by Felix Jaffe
printed in The Jerusalem Post, Tuesday, August 6, 1991
Hohenems, home of the only Jewish community in western Austria (Vorarlberg), is little known. The town Hohenems is in the Rhine valley, on the Swiss border, only 20 kilometers north of Liechtenstein and the town of Feldkirch, and far from any major or better-known Jewish center.
Hence the Jews of Hohenems maintained close business and family contacts through marriages mainly with St. Gallen, Endingen and Lengnau in Switzerland and Gailingen, Randegg and Buchau, in the Lake Constance area of Germany.
The Jews were granted settlement rights and protection by the Count of Hohenems in 1617. They were not confined to a ghetto but lived freely in and around the Judengasse (later Brunnerstrasse and currently Schweitzerstrasse). At its peak, the community had 500 members, its own administration and even its own mayor.
Until the middle of the 19th century, Jews were essentially rather poor Landjuden ("country Jews," as opposed to the more sophisticated urban Jews). Most of them traveled around the country as horse traders, peddlers and merchants at local fairs. On Shabbat, they returned home to their large families, and assembled in their beautiful baroque synagogue.
The children went to the Jewish school, which a government inspector (a Catholic priest) once rated as the best in the entire region. Some Christian children also attended this school. The old building is still standing, unfortunately in rather rundown condition, and is occupied by poor Turkish laborers.
In the 19th century, emancipation, industrialization and urbanization brought profound changes to the community. Some of its members acquired wealth and power by creating modern industrial enterprises. The brothers Philip and Joseph Rosenthal, for instance, established a sizeable textile factory, which employed many local Christians. They were connected by marriage to textile merchants in Trieste (Brunner), Rotterdam (Polak) and Manchester (Bles). Three villas still attest to their past affluence: one, the Heimann-Rosenthal villa, has been restored and houses the new Jewish Museum (built at a cost of $2 million); another is the seat of a local bank; and the largest is in an advanced state of decay.
Many Jews migrated from Hohenems to Vienna. Among them was Salomon Sulzer (1804-1890), the famous hazzan (cantor) and friend of Schubert and Liszt, in whose honor Austria issued a stamp last year (1990).
Others settled in Trieste (Bernheimer, Brettauer, Brunner and Menz), where they became prominent in business, industry and medicine. Still others moved to Ancona and Livorno (Stephan Zweig's mother, for instance, was a Bretauer of the Italian branch).
Many emigrated to the U.S. (Bernheimer to Alabama and Mississippi, Lowengard to California, Kahn and Reichenbach to New York). S. Reichenbach even became a mine owner in New Caledonia. The Brettauer and Steinach dynasties of physicians may be worth mentioning, Eugen Steinach being a well-known endocrinologist before World War II.
The once-flourishing community disappeared as a result of natural causes. Immediately upon the 1938 Anschluss with Germany, the town's last 10 elderly Jewish inhabitants were deported. A newspaper reported that there was not "any particular opposition from the local population," who appear to have been strongly influenced by Nazi propaganda.
The story of the community is well documented by the exhaustive study by Aaron Tanzer, its last rabbi: Die Geschichte der Juden von Hohenems (1905, reprinted in 1982). Recent studies have been done by Prof. K.H. Burmeister, a historian and director of the Vorarlberg Archives in Bregenz.
Burmeister and his associates initiated the idea of a Jewish museum, which was recently completed and dedicated. The ceremony took place in the Knights Hall of the Renaissance palace of Count Waldburg-Ziel-Hohenems, who participated. Among the 300 participants were several descendants of the old Hohenems Jewish families of Brunner and Landauer.
Plans are being discussed
to reopen the old synagogue, which was transformed into a fire station
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