Ostjuden, "Eastern Jews", in German, was the generic term for Yiddish speaking Jews from Eastern European countries that immigrated to Germany and Austria. Vienna as the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy attracted immigrants from all parts of the Empire. Jews from Eastern Europe moved to Vienna during two immigration waves.
Great poverty and the outbreak of violent pogroms in Russia made many Jews leave their country. The United States of America was one potential country of immigration, which promised freedom and a stable income. Jews from Austria's Eastern provinces joined this emigration. Many of those coming to Vienna wandered around in Galicia rather aimlessly and reached Vienna, which unlike New York did not promise a job in the textile industry, only after overcoming many obstacles and stops. Between 1867 and 1910, about 30,000 Galician Jews moved to Vienna. Most of them were overwhelmingly poor. They arrived as people in need, beggars and dependents on charity and looked in Vienna for a way of surviving. Although Galician Jews were legally equal to the Jews of Western Austria, economically they were far more like the Jews of Russia. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution changed the entire social order and led to a decline of Galician villages and caused a rise of unemployment among Galician Jews.
The second wave of immigration from Galicia again brought people who - victims of a social-economical and political upheaval and war in their homeland - did not have much other choice than to come to Vienna. The Russian invasion of north-eastern Austria at the beginning of the First World War and the expulsion of a few thousand Galician Jews from France and Belgium brought within a few months some 125,000 Eastern European Jews to Vienna. During the course of the war, many refugees were able to return to their hometowns, while others arrived in Vienna after new Russian offensives. In 1917 Galicia and Bukovina were recaptured by the Austro-Hungarian army and most refugees left Vienna.
By April 1918, there were 38,772 refugees without means in Vienna, of whom 34,233 were Jews. By the following March there were left in Vienna 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees – who after the end of the Habsburg Monarchy were considered foreigners.
The second generation of these Ostjuden often transformed themselves into Westjuden ("Western Jews") by gaining education and entering the professions. The older generation and the new immigrants however remained for a long time a culturally and religiously distinct group. They usually settled in the overcrowded poor districts along the Danube river and engaged in petty trades such as tailors, shoemakers, bookbinders and carpenters. When engaged in commerce, they worked in small-hand merchandise, commonly in textiles. The housing conditions in the Leopoldstadt and Brigittenau districts were over-crowded; up to six people used to share a room. Galician Jews mainly married within their group and had their own religious and cultural organizations. While living in Galicia, they had lived in well-established communities which were isolated from the West, and culturally and economically superior to the surrounding Ukrainian and Polish population. In Vienna, they often kept their Orthodox faith, dress code and life-style. They considered themselves to be a distinct nationality with their own unique culture and literature and were therefore often attracted to Zionism.
Beth Israel, the first synagogue organization was founded in 1852 when the number of Galician Jews in Vienna was rather small and it was difficult to keep their own identity. This organization was religious, anti-Chassidic and tended to political liberalism. They built a synagogue in 1893 in the Leopoldsgasse, the Polish Shul (synagogue). The strictly Orthodox Machzike Hadass was founded in 1903 in the Restaurant Schwetzer in the Leopoldsgasse. They stressed their adherence to religious laws and wanted to attract the Polish Jews in Vienna. Livias Chen was a welfare organization for people in need and for the protection of its member from poverty which had also a small prayer-house and was run by Galician Jews. The Organization for Public Kitchens founded in 1874, was the first soup kitchen.
Not only the more established Viennese Jews looked with some suspicion at these Eastern immigrants who appeared so foreign and strange to them: the Christian population reacted with anti-Semitism to their immigration, worried about housing and were afraid of professional competition. The involvement of Galician Jews in prostitution aroused many anti-Semitic remarks. A women’s organization, Bertha Pappenheim's Juedischer Frauenbund, founded in 1904, led the effort in fighting this phenomenon and in protecting Jewish girls and women from it. Anti-Semitism against Ostjuden was especially strong in Vienna's institutions of higher learning, especially at the University of Vienna and the College for International Trade, where the numbers of Eastern European students were high. In 1913, a quarter of the medical students at the University of Vienna were from Galicia and Bukovina of whom the majority was Jewish. During the First World War, the percentage of Ostjuden rose rapidly, peaking in 1917-18 when 46% of all students were Jewish.
Student fraternities often demanded a numerus clausus for Jewish students, a demand which was partially fulfilled when the University of Vienna and the Agricultural College decided to cap enrollment in 1919 when the lack of space after the return of war veterans had became a problem. Preference was given to native applicants which made it more difficult for foreign Jews to be admitted. Two years later there were still 4,000 foreign students among the 10,800 students at the University of Vienna, but they had to pay a higher tuition fee and were not eligible for public welfare.
Kadimah, the first Jewish fraternity in Vienna was founded by three students from Galicia. In 1900 a Jewish center was opened in the Webergasse. Its aim was to provide "impoverished Jews thirsty for knowledge" with "free and entertaining education" to encourage their physical, spiritual and moral development. Thanks to daily evening lectures on topical questions, heating in wintertime and a small snack during the break, it became a popular meeting point for Galician Jews where they found education and entertainment and social contacts. They were given lectures on the fight against tuberculosis, hygiene in small flats, care and nutrition of babies in a clear attempt to convey Western ideas of cleanliness and tidiness. A similar project was the Bet Ha’am ("Jewish People's Home"), which catered for Jews living in the western districts of Vienna.
Although the support in providing schooling and vocational training for Galician Jews still living the Eastern provinces was of main interest for Viennese Jews (the trustees of the Hirsch Foundation were mainly wealthy Viennese Jews who wanted to turn Ostjuden into "useful human beings" by retraining, productivity and gradual assimilation), in Vienna itself the issue of welfare, charity and religious education aroused tension between Orthodox and Liberal Jews in the 1880s and 1890s. The Orthodox accused the community leadership of heartless indifference and bureaucracy, and claimed that they neglected proper religious education. TheLliberal Jews claimed that the Galician Jews were zealous obscurantists, who adhered to anachronistic education in the heder (religious elementary school) and yeshivot (Talmudic colleges) and thus encouraged economic misery and social backwardness.
The emergence of political Zionism in Vienna in the mid-1890s reflected not only a crisis of assimilation generated by anti-Semitic electoral successes but also the increasing weakness of the IKG (Jewish community) and its philanthropic networks in coping with the problems of the Ostjuden.