Jewish Journal, December 22, 2000

Jews in Vienna Are "Not Scared But Not Totally Happy"

©2000 Valerie Kreutzer

When Joerg Haider’s ultra-right party entered Austria’s coalition government last February, Danny Rosenfels remembers sorting through some of his documents wondering what things to pack.  “It’s the first time I’ve ever done that,” he admits with a laugh.

Rosenfels, an American married to an Austrian, has lived for the past decade in Vienna.  At first, the move was a welcome change from New York City, where he had lived and worked for 23 years. “I was robbed five or six times when I lived there and my flat was burglarized at least that many times,” he recalls.  While physical safety is not an issue in Vienna, he feels, however, that “there is a lot of subtle hostility coming at me.”

When he complained, for example, that his sinus problems were worse in Vienna than in New York, his physician suggested that he go back.  And when he discussed professional opportunities in his field—physical therapy—an advisor told him that his options might be better back home.

Anti-foreigner sentiment is usually a prelude to anti-Semitism, warns Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi-hunter and Vienna resident.  The rise of Haider’s populist xenophobic Freedom Party has therefore alarmed many observers.  In the 1999 federal  elections, Haider’s party won 27% of the vote.  His rhetoric has included praise for some aspects of the Nazi era, and his attacks on foreigners and minorities fuel fear that immigrants are a threat to jobs, security, culture and social welfare.

“Austria has seen better times,” comments Vienna’s Chief Rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg.  “The two really bad times were World War II and the present crisis.  But I want to emphasize,” says Eisenberg, “that the current crisis is more a problem for the Austrians than for the Jews.”

Why has Austria learned so little from its past, I wondered during a recent visit in Vienna, my father’s hometown.  From 1989-91, I had lived there as editor of Dialogue, a magazine published by the U.S. Information Agency.  I had attended services at the only synagogue that had survived the Holocaust, and  I had glimpsed on walking tours the rich heritage of Jewish life in the Austrian capital.  I had felt that Austria was beginning to confront its past in the aftermath of the Kurt Waldheim affair which centered on the former secretary-general of the United Nations who, in the course of his successful campaign for the Austrian presidency, was exposed as having had links to war crimes.  The Waldheim affair had isolated Austria, just as the coalition with Haider’s Freedom Party was isolating Austria now.

Austrians like to think that they became Hitler’s first victim when he annexed their country in 1938, explained Joanna Nittenberg, the publisher of Illustrierte Neue Welt, a Jewish magazine.  The 1943 Moscow Declaration, signed by Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union, perpetuated the idea that Austria had been Hitler’s “first victim,” said Nittenberg. 

As if on cue, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel told the Jerusalem Post in November: “The sovereign state of Austria was literally the first victim of the Nazi regime… they took Austria by force.” 

According to historians, however, Austria was an eager participant in Hitler’s annexation.  Several hundred thousand citizens cheered wildly when he declared on March 18, 1938, from the balcony of the Hofburg:  “I now announce before history the entry of my home land into the German Reich.” 

Prize-winning author Saul Friedlaender writes that the persecution of Jews in Austria and especially in Vienna was more cruel than in Germany.  A year-and-a-half after the annexation, all Jewish businesses had been confiscated, 130,000 Jews had been forced to emigrate, and 65,000 were on their way to concentration camps.  Hitler’s Austrian collaborators had used a well-oiled bureaucracy to accomplish this, Friedlaender points out in Die Juden und das Dritte Reich (The Jews and The Third Reich).  Austria became a “model” for the rest of the Reich.

Only 2,000 Jews survived the concentration camps.  Leon Zelman was among them when he left Mauthausen at 17.  Today, he is the director of the Jewish Welcome Service in Vienna, located across the Stefansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral).  Founded in 1978 and funded by the government, the service is dedicated to enhancing the understanding between Jews and non-Jews.  As a Zeitzeuge, a witness to the Holocaust, Zelman has spoken to students in over 200 schools.  From his breast pocket he pulled recent fan letters.  “We were most impressed how optimistic you are about the future, despite your terrible and dehumanizing experiences,” kids from an elementary school had written.

Zelman’s Welcome Service also regularly sponsors the visit of Jews who used to live in Austria before the war.  Few of them have returned for good.  Most of the approximately 15,000 Jews who live in Vienna today have come from other countries.

“Returnees did not feel particularly welcome,” explained Chief Rabbi Eisenberg.   “Austrians who had earlier returned with claims for compensation had been sent away empty-handed.  There are still big discussions about reparations and why they have come so late.”

Eisenberg was born after his father had come from Hungary in 1948 to serve as chief rabbi at the Vienna synagogue.  His father had experienced anti-Semitism in Hungary and “did not have particularly bad feelings towards the Austrians,” his son explained.  “He did not come with claims that Austria should compensate him.  So it was easier for him.”

I met with Eisenberg in his office adjacent to the synagogue in the Seitenstettengasse.  The security screening had been long and thorough.  I had also noticed that on Saturdays and holy days, Austrian police with rifles-at-the-ready flank both sides of the entrance to the temple.  This precaution is due to an Arab terrorist attack that took two lives 20 years ago.  “Many Jews who come here believe this is because of local anti-Semitism and it is really not,” said Eisenberg.

Does he feel safe in Austria, I asked.

“Number one, I feel safe,” said Eisenberg emphatically.  “Anybody who is saying that it is dangerous for Jews today definitely is exaggerating.  There is no danger whatsoever for Jews.  Number two, have they done enough?  You cannot do enough!”

For decades after the war, amnesia had gripped Austrian consciousness.  “People who had been in the war did not want to tell their children about being in the war, and even the Jews who were victims did not tell their children very much.  They did not want to scare them or whatever,” Eisenberg explained.

More recently, however, Austria has begun a journey to confront its past.  Art work looted by the Nazis has been returned.  The government recently committed $150 million to a new property restitution fund.  An international commission of experts, financed by the government, is producing a definitive account of Nazi crimes in Austria. At the end of October, a Holocaust memorial was unveiled on the Judenplatz (Jew Square).  On the 62nd anniversary of Kristallnacht, a new synagogue was dedicated in Graz, Austria’s second largest town.  Eisenberg officiated at the dedication of the building that replaces the synagogue destroyed on that night of Nazi violence.

“As a chief rabbi I have a lot of contacts to the outside,” said Eisenberg during our interview.  His topic is, however, not so much the Holocaust, but Jewish religion and its teachings.  He speaks regularly on Austrian state-supported radio and television.  He closed a morning meditation on Rosh Hashanah by extending to a national radio audience his best wishes for a happy and healthy Year 5761.

“Things are much better in Austria than what Jews in America think,” said Eisenberg, who is married to an American and spoke in English.  “But we are not totally happy with the situation.  I think we are somewhere in the middle.  Not scared, but not totally happy.”