The first Jewish families are said to have settled in the region of Burgenland in the 15th century already, following the expulsion of Jews from Styria in 1496. The first written traces of Jewish families appear in the manorial records for Schlaining in the year 1527, when two families by the name of Spiegel and Grünwald are mentioned.
Especially the aristocratic family Battyány, one of the largest landowners in south-western Hungary, was encouraging Jews to settle within their territories. In the course of time five large Jewish communities in Nagy-Kanzsa, Körmend, Güssing, Rechnitz and Schlaining came into being the importance of which was equivalent to the famous Jewish communities within the Esterházy territories in northern Burgenland. Unfortunately they have so far been completely neglected by historical research, although the complete archives of the communities have been preserved and are readily available at the regional archives in Eisenstadt.
An autonomous Jewish community at Rechnitz is first mentioned in 1676, the existence of a synagogue is very likely. At Schlaining the Jewish community is assigned a lot for the construction of a synagogue by the landlord in 1715. At Güssing the existence of a synagogue has been traced back to 1750. The reasons for landlords to allow Jews to settle within their territories were mainly economical and financial. The latter had far-reaching commercial contacts and were able to supply the manorial economies with all kinds of rare goods. On the top of that the Jews were able to pay their taxes in cash which usually was extremely scarce among the peasantry.
The settlement of Jews, subjected to rigorous legal limitations, depended up till 1840 on the authorisation by the aristocratic landlords. In exchange for this right of settlement the landlords collected a special tax from their "protected Jews", which on the other and guaranteed their Jewish subjects a certain amount of autonomy and self-administration. They could elect their own council, judges and a jury which watched over the strict obedience of the religious laws and had the right of jurisdiction in cases of minor offences and complaints of Christians against Jews. Up till 1840 the Jews were subjected to rigorous taxation by the state, the so-called "Tolerance Tax", introduced by the empress Maria Theresia in 1749 for Jews only.
At the end of the 18th century the community of Rechnitz grew into a major centre of Jewish life and culture in southern Burgenland. At the time the community counted about 400 members and grew to 900 members by 1850. The synagogue, erected in baroque style in 1718 held 400 places and was held to be one of the finest of its kind in western Hungary. The school attracted learned professors of international reputation, who again caused an influx of students from all over the world.
During the process of integrating the Jews and making them equal subjects of the neoabsolutist state in the first half of the 19th century, the Hungarian Jewry split into an orthodox and a liberal movement. While the community of Schlaining decided to stay orthodox the community at Rechnitz grew into a centre of Reform Judaism in western Hungary. Between 1858 and 1869 Mayer Zipser, one of the leading figures of Reform Judaism in Hungary, held the post of rabbi at Rechnitz.
The Synagogue of Stadtschlaining ca. 1930
Image Source: Gerhard Baumgartner: „Geschichte der Jüdischen Gemeinde zu Schlaining“ von Gerhard Baumgartner, Hugo Gold: „Gedenkbuch der unterge- gangenen Judengemeinden des Burgenlandes“
In Schlaining, which had stayed orthodox, religious practices and forms of Jewish culture and everyday life survived till 1938 in a from very similar to the lifestyle in the Polish "Stettl". The Jewish population of Burgenland also played a leading role in the economic development of the region. Apart from their activities as peddlers and organisers of regional and national commerce, the Jews had among them a large number of skilled craftsmen and of farmers.
Since the middle of the 19th century a gradual emigration towards the industrial centres of Hungary and towards Vienna set in. In the district of Oberwart more and more Jews left their old communities and settled in the emerging economical centres of Oberwart, Pinkafeld and Großpetersdorf. The community of Rechnitz was unable to find a rabbi since 1919, in 1922 the rabbi of Schlaining left for Oberwart, a community affiliated to the mother "Kehilla" Schlaining. In 1929 Oberwart became the official seat of the "Kehilla" and Schlaining became one of its affiliated communities, like the ones at Großpetersdorf, Pinkafeld and Bad Tatzmannsdorf.
After the "Anschluss" of Austria to the German Reich in 1938 most of the Jewish property in Burgenland was confiscated and the Jews had to leave the country within several weeks. Some were driven across the near borders into Hungary and Yugoslavia, with nothing more than a bag full of personal belongings, the majority found refuge in Vienna from where a large number of them managed to emigrate. Forced into exile the Jews of southern Burgenland were scattered over the whole planet to places like Lithuania, China, South America, Great Britain, Palestine and the USA.
Some Jews, especially those that had been active in politics, and all those who were not fortunate enough to get the necessary personal documents for emigration in time, were deported by the National Socialists into concentration-camps, from where only a few have returned. The property of the Jewish communities, but also that of private persons, was arianized. Most of the synagogues were immediately converted into pumphouses for the local fire-brigades and alike, the cemeteries vandalised and partly destroyed. Only the synagogue at Schlaining survived in ist initial state, although ist interior furnishing have been lost during the war.
During the last days of the war one of the most cruel episodes in the history of Hungarian Jews took place in Rechnitz. When in March 1945 the Russian troops approached Austria the prison camp at Köseg/Güns was evacuated and its 3000 nearly starved Jewish prisoners were driven to the concentration camp of Ebensee in what has gone down in history as the "March of Death of Güns". Those too weak to rise to their feet in the morning of a new marching day were shot on the spot. On March 24th 1945 200 Jews were murdered at Rechnitz and burried in a mass-grave. No monument commemorates their fate and burial place till our day. Only very few of the surviving Jews have after the war returned into their Burgenland hometowns and not one of the once flourishing Jewish communities has come to life again.
The beautifully restored former Synagogue of Stadtschlaining is nowadays hosting the local Peace Library.
Reference: Gerhard Baumgartner, Geschichte der jüdischen Gemeinde zu Schlaining, ed. Österreichisches Institut für Friedensforschung und Friedenserziehung. Stadtschlaining 1988