have not lived there since 1938. Our guide spoke of the famous grave of Rabbi Meir ben Isak who took the name of Eisenstadt, who had been brought to the town by Samson Wertheimer and who died in 1744. It was an ideal opportunity for me to visit the graves of my paternal grandparents, both of whom lie in the new cemetery.

The guided tour was followed in the main auditorium of the Jewish Museum by the discussions with the two Zeitzeugen, Gerda Frey and myself, with Dr. Tschögl as the moderator. The hall was absolutely full (people had to be turned away) and again we had TV and the Press. The meeting was opened by Herr Hans Niessl, Governor of the Province of Burgenland who spoke of the historic place of Jews in the province and of the urgent need for Holocaust education, particularly among teachers.

 

Herr Niessl welcomed the initiative of promoting the European Day of Jewish Culture and Heritage and expressed the wish that it should be extended in the next years.

Gerda Frey’s story is quite fascinating. Born in 1936 in Mattersburg, she escaped to Ukraine with her family when the Nazis started their ethnic cleansing in Burgenland, then later to Budapest where they were hidden by a Christian family and thus avoided deportation to a death camp. After the war her family was the only Jewish family to return to Mattersburg, but later in 1951 they moved to Vienna. She spent a year in USA, and then studied medicine at the University of Vienna. She remains very active today as the Austrian representative of the International Council of Women at the UNO in Vienna.

François Moyse thanked the organisers for their initiative and hard work, resulting in such a very successful outcome, and looked forward to the EDJCH in 2015.

My own visit to the town of my birth concluded with a talk on the Monday morning to the senior pupils of the Wolfgarten High School of the Diocese of Eisenstadt, covering aspects of my childhood in the town, being driven out of the town in September 1938, a brief period in Vienna, including my personal memories of Kristallnacht, leaving without my family on the Kindertransport to England, my early life in Leeds and my gradual transformation into a typical English school boy. It was good to be able to explain that my story is not an unhappy one, that my parents and younger brother followed to England one month later, and that we were soon reunited as a family. The many questions gave a clear indication that the students were very interested and that Holocaust education has not yet reached a satisfactory level in Austria.