Vienna's Gentle Voice for Jews

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By Edward Serotta
Saturday, December 23, 2006

VIENNA -- If you are a fan of Central European literature on the lines of Joseph Roth, Stefan Zweig or Arthur Schnitzler, then Professor Jakob Allerhand was exactly the person you'd have wanted to meet in Vienna, mainly because he seemed to come from an age now consigned to novels such as theirs.

It is not that the professor, who died a few weeks ago in his cavernous Ringstrasse apartment, was in the same league as these luminaries. He was more like one of the personalities they wrote about: erudite on any number of subjects, prolific in more than a dozen languages and ever ironic in his humor. And (mandatory for someone living in this part of the world), he was a habitué of a favorite coffeehouse (his was the Sacher) where late at night, when most of the guests had drifted away, he would stand next to the pianist and sing baleful Russian songs.

This is a city that was once home to 175,000 Jews, scores of synagogues and a good dozen Jewish schools. But after the Holocaust only a handful of Viennese-born Jews returned, while the community itself was rebuilt by Jews from other countries who for one reason or another settled here. Today there are but 7,000 Jews in all of Austria.

When World War II broke out, Allerhand fled his hometown in Poland. He found refuge in Central Asia, and in 1945, when he heard that his family had been murdered, made his way to Berlin, where he found one of his few remaining relatives. He went from learning how to speak German to plunging into university studies.

In the early 1970s he moved to Vienna, received his doctorate in Jewish studies and became a professor for the few Viennese -- nearly all of them non-Jews -- who wanted to study Jewish history and Yiddish. One doctoral student told me Allerhand conducted his Yiddish classes this way: One student would be assigned to bring the herring, someone else supplied the dark bread and the professor invariably brought the vodka. Then the afternoons would fly past as he discussed with them literature, philosophy and drama, often throwing back drinks and reeling off from memory entire paragraphs of his favorite novels.

To his bemusement, a few of his students eventually converted to Judaism, and over the past 30 years, Jakob Allerhand became something of an emissary between Catholicism and Judaism, mostly because he simply loved teaching. When Austria's Cardinal Franz Koenig decided to make a trip to Israel, he asked Allerhand to accompany him. When Allerhand led a Passover seder this past year in Vienna in the home of a friend, he brought Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, Koenig's successor, with him, and the conversations and explanations went on long into the night.

Most touchingly, Jakob Allerhand, who never married and never had children, became the director of the first Jewish day school to open in Vienna since the Holocaust. After a few years he retired, but an entire generation of young Viennese Jews continued to grow up around his kitchen table as he taught them Hebrew, discussed the Bible with them and imbued them with a passion for Israel that led some to eventually emigrate.

When he turned 75, Professor Allerhand told me he was no longer taking students, but one day a distraught mother came to him and told him of her angry son who refused to have anything to do with Judaism. Send him to me, the professor wearily told her, and he armed for a final battle. The boy came and sat and smoldered as the old man engaged him in a voice gone raspy, and with trembling hands, slid books across the table, only to have the boy roll his eyes and slide the books right back. In time, this teenager, now in law school and interning at my institute, came to adore the old man -- as we all did -- and finally stopped fighting and started learning. "It wasn't that he was a great teacher," he told me, "but he loved you so much you couldn't bear to disappoint him."

A few weeks ago the old professor, who had just delivered lectures on Kafka in Prague (in English), in Jerusalem (in Hebrew) and in Paris (in French), told me he would be returning to Jerusalem after the first of the year but before that, he would be inviting the cardinal to his Hanukkah party.

The professor never made it to Hanukkah; he died unexpectedly at home and we, the members of this small but stubbornly proud Jewish community, attended his funeral before sending his coffin off to Israel for burial. At the funeral there were the usual speakers: the president of the community and Austria's chief rabbi. But another guest asked to say a few words, and it was Cardinal Schonborn who said, not surprisingly, that he had also learned much from Jakob Allerhand, who very much was the last of his kind.

The writer is director of centropa.org, an institute specializing in Jewish history and culture in Central Europe.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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