Path of Memory
A Walking Tour Honoring Jewish Residents of Vienna’s 2nd District Who Died at the Hands of the Nazis
"This is not a tourist attraction," said my tour guide, Walter Juraschek, as we walked towards Tempelgasse.
Yes, that was clear. The Path of Commemoration through Vienna’s Second District, the former Jewish Quarter, is neither fun, nor an easy walk.
In 1938 about 200,000 Jews lived in Vienna, most of them within a 22 square km radius of the 2nd and 9th Districts. With the invasion of the Nazis, the Jews were suddenly deprived of all their rights, their jobs, their homes, their belongings and their dignity. About two thirds of Austrian Jews were able to emigrate before the borders closed. Those who could not – some 60,000 Jewish men, women and children – were deported to concentration camps principally at Mauthausen, Dachau and Auschwitz, and murdered.
The project began in May 2005 when Elisabeth Ben David-Hindler got a request from her Israeli uncle, who wanted to put a commemoration plaque on his parents’ house in the 9th District, where about one third of the population was Jewish before WWII. Elisabeth’s parents managed to escape to Britain, but her grandparents stayed in Vienna and were deported to the concentration camp in 1941 and 1942. And she could never understand why there was nothing in the 2nd District, where she lived, to commemorate the Jews who had lived there. So she approached city authorities, and in two months was able to place the first of 84 plaques on Volkertplatz, near the Augarten in the 2nd district.
It’s a sunny and quiet spring day in Vienna, when we set off on our walk. We are standing in front of a broad, open courtyard on the Tempelgasse that from 1854 until 1938 was the site of the Leopoldstadt Synagogue, that held more than 3,500 people. I saw a beautiful picture of the temple, and I saw pictures of ruins.
Set into the paving were the "Stones of Remembrance"– dark golden, metal plaques with the names and dates of birth and dates of deportation of the Jews who had worshipped here. On the first stone we read these words:
"For the many people who were murdered whom nobody remembers."
This is what the Path of Commemoration is all about, a path of stones laid by the Stones-of-Remembrance Society for those who have no relatives left to remember them and to mourn for them. Others are laid by the surviving relatives, who have come back to honor them from émigré communities all over the world.
My guide, Walter Juraschek, took me first to the plaque for the Ester Association, a group of Jewish women including Sofie and Hermine Kramm, who had raised money to help the poor Jewish brides who were orphans or whose parents could not afford a proper wedding.
We then walked to Nestroyplatz and the plaque of Bernhard and Adele Sachs, that was set right in the middle of the street. It’s a lively place, right in front of the elegant Jugendstil façade of the Nestroyhof Apotheke. Where had their home been? Juraschek smiled. This young couple had been theater lovers, and had crossed this square regularly on their way to the theater. Their son, Kurt Sachs, had wanted to put the commemorative plaque at the place where they had been so happy. There are other plaques for actors and actresses, theater groups and Jewish charity organizations, like the Mathilde Association (at Grosse Sperlgasse 41) that brought theater companies here for charity performances to help Jewish orphans. There is also a plaque for the lost coffee houses that had been a second home for many Jewish intellectuals and artists.
People of Jewish origin from all over Austria had been relocated to the second district in 1938, which was designated a Jewish Ghetto, although without walls or fences, and ordered to live here in "collection flats." There were plaques at Czernin Platz 2, where 40 Jews had lived and only one person, Eddie Landau, ever came back. Farther along the same street, in building 7a, 70 Viennese Jews had lived, of whom only 6 survived.
The numbers were growing. Among the low, 18th century houses of the tiny Schmelzgasse, a plaque at No. 9 reported that only 10 people survived out of the 143 who had lived there.
Here, at Czerninplatz, 6, lived a Dr. Margarethe Hilferding, one of the first women in Vienna who earned a medical degree in psychology and who worked mostly with the poor and under privileged. We stood at a very narrow street with ancient grey buildings, high enough to make you feel like at the bottom of a well. Right in front of us was the office of Dr. Alfred Adler, the distinguished psychologist, founder of the School of Individual Psychology – who had been fortunate enough to die of natural causes in 1937, a year before the invasion.
And at Grosse Pfarrgasse 8 lived the Wieselberg family. Lea Wieselberg, a mother of four, could not stand the pressure and one day started to throw flowerpots out the window at the Nazis marching below. The family managed to persuade the Germans that she had lost her mind and should not be sent to the camps. It was a Pyrrhic victory; she was sent instead to an asylum for mentally ill people, where she was killed anyway.
"She had no choice," Juraschek repeated, "No choice."
The courtyard in front of the school at 2a Kleine Sperlgasse was a collection center where Jews were sent to wait for deportation. The open square is surrounded by new construction of glass and steel, bright and gay now. But back then, the school was small and cramped, and people were waiting in fear, often staying for several days, until there were as many as a thousand people packed together until the next transport would leave Vienna.
Here the first plaque bears the names of four children, aged 8, 11, 12 and 16, who were deported without their parents and murdered directly afterwards. Another one mentions Olga Pollak and Bernhard Markiewicz, who knew that they would never come back and in defiance of their fate took their own lives. Today this is the Friedrich Kiesel Schule. No children were playing in the yard at the moment, but I could hear their joyful voices inside the building.
The streets we were walking were almost empty, it was the middle of a working day in Vienna, and I could almost see how it must have been here before. The quiet and narrow streets became suddenly alive with all the sounds of busy and lively noon, as if the orchestra was tuning up, preparing for the evening performance to be relived again that day, as so many times before.
Down the street, we came to the Karmelitermarkt, where 70 market stalls belonged to people of Jewish origin. We found a plaque for Rudolf Sonnenschein who used to bring the best melons to Vienna from Budapest. I can smell those melons.
Juraschek shows me a plaque placed by the residents of Kleine Mohren Gasse 5, and mounted on the building in May 2007. A triangular iron pillar nearby was a memorial to Austrians who helped Jews and often hid them. "They resisted in silent resistance," it reads, "Their names are mostly unknown."
The goal of The Path of Remembrance project is to trace the significant points of life of the former Jewish community of Leopoldstadt, and bring to light the history of their expulsion and murder. Today there are more than 350 plaques, with another 23 planned for this year.
I met the Chairwoman of the Path of Rememberance Society Dr. Elisabeth Ben David-Hindler in the Literaturbuffet Lhotzky at the corner of Taborgasse and Rotensterngasse. Dr. Ben David-Hindler is a minute, energetic woman in her late 50s, with deep-set, vivid eyes and a warm smile that makes one inevitably smile back.
"I did this to remind everyone about the people who lived here," she said, "to give them a place here and a bit of their life back." She is also doing it for the generation of her parents, for those who feel the burden of survivor’s guilt, for still being alive when so many of those they loved were killed. She told me about the people who live in the neighborhood and help to maintain the stones clean and polished, about people who make her feel less alone in what is a very demanding and seemingly endless project. And again, this astonishingly strong sense of family.
"I think my grandparents would not want me to be unhappy," she said.
Opening of Stones of Remembrance:
May 18, 2008, 11 a.m.
2., Heinestrasse 30-32.
New stations are also planned in the 9th, 16th and 20th Districts of Vienna.
For more information, please contact:
Stone of Remembrance Society
- Verein Steine der Erinnerung
Dr. Elizabeth Ben David-Hindler
2., Kafkastrasse 10/36
In summer, the Stone of Remembrance
Society organizes "History Breakfasts" in the Literaturbuffet Lhotzky:
2., Taborstraße 28, Eingang Rotensterngasse
Tel. +43(1) 276 47 36, 0699 158 516 68
Monday – Friday: 8.00 a.m. - 7.00 p.m.
Saturday: 9.00 a.m. – 5 p.m.