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The Kittsee Kehilla

To the south of the present-day Joseph Joachim Platz, a three-minute walk up a slight rise, past a row of old one-story dwellings, beside a garage and paved lot, stands a block of new buildings. No vestige remains there of the ancient building that once inhabited this site: a superannuated nunnery, consigned to Kittsee’ Jewish community of for its use as a synagogue. In 1927, Otto Abeles described the building as “well preserved […] with its bizarre bay window and the age-old bucket-well among the peasant houses, like a romantic piece of the middle-ages that one had forgotten to clear away […]. ” [i]


View of the old Synagogue (center) — Kittsee, ca. 1930 [ii]


The present-day site of the Kittsee Synagogue

In addition to the small Schul, accessed through a side door, it contained a number of apartments. Within this humble structure, torn down after the Second World War, the Jews of Kittsee lived, worked and worshiped as an autonomous, interdependent orthodox community (Kehilla).

The Kittsee Kehilla was one of the culturally prominent Sheva Kehillot, the “Seven Communities” of Deutschkreutz, Eisenstadt, Frauenkirchen, Kittsee, Kobersdorf, Lackenbach and Mattersburg, [1] that arose in the late 17th century, and stood under the protectorate of the powerful Esterházy family. The Esterházy dynasty’s rise under Count Nikolaus [Miklós] (1583-1645) and his son, Prince Paul [Pál] (1635-1713) was marked by the acquisition of vast tracts of land in Hungary, and cemented by a steadfast loyalty to the Habsburg Emperor. Though small Jewish communities existed in Burgenland since early times, [2] the modern inhabitants of the Sheva Kehillot were refugees, driven out of Vienna by Emperor Leopold I in the early 1670s. [iii] Prince Paul accepted the outcasts into his lands and granted them his protection. [3] Though he undoubtedly did so for economic reasons, or perhaps to curry favor with the Emperor, the Prince was nevertheless known for his exceptionally indulgent treatment of the Jews in his lands, many of whom accepted his protection in hopes of eventual repatriation to Vienna.

The Sheva Kehillot were among the wealthiest of the Hungarian Jewish communities, and their members were among the best educated of Hungary’s Jews. [4] Many were traders, who enjoyed considerably more privileges than the ghetto Jews of nearby Pressburg. As merchants, they travelled freely throughout the region, maintaining close contact with Vienna’s resurgent Jewish population, as well as with the large numbers of their co-religionists in Pressburg and Pest. In the early 1820’s Joachim’s maternal grandparents, Isaac and Anna Figdor, left Kittsee and settled in the Viennese Vorstadt of Leopoldstadt, the district along the Danube canal that was home to most of Vienna’s Jewish population. [5] That the Figdors, as Jews, were permitted to live in Vienna at that time, before the loosening of residential restrictions in 1848, is an indication of special status, and suggests affluence. [6]

Though the “Israelites” of Kittsee had lived under Esterházy protection since the late 17th century, they did not possess their synagogue, or even their own homes. Prior to 1867, Hungarian Jews were forbidden to own real property or to claim the rights of Hungarian citizenship. In the eyes of the law, they remained a corpus separatum; ethnically, religiously, politically and culturally they existed largely as a people apart—a nation without a country — tenants without permanent status, their presence tolerated in proportion to their ability to make themselves useful. Like most European Jews, they were subject to comprehensive and meticulous restrictions on their numbers, practice of profession and other aspects of their daily lives. The rights and restrictions under which they lived were spelled out in “letters of protection” (Schutzbriefe), which had to be renewed at regular intervals, or upon the death of the ruler or a change of regime. [7]

Despite such restrictions, the members of the Kehilla were granted an exceptional degree of religious and civil autonomy in exchange for upholding the terms of their contract with the sovereign. As a community of faith, the Kehilla had control over religious observance and education. As a civil authority, it was responsible for the collection of taxes and protection fees as well as the maintenance of law and order. Many functions of the Kehilla, such as care for the sick, relief of the poor, and burial of the dead were both religious and civil in nature. In the Sheva Kehillot, community members were subject to the judgments of their own rabbinical courts, which settled cases according to halakah, the traditional Jewish law. If a Jew were to sue a Christian, however, he would be required to enter his complaint in a Christian court. Two-thirds of levied fines would revert to the Prince.

In an era marked by religious reform and the awakening of political emancipation, most Hungarian Jews espoused a conservative faith, largely resistant to the doctrinal innovations and social aspirations of the predominantly northern-German Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). [iv] In Pressburg, a stone’s throw from Kittsee, Rabbi Moshe ben Samuel Schreiber, known as the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839), fought vigorously against Enlightenment rationalism, assimilation, and religious reform. The leading halachic authority of his time, Rabbi Sofer is remembered today as one of the founders of Haredi Judaism, the most theologically conservative form of Orthodox Judaism [8]. The maxim for which he is best known, Hadash assur min ha-Torah (חדש אסור מן התורה), was a mishnaic text that he construed to mean: “innovation is forbidden by the Torah.” His general attitude toward reform and emancipation seems well encapsulated in Hans Tietze’s phrase: “Emancipating the Jews while sacrificing that which is Jewish — suicide out of fear of death.” [v] As Rabbi of Pressburg and founder of the large and active Pressburg Yeshiva (Talmudic seminary), Sofer exercised authority over the entire region, including many of the Sheva Kehillot, which persisted as strongly traditional communities until their dissolution in 1938.

This “instinct of self-preservation,” wrote David Philipson in his book on the Jewish reform movement, would eventually lead “the orthodox rabbis of Pressburg to prevail upon the Jewish community of that city to issue a petition calling upon the Jews of Hungary to refuse the gift of emancipation if offered to them; they characterized the desire of the Jews for civil emancipation as sinful and as inconsistent with Israel’s hopes for the future. […] In their view the Jews were a nation, exiled from their land; the countries of their sojourn were simply temporary dwelling-places; they were living under their own legislation. To become merged in the body politic of the land meant the surrender of all their hopes for the future restoration of Israel to the land of Palestine. They made no distinction between the political and religious elements in Judaism; they were in the land, but not of it; among the people, but not of them — nor did they wish to be. In no country, possibly, was the opposition to reforms of any kind more bitter and constant than in Hungary, and nowhere did the rabbis of the old school present more solid ranks to the onslaughts of the modern spirit.” [vi]

One of Leopold Kompert’s 1848 tales from the Pressburg ghetto evokes the dark, dream-like mysticism still current among Hungarian Jewry at the time of Joachim’s birth:

The Called One

            In the night, the dead arise and betake themselves to the synagogue to pray. They take the Torah out of the Ark, unroll it, and begin to read the weekly parshah. It is a silent, praying community. Not a sound is heard, and when one who is called to the Torah moves through the throngs, no step is audible. The eternal lamp, which burns before the “holy Ark,” gives forth its light. Only when one in the ghetto must die is his name called aloud, that he might advance to the Torah. In the early morning, the doors must be struck three times with the key, in order that the dead community knows that the living wish to enter to pray. Once, Rabbi Moscheh Hahn (may his memory be praised!) had been visiting his friend, the Rabbi, until deep in the night, since the two had not been able to settle an important Talmudic question. As he passed the synagogue, he heard his name being called to the Torah. At first, he was frightened. Then he said quietly: already?? and walked silently home and said to his wife: “Selde, send for the Kabbronim [9]; I am going to die.” She laughed, disbelievingly. “But you are fit and healthy,” she said. “Schick nur,” he said despondently —  “just send.” But she persisted in her disbelief. The next day he could no longer rise. Then, it was clear she had to send for the gravediggers. On the third day, they buried him in the “good place.” [vii]

For the relatively enlightened, cosmopolitan Jews of Kittsee, the cognitive dissonance between the personal freedoms, economic privileges and modern lifestyle that they enjoyed and the rigid, mystical conservatism emanating from the Pressburg Yeshiva, meant that those who later achieved prominence in the larger world of European culture often felt a weaker attachment to their faith than other Hungarian Jews. “During the second half of the nineteenth century,” writes Henri F. Ellenberger in his history of dynamic psychiatry, “the attitude and mentality of the Austrian Jews largely depended upon the group to which their parents or grandparents belonged before the emancipation.” It made a significant difference, for example, whether one’s parents “carried with them the resentment accumulated by the Jews of Galicia and south Russia,” or whether they “came from the comparatively privileged community of Kittsee.”

Across the river from Kittsee, the Pressburg ghetto was still locked at night. [viii] Nevertheless, Ellenberger claims that Burgenland’s Jews, who enjoyed generally good relations with the Christian population, “did not have the feeling of belonging to a persecuted minority.” [ix] Many, like Joachim and the psychologist Alfred Adler (whose father was born in Kittsee in 1835), eventually converted to Protestantism. Ellenberger observes: “Men of that background could keep their religion […], but when they lost their faith, the Jewish tradition no longer held any meaning for them. Not being sentimentally attached, they could easily shift to Protestantism or Catholicism without having the feeling of betraying their ancestors or being disloyal to their fellow Jews.” [x] This was not quite the case with Joachim, however. Like so many assimilated Jews in the nineteenth-century, his relationship to his Jewish heritage remained complex and ambivalent. Despite his mid-life conversion to Lutheranism, Joachim retained a life-long identification with what he called his “Stammesgenossen,” (“those who shared his lineage”), and he informed his parents of his conversion with a distinctly guilty conscience — and only after they had already read of it in the newspapers.

In many ways, it is difficult to imagine a more improbable or incongruous birthplace for an iconic representative of the nineteenth-century Prussian musical establishment than what the residents of the Sheva Kehillot referred to as the schäbige K’hilles — the “shabby Kehillas.” [xi] Before Jews were permitted to participate fully in European cultural life, the Sheva Kehillot produced great Talmudic scholars, skilled tradesmen and successful merchants, but few, if any, artists. Though the Esterházy lands had produced great musicians like Haydn and Liszt, Esterházy Jews had few opportunities to encounter classical music, and fewer still to study it. The experience of Joachim’s near-exact contemporary, the once-celebrated composer Karl [Károly] Goldmark (1830-1915), provides a case in point. For Goldmark, a life in music came as an almost miraculous stroke of fortune. Growing up in Kittsee’s affiliate Kehilla Deutschkreutz, he experienced a Huckleberry Finn youth, playing in the fields all day, and never attending a day of school. Though his father was a cantor, he claimed that, as a boy, he had “never heard music in the true sense of the word.” He was approaching his teens when:

  One beautiful, sunny day, I went out, lay on my back in the grass, stared into the blue sky and let the warm sun shine on my face. It was Sunday morning. A solemn stillness surrounded me — only bees and beetles droned — high in the air, the larks warbled their sweet melodies. Then, at once, the church bells sounded in the distance, and when they were silent, the powerful organ thundered forth. It grew soft, and four voices joined in triadic harmony to sing the holy mass. A euphonious stream of soft harmonies flooded over me. These immaterial, sweet tones, idealized by distance as they wafted in from afar — how deeply did they penetrate my musically responsive, youthful heart! [10] I had never heard anything like it, since we were never permitted to enter the church, and lived far from it. For the first time, I heard and felt the shattering power of harmony, indeed, of music. In my ignorance, I could not account for what I heard — but I had tears in my eyes, and even today I shudder when I think of this first, so powerful musical impression. My fate, my future was decided in this instant, and my life’s calling determined — I was a musician, and — strangely enough — through the Catholic Church. [xii]

Goldmark’s experience demonstrates how haphazard, and how discriminatory, the transmission of knowledge and culture was in those times, and what a radical change was brought about by the establishment of free and open cultural institutions. The nineteenth-century cultural project — the creation of public institutions of high art and learning — was intended to provide broad access to life-enhancing experiences that had previously been available only to the few, primarily through the agency of church and court. In the early nineteenth century, the breakdown of estate societies and the rise of capitalism brought on a great wave of public-spirited activity, as successful and forward-looking citizens co-operated and vied in the creation of schools, libraries, concert halls, museums, choral societies, lecture-associations, sporting clubs, hospitals, parks, and great public works of all kinds. Many of these new cultural associations were liberally subscribed by newly emancipated Jews. Haydn and Liszt grew up with access to cultural institutions that were in principle closed to young Goldmark, Joachim and others whose names we will never know. In the pre-March years of the nineteenth century, the relaxation of laws restricting residence, profession and association released the long-repressed talents and ambitions of this segregated and ostracized people. The gradual lifting of oppressive legal restrictions coincided with the growth of industrialization and improved transportation, providing Jews with previously unattainable opportunities. Within decades, Jews comprised one of the most dynamic segments of society, fueling the engine of capitalism, and entering into the heart of European cultural life. Many progressed from being a marginalized, rural population of merchants, peddlers and artisans to an upwardly mobile urban class of wholesalers, industrialists, financiers — and musicians. Within a generation, western Hungary gave birth to a host of eminent Jewish violinists, among them Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Miska Hauser, Edmund Singer, Ludwig Straus, Adolph Pollitzer, Eduard Reményi, Karl Goldmark and Joseph Joachim. [11]

Joachim’s relatives, who had lived in comparative freedom and prosperity, were among the earliest of Hungarian Jews to escape the bounds, physical and spiritual, of ghetto and Kehilla. Jews had traditionally obtained their legal rights, including their right of residence, through membership in the community. That membership had never been a matter of choice, but a requisite of law. With the loosening of legal restrictions in the Royal Free Cities, new opportunities — new ways of living — began to present themselves to the adventurous and forward-looking. In 1833, his business flourishing and his family growing, Julius Joachim joined the rising numbers of Kittsee Jews who were leaving the Kehilla in search of an improved quality of life elsewhere. He relocated his family to Pest. [12]

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013.

Next Post in Series: Digression: The Road to Jewish Emancipation

[1] Hungarian: Német-Keresztur, Kismarton, Boldogasszony, Köpcsény, Kábold, Lakompak and Nagy Marton, respectively. Before 1924, Mattersburg was called Mattersdorf. Principal among these closely cooperating communities was Eisenstadt (Kismarton).

[2] Jewish populations were first mentioned in Eisenstadt in 1373, Mattersdorf (Mattersburg) in 1453, Lackenbach in 1496, Kobersdorf in 1526, Deutschkreutz in 1560, and Kittsee in 1659, shortly before Leopold’s April 24, 1671 expulsion order. Among the Viennese refugees was the Austerlitz family, the ancestors of Fred Astaire. [Zalmon/WEG]

[3] The Kittsee community received its privilege on January 1, 1692. [Zalmon/WEG]

[4] A contemporary account claims that Kittsee was “where one finds the richest Jews together with a few wholesalers.” [Johann v. Csaplovics (ed.), Topographisch-statistisches Archiv des Königreichs Ungern, Vol. 2, Vienna: Anton Doll, 1821, p. 201.] The Hungarian Jewish Lexicon (1929) describes the Kittsee Kehilla as “prestigious” (tekintélyes).

Hermine Wittgenstein writes: “Of the ancestors of the Figdor family, who lived in Kittsee in Hungary, I also know that several of them appear as subscribers to a historical work in the Hebrew language; in other words, that intellectual interests were indeed indigenous to the family.” [Hermine Wittgenstein, Familienerinnerungen, unpublished typescript, p. 4.]

[5] Joseph’s maternal grandparents were Isaac [Israel, Isak] Figdor [Avigdor, Vigdor, Victor] (*1768 — †1850), k.k. priv. Großhändler [Imperial and Royal Wholesaler], and Anna Jafé-Schlesinger Figdor (*1770 — †April 12, 1833). Isaac and Anna had ten children: Regine, Karoline, Ferdinand, Fanny, Michael, Nathan, Bernhard, Wilhelm, Eduard, and Samuel. [E. Randol Schoenberg, GENI website: accessed 2/14/2011.] Israel, David and Nattan Vigdor were enrolled in Kittsee in the 1801 census as the sons of Jakob Vigdor. Hungarian census records from 1808 show Isaak Victor living in Kittsee with his wife, 4 sons, 3 daughters and a servant. In 1817 Isak Victor was living in Kittsee with his wife and four sons. In the same census he is described as “a merchant together with Nathan Victor, David Victor and Mendl Strasser.” [JewishGen Hungary Database, accessed June, 2007] Mendel [Emanuel] Strasser was the husband of Isak’s sister, Pessel Figdor Strasser. Isak Figdor appears for the first time on the list of Vienna’s Jewish families in 1823. This list was not published every year. [Pribam/URKUNDEN II, p. 419.]

[6] In 1842, there were only 46 “tolerated” Jewish merchants in Vienna. [Friedrich Koch, Der wohlunterrichtete Fremden=Führer in der kaiserl. königl. Haupt= und Residenzstadt Wien und ihren nahen Umgebungen, Vienna: Singer & Goering, 1842, p. 290.] Isaac Figdor’s father, Jakob, a magistrate in the Kittsee community, resided in Vienna as early as 1793. Isaac’s mother, Regine Sinzheimer, was the granddaughter of Isaac Sinzheim (c. 1692-1734), who in turn was the brother of the famous Löb [Loew] Sinzheim, the principal court Jew in Vienna and, in 1730, the chief creditor of the Habsburgs. Between the years 1703 and 1739, Sinzheim lent the Austrian government more than 10,000,000 florins. Löb Sinzheim died without issue, and bequeathed his estate to his brother Abraham. [E. Randol Schoenberg; Hungarian Jewish Lexicon (1929) entry: Figdor-Kittseer,; Max Grunwald, Samuel Oppenheimer und sein Kreis, Vienna: W. Braumüller, 1913, p. 168, p. 211.] In 1830, Isaac Figdor & Söhne, Großhändler, donated the large sum of 150 florins to aid the victims of the flood in Vienna. [Sartori/GEFAHR, p. 98.] In 1839, “Philipp Strasser, und Adolph Heksch, Kaufleute in Pesth, durch ihre Bevollmächtigten I. Figdor und Söhne, Grosshändler in Wien (Leopoldstadt, Nro. 537)” were granted a patent “for the invention of a method of washing all kinds of sheep wool, using a harmless agent, such that it acquires not only a clean, bright white appearance, but also a mild softness which considerably increases the value of the wool….” [Jahrbücher des kaiserlichen königlichen polytechnischen Institutesin Wien, Johann Joseph Prechtl (ed.), Vienna: Carl Gerold, 1839, p. 416.] Figdor wool was given the Prize Medal (first place) at the 1851 British Exhibition as “the finest and most legitimate specimen in the whole Exibitition […] whilst opinions were unanimous as to the superior character of the wools, generally, from Austrian Silesia and Hungary.” [Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851. Reports by the Juries… etc., London: William Clowes & Sons, 1851, p. 158.]

[7] In a typical Schutzbrief of 1800, the Hochfürstlich Esterházy Schutzjuden of the affiliate Mattersdorf Kehilla were allowed all manner of commerce within the Esterházy domain, as well as the practice of medicine, and trades such as cobbler, tailor, furrier, goldsmith and barber—the numbers of each being strictly limited. Their activities were regulated in detail. Jews could make brandy and exact duties and tolls. They were not, however, allowed to operate taverns. The Jewish butcher was not permitted to slaughter cows for Christians, but was allowed to slaughter smaller livestock for both Christians and Jews. Jews had to obtain the Prince’s permission to marry. Marriage taxes were pro-rated according to ability to pay (in 1800 it cost a “rich” Jew 10 Reichsthaler, a “middle” Jew 5 and a “poor” Jew 3).

[8] Haredi, or Charedi, is derived from “Harada” (fear), and is used in the sense of “God-fearing.”

[9] Undertakers. The Kabbronim say last prayers and see to the washing, clothing and burying of the dead.

[10] An essentially untranslatable phrase: “wie tief senkten sie sich in das der Musik entgegenblühende Kinderherz!

[11] All but Hauser eventually studied under Joseph Böhm in Vienna.

[12] The revolutionary year 1848 brought an end to Schutzjudenschaft in the Sheva Kehillot, and led to a time of near-full civil rights for Jews. Political and social freedom, as well as economic opportunity, hastened the dissolution of the Kittsee community and its way of life as its members sought opportunity in nearby cities. At the time of Joachim’s birth, the Kittsee Kehilla was already seeing the onset of a long decline in numbers, from 789 in 1821 to 625 in 1842, to around 100 at the turn of the 20th century. In 1934 there were 62 Jews left in Kittsee. On April 15, 1938 the community ceased to exist. Elderly residents of Kittsee recount with horror the night the Jewish population of the region was rounded up and locked in a cellar. From there, they were deported in the middle of the night to Audorf on the Danube, where they were put on a rat-infested barge without sanitary facilities. The barge was towed to Hungary, where it was anchored. Seventy people spent the entire summer on the barge before obtaining permission to disembark and emigrate. None of Kittsee’s Jews ever returned.

[i] Reiss/GEMEINDEN, p. 110.

[iii] Reiss/GEMEINDEN, p. 11.

[iv] Shoshana Duizend-Jensen, Jüdische Gemeinden, Vereine, Stiftungen und Fonds: “Arisierung” und Restitution, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2004, p. 162.

[v] Tietze/JUDEN, p. 149.

[vi] David Philipson, The Reform Movement in Judaism, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907, p. 380.

[vii] Kompert/GHETTO, pp. 263-264 [Author’s translation.] Apocryphal or not, a similar story is told about the death of the famously triskaidekaphobic Arnold Schoenberg, who died on Friday the 13th, 1951.

[viii] Borchard —

[ix] Ellenberger/DISCOVERY, p. 573.

[x] Ellenberger/DISCOVERY, p. 572.

[xi] Zalmon/WEG.

[xii] Goldmark/ERINNERUNGEN, pp. 15-16.