Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Sivan 5764 - June 9, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Jewish Bratislava, Vienna and Eisenstadt

by M. Samsonowitz

Part I

Anyone who has studied Jewish history in the recent era will know that Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and Vienna, the capital of Austria, were leading Jewish communities for long periods of Jewish history. Alas, they have faded in the wake of the terrible Holocaust. Yet a trip to these ancient Jewish centers is rewarding, and certainly worth the trouble of a Jewish visitor to Europe. In Jewish circles, Bratislava is better known by its German name: Pressburg.

On my last trip to the U.S., we made a one-night stop through Vienna on my way to the States, and an entire day-stop on our way back to Eretz Yisroel. The short time available to us was sufficient to see the Jewish sites in these two cities.

Not always is there a guide available to take one to the local Jewish sites in Europe. Fortunately, a non-Jew named Sotolar is always available for Jewish visitors. He is aware of all the sites and a good amount of their history, and for a reasonable price he will pick one up and take one wherever he wants. He was my faithful driver on both laps of my journey. (Sotolar speaks only German, which you can manage with if you know Yiddish. Hearing my extremely poor Yiddish, he cast a look of skepticism about whether I really am Jewish. His son, who sometimes takes Jewish tourists too, speaks a very good English. Sotolar's number is: 00-43-664- 3018660 [from Vienna: 0664-301-8660]).

The Desolation in Bratislava

The Austrian Airlines flight arrives every evening from Israel, and Sotolar was waiting for our trip to Bratislava. I wanted to visit the grave of the Chasam Sofer, which is located there.

Bratislava is a mere 45 minutes away from Vienna by car. Vienna is the closest major city to Bratislava, with the next closest cities -- Prague and Budapest -- being 3-4 hours away by car.

As we traveled on the two-lane country road leading to Bratislava, we passed by one small town after another featuring spacious, tidy white houses. There was almost no traffic on the January night when I was travelling, even at the early hour of nine. I could hardly believe that this was the road that connected two prominent capitals.

Before the metropolis appeared in view, we first had to enter Slovakia. The bored guards knew Sotolar from many previous visits, and they shooed him on. But before he pressed on the gas, I called out, "Stop!" I produced my passport and asked to have it stamped. The guards burst into giggling, thinking it a matter of great humor that a tourist wanted to receive a stamp of Slovakia. They obliged and we entered Bratislava.

Since it was night, I wouldn't be able to visit the small Jewish museum which is located on the Ullava Zdovka -- the "Jewish Street." But Sotolar pointed out the lit up hotel on the corner near it, which he said used to be the beis midrash and home of the Chasam Sofer. I mutely eyed the place where the great man had lived and from where he had led Central European Jewry. Not a sign remained. In fact, it was impossible to know that this neighborhood had been a virtual Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of Jews had lived a vibrant Jewish life. There are barely a few dozen Jews living in all of Bratislava today.

The Chasam Sofer's Grave

I also wasn't able to gain entry to the large modern Jewish cemetery which contains the graves of the Ksav Sofer and other later gedolim and rabbonim of Bratislava. However, Sotolar had made arrangements with the Jewish curator of the Chasam Sofer's grave, and he was willing to brave the freezing cold late at night for a 25 euro tip (about $30).

The streets were empty when we drove up to the structure containing the last remaining segment of Bratislava's old Jewish cemetery. The rest of the Jewish cemetery had been demolished by the Nazis, who had only agreed to leave this corner alone after being heavily bribed by the Jews. The cemetery is sunk in the ground, and the rumble of passing trains is heard overhead. The shrine is located off of a large road.

Mr. Avrohom Cohen of the U.S. has done a worthy job of constructing an impressive shrine. To reach the 30 meter tunnel leading to the shrine, one must enter through a solemn towering black marble obelisk. Entering the door, one finds oneself in a lobby with a dedication to those who fixed up the site and a netilas yodayim sink. The next room has a bimah and seforim for minyanim, and from this room there are stairs that descend to the ancient cemetery.

The approximately 8 meter by 8 meter area that is left contains the graves of the Chasam Sofer, Rav Akiva Eiger, members of their family and other Bratislava rabbonim. Monument fragments that remain from the cemetery's destruction are inclined against the walls. Clay pictures contain notes inserted by previous visitors.

Is there anyone today who hasn't heard of the Chasam Sofer, HaRav Moshe Sofer? A talmid of Rav Nosson Adler of Frankfurt-am-Main, he was one of the most formidable opponents of the Haskalah in Europe. He established a powerful Orthodox framework in Pressburg, where he became rov in 1807 (5567) which was a bulwark against the modernizing trend. From all over Europe, queries came to him not only on halachic issues but on every social and political issue.

His yeshiva produced large cadres of Torah-true rabbonim for all of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even Germany. His descendants were among Hungary and Poland's most distinguished rabbonim and leaders, including the Ksav Sofer, the Sheivet Sofer, HaRav Shimon Sofer, the rov of Cracow, and many, many more who bear the name Sofer, Schreiber and Spitzer.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the famous humble dayan and rov of Posen -- and father- in-law of the Chasam Sofer -- whose works on gemora are fundamental and popular works until today, also needs no introductions.

After praying, we headed back to Vienna where I prepared to wait for my flight the next morning. On my way back to Israel two weeks later, I landed in Vienna, early in the morning. Sotolar's son was there to pick us up.

Vienna's Chareidi Community Today

First we took a look at some of today's Jewish religious institutions in Vienna. The Jewish community numbers about 10,000, among them 160-170 chareidi families and perhaps another 200-250 Jewish families from the Bucharian-Georgian shul who are observant to one degree or another. What a far cry from the 166,000 Jews who used to live in Vienna before World War II, when Vienna was the city with the third-largest Jewish community in the entire world and the popular Taborstrasse was nicknamed "Matzoh Island"!

The Germans occupied Austria in early 1938 and immediately began to appropriate Jewish homes, businesses and properties. By the outbreak of fighting a year-and- a-half later, two- thirds of the Jews had fled Austria due to the persecution. Today's Viennese Jewish community is mainly composed of the families of refugees who ended up in Austria after the war, who mostly live in Vienna's Second District.

Despite Vienna still being a flamboyant European center of culture, informants in the religious community say that the frum kehilla is completely insular. One of the school teachers told me, "The chareidim in Vienna are totally detached from politics. No one listens to the radio and they hardly know who the prime minister is."

The Talmud Torah religious school is run al taharas hakodesh. This school was founded in 1850, and HaRav Shmuel Wosner of Bnei Brak studied there as a child. During the war it was temporarily closed down, but today it has about 200 children studying there. Some of the limudei kodesh rebbes were imported from Jerusalem, and the small size of the community and its unity under Rav Chaim Stern insures that chassidim and Litvaks all get along together. There is also a Lauder-Chabad dati-style school where children get a diluted Jewish education.

Boys study in the local day school until yeshiva ketanoh age, when they join the Wiener Yeshiva Ketanoh (18 study there now) or go to yeshiva ketanos in Eretz Yisroel. Girls go on to study in the Gateshead and Manchester seminaries, and shidduchim are often made with Israelis, Americans or British Jews.

Viennese Jews are proficient in German, English, Hebrew and Yiddish from the elementary school grades, and the school's library has entire bookcases of books in these four languages. The only students who study in the frum schools from outside of Vienna come from Budapest.

I can't help but laud the exceptional hachnosas orchim with which the Viennese are graced. When making arrangements for a place to stay overnight, a number of people whom I had never met literally competed among themselves to offer their homes. When I got off the plane in Vienna, I bumped into a chassidishe Yid and his wife whose first question was if I had a place to stay in town. 95 percent of the frum kehilla are comfortably-off baalebatim, and the kehilla supports two small kolels.

Vienna's Population Before the War

Vienna was famous for its large assimilated Jewish community and its large Hungarian/chassidic community. The reason for this is primarily historical.

Culturally, German-speaking non-Jewish Vienna was tied to Germany, where Reform and Haskalah had their roots. The Austrian Hapsburg dynasty, in addition, controlled Hungary and Czechoslovakia before World War I, so the capitals of these three districts -- Vienna, Prague and Budapest -- became hotbeds of assimilation and Haskalah, already in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

Chassidim flooded Vienna after WWI, when 50,000 Jewish refugees fled south and west from Galicia, Hungary and Bukovina and established themselves in Vienna. (One such refugee who fled to Vienna but returned to Poland was Sara Schenirer.)

The German Jewish hotbed of Haskalah -- Berlin -- was the first to feel the brunt of the Nazi aggression, but the second to feel it outside of Germany was Vienna, which was probably the second largest center of Jewish assimilation.

The frum shuls today include Ohel Moshe (chassidi klali, inclined to Satmar), 2 Agudas Israel shuls (1st and 2nd districts), Kahal Chassidim (chassidi klali), and Machzikei Hadas (Belz, Rav Stern is the rav), Mizrachi (Rav Pardes), Russian shul, and United Synagogue.

In Vienna, too, I noticed the high security that is in evidence in Jewish sites throughout Europe. The compound where the Agudas Israel shul and Ezra social services organization is located is behind a large fence, and an Israeli security expert checks the entrance through six different closed circuit screens. Although I obviously didn't look like a terrorist, I was grilled by the security guard before being allowed to enter. One also sees small "guard- boxes" which were plunked down next to shuls and Jewish schools where guards sit inside and check every person who enters.

The Seegasse Cemetery and Rav Shimshon Wertheimer

The Rossau Fridhof (cemetery) on Seegasse (Sea Road) is Vienna's oldest Jewish cemetery, going back to 1540. It is now located in the backyard of a senior citizen's home.

The most prominent grave, in white stone, is that of Rav Shimshon Wertheimer. He may not be so well known to Jews today, but when he lived at the turn of the 17th century, he was known as the "King of the Jews." The Chavos Yo'ir said about him that since the days of Rav Ashi, there was no one who possessed Torah ugeduloh bemokom echod as he did.

Born in 1658 (5418) in Worms to a local rov, the young Shimshon studied in the Frankfurt yeshiva. Shortly after his marriage, he became separated from his wife reportedly because of a pogrom. When she disappeared and wasn't heard from again, he assumed she had been killed and he was permitted to remarry. He married the widow of the wealthy Nathan Oppenheimer and became the right-hand man of Samuel Oppenheimer, a wealthy court factor who was given special privileges to move to Vienna by Emperor Leopold I.

When his first wife was discovered alive several years later, he was faced with the dilemma of having to choose between her and his second wife. He chose to return to his first wife, a move to which he attributed the success of the children who were born to him. Nevertheless, by then Rav Wertheimer had already made a name for himself and had become wealthy in his own right.

Within a few years, Rav Wertheimer became the wealthiest Jew of his day. He was responsible for procuring the enormous sums for the Austrians to conduct the Spanish War of Succession and the war against Turkey, and he acted as court agent to the emperor and rulers of various German states. He carried out diplomatic missions, and brought huge sums to the government coffers by arranging salt monopolies all over Europe. He financed the conference of Utrecht in 1714. He owned half a dozen estates in Vienna, Eisenstadt and Germany.

Not only was he a successful financier, but he was a scholarly Jew who was devoted to his people. Together with other Court Jews, he saved the Jews of Rothenburg from expulsion, by paying a large sum of money. He intervened to save the Jews of Worms and Frankfort. He was appointed Landesrabbiner of Hungarian Jewry for helping re- establish communities and synagogues ravished by warfare, and was accorded similar honors in Moravia, Bohemia and Worms.

He was also given the title of Nosi Eretz Israel, and was in charge of the transfer of money collected throughout Europe for Eretz Yisroel. He financed the printed edition of the Talmud Bavli undertaken in Frankfurt by his son-in- law Moses Kann. He delivered sermons in shul, and left behind kisvei yad on halochoh, Midrash and Kabboloh.

Rav Wertheimer's grave was recently refurbished after it had been demolished during World War II, and the inscription on it tells of his mighty accomplishments and fame. His second wife's grave is in the same row, a number of graves away.

Another famous rav buried in this cemetery is the son of the Sheloh Hakodesh, HaRav Shabsi Sheftel Horowitz, who served as rov in Vienna.

End of Part I


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