Friday, September 19, 2014

Austria: $150,000 Can Buy a Medieval Synagogue, and Save a Piece of History

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue, Photo: Jewish Chronicle

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue, Photo:

Austria: $150,000 Can Buy a Medieval Synagogue and Save a Piece of History
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Efforts have begun to protect and preserve the former synagogue of Korneuburg, one of the oldest standing synagogue buildings in Europe. Today, Korneuburg is a quiet town on the left bank of the Danube, about 11 kilometers upstream from Vienna. The former synagogue is now an auto repair shop. It built in the 14th century and last used as a synagogue in 1420, at which time Jews were expelled from the area. 

Korneuburg is sadly remembered as one of the many places where a Jew was accused of  desecrating the Christian host (Eucharist wafer) on Yom Kippur in 1297 or 1298.  According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, this led to the public burning of ten members of the Jewish Community community.  The Host was buried in the town church, where it reputedly performed miracles. The bishop of Passau subsequently ordered an investigation  in 1305, and "it was discovered that the affair was the result of gross deceptions".  The surviving building post-dates these events.

The building is one of several medieval synagogues that once dotted in the region, including Vienna, Bruck an der Leitha, Hainburg, Sopron (Ödenburg), Maribor (Marburg), Marburg an der Lahn and Miltenberg. The synagogue in Vienna was excavated beginning in 1995 and its fragments are now on view at the Judengasse Museum.

While Austria has not made a great effort to preserve the synagogues in Hainburg and Korneuburg, neighboring countries have done more.  In Hungary, the Sopron  synagogue (one of two in the town) was excavated out of later accretions in the 1950s and is now an historic site.  More recently the synagogue in Maribor, Slovenia has  been returned to Jewish use as a Jewish-themed cultural center.  

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue. Reconstruction drawing by Simon Paulus, 2005

Korneuburg, Austria.  Former Synagogue. Reconstruction drawing by Simon Paulus, 2005

The synagogue was a fairly simple cubic hall covered with a sexpartite vault. The outer dimensions of  are approximately 10.50 x 13.20 meters with a wall thickness of 81-90 cm.  The inner dimensions of the main space are 8.80 m width and 11.40 m long. The building height  to the original eaves was about eight meters. The walls are made of rough stone, but better-cut local stone is used on door and window frames and at the centers and ends of the long north and south walls, probably to ensure the stability of the vaults. 

The nearly rectangular plan was therefore similar to plans of the Miltenberg and Sopron Uj Street #11 synagogues. The surviving plaster cornice indicates the height of the original facade. The Korneuburg synagogue has tall, pointed windows partly filled in with brick; a pointed-arch door was later blocked. Steps led down from the entrance to the level of the prayer hall. Remains of steps visible in 1932 were interpreted as leading to a womens section in a gallery, but this is far from certain. Traces of the Ark can still be seen on the east wall. For more on the synagogue's architecture see Simon Paulus's study on Ashkenazi medieval synagogues Die Architektur der Synagoge im Mittelalter : Überlieferung und Bestand (Petersberg: Imhof, 2007) and in an online article in David.

After the expulsion, the Korneuburg synagogue  was used as an imperial granary, and later had various uses. It was probably used as a mill powered by horses or oxen. The building and the street on which it stands is named Ross Mill (Rossmühle).

There was small Jewish community in the town from mid-19th century until the beginning of World War II .  Of a prewar population of 48 Jews, only twelve survived and only one came returned after the war. Subsequently, 19th -century Korneuburger prayer house was converted to residential use. The larger synagogue in Stockerau was given to the Protestant community in August 1938, they kept the November Pogrom of the destruction was in 1953 bought by this later. Currently, the small Jewish cemeteries are maintained by the two municipalities, the greater Stockerauer cemetery was completely renovated in 2012.   

 Efforts to preserve the synagogue have been led by  Klaus Köhler, a longtime resident of Korneuburg, active with the City Museum.  As student of local history, his specialty is the history of the Jews in the district Korneuburg, and he has published a book on the subject . Ein schrecklich zerrissenes Leben ..."Leben und Schicksal der Juden im Bezirk Korneuburg 1848-1946 ["A terribly shattered life ..." Life and Fate of the Jews in the district Korneuburg 1848 – 1946].  Köhler managed to get the building listed as an historic landmark in 1980 and is in talks with the representatives of the municipality and the owner to find a way to preserve and restore the synagogue.  Public funds to restore the synagogue have been promised by the state but only after the property is purchased – something the state is unwilling to do.  The current owner of the property did not know about its history when he bought it, and apparently would be prepared to sell it. Neither the Austrian Fond nor the Bundesdenkmal can offer funds to purchase the property. 

"For the acquisition of the building, there are two options, a swap for another property or the outright purchase of the building. Both require money that is not currently available" says Köhler. American Jeff  Kellner, who lives in the town and has joined in the effort to preserve the building, says about $150,000 is needed for the purchase.  

While any future use of the building is uncertain, it is most likely it serve a museum.  Architects Serge Bukor and Xaver Marschalek have prepared some schematic designs for a renewed building. Today in Austria the Jewish museums in Hohenems and Eisenstadt are the most successful outside of Vienna.

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