Vienna is a city of ghost-buildings: 180,000 Jews lived in the Austrian capital before World War II; the infrastructure that served them is long gone. The Hakoah Sports Center, with its famous soccer fields, was seized in 1938. The iconic Leopoldstadt Synagogue, which seated 3,000 members, was destroyed by the Nazis during the November pogrom.
Of the 80 synagogues and temples in use before the Nazi’s rule over Vienna, the Stadttempel is the only one that survived. Now the central religious institution of the 7,000-member-community, it was most recently restored by architect Thomas Feiger.
Feiger, 70, has devoted his career to rebuilding Jewish presence in what was once a buzzing cosmopolitan center of Jewish life. He has been in charge of 18 projects that now play a fundamental role in the community, including the new Hakoah Sports Center, part of a modern campus—one of the largest of its kind in Europe—consisting of an old age home and the only Jewish high school in Vienna.
This January, Feiger unveiled the Simon Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies, named after the famous concentration-camp survivor who devoted his life to hunting Nazis. The building hosts Wiesenthal’s archives, a library, an auditorium, and offices for the institute’s research fellows. The location is strategic, the center is located 50 meters from the former site of the famous Metropole hotel, which served as headquarters of the Gestapo in Austria. The building adjacent, the Jewish Community’s offices, was repurposed by Adolf Eichmann in August 1938 as the Central Agency for Jewish Emigration.
All in all, it’ s an apt setting for historical reflection. According to Feiger, work on the center was constantly delayed because diggers kept finding ruins beneath the building’s foundation, including remnants of the Roman camp Vindobona and the original 13th-century city wall. He preserved both of these structures, leaving them exposed to engage with the many historical layers.
Feiger lives in a 1905 cottage house on Vienna’s outskirts and he is president of the Association of Cottage Owners, which protects more than 600 similar properties in the area. Nineteenth-century maps of the city hang in the hallways of his home, as well as an original, mid-18th-century plan of the Leopoldstadt synagogue. His impressive library, which he designed himself, revolves around the main staircase and hosts a collection of old typewriters and books on the Jewish presence in pre-war Vienna and around the world.
Yet, despite his passion for the city’s history, Feiger is, like most Jews in Vienna, foreign-born. His father, a Rumanian Jew, survived persecution from the Nazis and arrived paperless in Budapest after the war. He sought legal advice from a prestigious Jewish lawyer from Slovakia, and eventually ended up marrying his daughter. Thomas was born in Budapest in 1947.
At the time support for the Soviet cause was gaining traction in Hungary, and Feiger’s father, who was staunchly anti-Communist, was persecuted for his political views. Feiger has a vivid memory of the police entering his house looking for his father and arresting his mother. He spent a couple of days in an orphanage, thinking that he would never see them again. He was 5 years old.
In the midst of the 1956 anti-Communist revolution, his father, who had been liberated from a second term in prison, took him out for a snack and, against his mother’s permission, asked him if he wanted to flee with him to Austria. They forged IDs and set out to the border, where they hid by night in a farmer’s house. For 9-year-old Feiger, the whole ordeal, including the revolution, was an incredible adventure.
They arrived in Vienna, a city still healing from the war, where Feiger remembers walking past crumbling buildings and construction sites. In Austria, his father ran into economic difficulties. Thomas was raised by his aunt and uncle, a childless couple who owned a jewelry shop in downtown Vienna. There was no Jewish school at the time (Feiger built the first one after the war, in 1987), so he attended public elementary and high school.
By the age of 14, he knew he wanted to become an architect. His foster parents, who wanted him to become a lawyer or a doctor (more “traditionally Jewish” disciplines, according to them) didn’t know much about architecture. Despite their opinions, Feiger enrolled in the discipline in 1966.
At the same time, he became engaged with the leadership of the Jewish community, which is run according to a parliamentary system, with competing parties fighting for a majority of chairs. Since 1946 the ruling party had been the Bundists, who formed part of the Austrian-Socialist party. They were not very optimistic about the future of post-war Jewry in Vienna, according to Feiger, and started selling the property that was still under their control.
Despite their pessimism, the Bundists wanted to build a new center for the Jewish community where the Jewish Student Union used to be. Feiger and his friends were against both the location and space, so he presented a counter-plan, next to the Stadttempel. The board accepted it. Feiger’s first Jewish project, inaugurated in 1980, reestablished a Jewish presence in Vienna’s first district. In 1988 the headquarters of the Jewish Community was moved to its
original place in the house of the Wiener Stadttempel, 50 years after it had been annihilated.
One gray Viennese morning Feiger picked me up in his black Jaguar and we drove past a recycling plant, through uniform six-story buildings, and across the Donau Canal into Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s second district. Mazzesinsel (Matzo Island), as it was called for centuries, has been the center of Jewish life since the days of the 17th-century ghetto. Most of Vienna’s Jews still live there.
The important Leopoldstadt synagogue, inaugurated in 1858, was a free-standing building with Moorish themes and arches. According to Mendelbaum’s Jewish Vienna Guide, its extravagant architecture symbolized the growing self-awareness and security of Jews under the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Ironically, it was the building’s visibility and monumentality that turned it into a target of mass hate. The Stadttempel, hidden behind a facade, was the only synagogue that survived because it was too integrated into the urban fabric; the Nazis didn’t set fire to it because they thought the fire might spread.
Today, Leopoldstadt’s monumentality can only be inferred through four cylindrical statues extending five stories high toward the sky. Designed by the Viennese architect Martin Kohlbauer, these gigantic totems are the exact size of the columns that held up the building’s facade. The only building left standing after Kristallnacht was the northern annex, which currently hosts a religious school.
We crossed it, past Orthodox children playing football, toward a group of glass buildings designed by Feiger. The complex, owned by the Jewish community, consists of apartment buildings that are rented out to Jewish and non-Jewish tenants and which bring a steady source of income to the community. In between them is ESRA, a center for social and psychological care for people who have experienced collective trauma.
Named for the Hebrew word for “help,” the main aim of ESRA is to offer professional counseling and treatment to survivors of the Holocaust. ESRA also provides assistance to Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union, who have been arriving in Vienna since the 1970s.
Peter Schwarz, ESRA’s managing director, is the son of an Austrian Jew who fought in the British Army to liberate the city. 60,000 properties—including apartments—were Aryanized by the Nazis in 1938. Despite restitution laws, Schwarz has not been able to reclaim property owned by his family in the famous Ringstraße.
We walked past hallways with psychologists and patients, many of them second-generation Holocaust survivors. Finally, we entered Schwarz’s office. There, in the main meeting room, was a minuscule replica of the Leopoldstadt synagogue made by one of ESRA’s patients. Before sitting down, Feiger and Schwarz stood next to it, pointing to this and that building, talking passionately about the war years, when the northern annex was used for a short time as a hospital.
“In many ways,” Schwarz said, carefully, “we see ourselves as a continuation of what was.”
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Alan Grabinsky is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mexico City, covering Jewish life and urban issues for international media.