On March 1, 1670, Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor and archduke of Austria, ordered the Jews out of Vienna and all of Austria. The deadline was August 1.
This was not the first time Jews were driven out of Vienna, and obviously not the last. And they would soon be back, when the same people who wanted them gone realized that the Jews were a vital part of the economy. But the arbitrariness with which an entire community was banished is instructive and chilling.
It was only in 1624 that the Jews had been officially permitted to return to Vienna after the previous expulsion, in 1421. They found themselves confined to a newly established ghetto that grew steadily; by 1670 it had 136 houses and some 500 families.
By the 1660s, a series of incidents took place that led to – or more likely were attributable to – familiar suspicion and resentment of the Jews. In 1665, a Gentile woman was found drowned in a pool in the Jewish quarter. In January 1668, the crown prince — the son of Leopold and his Spanish wife Margaret Theresa — died at only 3 months old. A month later, a fire broke out in the royal palace.
In the public imagination, responsibility for all these incidents was laid at the door of the Jews. Behind this was a growing resentment among the city’s burgher class of the Jews and their prosperity, and, apparently, a special prejudice against Jews that Margaret Theresa had brought with her from Spain.
Jews were also seen as a potential fifth column for their perceived sympathy for the Ottoman Empire, a perpetual adversary.
Upright citizens protest
In April 1668, a group of upright Viennese appeared before the emperor to request the removal of the Jews “root and branch.” This was followed by riots and looting, led in part by university students. After making a feeble attempt to quell the disturbances, in July 1669 Leopold ordered an expulsion of poorer Jews — 1,346 people.
It was only a matter of time before the emperor, for what he called “the glory of God,” ordered the removal of the entire community – 3,000 to 4,000 people. That was on March 1, 1670.
Attempts were made to change Leopold’s mind. Two men, Hirz Koma and Leo Winkler, the latter a physician who headed the Jewish community, offered the emperor money – a lump sum of 100,000 florins plus 10,000 florins annually – if he would let a limited number of Jews remain. But this effort failed, as did one by Sweden’s Queen Christina to persuade Leopold to relent.
The real estate left behind became the property of the city, and the Great Synagogue of Vienna was converted into what became the Leopold Church, just as the Jewish quarter came to be known as Leopoldstadt. A second, smaller synagogue was torn down and replaced by St. Margaret’s Church.
Margaret Theresa died in 1673, at the age of 21. By 1675, an agreement was worked out by which a limited number of well-off Jewish families would be allowed back into the city; the tax burden that the Christians had to assume in the Jews’ absence had proved onerous.
Gradually, the return began, but with conditions — new financial burdens and restrictions on where the Jews could be and when. Nonetheless, in quick order, Vienna’s Jews became important figures in business and advisers at the royal court. They also provided generous support to the Jewish population in the Land of Israel. Thus the cycle of banishment and returned resumed.