Maxmilian Lenz, Sirk-Ecke (Ringstrasse, 1900)

Baum in Vienna

Oskar Baum moved to Vienna in 1894 and spent 8 years there during a period of rapid changes and sudden population growth. At that time, Vienna was the capital of huge empire that included the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. In 1880, the city had 726,000 inhabitants, and over the next decade, this number increased to 1,365,000 due to the incorporation of the surrounding suburbs. By 1910, the city's population had reached a population of 2,031,000, the highest number in history. Around the turn of the century, more than 20% of the population were immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia. Approximately ten percent of the population had a Jewish background (Kiss 1937).

Baum lived at the Jewish Institute for the Blind (Israelitisches Blindeninstitut) at Hohe Warte. This was located in Döbling, the “better part” of the city. The Institute was founded on the initiative of doctor and writer Ludwig August Frankl (1810-1894), a highly regarded member of Vienna’s Jewish Community. The institute was financed by banker Jonas Königswarter and was also sponsored among others by Anselm Rothschild, Zacharias Königswarter and Friedrich Schey. The building itself was designed by Wilhelm Stiassny (1842-1910). The institute was built with dormitories for thirty boys and twenty girls. It consisted of classrooms, a bath, laundry, workshops and a braille printing shop (Das Blinden-Institut 1873).


List of students of the Israel Institute for the Blind in Hohe Warte in 1895, including Baum's name and Pilsen as his place of origin. (Source: Israelitisches Blinden-Institut auf der Hohen Warte bei Wien, p. 1.)


The Israel Institute for the Blind in Hohe Warte 32 before 1906. (Source: The Jewish Encyclopedia)

In the book "Der Weg des blinden Bruno", Baum describes the institute in the opening of chapter two: 

The Landesblindenanstalt was located outside the city not far from the ‘Villenviertel’ on a small hill between the fields and meadows and the country road, and it gave a truly comforting and soothing impression thanks to its healthy and beautiful location with wide glowing golden letters on the high gate.

The Institute was modern in terms of its possibilities for further education. The teachers and management stressed the importance for these blind youths to enter into ordinary professions such as stenotype, law, teaching, and knowledge of foreign languages.

There is a two-sided story here: According to Kafka biographer Ernst Pawel, it was a rather authoritarian place; but, on the other hand, which educational institution was not at the time? After all, Baum did indeed receive an education. He was not, as many other blind people, merely “locked away” somewhere.


Karl Lueger

The Institute was in many ways an isolated community, but students and teachers could hardly fail to notice the widespread antisemitism in Vienna. One who played on this was mayor Karl Lueger, Mayor of the city from 1897 to 1910. The legacy of Lueger remains controversial to this day. He modernized the city, but also gained his popularity through the rhetoric of antisemitism. In many ways, he was an inventor of right-wing populism, and he represented a mixture of Christian antisemitism and hate against modern liberalism and capitalism. To a large degree, the Jews were held responsible for the socially brutal aspects of modern capitalism in the period before World War I.


Kasimir Felix Badeni

During Baum’s period in Vienna, both the city and Bohemia experienced violent clashes linked to the language struggle. The German language – which was the language Baum grew up with – was considered the language of the ruling class. However, multi-national Austria at the time consisted of many nationalities and languages. In Bohemia, the Czech speaking population demanded the right to use their own language. In 1897, minister Kasimir Felix Badeni (1846-1909) – a count from Poland – introduced a language reform. This meant that every citizen in the Kingdom of Bohemia would have the right to address and be answered by the public service in their own language. This also meant that every German speaking “Beamte” (privileged German civil servants) had to learn Czech, whereas nearly all Czech public officials could already speak German. The public officials had 3 years to learn “the other language” (Andics 1984).

A drama followed in the Viennese parliament, which at the time had representatives from the Austrian part of the Monarchy, including the Czech lands. According to historian Hellmut Andics, the parliament in Vienna looked like a madhouse, as representatives fought and shouted (Andics 1984: 273). The Germans were furious. In the German speaking regions – the “Sudetenland” – many demonstrated, looted, fought and even used weapons.

The situation continued to worsen after a vote against Badeni was turned down. Badeni had to fight a duel – with pistols – and was wounded, although not seriously. The riots in the streets of Vienna, not to mention the parliament, went from bad to worse. The police had to intervene. The story ends with the emperor dismissing Badeni.

The Czech politician Josef Kaizl, who at the time represented the young Czech Party, stated that: 

A few million Germans are terrorizing the Kaiser, the state and all other Volk groups to maintain the artificial ‘Präpotenz’ of the Germans” (Andics 1984: 274).

In this political climate, young Oskar Baum moved to Prague in 1902.

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