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A Jewish Heritage Cruise
(2015 - Winter Issue)

Writer: Ron Csillag

You would be forgiven for thinking a Jewish tour of Central Europe is a bit depressing.

After all, a mere 70 years after the terror reign of Nazi Germany, the ghosts of the Holocaust, with its deportations, death camps and ghettos, still haunt the continent. However, from another vantage point—the deck of a rather cosy ship meandering lazily along the romantic Danube—a vibrant and rich Jewish past comes alive.

It’s a bit of a paradox. While Jews in Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic tend either to keep a low profile or are simply too few in number to be noticed, all venues we visited aboard AmaWaterways’ luxurious 135-metre AmaSonata river cruiser could boast of rebuilt or restored synagogues, Jewish cultural programs, touching Holocaust monuments and vibrant tourism. After all, what’s left of Jewry in these parts is, by definition, a tough survivor of both fascism and communism.

But the past is never far from the waters of the Danube (which, it should be said, is not all that blue). And if both your parents were Holocaust survivors, as mine are, a trip like this has special resonance.

Czech Republic

Though not on the Danube, our 11-day journey kicks off in Prague, a marked study of old versus new and where virtually every café and bookstore has the word “Kafka” in its name.

There are no more than 1,600 remaining Jews in the Czech capital and six historic synagogues, some so old they are no longer perpendicular to the ground. The best known is the storied Old-New Synagogue (Altneuschul), completed in the 1270s and billed as the oldest surviving synagogue in Europe. Musty and creaky, heavy with brass and mahogany, its many legends include that its foundation stones were brought by angels from the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem on condition they be returned upon the restoration of the Temple in the messianic age. Its attic is said to be the hiding place of the Golem, the mythical creature of clay brought to life to protect the community.

The Czech Republic is seeing a  resurgence in Jewish cultural exhibitions, mainly at restored synagogues. It was kick-started in  2006, when an entire year was dedicated to Jewish art shows, theatre and musical productions.


The gemutlich Austrian town of Linz may give you the shivers because Adolf Hitler considered it his favourite city. He attended gymnasium (high school) here but dropped out to paint and draw. And it was here he was rejected from art school. “Imagine,” intones our guide gravely, “how history would have turned out had he been accepted.”

There is one synagogue to serve the roughly 100 Jews, and it stands on the site of the old house of worship, which was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht, the night of November 9–10, 1938, when Nazi mobs rampaged throughout the Third Reich. Located on Bethlehem Street, the 45-year-old building is a nondescript, crackerbox affair on the outside with nothing to identify it as Jewish, however its sanctuary showcases whimsical, colour-splashed frescoes on the walls depicting the biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel and candelabras cast from the metal rubble of the old synagogue.

“Jews feel safe here,” says community leader Bogdan Bogancic, who fled war-ravaged Sarajevo in the early 1990s. Still, two police officers patrol the area around the synagogue every Sabbath. Asked about the congregation’s name, Bogancic throws his head back and chuckles: “I get that question from North Americans all the time. It has no name. It’s the only one in town.”

It’s the same in charming Salzburg, famous as the setting for The Sound of Music and the birthplace of Mozart. The Jewish population is said to have peaked just after World War II at 600 but today tallies all of 30 to 50 members. The synagogue here is plain but airier than the one in Linz. Other than that, there’s little Jewish history to see. The person you will want to meet, though, is the president of the community, a legend named Marko Feingold, who survived four concentration camps and helped smuggle Jews out of Austria into Italy after World War II. He has a razor-sharp mind and memory and a feisty sense of humour—not bad for someone who is 102 years old.

As we imagined, Vienna is draped in filigree and lace. Fine shops are cheek-by-jowl with fin-de-siècle bistros hawking the city’s most famous cake, Sachertorte. The central synagogue, the Stadttempel, scene of a 1981 terrorist attack in which two died and 21 were injured while attending a bar mitzvah service, may be visited by appointment only. In any event, the real story of Vienna’s Jews, who today number 8,500 (those who have registered) and use a dozen private homes around the city as prayer spaces, is best seen at the informative Jewish Museum, a blocky edifice at 8 Judenplatz (“Jewish Square”).


Ominous clouds scud across a dun-coloured sky in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, a city that appears to be the grim, Eastern-bloc mirror image of hip Prague. No matter. The highlight here is the mausoleum of the city’s most famous rabbi, Moshe Schreiber, who died in 1839. He is buried, along with 22 other prominent rabbis, in the sole remaining portion of a centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a nearby tunnel was constructed. The country’s pro-Nazi government allowed the graves to be preserved entombed in concrete. With its crooked and worn headstones, the cool grotto is both unnerving and reassuring. There’s a tram stop just above.

Audible gasps can be heard when visitors enter Budapest’s cavernous Dohany Street Synagogue, a vast, cathedral-like Moorish structure that seats 3,000 worshippers and is the second-largest synagogue in the world. The story is somewhat different here. Hungary’s estimated tallies range between 80,000 and 110,000 Jews today, almost all of them in the capital. However, with the rise of the anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic Jobbik political party, the community, explains our guide, Kathy, has split into three camps: The young and trendy, who are not afraid; the “philosophers and thinkers” who feel Jews have a place in Hungary; and those over 70, who don’t feel secure “because they see a repetition of old patterns.”

Among several here, by far the most haunting monument to the Holocaust, which claimed 565,000 Hungarian-speaking Jews, lies on the west bank of the Danube, a stone’s throw from the ornate parliament building. It can be easily missed. Over the length of a football field lie 60 pairs of bronzed shoes (real ones imported from the museum at Auschwitz), a memorial to thousands of Jewish men, women and children shot into the river, after being forced to remove their footwear, in late 1944 and early 1945 by members of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militia. Unveiled a decade ago, it is heartbreaking yet simple.

This sort of trip can be informative, even fun. Although I certainly have no regrets, I found it intensely personal, by turns emotionally draining and exhilarating, a showcase of the mostly vanished. However, the heavy hand of history is buoyed by hope, a state of affairs perhaps best reflected by Hannah Landsmann, a member of Vienna’s Jewish community, who replies to a question about the Jewish situation succinctly: “Despite all odds, we are still here.”

Travel Planner

For more information, visit:

Avalon Waterways Jewish Heritage European River Cruises: avalonwaterways.ca/jewish-heritage-river-cruises

Budapest’s “Shoes on the Danube” memorial: visitbudapest.travel/articles/one-of-budapests-most-moving-memorials-shoes-on-the-danube

Chatam Sofer Memorial, Bratislava: chatamsofer.sk

Jewish Prague: jewishprague.info

Romantic Danube Jewish Heritage Tour:  amawaterways.com/the-romantic-danube-jewish-heritage-2015

Vienna Jewish Museum: jmw.at/en

Viking Danube River Cruise: vikingrivercruisescanada.com/cruise-destinations/Europe/romantic-danube/2015-budapest-nuremberg/explore.html

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