Judenplatz, Vienna

It is a Catholic city on a Sunday morning, but Vienna was quiet and without church bells. The Judenplatz (Jewish Square) was calm. The metal ring of the horses pulling the tourist carriages could be heard from the surrounding streets. The churches were emptying, and families were returning home after mass, bundled into coats and scarves against the spring cold. As they greeted their neighbours or stopped to talk their voices rebounded from the genteel walls of the buildings, five storeys high, painted in white or palest cream and with tall, elegant windows.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Lessing, an Enlightenment figure, hated by the Nazis who destroyed the original. The replacement was made after the war and at certain angles the head appears to be out of proportion and awkward. Mozart lived for a while in a house on the corner. There is a plaque commemorating this on its wall.

Near Mozart’s house is a second plaque, brass with Latin lettering, celebrating the cleansing of the city of its Jewish population in 1421. Above it is a little vignette, an angel witnesses a cleansing. The story goes that the Jews were burned at the stake and to save others from such a death the Rabbi himself killed many of his congregation.


A heavily built young man came into the square while we pondered the celebration of this barbarity. He was in his early 20s and a little overweight.  He wore a t-shirt, faded gingham shorts and moccasins. He took off his shoes and placed a small pile of short candles and a rose bud on the floor. He lit the candles and lay beside them on the concrete. After about ten minutes he replaced his moccasins and loped off over the cobbles and disappeared, leaving the candles to burn.


They guttered in a pool of wax in front of the library door. This is Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial for the 65,000 Austrian Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War. Around the base of the monument are listed in alphabetical order the names of the 45 places where the Austrian Jews were murdered, from Auschwitz to Zamosc. It is a library, but you cannot enter. There are no handles on the doors. It is made of concrete, resembles a bunker. The external walls of the library are made from books, cast in concrete, their spines facing inwards. They are closed books. We can never read their stories.

concrete bks

We stand and contemplate this grey structure, such a contrast to the other public memorials and statues in this city, most of which are decorated with gold. In the fashionable Graben shopping street (think Bond Street), for example, stands the Pestsaule, which celebrates the departure of the plague from Vienna in 1692. Even this writhing column is topped with golden tangled figures. The Holocaust Memorial was unveiled in October 2000. It is monumental yet understated, absorbed into its surroundings yet unmissable, calming yet shocking, moving yet without human figures.

holocaust mem

I think these contradictions arise because of the books. The idea of a concrete book is one from which we recoil and then return. The library represents what could have been, what should not have been and what, having been imagined and realised, must be chronicled and not forgotten; and from which we must learn. And the Jews are the people of the book.

Later that we day, after we had witnessed Don Giovanni taken down to hell at the Opera House, we passed through Judenplatz again. Evening was turning to night and easing the contradictions of the memorials in the square. The exquisite beauty of Mozart’s music could coexist with the horrors of the Fifteenth and Twentieth centuries.  It was possible to fancy a hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books.


Filed under Books, Travel with Books

3 Responses to Judenplatz, Vienna

  1. Rose

    Beautifully told Caroline. I like particularly two conceits.

    One is your contrast of grey and gold: the grey concrete simplicity in contrast to the gilded adornments crowning the Pestsäule baroque plague column in Graben, satisfying because of the dominance of gold adornment throughout Vienna – the gold artifacts and gilding of Hapsburg Vienna, and its reprise in the Secession Building and the work of Gustav Klimt, albeit rebel artist scandalising many Viennese in the early 1900s. Here, so profligately used on the Pestsäule, the gold ostensibly marks respect shown by a rich Catholic monarch for his god.

    The perpetrators of the crime memorialised by Rachel Whiteread’s grey concrete bunker are not pictorially represented, although an inscription on the low concrete platform around the monument refers to the Nazis and the 65,000 Austrian Jews they ‘killed’ between 1939 and 1945. Significantly the information stand, nearby but separate from the monument, and giving fuller information of the history of the people commemorated, uses the more plangent and emotional term ‘murdered’. In contrast, on the south side of the baroque column in Graben, the plague of 1679 which killed around 30,000 Viennese is represented in the form of an old woman. She is prone and naked-breasted, and standing over her are a pious figure representing Faith, and a cherub who is about to plunge a flaming torch into her guts. To a modern, female spectator this particularly grotesque feminising of the plague arouses disgust, but, chiefly, one wonders at the implication of religious hypocrisy. Atop the whole column, praying, sits the emperor who commissioned Fischer von Erlach’s sculpture – Emperor Leopold I. But apparently similar monuments were initiated by the Jesuits throughout Europe, with clear Counter-Reformation overtones, celebrating the triumphing over Protestantism and also the Turks. So, we are being told, the plague is ended thanks to the prayers of a Catholic monarch who promised a monument if deliverance could be granted, but the domination of Catholicism is also symbolically represented in this burning of the undesirable – the hag. Back to Judenplatz, and, at No 2, the sixteenth century relief of the Baptism of Christ is accompanied by the Latin inscription commemorating a much earlier burning, that of the pogrom of Viennese Jews of 1421 during which many Jews who did not manage to escape to Hungary were burned at the stake. The inscription rather long-windedly explains: ‘By baptism in the River Jordan bodies are cleansed from disease and evil, so all secret sinfulness takes flight. Thus the flame rising furiously through the whole city in 1421 purged the terrible crimes of the Hebrew dogs. As the world was once purged by the flood, so this time it was purged by the fire.’ Yet again we, visitors and spectators, mull over both the intensity of the violence, and the way it is sanctioned in the name of religion, one religion’s dominance over another – but also of course the sad plus-ça-change aspect of the history of the human race with its low tolerance of otherness, which repeatedly escalates into racial hatred whenever a scapegoat is needed.

    However, the other trope I really like is the image with which you end – that of the imagined ‘ hubbub of conversation, laughter and words among the library stacks and the unwritten books’ – and this is delightfully optimistic. This square is possibly the most beautiful and most peaceful in Vienna, and yet it has multi-layered resonances: its memorials to two major persecutions of the Jewish citizens of Vienna; its statue of Ephraim Lessing, a philospher who pleaded for tolerance towards the Jews in the eighteenth century, a statue whose fate represents a speeded up version of several centuries of Vienna’s history – created by Siegfried Charoux in 1932, destroyed by the Nazis in 1939, replaced under Charoux in 1982 ; and finally, an unexpected find for us, its plaque at No. 3, marking the short residence of Mozart, free-spirited genius whose music is a longlasting gift uplifting and ennobling the whole of humankind. All this materially embodies contradictory dominant strands of the human ‘project’: genocide and tolerance, ephemeral and longlasting culture, ugliness and beauty. Definitely a place which gives much pause for thought and a work of art in itself.

  2. Marianne

    Thanks for that Caroline. I have never visited Vienna and this was a real insight.

  3. Caroline

    Many thanks for these additional comments, and especially for the translation of the Latin plaque, Rose, which I could not find when I tried to research it. I posted this more quickly than usual, and afterwards thought of other gold we saw in Vienna: especially Klimt and the additon of gold on the postcards at the Belvedere and elsewhere. So many contradictions.
    Your detail about the Jesuits and the plague memorial struck a note last night when we learned that the new pope is a Jesuit.
    So much to think about from our Vienna trip, and so much art seen, so much talking and wonderful Mozart Opera … certainly worth a visit Marianne.

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