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1421: The last Viennese Jews

March 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1421, a months-long campaign to purge Vienna of her Jews culminated with over 200 burned — and the rest of the once-thriving community either driven into exile or forced to convert.

Vienna had had a Jewish presence for centuries, centered on the Judenplatz.

The religious wars unleashed between Catholics and followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus complicated the Jewish position. While not an unblemished relationship, Hussites were generally seen to be more sympathetic to Jews, and vice versa. Fellow-victims of Catholic persecution, Hussites recast the Biblical Antichrist with Papist rather than Jewish associations. Hussites openly looked to the Torah and Jewish divines like Rabbi Avigdor Kara for inspiration.*

That’s all well and good, but Vienna was emerging as one of the principal cities of the very Catholic Habsburg empire. (It was not yet the official seat: that would come later in the 15th century.)

To the perceived Hussite-Jewish alliance one must add consideration of Duke Albert V — later the Holy Roman Emperor Albert II — and his considerable debts, no small part of them held by Vienna’s Jewish moneylenders.

On Easter 1420, Albert pumped up a rumor that Jews had desecrated the Eucharist and ordered mass-arrests and -expulsions of Jews, complete with handy asset forfeiture. This was the onset of the Wiener Gesera, the Viennese persecution — as it was remembered later by remnants of the shattered Jewish community scattered abroad.

Pogroms attacking the Jews in Vienna (and elsewhere in Austria) ensued, culminating with the dramatic three-day siege of Vienna’s Or-Saura synagogue. That ended Masada-style when 300 trapped denizens committed suicide to escape forced baptism, and the last living among them torched the building from the inside. Its blasted remains were razed to the ground by the besiegers.**

Albert at that point finished off Vienna’s Jews by sending its final hardy (or foolhardy) members — 120 men and 92 women, it says here; different figures in the same neighborhood can be had elsewhere — to the stake.

“As the waters of the River Jordan cleansed the souls of the baptized, so did the flames which rose up in the year 1421 rid the city of all injustice,” read a Latin plaque erected on the site.

Jews were not permitted to return to Austria for centuries.

* “The Hussites pioneered a uniquely Czech form of philo-Semitism … the fascination, among a persecuted, dissident group, with the Jewish people and religion,” writes Eli Valley. “The Hussites were perhaps the first religious group in Christian European history to argue against the ban on Jews in craftsmaking and farming” and “unlike Martin Luther’s similar program in the sixteenth century, the Hussite movement did not predicate its kindness to Jews on the condition that they would be baptized.”

** The synagogue’s foundations have been only recently rediscovered, as part of the excavation for a Museum Judenplatz at the site. That museum has not necessarily been welcomed by the Viennese Jewish community it’s supposed to represent.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Austria,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Habsburg Realm,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Public Executions

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