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Connecting past, future on a pilgrimage to Vienna’s Jewish Quarter

A swan glides through the water near the Donauinsel, an island that sits in the middle of a branch of the Danube.

SARAH WILDMAN/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

By SARAH WILDMAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: February 6, 2019

On an unseasonably warm night the week August turned into September, every table at Pizza Quartier on Vienna’s Karmelitermarkt was filled. Pizza after pizza emerged from the wood-burning oven as parents sipped white wine while half-watching children -- mine included -- playing elaborate games of tag in the 19th-century market square. Come morning, it would be packed with the organic food vendors, pastry makers and florists that dot this little corner of Vienna’s Second District, Leopoldstadt.

The day had been glorious; a friend and his family had invited us to join them in first jumping on gigantic river trampolines and then swimming off the Donauinsel, an island on a branch of the Danube River that’s easily reached by U-Bahn.

Now, over dinner, my partner Ian and I explained that we had begun to talk to our girls -- one a rising fourth-grader, the other entering kindergarten -- about the history that led my grandfather, Karl, and so many fellow Jews to flee Vienna after Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Karl grew up just blocks from where we sat, on Rueppgasse.

Leopoldstadt has long been known as Vienna’s Jewish quarter; the Holocaust didn’t change the moniker, but it took away almost all the inhabitants.

I wanted to show my daughters their great-grandfather’s neighborhood. They won’t have the eyewitnesses to Nazism I had growing up; this geography would have to help me tell them that story.

Karl left this city but he never stopped loving it, and returned, often, after the war. As an adult I’ve come to Vienna (I even lived here, briefly), drawn again and again by its grandeur and my family’s past. On this trip, I wanted to introduce my family to both.

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It can be hard, visiting the former seat of the Habsburg empire, to escape the lure of the innerstadt (the First District), the ring that encircles the old city, and the neighborhoods that border it. There are the imperial apartments; the coffeehouses; the magnificent Museumsquartier; the gastronomic luxuries of Julius Meinl am Graben; the green Stadtpark. And of course there is the music: the Staatsoper; the Musikverein; the Weiner Konzerthaus.

But the beauty of Leopoldstadt, a 10-minute walk or tram ride across the Donaukanal, connects Vienna’s vibrant present with its complicated past. It is, increasingly, where visitors can encounter young Viennese families and offers a glimpse of the texture of regular life.

As my family saw, it’s also easy to eat well while you explore. New Austrian, Georgian, Japanese and Italian eateries have popped up in the past few years. It wasn’t always this way. My 2004 Vienna guidebook blithely dismissed Leopoldstadt as "bland" and listed among few restaurants worth visiting in the quarter the still popular Schone Perle, a gasthaus (pub) a block off Karmelitermarkt.

But now there are also places such as Cafe Ansari, a Georgian restaurant where we took the girls for breakfast with bright fresh salads and khachapuri stuffed with egg and cheese. On warm days, its large doors stay open onto the wide sidewalk. Next door is Mochi, for sushi and Japanese robata, with a bustling, separate, takeaway joint - called OMK - directly across the street. Further along is Skopik und Lohn, which took over the space of an old gasthaus and elevated it to haute gastronomy with everything from traditional Wiener schnitzel to monkfish ragout over pasta. Karmelitermarkt itself has become a haven for high-end coffee shops such as Cafe Mima, and small gems like Wulfisch, a Hamburg-style, standing-room-only spot for fish, and Markluckte, another innovative kitchen.

"This neighborhood has changed," Petra Raab, owner of the clothing and design shop Wundertute a few blocks from the square, told me. She would know. "I was born here," she said proudly. "I live here." She listed some of the reasons she enjoys the district. "It’s friendly. It’s real Vienna." She likes that there is, once again, a visible Jewish community in the neighborhood.

Part of the draw of sprawling Leopoldstadt isn’t new. On one flank of the district is the Augarten, a 129-acre park designed in the mid-18th century by French architect Jean Trehet, with sprawling lawns offset by lush explosions of wildflowers and precise rows of trees that shade walking paths. I knew my grandfather had retreated to it as a green escape.

But it too has changed. Now at its southern tip is MuTh (Musik und Theatre), Vienna’s avant-garde, 400-seat concert house that opened in 2012 and became home to the Vienna Boys Choir; next door is Kino Wie Noch Nie, a magical summertime outdoor movie theater ringed with flowering trees. The day we visited, 25 or so kids were rehearsing a play outdoors at MuTh; outside advertisements promised an upcoming run of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."

The Augarten is anchored by a 300-year-old porcelain factory, and boasts a children’s playground that puts American parks to shame. My girls made a beeline for a wild set of bouncing tires attached to a pillar, which allowed riders to push off and twirl (fast!). This was not a park for those with liability concerns.

And then, as we wandered, they looked up. What, they asked, were the enormous drab-brown round towers looming in the distance? These are former Nazi flak towers, which were used to deter Allied aircraft during World War II, apparently too sturdy to come down.

I told them then my grandfather spoke of the Augarten, but it wasn’t just the grim gunneries that launched conversations about the past. In the past few years, small, potent memorials have come to dot these streets and others across Europe: brass stolpersteine, or stumbling blocks, a project of the German artist Gunter Demnig, which embeds on metal cobblestones the name, birth, and deportation date, of men, women and children who were sent to their deaths. I struggled to explain them to my older daughter. They are remarkably effective; literally breathtaking.

Last fall, more memorials were installed: these are deconstructed Jewish Stars made of light tubes, a project of artist Lukas Maria Kaufmann and the Jewish Museum Vienna, marking each destroyed synagogue - 25 in all, 6 in the Second District.

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One afternoon the four of us walked up to see my grandfather’s house, No. 27 Rueppgasse. A father and son walked out of the building just as we arrived. I could have caught the door, walked into the foyer. But I hesitated; the moment passed. My father had told me that when my grandfather returned to look at the house in 1952, his family’s old curtains still hung in the windows.

The district these days boasts a relatively large population of ultra-Orthodox Jews, young boys with side curls, girls in crisp uniforms of blue button-down, long-sleeve shirts and pleated blue wool skirts below the knee, mothers pushing double strollers. (A few blocks from my grandfather’s is Shefa Market, a large kosher grocery.) There are new immigrants, as well, including some of the more recent refugees from the crisis that begin in 2015 and brought thousands of newcomers into Austria.

On the opposite side of Leopoldstadt from the Augarten, close to Rueppgasse, is the Prater, the former royal hunting grounds, which has boasted an amusement park since 1766 and Vienna’s iconic riesenrad, or Ferris wheel, since 1897; it appears in Orson Welles’s postwar masterpiece "The Third Man." We skipped the rides and stayed on the nearly three-mile-long hauptallee, or grand street, a shaded avenue for runners and bicyclists. There we rented a four-person bicycle, only to argue over who got a chance to steer.

One afternoon, I wandered into some of the area’s new shops like Der Affe und der Brautigam (the Monkey and the Groom), back near Karmelitermarkt, with wares aimed squarely at me, the would-be bohemian mother, stocked as it was with Danish, French and Austrian designers for kids and adults.

Ian sat outside staring at the ground. Look, he said as we emerged. There was a collection of stolperstein. Here lived Edith Silberberg, born in 1927, deported at age 14 to Chelmno, a Nazi extermination camp. But why, asked one of my daughters. Because they were Jews, I said. As we walked, I saw more and more markers for young people - a 13-year-old, a 1-year-old, a man of 20.

The girls know, vaguely at least, that I wrote a book about the woman my grandfather loved in medical school, Valerie Scheftel. She was left behind, and wrote to him, increasingly desperately, recalling all the things they did together - walking in the Augarten, hiking in the Rax mountains outside Vienna. How do you explain such things without inviting terror? How do you avoid trauma without distancing yourself from your past?

It was the same mix of questions and emotions that have haunted me in all the years I’ve come to visit this city; it’s a deep, ineffable sadness joined with a desire to know the city, and its people, and a strange joy in the privilege of doing so. It drew my grandfather back, again and again. Vienna is the epicenter of this process for me. The conversation with my daughters had now begun there; it will continue.

On this trip it was helped, in no small part, by the now-vibrant Second District, and our friends there, who were so eager to make a connection between us, the third generation and our children, the fourth.

My grandfather, I thought at first, would barely recognize today’s Leopoldstadt. But the more time we spent there I wondered if perhaps he would see in all the new a flicker of the city he’d once known, before it disintegrated around him.

A 1937 photo of Sarah Wildman's grandfather, Karl Wildmann, on the Danau Kanal, sitting in the Second District looking across to the First District.
FAMILY PHOTO COURTESY OF SARAH WILDMAN

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