For hundreds of years, Jews lived in the Austrian city of Eisenstadt, under the protection of the noble counts of the Esterházy family. This community gave the world Rabbi Akiba Eger, one of the most famous Talmud scholars of the early 19th century.
The community also gave rise to Samson Wertheimer, a man who served as a key financial administrator and financier for the Esterházys and the Holy Roman Emperors in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Wealthy and pious, Wertheimer not only contributed to the community, he also had a private synagogue installed in his Esterházy mansion. In time, this synagogue became known as the "Wertheimer'sche Schul."
Over the centuries, the home came into the hands of the Wolf family, who owned one of the greatest wholesale wine businesses in the Austrian empire. Then in the 1930s, came the Anschluss, the expulsion of the Jews from the entire region of Burgenland (including Eisenstadt), followed by Kristallnacht.
The Eisenstadt Jewish community and its main synagogue were destroyed, but the Wertheimer'sche Schul, on the second floor of the Wolf wine company offices, was somehow spared.
For decades after the war, the shul slumbered in benign neglect. Finally, in 1972, the local government reopened the building as the first Jewish museum in Austria. In the walls of the synagogue, they found hidden Torah scrolls and other sacred objects hidden by the pre-war community before its expulsion.
They assembled a collection of Judaica and historical photographs that are used now to educate local schoolchildren about Jewish life — weddings, rituals, holidays.
Today, the synagogue is still a place of worship, although it is used for services only on special occasions, when Jews travel down from Vienna (less than 40 miles away), such as for special events at the Jewish Museum (the Österreichisches Jüdisches Museum, www.ojm.at).
Although nearly all the signage at the museum and in the shul is in German, the museum does have an English guide that visitors can borrow while perusing the collections.
It's interesting to note that, until 1938, the Eisenstadt Jewish community remained somewhat of a historical oddity, in that it survived as one of the last autonomous Jewish communities in Western Europe. It had its own mayor and its own bailiff.
On Shabbat, a thick chain would be strung across the lane where most Jews lived, to symbolically separate the community from its neighbors. Indeed, the post and chain still survive down the street from the synagogue — relics of a vanished time.
A short stroll from the shul and the museum stands the old Jewish cemetery, which contains the grave of the great Talmudic scholar Meïr ben Isaac Eisenstadt (1670-1744). The pebbles on his gravestone attest to the Jews who visit and pray there. Jews have reason enough to come to Eisenstadt, but all travelers who visit the city in 2009 will have the great pleasure of experiencing the festivities of "Haydn Year" (www.haydn2009. net), a celebration of the work of Joseph Haydn on the 200th anniversary of the legendary composer's death.
For 40 years, Haydn worked in Eisenstadt as court composer for the Esterházy princes. Today, you can visit the home where he lived or hear a concert in the same rooms of Esterházy Palace (www. schloss-esterhazy.net), where many of his works were first performed.
Haydn was originally buried in Vienna, but the body was later dug up and transported to Eisenstadt's Bergkirche, where today you will find Haydn's tomb. Concerts are still performed on the church's organ, the same one that Haydn himself used to play and that Beethoven once played, as well.
Try to make a stop at the Landesmuseum Burgenland (www. burgenland.at/landesmuseum), where you'll find amazingly well-preserved Roman mosaics from the time when the Roman Amber Road led through the region. You'll also find a tiny, golden amulet from the third century C.E. with the Shema prayer written in Greek.
The amulet shows that Jews lived in the region of present-day Austria during the time of the Roman Empire.
Take a break from your sightseeing with a lunch at the Restaurant Im Esterházy, across from the palace. Here we enjoyed the best steak of our entire three-week trip through Europe.
If you're traveling by car, consider making a side trip to the picturesque town of Rust (www. rust.at/en), famous for the white storks that perch on its chimneys during the warmer months.
Eisenstadt is so close to Vienna that it's easy to make a day trip while still taking in all the culture and comforts of Vienna.
Enjoy a warm welcome inside the Hotel Altstadt (www.altstadt. at/en/altstadt-vienna), where each of the 42 rooms has been individually decorated with highlights from the owner's personal art collection.
Opera-lovers should not miss the chance to see a performance at the Staatsoper (www.staatsoper.at). Meanwhile, fans of the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt can catch a major display of his works at the Belvedere museum (www.belvedere.at) through Jan. 18.
For more information, go to translated page of: www.eisenstadt-tourism.at.