Austrian Jews still wary of anti-Semitism
Austria marks anniversary of Nazi 'Anschluss,' as Jewish population falls to an all-time low; community remains "vigilant."
Holocaust memorial on Judenplatz in Vienna. Photo: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
VIENNA - Marina Plistiev, a Kyrgyzstan-born Jew, has lived
in Vienna for 34 years but still doesn't like to take public
She recalls the day in 1986 as a teenager when she and her
four-year-old brother, whom she'd collected from school with a fever, were told
to get off a tram for having the wrong tickets, and nobody stuck up for them,
apparently because they were Jews.
"With me (now), you don't see I'm
Jewish but with my children you see that they're Jews. They get funny looks,"
she told Reuters at Kosherland, the grocery store that she and her husband
started 13 years ago.
While Austria is one of the world's wealthiest,
most law-abiding and stable democracies, the anti-Semitism that Plistiev senses
quietly lingers in a nation that was once a enthusiastic executor of Nazi
Germany's Holocaust against Jews.
After decades of airbrushing it out of
history, Austria has come a long way in acknowledging its Nazi past, and the
75th anniversary on Tuesday of its annexation by Hitler's Third Reich will be
the occasion for various soul-searching ceremonies.
But Jewish leaders
who fought hard to win restitution after World War Two are on guard against a
rising trend in anti-Semitic incidents, occasionally condemned by Austrian
political leaders but seen more generally as a regrettable fact of
Austrian Jews have grown more vigilant as hooligans have verbally
abused a rabbi, Austria's popular far-right party chief posted a cartoon widely
seen as suggestively anti-Semitic, and a debate has opened on the legality of
infant male circumcision.
A new poll timed to coincide with the
anniversary found that three of five Austrians want a "strong man" to lead the
country and two out of five think things were not all bad under Adolf Hitler.
That was more than in previous surveys.
The history of Vienna - once home
to Jewish luminaries of 20th-century culture such as Sigmund Freud, Ludwig
Wittgenstein and Arnold Schoenberg, but later Adolf Eichmann's testing ground
for what would become the "Final Solution" that led to genocide of 6 million
Jews - means its Jews are always on the alert.
Holocaust perfected in Vienna
"Vienna was a very important place for the fate of all European Jews
because the automated driving out of Jews was perfected here," Joachim Riedl,
author of several books on Jewish history and Vienna, said at a recent
Other incidents further afield have heightened concerns. A
radical Islamist gunman killed four Jews in France before being shot dead,
Hungary's far-right leader called for a list of prominent Jews to be drawn up
help protect national security, and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated in
Austria's eastern neighbour.
Seeking to avoid being forever branded as
the country that welcomed absorption by the Third Reich and refused to atone for
it, Austria has made gestures to underline its disowning of both the Nazi past
and previous manifestations of anti-Semitism.
Last year, Vienna renamed
part of the elegant Ringstrasse boulevard circling the inner city that had been
named after Karl Lueger, the mayor who modernised Vienna in the 19th century but
became popular for his anti-Semitic rhetoric.
"We cannot choose our
history," said parliament president Barbara Prammer. "We must bear this
responsibility." Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Congress advocacy
group has seen a marked change since a 1991 poll that he helped design found
that most Austrians thought it was time to put the memories of the Holocaust
"There was still a social anti-Semitism that kind of defied
embarrassment," he said. "The Austrians have come a long way since then, but
they had a long way to go." Today's Austrian Jewish community of 15,000 is
diverse, formed mainly of post-war immigrants from eastern Europe and the former
"This city is something very remarkable. It has a great
Jewish history and a great Jewish community, but they have little to do with one
another," said Israeli-born writer and historian Doron Rabinovici, who has lived
in Vienna since 1964.
SHOES TOO BIG "This community is living in shoes
that are too big for it," said Rabinovici, best known in English for his book
"Eichmann's Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna
Before the 1938 annexation, the "Anschluss", Austria's Jewish
population was 195,000, the same size as present-day Linz, a provincial capital
not far from Hitler's birthplace.
Two-thirds of them were driven out in
the "Aryanisation" programme immediately following the Anschluss and all but
about 2,000 left behind were killed in concentration camps. Today's Austrian
Jewish community is almost entirely in Vienna.
"The most terrible thing
was not the way hundreds of thousands of Austrians celebrated Hitler's arrival,
but the enthusiasm with which they dispossessed the Jews," recalled Ari Rath, a
Holocaust survivor who fled Vienna at the age of 13.
Rath, who went on to
become the long-time editor of the Jerusalem Post, was back in the city of his
birth speaking to a group of schoolchildren about his experiences, as part of a
parliament-sponsored education project.
"We went from being people to
non-persons overnight," he said in fluent German, a language he suppressed for
"It's a different Austria now, but you cannot forget it took
until 41 years after the war ... before Austrians began seriously to confront
the Nazi past of this country." He was referring to the so-called Waldheim
Affair of the mid-1980s, in which President Kurt Waldheim was outed as having
hidden his knowledge of German atrocities during his wartime past as a Nazi
military officer. The case triggered a long-suppressed international debate
about Austria's history.
Austrians, many of whom had wanted a union with
Germany, maintained for decades that their country was Hitler's first victim,
ignoring the fact that huge, cheering crowds had greeted Hitler in March 1938
with flowers, Nazi flags and salutes.
Within days of March 12, tens of
thousands of Jews and dissenters were under arrest, imprisoned or packed off to
concentration camps. Jews were shut out of jobs and schools, forced to wear
yellow badges, and had their property confiscated.
DEMANDING, NOT BEGGING
Ariel Muzicant served as president of Austria's official Jewish organisation,
the IKG, from 1998 until last year.
As a young activist during the
Waldheim affair, he was key in persuading the IKG to break with its low profile
and tackle the backlash of anti-Jewish feeling that the affair
"I did not just go and beg. I told them: 'These are our rights
as a Jewish community. These are our demands.' I wasn't what you would call a
very silent, docile president," he said.
Muzicant's drive led to the
restitution of Jewish property, laws to recognise Jewish institutions and
customs, and the rebuilding or new construction of schools and
Things are not perfect, he said, but they could be a lot
worse. "Vienna is one of the most beautiful places in the world. If you're not
Jewish, there's no better place to live." Muzicant's successor at the IKG's
helm, Oskar Deutsch, has a less confrontational approach. "You don't want to
escalate it," he said. "But it's a short way from words to deeds." The IKG says
the number of anti-Semitic incidents in Austria of which it knows doubled last
year to 135.
More common than overt attacks in Austria, where strict laws
ban Nazi symbolism and parties, are appeals to shared prejudices through remarks
or actions that go mostly unchallenged.
The anti-foreigner Freedom Party
of Heinz-Christian Strache, who posted the disputed cartoon, consistently scores
above 20 percent in opinion polls and has a chance of joining a coalition
government after elections this year.
Still, many Viennese Jews freely
stroll through the streets in Orthodox garb, especially in districts such as
Leopoldstadt, the former Jewish ghetto where many Jews live again
The IKG, while condemning anti-Jewish actions anywhere, is hoping
to take advantage of the comparatively favourable position of Jews in Austria to
boost its depleted population.
It is working with the government to bring
at least 150 Jewish families a year into the country, and has already helped
some 20 families from neighbouring Hungary.