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The history of Austria revolves around the city of Vienna, which owes its great importance to two factors, geography and ethnography. From the Po Valley of Italy trade moved north through the Brenner Pass to Bavaria; passing through Munich to Regensburg and Nuremberg, it either continued farther north by way of the Rhine River or southeast through Linz to Vienna. There, the only break between the mountains of the Alps and Bohemia, goods moved on eastward. Vienna was also the meeting point for the three ethnic groups forming Europe. To the south was the Latin world, to the west the Teutonic, and to the east the Slavic. The Hapsburg possessions, which later evolved into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were in reality a viable economic unit, and even in the earliest period traders—including, but not by any means limited to, the Jews—flowed into this region from all over, creating an extraordinarily cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The Jews had a prominent position in Viennese life because of a favorable attitude on the part of the first overlords, the Babenberg dukes. Schlom (Solomon) was in charge of Duke Leopold V’s finances and customs, as well as mintmaster.* Though Schlom has not sealed any known document, other records indicate that he owned property in Vienna and, indeed, that he became so powerful he was murdered by Crusaders passing through the city. Under Duke Frederick II of Austria (1230–46), another Jew was equally powerful, Teka (spelled Teha, Techa, Tekanus, Thehanus, and Thehano in different documents). First mentioned in Hungary (see below), he appears to have moved to Vienna by 1235. He soon occupied posts similar to those of Schlom.

In 1238 the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, conquered Vienna and, desirous of acquiring their good will, granted a liberal charter to the Jews. Duke Frederick II of Austria, an enemy of the emperor, retook possession of his native country two years later and in 1244 reissued and enlarged the affirmative features of the 1238 charter, making it even more favorable to the Jews. This edict was a landmark not only because of its liberal conditions but because it was used as a prototype by the Hapsburgs, successors to the Babenbergs, when they expanded eastward. Of its thirty articles, eleven dealt with moneylending and the protection of the Jews. By its terms Jews were not only allowed to lend money at interest but were protected against Christian competition, with the Cahorsins and Lombards refused entry to the country. The reverse side of the Privilege, however, was the elimination of Jews from trade; and since they came to practice usury almost exclusively, the stage was set for their subsequent expulsion.

Austria, ca. 1200–1450. Present-day boundaries of Austria are indicated by the broken line. Main travel routes are indicated by crosshatching. After Alfred Szego, The Coinage of Medieval Austria (Oakdale, N.Y.: Alfred Szego, 1970), vi.

In these earlier days, however, the dukes were surrounded by Jewish capitalists, and it was to the ducal interest to protect them. As the contemporary lyric poet Tannhäuser wrote: “Mit ihm fahren Juden, Christen, Griechen, Welsche, Heiden viel, / Ungarn, Polen, Russen, Böhmen, wer da schön leben will” (“In his train were Jews, Christians, Greeks, Welshmen and pagans, / Hungarians, Poles, Russians, Bohemians, whoever wished to live in beauty”). Perhaps more relevant in economic terms, Tannhäuser not only lists the Jews in the ducal train but puts them ahead of the Christians.

Ottaker II (1251–76), from Bohemia, followed the Babenbergs as ruler of Austria. If anything, he was even more friendly to the Jews.* He permitted the adjustment of interest in accordance with the wishes of the contracting parties (a revolutionary idea at that time) and categorically prohibited the blood libel, a medieval technique by which religious fanatics charged Jews with killing Christian children for their blood and thus promoted massacres and burnings throughout much of Europe. Ottaker II appointed two Jewish brothers, Lublin and Nickel, as counts of the treasury (in effect, finance ministers) and other Jews as tax farmers and mintmasters (these men are discussed in more detail in the following section). A document of February 18, 1257, sealed by Lublin, referring to a transaction involving the brothers is still extant. Probably nowhere outside of Spain was the Jewish position so favorable as in Austria (and neighboring Hungary) during the 1200s. It must be remembered that this was the period when Pope Innocent III and his successors instituted rules which were to so humiliate and degrade the Jews.

The great change in the fate of the Viennese Jews occurred with the consolidation of the power of the Hapsburgs. Rudolf, who was from the relatively petty house of Hapsburg, was elected Holy Roman Emperor after the Great Interregnum as a compromise candidate who would least upset the complex of existing interests. German king from 1273 to 1291, at the beginning of his reign he won a victory, assisted by the king of Hungary, over Ottaker II. The duchies of Austria and Styria were among the spoils of battle, and in 1282, he gave them as fiefdoms to his son Albrecht (Albert), later King Albert I (1298–1308). Thus the Hapsburgs became established in the area, and the first step was taken toward the creation of modern Austria.

The advent of the Hapsburgs did not immediately lessen the importance of the Jewish presence despite the fact that public hatred for the Jews made the dukes avoid offense by denying them official positions. Between 1293 and 1338, instigated by the clergy, several charges of desecrating the Host were made against Jews in various smaller Austrian towns. The oldest Jewish community of Vienna document, from 1338 (see No. 155), tells of a reduction of interest on loans as an expression of the Jews’ gratitude for not being harmed during the riots over such an accusation in a nearby town. A photograph of this document, whose original is now missing, reveals the signatures of the two Judenmeisters of Vienna signing for the Jewish community, but not their seals. Indeed, King Albert II (1330–58) courageously protected the Jews of Vienna, and attempted to aid those in neighboring towns, during the mass hysteria of the Black Death, and was called “Benefactor of the Jews.” Refugees from the shattered Jewish communities throughout the country as well as Hungary poured in, and Vienna’s Jewish population became the largest of all the German-speaking countries.

Rudolf IV, who succeeded Albert II, applied restrictive laws and sought to introduce the Cahorsins as a counter-balance to this conspicuous and privileged elite. His successor went further and, deeply in debt, took a course already familiar in England and France. In 1370, by secret prearrangement, Albert III (1365–1395) had all the Jews in the ducal lands imprisoned and then threatened with burning unless they disgorged their jewelry, coin, and promissory notes. An important aspect of this general arrest was the decree that thenceforth no Jew could use a private seal, following the example of Philip Augustus of France almost two centuries before. However, in 1377, in desperate need of still more money, Albert relented and attempted to persuade the fugitives to return by offering to help them collect their unpaid notes still outstanding. He also had a specially favored Jew, David Steuss, who had been exempted from the general decree against the Jews of 1370 and operated as a state banker despite the ducal depredations against the Jewish community.

Steuss was probably the richest Jew of the late fourteenth century; his family had been lending money to the Austrian dukes for three generations. He owned twelve houses in the Jews’ district and numerous dwellings outside—farms, vineyards, and country estates. The records indicate that he acted as an agent, or what we might call a general partner, for a syndicate of Jewish lenders, a common practice at the time. Security for loans took a variety of forms: a document of June 4, 1367, records a pledge not only of land but also of cheese, eggs, and even a hen! Some other transactions were on a grander scale. For example, on July 25, 1380, Hans von Schönberg put up his castle as security for an overdue payment of 910 livres and accrued interest. The bishops of Gurk and Passau also borrowed heavily from Steuss. Since Albert III had prohibited Jewish seals in Austria, only those of Christians are attached to these documents.

David Steuss’ wealth was his undoing. Unable to discharge his mounting obligations to this banker, Albert III jailed him. He was released only on the payment of the enormous sum of fifty thousand pounds. Steuss died in 1388 with his family fortune shattered. The State Archives of Vienna still holds twenty-three documents, covering the years 1364 to 1419, relating to this family. These, matched only by the business records still preserved of the Vesoul family of Burgundy, form a unique chronicle of Jewish financial activity in the late Middle Ages. Their contents have been summarized by Max Grunwald (1933).

The Steuss family had large-scale financial operations throughout Lower and Upper Austria, Styria, Bohemia, and Hungary. Indeed, the separation of Austria from Hungary in the late Middle Ages was as artificial from the point of view of capital flow as the division of the two regions of Austria, Carinthia and Styria. A Hungarian document from the end of the fourteenth century, for example, states that David Steuss, with the authority of the city of Pozsony (Pressburg in German, now Bratislava, Czechoslovakia), would not permit a Jewish delegate to attend a debate over a certain important issue until the man paid back money to a Hungarian count which debt Steuss had guaranteed (see Monumenta Hungariae Judaica, vol. I, No. 76). An obvious pattern of what might be called international political and economic pressure is implied.

Steuss was not the only fourteenth-century Jew operating in Austrian and Hungarian territory; such a pattern had been already established in the previous century. Chatschim (Chaim) and Musch (Moshe) of Styria were forced to flee due to excessive assessments and settled in Hungary. Their names appear in several documents from Pozsony: on June 14, 1367, Johann der Dreissiger and his wife promised Musch to pay back their loan by September 30, with land and vineyards stipulated as security. On November 2, 1368, Paul, the son of the burgomaster, sold a house for 120 pound pfennigs to Musch and Chatschim. It appears that Musch returned to Styria in 1370 and Chatschim in 1372. Musch had a seal, which is stamped on a document held in Vienna and dated September 21, 1360. Since the brothers continued to operate their banking business in that area for many years thereafter, it would appear that their differences with the Styrian ruler were settled amicably.

After 1377 the situation for the Viennese Jews improved for a short time. In 1396 the neighboring Jewish communities in Styria and Carinthia were expelled for a period and, by a “gift” to Albert IV (1395–1404) of sixteen thousand pounds, were permitted entry into Vienna. But the storm was gathering, hastened by the wars with the religious dissidents—the Hussites of Bohemia—which intensified both the fanaticism and the influence of the ultra-orthodox Catholic clergy, as occurred two hundred years earlier in Languedoc during the Crusade against the Albigensians. The young Duke Albert V (1411–39), himself a religious zealot, found his opportunity in 1420, when a Jew of Enns, a small town close to Linz, was accused of buying consecrated Hosts at Easter and distributing them to other Jews to mock the Christians. Under torture confessions were extracted. When the investigation was handed over to the city court rather than to the ducal court and all the Jews of Austria were imprisoned by prearrangement, they knew what was in store. Before the cycle of suicides, killings, burnings, and forced baptisms was complete in 1421, some fifteen hundred persons had been put to death or compelled to accept Christianity. Vienna was free of Jews, and all their property was seized by the duke. Austria thereafter was known as the Eretz ha-Damin, the Land of Blood. Christian usurers then took over.

The heart of modern Austria, in which Vienna is located, actually is the northern band of the country, forming what was then called Lower and Upper Austria. Styria was a duchy in what is now the southeastern part of Austria. Carinthia was a duchy in what is now the southwestern part. The Tyrol was a tongue of land west of the bulk of the nation and directly south of Germany. Like the larger later empire, medieval Austria was created mainly through a combination of war and dynastic marriages in the fourteenth century, though more through marriage than war in this case. Styria as early as the late twelfth century had been united with Austria under Duke Leopold V, disjoined in the next century, and then reunited as a result of Rudolf of Hapsburg’s bequest to his son. Carinthia joined the union in 1335 and the Tyrol in 1363. Thus, for part of the period under analysis, the duchies of Styria and Carinthia were independent and the Jewish communities had separate rulers; and even after union, some differences persisted.

*Records indicate that Schlom was mintmaster but was never made a count of the treasury or otherwise ennobled. In 1194 a document states, “when Duke Leopold put a Jew by the name of Schlom over the office of money” (quoted in Andreas von Meiller, 1850, p. 76, No. 73). Another document of around 1195 states the same: “Leopold duke of Austria places Schlom the Jew over the making of money” (Urkunden-buch des Landes ob der Enns, 1852, p. 693, No. 221).

*Hugo Gold in Geschichte der Juden in Wien (1966) states that the new and more extensive Privilege granted by Przemysl Ottaker in 1254 was probably in return for the economic support the Jews gave him in his war with King Béla IV of Hungary.

*Records indicate that Schlom was mintmaster but was never made a count of the treasury or otherwise ennobled. In 1194 a document states, “when Duke Leopold put a Jew by the name of Schlom over the office of money” (quoted in Andreas von Meiller, 1850, p. 76, No. 73). Another document of around 1195 states the same: “Leopold duke of Austria places Schlom the Jew over the making of money” (Urkunden-buch des Landes ob der Enns, 1852, p. 693, No. 221).

*Hugo Gold in Geschichte der Juden in Wien (1966) states that the new and more extensive Privilege granted by Przemysl Ottaker in 1254 was probably in return for the economic support the Jews gave him in his war with King Béla IV of Hungary.

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