In Search of Vienna’s Vanished Jewish Elite

The gentile owner of the Austrian capital’s leading tailor is tracing the genealogy of the Jewish patricians who fell victim to the Nazis

Giles Macdonogh

It was a history of meteoric rise and precipitous eclipse; a story with few parallels. Jews had been pouring into Vienna since 1848 and this accelerated after the December constitution of 1867 granted religious freedom throughout the Empire. At their peak there may have been as many as a quarter of a million of them, making it the largest Jewish city in the German-speaking world. Today the figure is about 5 per cent of that, and then only that high because it has been augmented by the arrival of Jews from the former Soviet Union. 

The poorer ones came from the shtetls of Galicia and the Bukovina (now mostly in Romania and the Ukraine) and settled in the 2nd District. Others made their way south from Brünn (Brno) or Nikolsburg (Mikulov) in Southern Moravia or west from Hungary. Once the city spilled out of its constricting medieval corset, the rich found their own more luxurious quarters in the solid new apartment blocks (or Zinshäuser) in the 9th District or in the network of streets built behind the new town hall. At the turn of the century many moved to the plush and leafy suburbs of Döbling or Hietzing. The latter is in the shadow of the royal summer palace at Schön-brunn and feels a bit like Kensington. 

The richest of them all had their palaces on the wide Ringstrasse boulevard that replaced the city wall: the Ephrussis (now familiar from Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes), Epsteins, Gomperz, Schey von Koromlas, Todescos, Wiener von Weltens and Pollack-Parnaus. These all owned a palais bearing their name but many more lived on the floor above the beletage or piano nobile like my great-great aunts Ella Zirner at the Palais Gomperz or Malwida Kranz at the Palais Leitenberger. The latter is now the Radisson Blu hotel. I promise myself that one day I shall feel flush enough to stay there. Who knows? Maybe I shall end up sleeping in a room that was once part of the family home. 

Malwida’s brother-in-law, the notorious banker Josef Kranz, was one of those who had a whole palace to himself. The first Palais Kranz (now the Russian Trade Delegation) was in the Argentinierstrasse near the Belvedere Palace, but that proved too small and eventually he had the fashionable architect Friedrich Ohmann (who designed the monument to Empress “Sissy” in the Volksgarten) build him a new one, opposite the summer palace of the Princes Liechtenstein in the 9th. No luxury was spared: it was decorated by Oscar Strnad and Richard Teschner, two of the leading designers of the day and an Italian Renaissance fountain was set up in the garden.

Malwida and Josef’s lives, along with hundreds of others, are tabulated in Georg Gaugusch’s extraordinary 1,650-page survey Wer einmal War — “Who was once Who” — (Amalthea, €128), the first proper record dedicated to the upper crust of Jewish Vienna. Ella and the rest of the family will have to wait for volume two, which — given that the present tome stops at the letter K — promises to be even fatter. 

Gaugusch’s book is pretty dry. He wanted a scientific analysis of the leading clans, and restricts himself largely to the details of births, marriages and deaths, even if they are considerably enlivened by introductory paragraphs and footnotes, which add some flesh to these bare bones. When I first met Gaugusch at the “Adler”, Vienna’s genealogical society, several years ago, he promptly opened his laptop and started firing questions at me about my family. I gave him some circumstantial detail at which he frowned: “Nur sachlich” (facts only). He had no time for anecdotes.

I ran into him again the following day quite by chance in the municipal archives. I was reading my great-great-grandfather’s will. Gaugusch beamed: “Sehr bestritten!” (highly contested). He could learn a lot from a will like that.

He is also an unusual man to have attempted the task. He has no Jewish blood, is a trained chemical engineer, and the owner of Jungmann & Neffe, the tailor next to the Hotel Sacher that is the Viennese equivalent of Savile Row’s Huntsman or Henry Poole.

It was actually Jungmann & Neffe that got him involved in his project. Some time in the 1990s, an elderly Jewish woman came into the shop to have a look round the place her family had sold to Gaugusch’s great-grandfather in 1942. Later there was a discussion in the family as to whether they would participate in an exhibition of former purveyors to the imperial court. Gaugusch decided they would, and set about researching the history of the shop and of the Jungmann and Dukes families that had owned it. It was at that point that he got the bug.   

His survey shows beyond all doubt that there was plenty of social mobility in the Austro-Hungarian empire in the second half of the 19th century. If you could not boast the brains to enable you to rise in the professions, mines, mills or factories of the Habsburg Empire, appointment to the court and the bestowal of an effigy of the imperial double eagle could also be part of the process of social advancement. A baker’s shop elevated to imperial purveyor of kipferl (a precursor of the croissant) forms the backdrop to the charming 1955 “Heimatfilm” Die Deutschmeister, starring Romy Schneider; but her character wasn’t Jewish, of course. Ella had the eagle at her department store (half of it can still be seen on the roof of the former Mariahilferstrasse branch) and her brother-in-law Max (my great-grandfather) had his on the jeweller’s shop on the Graben. Her father, husband and brother-in-law were all awarded the title of Kommerzialrat (commercial councillor) and showered with many more baubles besides as they donated funds to the various causes of the empire.

Shared commercial interests obviously lay at the heart of marriages in this world: Jews wed within clans. Hungarian Jews married others from their hometowns, likewise Moravians and Bohemians. Marriages in my family were preordained by relationships established a century before in the very Jewish Hungarian town of Bonyhád, near Pécs. 

Gaugusch’s desire to establish “networks” has been criticised in the Austrian press as being in some way anti-Semitic, but the existence of these closed, self-supporting communities is undeniable: Jews came from all over the empire and they tended to do business with the people they trusted of old. A Jew from the Banat knew little of those from the Bukovina, let alone one from Prague or Pilsen. 

The millionaires naturally angled for all the trappings of establishment: boxes at the opera and the Burgtheater and above all noble titles. The Ephrussis became “von” Ephrussi, as did the Rothschilds, Arnsteins (the oldest Jewish “barons” and patrons of Mozart), Auspitzes, Blochs, Bondys, Eislers, Fröhlichs, Freunds, Frydmanns, Grabs, Hechts, Herzls, Inwalds and Hofmanns, to name but a few. The trader Isak Löw Hofmann became Hofmann von Hofmannsthal, the grandfather of the poet, but the example of Hugo von Hofmannsthal raises other issues such as conversion and intermarriage. The poet was only a quarter Jewish, which shows there was seemingly little reluctance to marry out if it meant you could “get on” or indeed bypass some informal if annoying numerus clausus that prevented you from advancing in your profession.

An example of conversion was Rudolf Sieghart, who figures in Gaugusch’s pages by dint of his marriage to a daughter of Professor Carl Grünhut, a member of the Austrian Upper House. Sieghart was one of the most controversial figures of pre-war Austria, as he was held responsible for the crash of the Bodencreditanstalt bank in 1929 and the subsequent ruin of thousands of middle-class investors. Born Rudolf Singer in Troppau in Austrian Silesia, Sieghart was the son of a rabbi who changed his name around the time of his conversion to Christianity at the age of 28 in 1895: Sieghart didn’t sound Jewish. It was an indication of his ambition that he selected as godfather the future minister-president Count Stürgkh, who was assassinated by Friedrich Adler in October 1916. 

It was far easier to achieve letters patent of nobility in Vienna than in Berlin, just as there were fewer restrictions to obtaining commissions in the army. Some Jewish army officers were ennobled as well, like Major General Erich von Sommer, who was saluted by Nazi bullyboys when he appeared in full uniform after the Anchluss in March 1938. In the Jewish novelist Joseph Roth’s novel The Radetzky March of 1932, a lowly-born gentile called Joseph Trotta saves the young Emperor Franz Joseph’s life at the Battle of Solferino and is ennobled on the spot. Roth may well have based his tale on the true story of the Jewish lieutenant Wolf Bardach — who was granted the title “von Chlumberg” in 1890 for an act of great bravery that took place at the Battle of Königgrätz in 1866. Another possible model was Heinrich Ulrich von Trenkheim, who was ennobled on the spot at Custozza in the same year. It still took Bardach all of 35 years, however, to rise from a private to the rank of captain first class, but that was by no means unusual in the imperial army.

Most of the Jews ennobled were industrialists like the distiller Goldreich, the glass manufacturer Inwald, the coal baron Gutmann, the sugar refiner Bloch von Brodnegg, the railway baron Fröhlich von Feldau, the canner Eisler von Terramare, the foundry-owner Bondy and the brewer Kuffner; merchants like the Gomperz, the Liebens, the Doctors and the Adlers; lawyers like the Boschans or Bachrachs; and the bankers Auspitz, Frank, and Biedermann. One Kubinzky, scion of a cotton magnate dynasty from Prague, aspired to become Marquis von Hohenkubin.

Of course Austria was not just their land of milk and honey: it had its own brand of anti-Semitism which was every bit as virulent as that which had taken root north of the River Inn, if not more so. If neither emperor nor empire was anti-Jewish, many of its citizens were just the opposite. It was on the streets of Vienna, after all, that Adolf Hitler served his apprenticeship in anti-Semitism, picking up the ideas of Jew-baiters like Georg von Schönerer. In March 1938 the German Nazis had to stay the hands of the Viennese, who made Hitler’s arrival a pretext to beat up their Jewish fellow citizens with enormous gusto. Five years into the Third Reich, public humiliations of this sort were rare occurences in Germany proper.

It is generally said that most of the richer Jews escaped from Vienna and were not among the 65,000 or so citizens who perished in the Holocaust, most of whom would have been from the communities of poorer Ostjuden in the 2nd District. It is notable, however, that many members of the elite listed in Wer einmal War were “deported” to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz or one of the other camps or ghettos, often people who were too old or too tired to run. Shocking too is the number of deaths by suicide recorded in 1938, a testament to despair.

Great-great aunt Ella had been planning a big celebration for the summer. It was to have been the 70th anniversary of the founding of the family department store — I presume it opened in Budapest, because I can’t see any trace of my great-great-grandfather in Lehmann’s business directory before 1875. Special wrapping paper was designed by a leading designer in Budapest showing the previous building on the site, as taken from a painting by Rudolf von Alt, contrasted with its successor by the same Friedrich Ohmann who designed the Palais Kranz. 

Of course the party never took place. Hitler and his henchmen put a stop to that and Ella was forced to sell the shop for a song to an Aryan proprietor. A few months later she was ocean-bound for New York. The 70-year story had come to an abrupt end. 

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