“Why does a boy from California choose to travel six thousand miles to become a Bar Mitzvah in a temple in Vienna, Austria? A temple where he does not know the rabbi, cannot translate the prayer book and does not speak the language?”
These are the opening words to Daniel Schneider’s Bar Mitzvah speech. Daniel became a Bar Mitzvah in August, and while his family attends Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, that is not where the ceremony was held. David instead had his Bar Mitzvah thousands of miles away from Santa Ana at the Stadttempel in Vienna, Austria. But, as the opening to his speech asks, what would a thirteen-year-old boy care about a temple in a country halfway around the world?
“The Vienna Stadttempel is the only synagogue in Vienna to survive first the Kristalnacht in 1938, and then the Holocaust,” said Peter Schneider, Daniel’s father. “As I learned [it], a famous cantor chanted there in the late 19th century, one who composed many of the traditional liturgies used today. The architecture is unique. The names of famous Jews from early 20th century Vienna who sat in its pews are legendary. The synagogue figures prominently in the climax of Daniel Silva’s recent book The Fallen Angel.”
Peter added, “And, most importantly, my father became a Bar Mitzvah there in 1937.”
The story around the Schneiders and the Stadttempel in Vienna goes back to the days of the Holocaust. Five months after Daniel’s grandfather became a Bar Mitzvah in the Stadttempel, his father, Daniel’s great-grandfather, was arrested by the Nazis. Ten days after the Nazis invaded the city of Vienna, Daniel’s great-grandfather was placed on a transport with other prominent Viennese Jews and taken off to prison, or “protective custody.” After spending a week being placed in such custody by the Nazis, Daniel’s great-grandfather was released and went back home. He never told anyone what happened to him in that prison, but upon arriving home immediately informed his family that they had to leave Vienna, their home, right away.
“So, like the ancient Israelites leaving Egypt with Moses, the generations before me packed their bags and left for Antwerp, Belgium,” Daniel said in his Bar Mitzvah speech. “There, they boarded a ship that took them to Montevideo, Uruguay. Later, they were able to immigrate to the US. Like Moses and the Israelites escaping from the oppression in Egypt, my family too evaded the Nazis’ grip on the Jews in Vienna.”
The decision to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Stadttempel was not made by Daniel’s family, but by Daniel himself.
“Dan has a keen sense of family history, a very close relationship with my dad,” Peter said, “and he loves Europe. He asked whether he could become Bar Mitzvah in the temple where my dad was Bar Mitzvah and ‘complete the circle.’”
Daniel’s grandmother, Eva Schneider, expressed a similar sentiment.
“We feel wonderful and emotional at the same time,” she said. “The Stadttempel is the only Vienna synagogue to have survived Hitler. For us as grandparents, it closes a circle.”
Daniel’s family initially expected his Bar Mitzvah to be an intimate family affair. Yet preparing for Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah still proved to be no easy task. In order to plan for the event, Peter Schneider and his father contacted the synagogue and flew to Vienna in September of last year to meet with the Stadttempel’s officials and arrange for the fulfillment of their “unusual request.” With the help of Cantor David Reinwald from Temple Beth Sholom (TBS), Peter and his father also compiled a prayer book that could be read by the attending congregation (the Stadttempel’s prayer books are in German and Hebrew only).
Incredibly, Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah grew from a small family affair of a ceremony and dinner to include over forty additional guests from the US, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. This guest list included the most recent Austrian ambassador to the US, Christian Prosl; the former Austrian ambassador to Moscow, Franz Cede, and his wife; the former head of the Vienna Philharmonic, Werner Resel; and of course, the Schneiders’ friends and family from around the world. Because security at the Stadttempel is so tight, Peter had to submit a guest list to the temple’s security staff a month before the ceremony. He also found out a day before the Bar Mitzvah that the security had run a background check on each person on the list.
While the Schneiders’ roots in Vienna go back to the Holocaust and beyond, they also have modern-day ties to the city that bridge the gap between the present day and the day their ancestors left it. For instance, the Schneiders enjoy both US and Austrian citizenship because of an Austrian federal law that applies to Jews who lost their Austrian citizenship during Nazi control. Twelve years ago, Peter Schneider’s father founded and funded an award that the Vienna Public School System gives out each year following a city-wide writing competition.
“Applicants must submit a research paper that discusses the general topic of what can be learned form history so the same mistakes are not repeated,” Schneider said. “The competition and fact of the award has received significant acclaim in Vienna, to the degree that on its 10th anniversary a few years ago, it was recognized by the president of Austria, Heinz Fischer, as an example to students of why, ‘never again.’ Daniel, the grandson of a victim in the Nazi takeover of Vienna, my dad, and a survivor of Auschwitz, my mom, learned this lesson well.”
Daniel’s family is incredibly proud of his decision on where to have his Bar Mitzvah.
“His choice to have his ceremony where he did, for the reasons he articulated to an audience of primarily non-Jews,” Peter explained, “many of whom had never been to a Bar Mitzvah before, resonated far beyond our borders. It carried a message that the Jewish religion will survive and carry on regardless of what is thrown in our way, by generations yet unborn.”