Graz - Area of Competence: Styria

Synagogue built in: 1890-1892
Earliest record of community: 1862
Last rabbi: Prof. Dr. David Herzog
Community members: 1869-250; 1880-1200; 1914-1500; 1932-2420; March 1938-2000; spring 1939-325
Pogrom Night: Burnt down
After 1945: Lawn
Today: 2000 Inauguration of the new Synagogue
Summary: A Jewish community existed in Graz—the capital city of the Austrian state of Styria—in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Graz community had a synagogue in what is today called the Tonethof. During the Middle Ages there were sizable Jewish populations in other towns and villages in the province, such as Bruck an der Mur, Hartberg, Murau, Radkersburg and Voitsberg. Jews living in these places belonged to the Jewish community of Styria. Town names such as Judendorf (Jews’ village) and Judenburg (Jews’ hill) suggest that many Jews lived in Styria at the time. All Jews were expelled from the area in 1496 and were forbidden to resettle there until 1848.

In 1862, the new Jewish community in Graz was granted permission to conduct communal prayers; thus Shabbat services were held in various locations. In 1863 the Jews of Graz formed an “Israelite Cooperative” and established a synagogue, a school, a mikvah and, on Wetzelsdorfer Strasse, a cemetery.

A new synagogue, established in a wing of the “Withalm Coliseum” building on Zimmerplatz, was inaugurated by the Vienna Rabbi Dr. Adolf Jellinek on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) 1865. This synagogue seated 240 people.

The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Graz (Israelite Congregation of Graz) was officially founded in 1869. Its membership grew rapidly the 1870s and 1880s. A chevra kadisha (burial society) was founded in 1871 and a ladies’ charitable society in 1881.

As the existing synagogue in Graz had become too small for the growing community, a new synagogue, of liberal orientation, was inaugurated at 58 Grieskai on the bank of the Mur River. The inauguration ceremony on the eve of Rosh Hashana (September 14) 1892 was attended by the Emperor Franz Joseph. A community center containing a school was built alongside the impressive synagogue. An orthodox prayer house was inaugurated in Graz at the turn of the 20th century.

In 1894 two autonomous Jewish communities, one in Leoben and the other in Judenburg-Knittelfeld, were established. Both were subordinate to the Jewish congregation in Graz.

During the First World War, refugees from Eastern Europe inaugurated a wooden synagogue on Gabelsbergerstrasse.

Dr. Samuel Mühsam from Moravia was the first rabbi of the Graz congregation. He took office in 1877 and served until his death in 1907. His successor, Dr. David Herzog, officiated in Graz until the community’s destruction in 1938.

The Jewish communities of Leoben, Knittelfeld and Judenburg had their own prayer halls. During the vacation season, prayer houses were used in the holiday destinations of Bad Aussee and Bad Gleichenberg.

In the inter-war years, numerous Jewish associations were founded in Graz. Membership of Zionist groups was swelled by an influx of younger Jews. A Zionist-Socialist scout organization, Hashomer Hatzair, was founded in 1928. In the 1930s an increasing number of Jews participated in events organized by the local non-partisan Zionist group. A post-war report from 1946 from the Israelite congregation of Graz on the events of Pogrom Night, November 9-10, 1938, revealed the following:

In the course of the summer of 1938 things intensified in that Jews were systematically driven out their homes. However, in the period leading up to the night of November 9-10 there no terrorist attacks of an individual nature to report in Graz. It was only on that night that the SA and SS groups received orders to make a move against the Jews. They dragged them out of their beds, beat them and forced them to march through the streets of Graz—many dressed only in their nightclothes—for hours on end. The 70-year-old Rabbi Prof. Dr. Herzog, was also dragged from his bed and forced to march, almost completely undressed, to the Jewish cemetery, where the ceremonial funeral hall was already ablaze. There he was ordered to dig his own grave; however, after a few hours the thugs left him alone and went on their way, and he—more dead than alive—limped home. While all this was happening, the synagogue and the Jewish school at 58 Griesgasse had been set alight and looted. At the cemetery tombstones were overturned and graves were desecrated. In all Jewish homes, Jews were beaten and the furniture was smashed to pieces. Almost all Jewish men (a total of 350 Jews were arrested) were then taken to the police prison; the next day they were transported to Dachau on a chartered train. Only very few—those who could escape to the forest outside Graz—were spared these ordeals. Later most of the Jews were sent back to Graz from Dachau; little by little, the majority of them were able to emigrate. Those Jews who remained in Graz were later relocated to Vienna. Most of them were later sent to Theresienstadt and from there were deported to extermination camps. Of the 2,300 Jews who had been in Styria, so far only 18 (!) have returned. The others, in so far as they did not emigrate and have not made contact, have become victims of the extermination process.

A detailed report on the destruction of the Graz synagogue emerged from the 1947 trial at Graz district court of several of the perpetrators who set fire to the synagogue. The Graz fire brigade’s duty officer testified as follows:

At the scene of the attack perpetrated against the Jewish temple, I could see that preparations had been made for the fire in the temple, and I saw entire columns of SA men carrying wooden boards and beams into the temple. […] In the temple I could see that a huge pile of wood was lying ready for the fire. […] After the fire was lit, I noticed people running out of the temple, whereupon which I raised the alarm for a large fire. Two fire-fighting engines came out, with which I took the necessary security measures. As far as I could see, most of the SA officers, who […] were at the meeting, appeared at the temple […] The people I saw at the temple fire were Mayors Dr. Kaspar and Dr. Verdino and the Mayor Dr. Seitz; I didn’t know the others who were there. I also saw there the person who gave the order, Mr. N., nevertheless I can’t say who was in charge of the fire at the Jewish temple.

The chief fire officer of Graz gave the following testimony about what he saw in the main hall of the synagogue:

There I saw that the benches had been smashed and stacked up in a pile. Civilians were wearing the Jews’ prayer shawls; they were shouting and running around the room. It looked like a fancy dress ball. Now I left the synagogue […] Soon afterwards. […] I saw signs of fire and smoke in the Jewish temple and the adjoining building. Next the sirens of the fire brigade, who were alerted by an unknown party, sounded. At the same time, Mayor Kaspar ordered me not to let the fire brigade intervene until he gave the order. I prepared the fire engines. Mayor Kaspar ordered me to report to him if a danger of the fire spreading to the neighboring houses should arise. When this situation did arise, I reported it […] to Kaspar, who ordered me to protect the neighboring houses but not to fight the source of the fire […] The neighboring houses were protected in accordance with our orders; the fire in the Jewish temple raged on unchallenged […]

The Graz synagogue was dynamited and burned down. Nevertheless, part of the brickwork remained and was later cleared.
Located in: Bundeslaender