Two Hours and Two Thousand Years

This morning, I took advantage of a tour advertised by the American Women’s Association of the church of St. Ruprecht and the surrounding area–which happens to be more or less my neighborhood. It was really interesting.

St. Ruprecht is debatably the oldest church in Vienna, dating from about 740 AD. The current church, dating mostly from the 13th century, is the only Romanesque church in Vienna. It is located on a small hill overlooking the Danube Canal, which used to be the main course of the Danube itself. The area below it, Morzinplatz and Schwedenplatz, was a port since Roman times, known especially for the salt trade. It was filled in when the canal was built.

In fact, St. Ruprecht is located smack in the middle of the old Roman garrison town of Vindabona (and the later medieval center of Vienna, known as the Berghof). Bits and pieces of Roman ruins are found everywhere around here, and the Hoher Markt nearby was the site of the Roman baths. If you visit the Roman museum, operated by the city of Vienna at Hoher Markt, you can go underground to see some ruins that were discovered during post WWII reconstruction of the area.

St. Ruprecht is the patron saint of salt traders, among other things, and Ruprechtsplatz, where the church stands, was a salt market for hundreds of years. Now it is populated by several bars, as it is part of the “Bermuda Triangle,” an area known for pub-crawling and general partying.

Morzinplatz was the location of the Metropole Hotel, which was used by the Gestapo during WWII. It was basically a way station to concentration camps and attracted a lot of bombing. St. Ruprecht was largely spared, but many buildings in the surrounding neighborhood were destroyed. The Metropole itself was completely swept away after the war, and replaced with a park and a small memorial to the victims of the Nazis. To this day, though there are many hotels in Vienna, not one of them is called the Metropole.

Ironically, the area had been the Jewish Quarter for two hundred years, a community of up to 185,000 people. Small brass plaques in the sidewalks mark places where Jewish families lived before the war. Our guide pointed out that many of the shops on the ground floors of older buildings in the neighborhood have heavy shutters.  This is because they were Jewish shops, and whenever a pogrom was anticipated, the owners would lock them up tight to preserve their windows and wares.

The only synagogue in the city that was not destroyed in the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 was the main temple, located just a couple of blocks from St. Ruprecht. One theory is that this was because it was so closely located with other buildings that it could not be burned without damaging them. Another is that since the community archives were stored there, the Nazis simply wanted to be able to figure out who was Jewish in order to round them up.

Today, the Jewish community in Vienna numbers about 7,000 people, and is still located more or less in our neighborhood. I often see Orthodox Jews walking around (or whizzing by on razor scooters), and there are several kosher restaurants located nearby.

So, today’s tour was a reminder of just how much history there is under our feet in this neighborhood. I am signed up for another one next week, of a different area. This is clearly a great way to get my geek on!


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