Judenplatz, Vienna

Judenplatz, Vienna
Judenplatz, Vienna. Author’s own photograph.

The biggest drawback to visiting picturesque historic cities is that the rest of the world (with his metaphoric brother in tow) inevitably seems to have latched onto the same idea. Nowhere was this more evident than on a recent summer trip to Vienna. The truth is, and here I am going to resort to one of those clichés which a certain class of holidaymaker loves to trot out to friends upon their return home, that Vienna was beautiful, but a little spoilt by the sheer volume of tourists milling about.

I say milling about, but there were occasions when the streets were practically gridlocked with bodies, many of whom were navigating with the aid of a two-inch-square LCD screen rather than using their eyes. In the shadow of St. Stephen’s cathedral, a gaggle of trigger-happy tourists stood rooted to the spot, bewildered and alarmed at their inability to fit the ecclesiastic edifice into the viewfinders of their camera phones. Elsewhere, crowds gaped in awe at the passing horse-drawn carriages, as if they had never seen such specimens of equinity before.

Not that I’m any better than my fellow tourists. I also stand and goggle at the sights. I’m here for the same reason as them: distraction, to tick off another country and city, and to say “of course, I have been to Vienna; lovely city, shame about all the tourists.” So it strikes me that, in these times of cheap air travel and city breaks, circumventing the masses has become one of the principle goals of the self-respecting city-breaker. I don’t want to be a tourist, or at least, not your normal tourist. I consider myself an urban geographer instead, here for purely academic reasons, don’t you know. More inclined to be wielding a 1929 Baedeker than a 2012 Lonely Planet. Happy to submit to the whims of dérive than follow the crowds.

Which brings me back to Vienna. Harbouring a conscious desire to give my fellow tourists the slip, each morning I made an early start, in order to squeeze in an hour of exploration while most visitors were still agonising over what to eat from the hotel breakfast buffet. I was rewarded with peace and tranquility upon streets normally swarming and congested. Over the course of the hour, the trickle of tourists back into the streets and squares gathered apace, compelling me now to shy away from the main avenues and thoroughfares, and push into the dense network of alleys and back streets that lay behind them.

On one such foray I happened across Judenplatz, whose well-proportioned buildings embodied the quaint splendour of the historic city’s old city architecture. It was just before ten in the morning, and the square remained largely empty of people; tranquil, peaceful and intimate. This being mid July, the sun had already taken up a lofty position in the sky above, but its warmth was tempered by a slight chill persisting in the air. I wandered slowly around the square, marvelling at the variety of the narrow-fronted five- and six-storey buildings marking the edges of the open space. Each façade was different from the next, embracing an eclectic mix of styles from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, restored to their original charm in postwar times. Cafés and restaurants occupied the ground floors of several buildings, and though not open yet, proprietors and waiters busied themselves in preparation for the anticipated crowds, arranging chairs, opening parasols and unfurling awnings.

This area was once the heart of Jewish life in the city; a cordoned-off, gated ghetto with synagogue, baths and some seventy houses. It was one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Europe. In 1421, the 800 Jews that lived here were either expelled or murdered, as part of a wave of widespread anti-Semitic feeling then taking hold across Europe. Many of those that refused conversion to Christianity were burned at the stake. In the aftermath of the atrocities, the remains of the synagogue were dismantled and the houses sold off.

Memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust
Memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust, Rachel Whiteread. Author’s own photograph.

The Judenplatz Museum, tucked away in one corner of the square, retells this sad story. Parts of the excavated ruined synagogue are on display there as well. At this time in the morning however, the museum is yet to open, leaving me with the square’s open air attractions to admire for now, in the shape of a statue of the German writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing at one end of the space, and a sculptural memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Holocaust at the other. Designed by the Rachel Whiteread, the monument is characteristic of the British sculptor’s work, and a moving reminder of the 65,000 Austrian Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. 65,000 anonymous books, cast from concrete, face outwards into the square, with the interior, symbolic space of the library remaining empty. The monument demands attention and entreats contemplation. As I slowly encircled it, I was grateful that I should have it to myself for now, and be able to reflect upon its symbolic meaning without others around me.

Looking from the Holocaust memorial to the surrounding buildings, I was struck by the contrast between the rows of uniform, anonymous books encrusting the monument, and the heterogeneous architectural façades of the encircling buildings. My immediate response was that, in this square, the continuous cycles of everyday life—of setting out chairs and opening parasols—confronts and surrounds this reminder of death, stasis and memory. But I quickly realised the speciousness of this assumption. In truth—despite the practices of everyday life going on inside it—this whole square has become a monument rather than a living urban entity, its name forever inviting association with the tragedy of its past.

Featured image by Gryffindor, via Wikipedia.