Catriona Robertson

journeys at home and abroad


Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt (detail)

I spent three weeks in Vienna as a teenager in the 70s and loved it: Klimt, the Ringstrasse, Blumen stalls, Cat Stevens tapes and being puzzled that almost everyone wore brown or beige.  The buildings still hadn’t been completely repaired from war damage.  Anything and anyone on the other side of the Iron Curtain – and Vienna was pretty close – seemed very remote and quite foreign, something which I now realise had quite a marked effect on my education.  I still feel estranged from the history, languages and culture of central and eastern Europe.

Quite a few of the Klimt paintings on display then have now gone (I saw one in Manhattan not long ago) – rightly returned to their Jewish owners (or descendants) and sold on.  It didn’t cross my mind to check where these wonderful works of art had come from.  Even now, as the Jewish Chronicle reports, Holocaust restitution claims can progress slowly.

"During July 2010, people in Vienna will be working in the name of hope, progress, education and tolerance. Thank you for being part of it."

I shared the sumptuous sleeper from Zurich to Vienna with two women cyclists from the US and a Swiss woman (originally from Miami) who commutes weekly between Switzerland where she works, and Vienna where her boyfriend lives.  Her boyfriend is called Georg (“Gay-org”) and when I heard his name I was immediately back in von Trapp/Christopher Plummer land.

Vienna is a mix of formal and friendly – people are well-dressed but happy to chat.  The city centre is clean, tidy and oozes prosperity.  Continental cities tend to house their poorer residents on the outskirts.  ‘Banlieues’ seemed (at the Caux event) to be shorthand for ‘inner city’, whereas the outskirts or suburbs of London tend to be middle class and comfortably off.  My guest house had a poster (right) up in the breakfast room which looked hopeful.

I overheard businessmen at a café talking about the Europe-wide debate on Islamic headgear for women.  “Tyrolean grandmas have been wearing headscarves for centuries”, one of them said.  Islam has been recognised by the state since 1912, so there is no question of banning scarves or veils in Austria.

An Austrian Muslim family was visiting Stephansdom, the C14th cathedral, while I was there.

Stephansdom is the main cathedral and the historic centre of the city.  All the street numbers start there and fan outwards, so the central place of Christianity (mostly Roman Catholicism) in Austrian history is evident.  I met an Austrian Muslim family there who spoke English and who seemed quite at home.  I tried to remember if I’d seen many conservatively-dressed Muslim families wandering around St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey.  I’ve often talked to London Muslims who haven’t visited our historic cathedrals.  The Austrian family said relations were good between Christians and Muslims.

Swimming in the Danube

Next stop, a huge mosque on the other side of the Danube. On the way, I walked along the riverside and was amazed at how many people were swimming and lazing about in the hot sun.  Wild swimming obviously not a problem here.  I met a swimmer from Afghanistan who has been resident for a while.  He’s happy to be an Austrian citizen and goes – infrequently – to a different mosque to the one I’m heading for.

Islamic Centre at Neue Donau

The Islamic Centre at Neue Donau was built with Saudi money in the late 1970s.  I asked/gestured as to whether I could go inside (it wasn’t prayer time, so only a handful of worshippers) and was shown in.  There is a women’s gallery so I stayed there for a while in the silence.

Shakespeare & Co, Vienna (no particular relation to the Paris one)

By chance I came across Shakespeare & Co, an English language bookshop which declares, “we search and strive for intercultural understanding “.  I was in heaven.  It not only had far too many enticing books, but lots of leaflets and information on women’s groups and current affairs – perfect for a passing visitor like me.  As well as finding out about Women Without Borders, I picked up a booklet which took me through the old Jewish part of town, so I spent the rest of the day in Leopoldstadt.

The Vienna Synagogue - the only synagogue to survive WWII. I saw armed police posted at each end of the street on Friday evening as worshippers gathered.

The bookshop was in the oldest part of town, where the Vienna Synagogue is – the only synagogue to survive WWII.  I called in and later talked to one of the rabbis there.  There seems to be quite a lot of bi-lateral and tri-lateral (Abrahamic) interreligious discussion – mainly theological – taking place amongst leaders, but I didn’t hear about anything that involved lay people, or the general public, in getting to know one another and enjoying each other’s company.

The historical trail in Leopoldstadt took me past a lot of buildings that just aren’t there any more.  There were brass memorial plates sunk into the pavement which seemed a bit odd – plaques are usually on the walls.  I was told that to put anything on the walls, it would be necessary to get the permission of everyone living in the new building – and that was highly unlikely, even now.

So I walked around, trying to spot the brass in the concrete and trying to imagine the Turkish Temple (a glorious Middle Eastern style synagogue – the Sephardic Jews had Ottoman citizenship and they celebrated the birthday of the Sultan and the Austrian Emperor on the same day each year) where a bland block of flats now stands.

Massive pillars showing the size of the facade of the destroyed Leopoldstadt Temple - there were nearly 50 synagogues in Vienna before WWII and only one survived

The sheer numbers, the viciousness of the attacks (both the organised and the “wild”) and the destruction of an ordered and sophisticated way of life still deadens the senses when you imagine what it must have been like – both for the Jews and for their persecutors.

Plaque (the only one I found that wasn't on the ground) showing where the huge Leopoldstadt Temple was

It certainly peps up a determination to be on the look-out for early signs of anything similar happening today.  Having only recently visited Pakistan and heard about the violence towards religious minorities there, it gave me an extra nudge towards positive action.

Vienna, with all its music, art, philosophy – it seems impossible and no wonder nobody foresaw what was about to happen.  Even now, Vienna’s tourist board website doesn’t mention what happened to the Turkish Temple in its press release on an upcoming exhibition.  There’s a strange emptiness surrounding the whole subject.

I finished the day in a tiny kosher restaurant, Milk & Honey, with a plate of delicious fresh fish and fine company.  An American mother seemed to be encouraging her two sons (in their 20s?) to swap Facebook details with the waitress.  My children wouldn’t have put up with that, but there was a light-hearted and warm atmosphere and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re on messaging terms by now.

The next day I was lucky to meet up with Elaine from Women Without Borders – but more of that later.

One comment on “Vienna

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This entry was posted on 27 August 2010 by in Europe, Vienna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .
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