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Portrait of Claudia Erdheim
by Nina Werzhbinskaja-Rabinowich

In der Judenstadt

Review

Paulus Adelsgruber, Illustrierte Neue Welt, Issue 03/2015

 

The Christian and Jewish populations in Vienna were in good spirits as the year transitioned from 1624 to 1625. The Christians celebrated the removal of their Jewish neighbors and competitors from within the city walls. The Jews were hopeful for peace and security in the district beyond the Danube that was assigned to them by Emperor Ferdinand II.  

 

The era between this migration of Jews to the Unteren Werd district of Vienna (later known as Leopoldstadt) and their expulsion some 45 years later sets the historical backdrop for "In der Judenstadt" (in the Jewish quarter), Claudia Erdheim's newest narrative. Erdheim has deeply engaged herself with the subject matter. She references not only events taking place in Vienna, but also monumental historical points such as the Thirty Years' War and the Khmelnytsky uprising. A list of historical sources is included in the novella.  

 

Readers have no cause to worry in that regard however, as the plot swiftly carries them through 130 fast-paced pages. The narrative begins with the exit from the Kienmarkt and Judengässl districts of Vienna in the dead of winter, continues over the icy Schlagbrücke bridge, and drops readers into the narrow pubs of the Jewish quarter and the daily life of Jewish merchants and taxmen.

 

Central to the narrative is the family history of the cloth merchant Jocham Gerstl and his wife Lena.  Jocham is often on the road. He visits the markets in Linz twice a year and travels to both Prague and Moravia. Lena remains at home sewing dresses and birthing and caring for their children, whom she far too often mourns beside their death beds. Erdheim includes numerous additional characters to build a cross section of social groups within the Jewish quarter that is separated and simultaneously protected by the city wall. These characters range from the poor majority of shopkeepers to the wealthy minority of so-called court Jews. The spectrum includes pious halakhists, messianists (Sabbatai Zevi's name is on many lips), kabbalists, as well as those who avoid synagogue.  

 

It is the tension-filled contact between the Jewish quarter and the "outside world" that drives Erdheim's narrative along. She draws on a vast amount of resources and constructs a complex web of relationships. These range from symbiotic examples on the one hand, such as the medical care of the widely revered physician Elia Chalfan, to recurring murder accusations and violent outbursts on the other. Student groups from Vienna are consistently those who threaten the ghetto with looting and violence. Between these two extremes, Erdheim leaves plenty of room for everyday interaction to take place, such as in business or the efforts of Christian missionaries. There are many aspects of life in which Jews and Christians remain distant from one another.

 

But what are the consequences of an interreligious romantic affair? When the rendezvous between Anna Stöffler, a Christian, and the Jewish pawnbroker Samuel Israel (who is weary of his cantankerous wife) is uncovered, both are asked to leave the city. She, by order of the municipal court of Vienna, and he at the request of the Jewish congregation. Samuel's father thus angrily comments, "Samuel had every right, but it shouldn't have been a Christian." Erdheim repeatedly includes such moments to present the narrow views of both Jews and Christians and manages to do so without making a value judgement.  

 

Her writing style is objective, blunt, to the point, and well-suited to the form and scope of the narrative. Sentences are often short, propelling the storyline ahead and there is no shortage of irony. The humor ranges from innocent playfulness to sardonic satire. The extreme brevity leads to queer textual moments such as, "The synagogue is burning. A candle fell over. (...) Only the shammes is in the synagogue. He runs out and yells, "The synagogue is burning!" The following paragraph reads, "All of Lembel's horses have lice. A disaster. They scratch themselves nonstop. He can neither sell nor lease a horse with lice."

 

The story of the Gerstl family takes a ominous turn when Jocham is made tax collector in the Jewish quarter. Shortly thereafter, the couple falls into a vortex of resentment and slander ending in the violent death of Lena Gerstl, a character who is based on a historical figure. The details surrounding her death in the narrative are no better known than they were 350 years ago.

 

We then approach the close of the Jewish quarter in the Unteren Werd.  The court protection offered to the Jews begins to crumble in 1666 when Emperor Leopold I marries the anti-Semitic Spaniard Margarita Theresa. The death of their newborn child and a destructive castle fire (seen as a bad omen) unleashes popular anger directed toward Jews. This is encouraged by Bishop Kollonitsch. Allegations of tax evasion by influential members of the ghetto, such as the unpopular Hirschel Meyer leads to the demand that all Jews leave Vienna before the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1670.  

 

Claudia Erdheim delicately presents her narrative against the backdrop of a carefully researched historical framework. As in her past two historical novels, Betty, Ida und die Gräfin and Längst nicht mehr koscher, Erdheim attempts to show how things may have been - an exceedingly successful endeavor.