This Day in Jewish History |

1421: Vienna Jews Who Rejected Baptism Are Burned Alive

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Anonymous portrait of Albert V, who ordered the arrest of Austria's Jews.

On March 12, 1421, the surviving Jews of Vienna – those who had survived the past year’s incarcerations, tortures and drownings, and who had not already chosen suicide over conversion – were set on fire, thereby “rid[ding] the city of all injustice,” as a plaque erected on Vienna’s Judenplatz read until only recently.

There had been a Jewish presence in Vienna, on the Danube, since at least the 12th century. By the 15th century, their population was probably between 1,400 and 1,600. At the time of the Easter holiday in 1420, rumors began circulating in the town of Enns, west of Vienna, that a wealthy Jew named Israel had bought Communion wafers from the wife of a church official, and that they were now being desecrated by members of the Jewish community. (“Host desecration” was a common medieval charge leveled at Jews, somewhat like the blood libel.)

Albert V, also known as Albrecht, the archduke of Austria, ordered the arrest of Jews from all over the country. They were brought to Vienna, where the wealthy among them were forced to give up their property (and tortured so that they would reveal where any treasures might be hidden); the impoverished were put on rafts on the Danube and set adrift without oars.

At the time, Albert was engaged in an ongoing war with the followers of Jan Hus, the Protestant reformer who had been executed in 1415. The Jews were taxed to finance the war, but were also widely suspected of being sympathetic, if not in league, with the Hussites. Personally, as well, Albert was indebted to Jewish moneylenders, lacking the means to repay them. Killing them seemed to be a reasonable alternative.

Remains of Vienna's oldest synagogue, destroyed in 1421. Credit: Gryffindor

Jewish children were taken from their parents and sent to Catholic institutions for conversion, a practice that continued even after Pope Martin V mandated that anyone who forced conversion on a Jew would face excommunication.

The final measure used against those Jews who refused baptism came on March 12, 1421, when those who had survived – 92 men, 120 women – were brought to the so-called Goose Pasture in Vienna’s Erdberg section, and burned alive.

All remaining Jews in Austria were banished, and the archduke took possession of their property. The stones from what had been the synagogue at the Judenplatz were hauled across town for use in construction of the University of Vienna. Thus, as a contemporary document at the university relates, “In a miraculous manner the synagogue of the old laws was transformed into a virtuous place of learning devoted to the new laws.”

The edict ordering the expulsion of the country’s Jews is referred to as the Wiener Geserah (gezera is Hebrew for “decree”), although the term is often used to describe the entire year’s-worth of abuses. It is also the name of a contemporary chronicle that serves as a source of information about the events.

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