Sunday, 22 May 2016

On the Danube - Vienna

We arrived at Handelskai in Vienna about half past seven, later than I'd expected, so there was no question getting away by taxi to the eight o'clock at Christchurch Anglican church the other side of the city centre. Disappointing, but unavoidable. After breakfast we were collected by coach and driven first around the central ring road, built in the 19th century under Emperor Franz-Josef, along the route of the mediaeval walls, which were demolished to make way for the road and for grand houses alongside. We were dropped off near the remarkable renaissance era Rathaus, and given a guided tour of the area in which the main public buildings, parks, gardens and old town streets and churches are situated.

In the main commercial thoroughfare, Graben, is a towering ornate gilded baroque sculpture. It represents the Holy Trinity. A nice coincidence to be confronted with this on Trinity Sunday. The tour ended outside St Stephen's Cathedral in the heart of the old town centre, a huge ornate gothic building of the 15th century, and we parted company as quickly as possible and joined the crowds attending the main mass of the day inside. The service had started at ten, and intercession were being offered. The Eucharistic prayer was sung in Latin, by the three con-celebrants, one of whom had a distinctively English or American sounding accent.

There was an orchestra, or maybe just drums and trumpets, plus a choir with soloists for a setting of the Mass of the Holy Spirit composed by a near contemporary of Bach, one Johan Joseph Fux. Very uplifting, and a welcome surprise to us, deprived as we were of an opportunity to attend an Anglican Sunday liturgy. I noticed seven candles on the high altar, evidence of a Bishop presiding, and indeed the man at the back of the procession going out at the end was wearing a purple biretta, quite old fashioned these days, to see that.

Afterwards we found ourselves a place where we could drink coffee and eat strudel. Clare tried the apricot and I tried the apple. I mistakenly ordered Vanilla Sauce, aka custard, for both of us, and ended up eating both lots. The we walked some more streets and ended up visiting Vienna's Jewish museum. It was an unexpected find in a side street, and both of us decided on impulse that this was something we'd prefer to see, even if it meant curtailing sightseeing.

The museum we visited displays the extensive historical research done on Jewish community life in Vienna since the end of the World War Two - survivors returned from concentration camps and a larger number of Displaced Persons driven out of communist lands in the Balkans and Central Asia, who ended up taking refuge in the city. Many were poorly treated and exploited. There was little or no interest in the persecution they had endured and they were denied the same civil rights as others. American occupation forces however protected them and helped those who wanted to go to Israel the United States, or elsewhere. Denial of the the plight of Jewish people persisted in Austria until the sixties and only after the Waldheim affair did measures to redress the injustices begin to take shape, and sit still continues.

On an upper story there is a developing collection of exhibits relating to Jewish life in Vienna from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. It's not substantial as it might be because the Nazis destroyed the previous Jewish history museum entirely, though research on recovery continues. There are also two contemporary historical exhibitions of an entirely original and different nature.

One is in a separate location we didn't visit and concerns the cultural life of the area in Vienna known as the Prater, the Viennese entertainment district with predominantly Jewish run clubs and theatres, that were avant garde in their day. Most of this disappeared during the Nazi era of persecution, along with several synagogue buildings. We saw the 'Stars of David' exhibition which is about Jewish people in radio, TV and film, writing and creating music as emigres in the United States. It was a huge eye opening multi-media celebration of Jews in show business, well worth seeing in its own right. I hope this goes on tour. I'd love to see it in Britain.

For me the entire experience made me think about how easily its possible for decent citizens to slip into denial when confronted by the plight of oppressed people. With so many needy people begging for refuge in Europe and UK at the moment, especially unaccompanied children, some of them lone survivors of families wiped out by war, some other wise upstanding citizens make excuses for inaction, others by xenophobia, anti-semitism or islamophobic behaviour. The moral voice of conscience can too easily get drowned by falsehood and anxiety. Migrants and refugees generally give back far more than they get to their host society, once they are entrusted with freedom and responsibility. And when this doesn't happen, everyone is at risk.

We had lunch in the Vienna Woods restaurant, and then visited the Skt Peter u Paulus Kirche at the end of Goldschmiedgasse, where we found an orchestra and the organ playing to a packed house. I'd have loved to stay longer, but was in search of photos and left after five pleasurable minutes of music in a fine baroque church, acoustically perfect for hearing baroque music. I found the church of the Minorites open - not what it seems - this is a Franciscan Order of Friars Minor church, of mediaeval origin. My next port of call was the Rathaus, to get a photo, and the huge imposing Burg Theatre opposite. This was enough in the time available. I then needed to head back, find Clare and go back with her to the ship on the shuttle bus provided, rich with impressions of a remarkable city centre.

After a brief siesta and supper, passengers were treated to an hour's concert by the Ars Mundi string quartet, an all female group that has been playing together twenty years. Music of Mozart, Haydn, Strauss Senior and Junior were on the bill. Their rendering of the Blue Danube suite and the Radzetsky March at the end were a fitting climax to a day of discovery of the beauty and the darker side of this key European city. So much to think about, as we cruise the last leg of our journey back to our starting point in Budapest.

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