Hohenems: Medieval Heart of Vorarlberg

The old parish church of Hohenems in Vorarlberg

Once the town of Hohenems was a cultural centre for Vorarlberg and for a while, the Counts of Hohenems worked towards an independent duchy called "Lower Raetia". Their plans failed, but nevertheless, Hohenems bloomed as what could have become a capital. Today, the city with some 15,000 residents is well-known mostly for three things: The castle of the local counts, the (for Western Austria) unusual Jewish heritage and the finding of a Medieval manuscript of the Nibelungenlied (more on this can be found in the article on Pöchlarn in Lower Austria).

The history of Hohenems is closely connected with its role as a centre for power and scholarship. Since the 12th century, the castle of Altems was among the biggest fortifications in the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire - 350 metres long and 80 metres wide. The castle served as a stronghold for the Staufer dynasty, who used it as a dungeon for celebrity prisoners such as King William III of Sicily in 1195. In 1406, the town was looted by Appenzeller troops.

The heyday of Ems or later Hohenems came in the 16th century. In 1560, Emperor Ferdinand I granted the status of a county ("Reichsgrafschaft") to Ems and Count Kaspar of Hohenems started to play Monopoly: He built himself a fine Renaissance castle in Hohenems, granted permission to hold a regular market in the town, acquired Vaduz (the capital of today′s Liechtenstein) and Schellenburg and made the city the centre of scholarly life. Two of the city′s main attractions date back to this period: The palace of the counts of Ems and the Stadtpfarrkirche or parish church from 1580.

Renaissance Glory & Habsburg History of Hohenems

One of the three most influential Prince Archbishops of Salzburg, namely Markus Sittikus, was a descendent of the counts of Ems. The first books to be printed in the region were made here by Bartholomäus Schnell in Hohenems in 1616 - adding one of the finest print workshops outside of Italy to the city. One year later, Kaspar von Hohenems tried to stimulate the economy by granting Jewish settlers the right to move to Hohenems.

This was the origin of what became a blooming centre of Jewish culture in an area where otherwise virtually no Jews settled until well into the 19th century. A synagogue and bath (Mikwe) were built, as well as a Jewish shelter for the poor and a Jewish cemetery. In 1797, a Jewish merchant founded the first café of Vorarlberg, surely a big deal in a country like Austria (although Hohenems wasn′t even part of Austria then). The "Kaffeehaus Kitzinger" became a centre for Jewish intellectual life.

In 1755, the doctor Jacob Hermann Oberreit discovered the previously mentioned manuscript of the Song of the Nibelungs in the library of the Hohenems Palace. In 1765, the Habsburgs acquired Hohenems and incorporated it into Austria. Following the Napoleonic wars, it went to Bavaria between 1805 and 1814 and back to Austria afterwards where it stayed until today.

Hohenems & its Heritage today

When the Habsburgs were finally forced to grant full civil rights to non-Catholic citizens, the Jews of Hohenems were finally allowed to move wherever they wanted. Many left the city and chose to live in the villages nearby. By 1935, only 35 Jews lived in Hohenems. The last Jew to leave Vorarlberg in the following years was Frieda Nagelberg, who was deported in 1942. A lot of Jewish property was publicised and often sold. After the war, the community of Hohenems purchased the now redundant buildings, demolished the rabbi′s house and used the synagogue for the fire brigade. Only due to lobbying of Swiss Jews, the cemetery was saved from demolition.

In 1983, Hohenems was officially made a city. Since then, it gained a significant Muslim community which now has its own cemetery not far from the Jewish one. In 2003/04, the fire department aka synagogue was re-furbished to its original purpose. Named after the cantor Salomon Sulzer (more on him can be learned in the main synagogue in Vienna, where he worked - he was a close buddy of Franz Schubert), the synagogue was re-opened and now the only thing it lacks are Jews. However, there is a Jewish museum in Hohenems, where you can learn more about the history of the community.

Back to "Vorarlberg Sightseeing Guide"

Sightseeing by Austrian Province

Bregenz and Vorarlberg - Innsbruck and Tyrol - Salzburg - Salzkammergut - Graz and Styria - Klagenfurt and Carinthia - Wachau and Lower Austria - Vienna - Burgenland

Further Reading

Official Website of Hohenems

Jewish Sightseeing in Austria

Official Website of Vorarlberg

Jewish Museum of Hohenems