An American Jew living in a quiet Austrian village on the banks of the river Danube has told of the “astonishing” fight by local Christians to save a 14th century synagogue from being used as a car garage.
Jeff Kellner, who moved to sleepy Korneuburg from the capital Vienna late last year, was so impressed with locals’ unknown efforts preserve Austria’s oldest Jewish house of worship that he agreed to help.
“I found it remarkable that this old building survived two expulsions [in 1420 and 1782] and the Shoah and somehow avoided the fate of Austria’s other synagogues, at least 90% of which were destroyed,” he said.
From a pre-war population of 48 Jews, only one returned, but despite the near-zero presence, both the synagogue and the Jewish cemetery survived.
In later years a local historian began to trace the building’s history. In the 15th century it was used as a store-house, after the first expulsion of Jews, before serving as a commercial premises and even a horse-drawn mill.
“Ironically, this act of desecration probably saved the property from destruction,” says Kellner.
Centuries later, a Jew named Rose is listed as using the property as a mill, and both the synagogue and street still bear his name: Rossmühle.
“That the town leaders chose to commemorate this Jew and his property in this way is a hopeful sign,” says Kellner.
He has now offered to help a group of elderly locals led by former army officer Klaus Koehler, who years earlier worked together to get the building “historic” status. They are now working with town officials and the owner of the Rosmuehl to find a way to protect and renovate the synagogue.
“Personally I find it touching – and rather surprising – that a group of Christians with no connection to Judaism should want to save such an old building as this,” said Kellner, speaking from Austria.
But they need help, explains Koehler, describing their efforts to-date.
“Originally we were able to offer the owner a comparable property in exchange for the synagogue, but then he wanted money and his price fluctuated wildly. We are not rich, so we are once again in limbo,” he said.
Public funds to restore the synagogue have been promised by the state but only after the property is purchased – something the state is unwilling to do.
“Neither the Austrian Fond nor the Bundesdenkmal can offer funds to purchase the property,” said the retired officer. “We are hoping that someone from the Jewish community might come forward to solve the problem.”
He added: “We are very close to saving Austria’s oldest synagogue…but we need help.”